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Author Topic: Let's Define Pantheism!  (Read 5547 times)

AlisonLeighLilly

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #15 on: January 17, 2012, 09:37:51 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;39146


You're right, I had my dates mixed up. The debate about Spinoza's atheism was on-going during and after he was alive, and that was what he was responding to. Toland was said to have coined the word pantheism (technically, he coined the term in Greek, as "pantheios", which was adapted into French and then into English as "pantheism" slightly later on) - at which point the debate adopted that term, since it was considered to be a specific kind of atheism, a kind particular to Spinoza. Spinoza's own objections to accusations of atheism remained relevant in that context.

And yes, if I were actually suggesting that the only definition for "pantheism" was that of Toland and other 18th century philosophers, it would be somewhat rarefied and irrelevant. But there are pantheists today who are still using this term in very much that way, and in fact three different books on the topic have only recently been published:

Elements of Pantheism by Paul Harrison
Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell
Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity by Michael P. Levine

All three of these texts define pantheism as being non-theistic or arguably atheistic, and all three talk about it in the context of modern scientific knowledge (the oldest of those is Levine's, written in 1994, and the most recent is Harrison's second edition, which came out in 2011). The term "pantheism" is also commonly used that way among academic scholars.

If you want to have a separate conversation about what the word "transcendent" actually means and whether or not the concept of "transcendent" deity defines deity as existing outside of existence itself (or is the phrase "All That Is" supposed to refer to some to some truncated notion of "all" and "is" that I'm not aware of?), we should probably start another thread.
« Last Edit: January 17, 2012, 09:43:36 pm by AlisonLeighLilly »

Asch

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #16 on: January 17, 2012, 09:40:55 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39157


Honestly, the response "Oh no, here we go again, just another prescriptivist" seems to be a pretty rude response mostly designed to shut me up (and/or make me feel embarrassed for not having read the previous threads and therefore not being "informed" according to TC standards). If you don't want to repeat yourself - don't. Nobody's forcing you to respond, let alone read this thread. Geesh.


I'll be honest, IDK what prescriptivism is and I'm way too tired to investigat it just now.

What I will note is that not only is this an open debate/discussion board but it's a *new* incarnation of one.

It is natural for topics to repeat on any board but particularly on a board that is a new version, how logical or reasonable is it to assume that every person whether a casual user or a new user or heck even a long time user will take the time to troll through a half dozen retired threads on a retired board to avoid a 'redundant' post?

Just saying.

AlisonLeighLilly

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #17 on: January 17, 2012, 11:33:15 pm »
Quote from: Asch;39170
I'll be honest, IDK what prescriptivism is and I'm way too tired to investigat it just now.

 
This is going to be slightly off-topic (I promise I come back around to why it's relevant at the end!), but to answer you about "prescriptivism" real quick, Asch:

Usually prescriptivism is brought up in contrast to descriptivism, particularly in linguistics (although it can be used in a wide variety of contexts). Descriptivist linguists are those whose research is primarily focused on gathering data about how language is used in different communities and how it evolves over time and in different places - they're not interested in making judgements about if a given community of speakers is "right" in their language usage or not. Prescriptivist linguists are people like Strunk and White (see: Elements of Style), people who are interested in determining the correct use of language (and this can include grammatical structure, word meaning and a host of other issues related to language usage).

For instance, the use of "they" as a singular third-person pronoun. (i.e. "Someone just called me, but they didn't leave a message.") Descriptivist linguists are interested in tracing the history of this particular use of "they" in the English language and understanding what has influenced its evolution. Prescriptivist linguists are interested in determining whether or not this use of "they" is grammatically and linguistically "correct" - and they usually do this by appealing to general guidelines about the structure of the English language and how similar words have been used in the past.

Both approaches have their merits and their flaws, depending on what it is you're interested in looking at. Different cultures also emphasize the two approaches to a greater or lesser extent depending on other cultural factors. (F'ex, French linguists tend to be much more prescriptivist, interested in understanding and preserving the French language, while American linguists tend to be much more descriptivist, which makes sense given the amazing history of cultural intermingling and appropriation that makes the idea of a "pure" American English language a nonsensical notion. My husband is a linguist who earned his degrees in the U.S. but works with a lot of linguists from many different countries as part of his job working in the speech recognition industry.) Interestingly, the prominent linguist Noam Chomsky has in recent years developed a theory about a basic linguistic structure common to all human languages - a kind of "blueprint" in the human brain that makes it prone to using language in particular ways - which, if the theory turns out to be correct, suggests that prescriptivist linguists might actually be on to something in the idea that there are "right" and "wrong" aspects to language usage (though they aren't necessarily right about the specifics).

