Musicology and philosophy, religion and political science

By Michael Marten
2 Sep 2011

I have for some time been reflecting on why it is that so few ‘secular’ scholars engage meaningfully with ‘religion’, or to put it another way: why is it that so many of us as religion scholars depend upon and practice disciplinary heterogeneity, whereas many of the scholars we use do not appear to engage substantially with what we write. 

My thinking on this has been further prompted by reading a piece by J.P.E. Harper-Scott, Senior Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London.  He recently wrote about a conference he attended for musicologists and philosophers.  The frustration evident in his posting is clear: the musicologists at his conference engaged actively with a variety of philosophers, but from his perspective at least, few if any of the philosophers engaged seriously with musicologists that he regarded as central to his work.

He outlines his main point as follows:

The musicologists at the conference are interested in philosophy. They read major figures such as Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on, and they read the secondary literature too… at least enough to gain perspective on the principal debates… In the main, however, philosophers who are interested in music… do not read musicology. If they did, then their frequently catastrophic failures of definition and unwillingness to engage with – or even conceive of – political, economic, cultural, and historical context for the music, composers (where there are any), performers, listeners, and critics who jointly make up the world we call ‘music’ would show up to them as glaringly as an elementary error in a syllogism. The short form: there will never be meaningful exchange between philosophy and musicology while philosophers fail to read anything as obvious as the major writings of Richard Taruskin.

That I can do no more than acknowledge knowing Taruskin is a musicologist limits any further comment I might make on Harper-Scott’s argument about musicologists and philosophers.  However, as I asked in a comment on his blog, why is it that some disciplines seem to be more interdisciplinary than others?  After all, the experience he describes is far from unique.  I want to develop my relatively unformed comment a little in this article.

Many of us working in the field of ‘religion’ depend upon a variety of other disciplines – such as political science, philosophy, history, linguistics, phenomenology and more – to help us understand the phenomena we are dealing with.  Consequently, numerous scholars who are not directly involved in ‘religion’ as a discipline inform the work that I (and many other colleagues) pursue. 

For example, in a relatively short essay soon to appear in what promises to be a useful collection on Protestant Missions and Local Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (eds. Hilde Nielssen, Inger Marie Okkenhaug, Karina Hestad Skeie), I refer to the following scholars (in order of appearance): Gen Doy, Simon Gikandi, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Ann Laura Stoler, Benedict Anderson, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Edward Casey, Jeremy Black, Hélène Gill, Victor Turner, Homi Bhabha, Karina Hestad Skeie, Pierre Bourdieu, Christine Lindner, Andrew Ross, Susan Thorne, David Richards, Lester Irwin Vogel, Bill Marshall, Robert Young, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty.  This list reveals a fairly clear ideological bias, but it also suggests a wide range of disciplines that I draw on for my paper – and in this regard I see myself as a typical religion scholar: most of the interesting ‘religion’ work I read uses these scholars and many more.

However, few of the scholars I mentioned not explicitly working in the field of religion (such as Skeie, Lindner, Ross, Thorne, Vogel) appear to engage very much with religion scholars of any hue, even if we think of ‘religion’ in extremely broad terms.  Why is it that so few ‘secular’ scholars fail to engage meaningfully with ‘religion’?  For example, Said’s dismissal of missionaries in Orientalism has been commented on adversely by many – though that has not stopped scholars using his work creatively (one might think directly of work such as Richard King’s Orientalism and Religion: Post-colonial Theory, India and the Mystic East).

However we understand ‘religion’, whether as a category or as a field of study – and there are issues here that go to the core of what we think the discipline of ‘religion’ is about – Harper-Scott, in his response to my comment, identifies the problem in ontic/ontological terms.  I can see a validity to this understanding, though I would express it slightly differently and perhaps point to the idea of ‘professionalism’, as Said called it in his 1993 Reith Lectures (Representations of the Intellectual, New York: Vintage, 1994: 73-4; rather wonderfully, the BBC have made it possible to listen to his lectures online).

Said argues that amongst other things, professionalism induces specialisation.  One very clear way in which this manifests itself in the contemporary context is in governmental assessment exercises.  In the UK, for example, academics are required to write several pieces of work that can be entered into the RAE, or REF, or whatever the government’s lackeys of the day decide to call the arbitrary quantification of academic ‘output’ – even the word induces nausea – as if writing an article is being equated with factory production. 

