I’m continually fascinated by the manner in which scholars claim to be historically-inclined — thereby distinguishing themselves from mere amateurs or wannabes — in the very moment that they sprout wings and transcend history. For example, my own interest for some time has been the history and use for the category religion — i.e., what’s socially, politically, etc., at stake (for good or ill) in naming something as religion (or as faith, as spiritual, as tradition, as experience, etc.) and then treating it as such, presuming it shares some hidden link with other things so named. Many people now claim to work in this area, making such a focus on the category religion seem something other than cutting-edge.
But the curious thing, to me, is how this once sharp edge gets dulled when more and more people come to it. For instance, despite many scholars now widely acknowledging that pre-Latin linguistic systems, or those groups outside the influence of Latin-based language families, have no equivalent whatsoever (ensuring that the modern term “religion” [not to mention psyche or gender or race or class or culture or…], if used by scholars, is purely a taxon of analytic utility to the scholar, requiring it to be defined clearly and used with precision), they nonetheless make what sound like purely descriptive claims not only about the origins of “ancient Indian religion” but — and this is the best part — many also claim that, prior to the invention of the modern notion of religion as a specific, isolatable aspect of social life (e.g., the sacred vs. the secular), pre-modern and ancient people alike were uniformly religious — i.e., religion was everywhere…, long before the word/idea was even invented.
The ease with which a modern analytic notion is ontologized and then projected backward in history is therefore fascinating to watch — this is surely a key technique in authorizing ones own contingent social world (for the way we happen to see the world is how the world actually is — what a coincidence!). But from where I sit, such scholars are simply listening to the sound of their own voices while thinking they are listening intently to the ancient sources and the oceanic feeling that is assumed to attend matters of such obviously deep and abiding importance.
That the things we study are important because we study them is certainly not something we’re all that prepared to entertain.