Amusingly, religious scholarship has gone in the other direction. While earlier scholars in comparative religious studies like Frazer and Eliade argued that there was a basic underlying structure common to all religions, these days comparative religion tends to emphasize the very specific cultural and historical contexts of the religious communities being studied. Most recent religious scholars are almost always (in my experience earning a degree in comparative religious studies and having several friends who are religious scholars and professors) of the "descriptivist" variety, more interested in exploring traditions from multiple perspectives and exploring the patterns of interaction and evolution of different cultures. Theologians and philosophers - it depends. Some are more descriptivist, while some are more prescriptivist (though that's less and less common these days in a postmodern/post-postmodern society).

Even "descriptivists," though, tend to work hard at developing clear definitions for particular words, especially as those words relate to their fields, since having an established vocabulary of agreed upon terms is a huge aid to clarity in conversation and academic peer-review. In some texts, you'll find that the entire first chapter of a book will be devoted to articulating exactly how the scholar will be using certain key terms so that the context is clearly established.

In other words, descriptivism is not merely relativism. Relativism tends to overlook the particular context and community in which a term is being used and so swings to the extreme where any attempt to establish a definition - even one based on a particular context - is seen as impinging on someone else's right to define a word however they want to. Relativism, in my experience (caveats, caveats), tends to lead to a "lowest common denominator" way of approaching word-meaning in which everyone across all contexts and communities are expected to only use a word in a way that is vague enough to be acceptable to everyone regardless of context. (Or, another extreme stemming from the same basic approach, defends the idea that a person can use a word in whatever idiosyncratic way they like - both of these attitudes stem from the relativist's tendency to ignore the role that community context plays in establishing word meaning.) Either way, rejecting the idea that words always have connotations as well as denotations (or trying to shame a person for holding the "wrong" connotations because they may be using the word in a particular context different from one's own) is, in my experience, a typically relativist response, and tends to prevent the kind of careful discussion that's so necessary in delineating connotation from denotation and exploring the underlying linguistic contexts of both. "Lowest common denominator" definitions are rather weak, pale definitions that slide blissfully over some complicated questions.

For instance, Sunflower said that "the denotative meaning - pan-theist - is still intact" even in the very different contexts that others in this thread were using that word. But what is that "denotative" meaning? Both the American Heritage and the Merriam-Webster dictionaries list two very different definitions for the word:

Quote
1. a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the material universe

2. the belief in or worship of all gods


It's pretty clear that these definitions are different enough that knowing which one is being used depends pretty much entirely on the connotation and context of the conversation, which means that Sunflower's suggestion that I not bring any assumptions about connotation to the conversation is pretty much the definition of unhelpful. Now, I'll be totally honest: I hadn't heard the word "pantheism" used in the way defined under that second definition before (it's obviously less common - I think both the AH and MW dictionaries list word definitions in order of most common to least common, and in several online dictionaries including one from Princeton University Press, the second definition is noted as "rare"; plus, based on the etymology in the OED, the second definition is also a later development than the first.... none of which makes the second definition illegitimate, of course!).

So yeah, my bad there, I didn't realize that the word had two entirely different contexts - one being a particular kind of polytheism and the other being a particular kind of non-theism. In my original article (which prompted this whole conversation, though it was elsewhere online), I was talking about the specific challenges presented by the kind of pantheism that very clearly fell under the first definition of it being non-theistic, because the topic was about the absence of deity as a source of spiritual authority/meaning. Given that context, it was surprising to me that people would object to my use of "pantheism" by claiming that's not what the word meant.

This is the lowest-common-denominator approach to word meaning again: if not everyone uses the word "pantheism" according to the first non-theistic definition, then no one is allowed to use it that way no matter what the context.

In a twist of irony, bringing up my consternation and asking for clarification apparently cast me in the role of someone trying to dictate how others use words in Sunflower's eyes! When in fact all I was doing was trying to defend my right to use the word "pantheism" according to that first definition in the face of people claiming I couldn't (and citing the word's history in philosophical and theological writings to do so).

Yes, I will totally own up to getting pretty defensive pretty quick about the issue - and even pointed out that I was aware that I was being grumpy about it.... None of that makes me a prescriptivist by any stretch of the imagination.

/here endeth the linguistic lecture

And since now I find myself bracing for the storm unleashed by me having the audacity to go ahead and define words like "prescriptivist" and "relativism" without first requesting everyone's consent.... I think that's a signal that emotionally I need to step away from this thread. Sorry, guys! Guess I'm just having a bad day. :-/

Juniperberry

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #18 on: January 18, 2012, 01:45:15 am »
Quote from: Asch;39170
I'll be honest, IDK what prescriptivism is and I'm way too tired to investigat it just now.

