Thinking through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives

Thinking through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives

Thinking through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives

Thinking through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives


Many philosophical approaches today seek to overcome the division between mind and body. If such projects succeed, then thinking is not restricted to the disembodied mind, but is in some sense done through the body. From a post-Cartesian perspective, then, ritual activities that discipline the body are not just thoughtless motions, but crucial parts of the way people think. Thinking Through Rituals explores religious ritual acts and their connection to meaning and truth, belief, memory, inquiry, worldview and ethics. Drawing on philosophers such as Foucault, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, and sources from cognitive science, pragmatism and feminist theory, it provides philosophical resources for understanding religious ritual practices like the Christian Eucharistic ceremony, Hatha Yoga, sacred meditation or liturgical speech.Its essays consider a wide variety of rituals in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism - including political protest rituals and gay commitment ceremonies, traditional Vedic and Yogic rites, Christian and Buddhist meditation and the Jewish Shabbat. They challenge the traditional disjunction between thought and action, showing how philosophy can help to illuminate the relationship between doing and meaning which ritual practices imply.


Nick Crossley


It is one of the most obvious features of rituals that they are "embodied," that is, that we do them and that this "doing" is a bodily act. Rituals involve gestures, postures, dances, patterns of movement. If we are to make sense of rituals, it follows, we need to engage with this corporeality; that is, we need to make sense of rituals specifically as embodied practices. Until recently, this would have been difficult for philosophers and social scientists. With a few notable and important exceptions, "the body" and "embodiment" were not thematized or explored to any great extent within philosophical and social scientific discourse in the past. Tides have, however, turned. A multitude of perspectives now compete over the truths of corporeal life.

In this chapter, building upon earlier work on embodiment (esp. Crossley 1995, 2001), I seek to elucidate the nature of ritual, qua embodied practice. The perspective I use for this analysis combines insights from the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, 1965), the sociology of Émile Durkheim (1915) and Marcel Mauss (1979), and the pioneering work of Pierre Bourdieu-which itself pulls together the insights of the other two camps. Through the tools that these different theorists provide, I hope to be able to reveal that and how rituals embody the practical wisdom of the individuals who perform them and the societies from which they derive. Rituals, I will argue, are a form of embodied practical reason.

The interplay of sociology and philosophy, or more specifically phenomenology, within the paper will, I hope, demonstrate both the respective value of these approaches and one of the key ways in which they can be made to work together in a mutually informing manner. Specifically, as this paper belongs to a collection on philosophical conceptions of ritual, I hope that the paper demonstrates how phenomenological philosophy allows us simultaneously to clarify, deepen, and question concepts and analyses that have been generated within a more sociological framework. Phenomenology can dissect and unravel sociological concepts and observations to a greater degree than might ordinarily be the case, generating new insights in doing so. However, to give sociology its due, the very process of doing so entails that phenomenology is prepared to learn from sociology, to accept the empirical

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