How We (are) Change(d by) Definitions:  Professor John Nemec On The Academic Study of Religion

By Quinn Hoop

John Nemec, professor of Indian Religions and South Asian Studies from the University of Virginia,  led a discussion on Wednesday, September  13 on the importance of a scholarly re-definition of religion, and how we shape, and are shaped by, our definitions. After dispersing helpful handouts (and quite generously, his own copy to latecomers), he launched into his philosophical discussion on his work. He primarily felt that, “the academic study of religion needs some rejuvenation,” and that discussions in the field are limited by current definitions. He said, “we need to complicate our category,” and that, “we have to try on new ways of making the same, or else we’ll be stuck with what we began with.”

Professor Nemec made it clear that he sought to open up the discussion to the redefinition of religion, and admitted that his own current theory was somewhat long-winded and “crazy.” He also acknowledged the prevalence of intellectual colonialism, where ideas generated in abstract spaces lead to disastrous real-world consequences and the domination of other ways of thinking. On this he noted that, “making general claims about human society has historically gone hand in hand with on the ground colonial endeavors.” He continued, “We have a hand in making our reality; we have a hand in making [ideas] normal and regular,” and argued that we can improve our understanding of the world by broadening our definition of religion. “We need to keep defining things,” he said, “because there are as many ways to define [religion] as there are to be human.”

Professor Nemec discussed different approaches to defining concepts. The “Real” definition of something, for example, implies that, “a real thing, ‘religion’, is identified with real worldly phenomena.” However, Professor Nemec stressed that “Real definitions give descriptively reductive terms,” or that they are often prone to the kind of exclusionary and destructive “this is and that isn’t ” thinking. “If there’s only one word, he said, “then it’s not going to fit every single one of them properly. It’s going to colonize some of them that don’t fit well.”

Professor Nemec also explained the concept of a nominal definition as a “definition which tells us how to use a word in a particular way.” He suggested that, “instead of talking about the thing itself, we should instead talk about how we talk about certain things.” This category of nominal definitions can be further broken down into the subcategories “word-word” and “word-thing.” The “word-thing” subcategory is then divided once more into lexical definitions:  a definition explaining how people use the word,  and stipulative definitions, which seek to formulate a new meaning of the word. Professor Nemec settled on this final type in his work on re-definition. Instead of the interpretive nature of lexical definitions, which only really look at what is currently accepted as “religion,” he wanted a stipulative definition. That, he believes, “offers the only possible path forward, because only by developing new and multiple ways of using the word ‘religion’ to refer to things in the world will scholars of religion be able to account for the myriad of ways in which human beings have conceived of their own traditions.” 

But how does one generate a new definition? Professor Nemec suggested a practice which was beneficial for consideration of many important topics: “Let’s be curious people. . . Let’s try and find context, plenty of which exists. . . and let’s try to name [our topics] in a way which is outside of their context.” He gave the example of trying to define democracy. You could say that “democracy is being able to walk alone on the streets at midnight,” or that, “democracy is being able to wear whatever clothes you chose.” Of course, this is not what democracy is. But he suggested that, in naming these characteristics of democracy, you come closer to a definition which does work. This semi-Socratic method of refining definitions through example and counterexample could help us re-evaluate what we believe to know about valued ideals. “Drawing from human experience. . . in a complex way. . . pulling things out so that we can see that there are lots of ways of being human,” Professor Nemec said, “might make us think in different ways about our concepts, like religion.” 

During the question portion at the end of the talk, he responded to the question, “How do we come to definitions for the unlabeled?” When it came to this, he confessed, he was less sure of a way forward. Instead he suggested, “Go to a site that has been prelabeled, and do with it what [you] can.” He noted that “somebody else might do it differently,” but that this difference in perspective was the important part. Only uniqueness can lead to more of the new, he said, and in order to come to new definitions and understandings of humanity, we need every perspective we can get. One of his final comments was simply, “It comes from you.”

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