What I will note is that not only is this an open debate/discussion board but it's a *new* incarnation of one.

It is natural for topics to repeat on any board but particularly on a board that is a new version, how logical or reasonable is it to assume that every person whether a casual user or a new user or heck even a long time user will take the time to troll through a half dozen retired threads on a retired board to avoid a 'redundant' post?

Just saying.


Not to mention that when you're so busy rudely cutting off conversation and referring back to old ones that you'll have no idea how badly outdated your ideas are or how you've lost touch with the ever-growing and evolving pagan community. Which, naturally, grows elsewhere where it can flourish, while you're left wondering where did everyone go?

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RandallS

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #19 on: January 18, 2012, 08:46:26 am »
Quote from: Juniperberry;39206
Not to mention that when you're so busy rudely cutting off conversation and referring back to old ones that you'll have no idea how badly outdated your ideas are or how you've lost touch with the ever-growing and evolving pagan community. Which, naturally, grows elsewhere where it can flourish, while you're left wondering where did everyone go?

.

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Juniperberry, you know that you are not a moderator and that playing one is against the rules here. Linking to previous threads is often done on TC and unless a mod does it and closes the thread it is not meant as a way to shut down the current discussion, but rather as a why to help the OP get answers/more info. (We only shut down the thread when there is a currently ongoing on on the same subject.) There certainly was nothing rude in the specific post doing so in this thread nor does it imply that all the answers are there, just that discussion on the subject is available to read.

I'm really sorry that I don't run this board the way you would, but there is nothing stopping you from starting your own board and running it however you want. If you want to moderate you need to start your own board. Stop doing it here.
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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #20 on: January 18, 2012, 12:21:46 pm »
Quote from: AlisonLeighLilly;39196
Both the American Heritage and the Merriam-Webster dictionaries list two very different definitions for the word:

 
Quote
1. a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the material universe


I think it's worth noting that this definition is rooted in a notion that the only structural definition of "god" is a monotheistic one.  (Capped as if proper noun, etc.)  It is well worth considering that the description of how the word is used can very well change when dealing with people whose base assumptions about words are polytheistic.

When there is no single "God" to identify with the forces and laws of the universe, what of "gods"?  They aren't covered by the assumptions and description of the word, because most people discussing this sort of thing don't even consider polytheism (or, if they do, only do so for the couple of moments it takes to write it off).
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SunflowerP

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #21 on: January 18, 2012, 10:38:10 pm »
Quote from: Darkhawk;39263
I think it's worth noting that this definition is rooted in a notion that the only structural definition of "god" is a monotheistic one.  (Capped as if proper noun, etc.)  It is well worth considering that the description of how the word is used can very well change when dealing with people whose base assumptions about words are polytheistic.

When there is no single "God" to identify with the forces and laws of the universe, what of "gods"?  They aren't covered by the assumptions and description of the word, because most people discussing this sort of thing don't even consider polytheism (or, if they do, only do so for the couple of moments it takes to write it off).

 
THIS.  It's what I was referring to in saying that pantheism that follows directly on the use of the word by Enlightenment philosophers was an inherently post-Judeo-Christian position.

And with that, I'm done here.

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Nomad of Nowhere

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #22 on: January 19, 2012, 03:13:34 am »
Quote from: Darkhawk;39263
I think it's worth noting that this definition is rooted in a notion that the only structural definition of "god" is a monotheistic one.  (Capped as if proper noun, etc.)  It is well worth considering that the description of how the word is used can very well change when dealing with people whose base assumptions about words are polytheistic.

When there is no single "God" to identify with the forces and laws of the universe, what of "gods"?  They aren't covered by the assumptions and description of the word, because most people discussing this sort of thing don't even consider polytheism (or, if they do, only do so for the couple of moments it takes to write it off).

 
A good point. In polytheistic terms, a pantheon of Gods who are not transcendent may still exist as part of the universe. It's not much of a stretch.

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Re: Let's Define Pantheism!
« Reply #23 on: January 19, 2012, 06:49:52 am »
Quote from: Nomad of Nowhere;39381
A good point. In polytheistic terms, a pantheon of Gods who are not transcendent may still exist as part of the universe. It's not much of a stretch.

 
I AM a polytheistic pantheist, so I sincerely hope it's possible!  I try to keep my worldview hypocrisy for the weekends! ;)

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