Monday, September 6, 2010

Answer to Will Sweetman's critcism of Balagangadhara

About Sweetman.

Let me just focus on one important and one not-so-important claim from the article. Her suggests that I argue the following.

First premise: Christianity is prototypically what religion is.

Second premise: Hinduism does not share all (or perhaps any) of the relevant properties of Christianity.

Conclusion: Hinduism is not a religion.

The problem, here, turns around the notion of 'prototypicality'. I explain at length (a) the source of the word; and (b) its meaning. For the role these clarifications play in Sweetman's analysis, I might as well not have written those passages.

'Prototypical' talks about our language-use. What it says is this. We use the word 'religion' in English to *minimally* refer to Christianity. This use does not tell us what the word 'religion' means; does not tell us that Christianity *is* a religion. In the book, I suggest that Christianity might not even be a religion and that our language-use might be totally wrong in this case. (For instance, we used to refer to whales as 'Fishes'. We now know they are mammals.) But we can only make such a claim after we have a theory of religion. This is the meaning of the word 'prototypical'. We need to rewrite the first premise so that this point becomes clear.

First Premise: In English, the word 'religion' refers minimally to Christianity.

Second premise: Hinduism does not share all (or perhaps any) of the relevant properties of Christianity.

Conclusion: ??????

We cannot conclude what Sweetman makes me conclude. We cannot even conclude that the word 'religion' does not refer to Hinduism (unless we add an additional premise: the word 'religion' refers to Christianity by virtue of the properties of Christianity).

The problem is clear. Sweetman assumes that 'prototypicality' is the same as (or something like) 'central' or 'essential' properties of an object. Better put. He probably thinks that a prototypical 'example' is the best example of an *object*. However, the technical meaning of the word is not that. It is about what, in *language-use*, is understood as a best instance of a *word*. As I explain in the book, this notion is used for most natural-language categories and for sets for which the criteria of set-membership are vague. 'Face', 'bucket' (to keep to the book) are examples of such natural language categories. ':)' is a face; so is a visual smiley. A photograph of a smiling person is 'prototypical' when compared to either of the two. This has to do with graded membership of the set 'face', and where it is not possible to come up with an all-or-none criteria. (For instance, ':)' is not a face straight away to someone who either does not know computer conventions or to whom the trick of seeing a face in that set of symbols is not yet explained.)

In other words, Sweetman's representation of my 'argument' is flawed. I do not say this. This is the important point. Now to the not-so-important point. He says the following: "Balagangadhara himself acknowledges that "there is a quasi-universal consensus that the `Western' concept of religion is inadequate" (Balagangadhara 1994: 313) but he fails to see that this in itself is not a reason for thinking that Hinduism is not a religion but, rather, a reason to work out a better concept of religion."

I discuss exactly this (and show its triviality) when I discuss Staal. Which intellectual does not want to work out a "better concept"? What does this mean, in any case? That we should come up with a concept that also makes Hinduism into a religion? He calls my hypothesis a 'tendentious' concept and makes it sound as though I am doing something wrong. Encarta, for instance, defines the word this way:
"written or spoken by somebody who obviously wants to promote a particular cause or who supports a particular viewpoint". I want to promote a scientific viewpoint. Quite obviously, this is not what Sweetman probably has in mind because he does not consider his argument 'tendentious'.

In any case, it requires at least an ability to read and understand an argument before one can criticize it.

1. Here is the first charge: they talk about certain domains of human endeavour as though they do have knowledge of these domains, whereas they do not know anything about that domain. I will first explain this charge before talking about the implications.

Consider one of the most common argumentative (and cognitive) strategies that many people in the social sciences use, when they want to criticize some position or the other. This consists of challenging the truth of the premises in an argument in order to show that (a) they disagree with the argument; (b) one could legitimately challenge the truth of the conclusions thereby; (c) in doing so, they are advancing knowledge of the subject matter. (This takes many forms and I give you three illustrations out of indefinitely many: Shabnum does it in the citation that Jakob used in his first post; Achin Vanaik used this in the Rethinking Religion in India
conference while he spoke of a ‘logical theory’ in the domain of International Relations; Sweetman uses this in his published article in a journal to say that I am wrong because I presuppose Protestant Christianity as the model of religion to draw the conclusion that Hinduism is not a religion. I suggest you look at all three to discover how wide-spread and familiar this argument is. How often have you not heard people’s argument being dismissed on the grounds that one does not agree with their premises or assumptions or presuppositions?) As you can see, people use the following
notions: ‘premises and conclusions’; ‘truth and derivation’; ‘drawing conclusions from certain premises’. All of these are studied in Logic and this constitutes the subject matter of formal logics.

5 years old response. At least, this gives some idea to the students of religion(s). At least Will Sweetman can see it himself when he googles it, so that he can formulate better criticism by mastering the ability to understand. Those who approvingly cite Balagangadhara's book, those who criticize it, should first understand it before profering scholarly remarks.

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