These ‘outputs’ are assessed by other academics in ‘the same field’, the idea being that political scientists are best placed to peer review and assess the work of other political scientists, religion scholars can best do the same for their colleagues, and so on.  Of course, there is an inherent logic here, but one of the problems with this approach is that it fosters increased specialisation, and in turn, Said argues, this leads to shutting out other disciplines; from the perspective of a literary scholar:

Specialisation means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge; as a result you cannot view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories or methodologies.  To be a specialist in literature too often means shutting out history or music, or politics. (p77)

The production of ‘impersonal theories or methodologies’ fits the stereotype of the academic in the wider public, but this is core of the problem.  What happens to the disciplines that have been shut out?  Simplistically put, they often tend to shut out other disciplines too, the consequence being atomisation – whilst this makes control by university administrators and management much easier, it tends to deaden wide-ranging intellectual and public engagement.  And it is precisely engagement – in the academy and the wider world – that Said argues for.  Not as a ‘professional’ he points out, but as an amateur, engaging in ‘an activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialisation’(p82); this sounds remarkably similar to Harper-Scott’s description of musicologists’ approach to philosophy. 

Said is not suggesting that this is easy, far from it.  His Humanism and Democratic Criticism (esp. ch. 5) discusses further some of the immense difficulties involved (and he is not the only one to deal with these issues, as, for example, Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus demonstrates).

However, the obvious difficulties involved do not obviate the necessity of such engagement.  Of course, if it is impossible to see how one’s academic life might relate to the wider world, it will be difficult to see how it could relate to other academics, and how other academics could relate to it.  What connects the list of scholars noted above in relation to my essay is their general willingness to engage across and beyond the boundaries of ‘their’ discipline, whether this be politics, economics, or history etc., however hard it may be.  Indeed, it is probably appropriate to argue that some of the most stimulating scholars are those who explicitly engage with other disciplines and the wider world.  The apparent failure, often, to engage with religion is therefore all the more puzzling.

There is, of course, a difference in the way musicologists and religion scholars have dealt with some of the issues raised by postmodern thinkers: I think it is probably impossible for most musicologists to deny the existence of ‘music’ and the attendant emotional and physical engagement that the practice of music, however defined, can offer. 

Engagement, as Said calls it, has multiple levels; with some scholars essentially denying the existence of religion as a phenomenon enabling emotional and psychological engagement and seeing it only as a category of study, it is perhaps understandable that scholars from other disciplines might see what we think of as important as actually being irrelevant.

I suspect this is perhaps part of the issue for many who see themselves outwith the discipline of religion: a lack of personal engagement with religion – however defined – means they regard themselves as ‘secular’ without ever really thinking about what that term means (in other words, they ‘don’t believe in god’ and therefore they must be ‘secular’).  In this kind of thinking, ‘secular’ is the mainstream and ‘religion’ is seen as an optional but largely irrelevant add-on. 

From such a starting point there is no reason to think an understanding of religion might have a substantial bearing on political science, history, economics etc.  Perhaps this stems from a mistaken understanding that there is ‘a universal definition of religion’ that can be compartmentalised away, failing to recognise historical contingencies and discursive constructions arising from and impacting upon politics, history, economics and so on (as Talal Asad would perhaps argue). 

That precise problematic is, of course, one of the key issues that the Critical Religion Research Group at the University of Stirling is seeking to address in its programmes, and my colleagues and I seek to explore different aspects of this in our various CR articles.  As the summer is upon us and we look back at nearly six months of postings on a variety of topics, it is to be hoped that a helpful contribution to the furtherance of interdisciplinarity and understanding of the place of ‘the study of religion’ has been made.

‘The study of religion’ (as it is often called) is ‘an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary mode of engagement: incorporating many disciplines, but also going beyond the limits of any one discipline’ (as we say here).  Reflecting on what it is we are thinking about when we think about ‘religion’ helps us cross disciplinary boundaries and engage with wider questions, and can, in fact, only happen by doing so. 

Perhaps the philosophers at Harper-Scott’s conference left with a greater awareness of the importance of engaging with musicologists’ work; similarly we hope that ‘non-religion’ scholars will find what we do stimulates further engagement with some of the questions we are dealing with.  Conversing with other religion scholars is good – conversing with people from all kinds of disciplines and backgrounds is even better!

I would like to gratefully acknowledge comments from Richard Roberts on an early draft of this posting, though he is not, of course, to blame for any inconsistencies etc. in my text.)

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© Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and an Ekklesia associate. More on his work, background and publications history is summarised here.


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