Special Events

Beliefs One Doesn’t Believe In: Stances toward Divination in Recent English-Language Scholarship

Thursday, The Heyman Center

Practices of divination are of considerable interest to anthropologists,
ancient historians, and historians of science. Scholarship in
these fields recognizes the importance of studies of divination for
understanding the human commitment to finding ways of predicting
and interpreting unpredictable and obscure phenomena.
Current work in this field characterizes itself as overturning earlier
scholarly conceptions of divination as irrational superstition
or failed science. This rehabilitation of divination as a worthwhile
focus of historical inquiry, however, is often accompanied by theoretical
claims that, if taken at face value, would amount to an assertion
that successful and problematic predictive traditions are
historically indistinguishable, as well as by a denial of the often
cumulative nature of knowledge.
Further, the term “positivist” is deployed for rhetorical support
in a way that has little to do with the important ideas of intellectual
movements—notably the Vienna Circle—that identified with that
term. The asymmetry between divinatory actor and observer is
also frequently articulated in terms of a logically unsupportable
distinction between supposedly “emic” and “etic” perspectives.
The possibility that the histories of divinatory traditions are distinctively
shaped by their inefficacy remains largely unexplored.