A Postcolonial and Material Theory of Knowledge for the Study of Religion A Comparison of Durkheim and Chidester’s Epistemologies

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Johan M. Strijdom https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0541-6385


Epistemologies, comparison, social theory, postcolonial theory, material religion, Durkheim, Chidester


This article addresses the fundamental question of how knowledge about reli-gion is acquired in the academic study of religion. It does so by means of a comparison of the answers to the question by Emile Durkheim and David Chidester. Durkheim, in engaging with the conventional distinction between rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge of his time, as well as their combination by Kant, argues that categories of thought (such as space, time, causality, number, and classifications) are not mere abstract conditions of understanding, but are to be conceptualized as constructs of particular socie-ties. This social-anthropological shift in the theory of knowledge has been of decisive influence since the beginning of the 20th century, among others on the late 20th-century and beginning of the 21st-century South African scholar of religion, David Chidester. From a comparison of Durkheim’s epistemolo-gy with that of Chidester it is, however, clear that the latter brings new in-sights to the epistemological question by insisting on a postcolonial and ma-terial approach to the study of religion. The comparison of the two episte-mologies that I provide here should give substance to this point by comparing ways in which they deal with a selection of categories and concepts in their study of religion.

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