Reading Max Müller’s Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion As Illustrated by the Religions of India (1882). An odd book, it does a lot of different things. On the one hand, Müller’s thinking about religion is steeped in racial categories, including an especially deep fascination with the Vedic religion as a source of Aryan culture and Vedanta as an apex of philosophical wisdom. On the other hand, Müller does lion’s work undercutting racist notions about “primitive” peoples, their culture, religion, and morals and the way scholars of the time simply lumped diverse people together without regard for historical and geographical difference. The religions of India hold out the promise of a more human form of modern life, teaching toleration and sympathy, and way to be in but not of “the life which surrounds us in the marketplace” (p.373). The religions of India come to posit higher than the gods a notion of the sense of our own True Self in synch with the True Self of the world. This stage represents a quality of agency, without which human beings are reduced to acts and functions, machines without a motive power, beings without a self” (p.221).
Müller’s model of religion and religious development is more aesthetic than social. Rejecting the idea of special revelation or the notion of a special psychological “faculty” for religion, he has based the “origin and growth of religion” in the apprehension of the infinite or invisible. These apprehensions are a human realization mediated by the simplest acts of sensation and perception coupled with imagination and reason. The infinite comes into play at those precise points when ordinary perception has reached its limit, “exactly where [one’s] sight breaks down, there presses…the perception of the unlimited or the infinite” (p.38). As for the gods, they are associated with a quality of “brightness” associated with, or sensed vis-à-vis physical objects that are tangible (which one can grasp entirely by the hand), semi-tangible objects (like rivers and mountains which one grasp only in part), and non-tangible objects (like light and wind that one cannot touch at all).
Probably, it would have been better to refer to this second perception, the perception of the infinite in relation to the finite, as a “sense” or “sensation,” rather than a “perception” per se. We see something of this when Müller claims that, “with every finite perception, or, if that word should seem too strong, a concomitant sentiment or presentiment of the infinite” (p.46). The difference would be that a sense or sensation is only sensed in a more ill-formed and vague sort of way, whereas a perception would indicate something whose appearance appears more discrete and definite. Examples would include colors and sounds beyond the range of our ordinary, convention bound experience (pp.40, 43).
Unlike Kant, who theorized the apriority, or rather the co-priority of intuitions and concepts, Müller seems to posit perception as prior. About Kant, he states his difference with him being that for Kant, the supersenuous or the infinite is but a “Nooumenon,” whereas for Müller it’s already an “Aistheton” that is sensed, though not yet a “Phainomenon” that is represented (p.48).
The trick then for Müller, about which he is explicitly aware, is how to explain the leap from percepts to the concepts that make representation possible, from the sight and touch and sound of physical object, to concepts like the gods, God, the infinite and invisible. (The question is first posed on pp.124-31 and then picked up and continued on p.173). Could it just be an illusion, but then how to explain that people sane in all other respects been insane on this one particular point (p.174)?
Language provides the key for Müller to answer this basically Kantian question. According to Müller, we start with the world of tangible, semi-tangible, and non-tangible sense objects, the discovery of acts in the external world that bear a resemblance (not an identity) to our own (starting with the act of breathing), the attribution of agency to everything and the drawing of distinctions (pp.199-200). Rather than humanize these objects by positing a simple likeness, “our Aryan ancestors” were “far more struck by the difference between them [i.e. these objects] and themselves than by any imaginary similarities” (p.200). The Vedic gods are not like us at all. Not subject to decay, they are shining, bright, and undying, recognized as Lord and Father, each deity recognized as supreme in the henotheistic stage of Vedic religion, which already begin to show tendencies to monotheism and atheism (pp.287-95).
What to make of it all, when so much of it can only be called deeply speculative if not downright wooly? To that one might add that there is very little that Müller will say about politics, as if to ignore the origin and growth of religion as a social phenomenon. Myself, I would step back from the speculations, which really constitute a theory of language regarding the origin of the gods. For a theory of religion and art, I think what is worth taking from him is the openness to the world. I’m almost tempted to call it “ecological.” Our political theorists sometimes neglect the understanding that religion is a human and natural phenomenon, rooted in the human senses and the formation of human reason in relation to that world as we come to sense and understand (experience) it as a physical capacity. While Müller understands that we can never leave the forum of the modern market economy, about which he has almost nothing to say, his work works as a useful reminder for us to turn our attention in the study of religion back, as it were, to the natural world, and to what he regards to be that basic form of human consciousness, the sense of touch.
Another, and more parochial way to put all this. About contemporary religious studies, Jewish philosophy and the study of Jewish religion, it tends to rely, at least implicitly, on models drawn from or that could be drawn from Weber and Durkheim. These tend to be more invested in society, politics, and authority. I’m wondering what a theory of religion, a Jewish philosophy, or a study of Jewish religion would look like that drew more on Müller. Or better yet: there should be some way to fuse all three models together into something awesome, but alas, I think it would take at least two lifetimes of work.