It’s long overdue for me to type something serious in response to this sort of comment that one sees all too frequently:
Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.” — from a comment on this blog.
I only touched on the fallacy expressed here a couple of months ago in Death and Resurrection of Baal.
The first indication that there is something wrong with Litwa’s argument is the use of “some” and “all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways”. Already Litwa is acknowledging that these gods can indeed all be classified as a group even though there are “all sorts of differences” among them. We know their respective stories are very different indeed but that does not prevent us from grouping them as, let’s say, a particular “type”. So the question that arises is, On what grounds do we omit Jesus from among “the few” and “the some” in his statement?
Robert M. Price has explained that comparisons among ancient “dying and rising” gods are based on the famous sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of “ideal types”. (Ideal here does not mean perfect but belonging to a common idea.) Price rightly identifies the fault in a milestone critic of such comparisons, Jonathan Z. Smith, as failing to grasp Weber’s discussion of how sociologists, historians and others justify making comparisons in the first place.
So here is a little background reading. I will quote liberally from a translation of ““Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy”, an essay in Max Weber’s On the Methodology of the Social Sciences.
To begin, note that Weber points out that the notion of an ideal type is not a fanciful extra, some ad hoc plaything, but is an absolute necessity for any historian who is making comparisons of different cultural groups:
If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.” (94)
Imagine we want to make comparisons between a church and a sect. How do we go about defining our terms: what is it (to take an example Weber uses) that makes a church a church and a sect a sect? To answer that question we look at the vast array of groups we classify as churches and sects. And when we do we soon find we are in trouble because there are simply so many different sorts of churches and sects. I know from first hand: when I belonged to the Worldwide Church of God cult I and fellow members frequently noted criticisms of cults and we saw core reasons why our church was not any of the cults listed and critics were making an ignorant mistake to classify us with them. If we pin down the attributes that define one sect as a sect we will almost inevitably encounter another instance that defies some of those determinants. If we want to compare different democratic governments, or specific social classes, or economic systems, or family structures, or religions, we will face the same problem.
Keep in mind that the word “ideal” in ideal type refers to the idea of something, not a “perfect” representation. So let the authority on ideal types speak. All italics are original, bolding and paragraph breaks are mine:
An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct (Genankenbild). In its conceptual purity, this mental construct (Gedankenbild) cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality. It is a utopia. Historical research faces the task of determining in each individual case, the extent to which this ideal-construct approximates to or diverges from reality, to what extent for example, the economic structure of a certain city is to be classified as a “city-economy.”
When carefully applied, those concepts are particularly useful in research and exposition. In very much the same way one can work the “idea” of “handicraft” into a utopia by arranging certain traits, actually found in an unclear, confused state in the industrial enterprises of the most diverse epochs and countries, into a consistent ideal-construct by an accentuation of their essential tendencies. This ideal-type is then related to the idea (Gedankenausdruck) which one finds expressed there.
One can further delineate a society in which all branches of economic and even intellectual activity are governed by maxims which appear to be applications of the same principle which characterizes the ideal-typical “handicraft” system. Furthermore, one can juxtapose alongside the ideal typical “handicraft” system the antithesis of a correspondingly ideal-typical capitalistic productive system, which has been abstracted out of certain features of modern large scale industry. On the basis of this, one can delineate the utopia of a “capitalistic” culture, i.e., one in which the governing principle is the investment of private capital. This procedure would accentuate certain individual concretely diverse traits of modern material and intellectual culture in its unique aspects into an ideal construct which from our point of view would be completely self-consistent. This would then be the delineation of an “idea” of capitalistic culture.
We must disregard for the moment whether and how this procedure could be carried out. It is possible, or rather, it must be accepted as certain that numerous, indeed a very great many, utopias of this sort can be worked out, of which none is like another, and none of which can be observed in empirical reality as an actually existing economic system, but each of which however claims that it is a representation of the “idea” of capitalistic culture. Each of these can claim to be a representation of the “idea” of capitalistic culture to the extent that it has really taken certain traits, meaningful in their essential features, from the empirical reality of our culture and brought them together into a unified ideal-construct. For those phenomena which interest us as cultural phenomena are interesting to us with respect to very different kinds of evaluative ideas to which we relate them. Inasmuch as the “points of view” from which they can become significant for us are very diverse, the most varied criteria can be applied to the selection of the traits which are to enter into the construction of an ideal-typical view of a particular culture.
. . . .
Whoever accepts the proposition that the knowledge of historical reality can or should be a “presuppositionless” copy of “objective” facts, will deny the value of the ideal-type. . . . . [A]re concepts such as “individualism,” “imperialism,” “feudalism,” “mercantilism,” “conventional,” etc., and innumerable concepts of like character by means of which we seek analytically and empathically to understand reality constructed substantively by the “presuppositionless” description of some concrete phenomenon or through the abstract synthesis of those traits which are common to numerous concrete phenomena?
. . . .
A simple “descriptive analysis” of these concepts into their components either does not exist or else exists only illusorily, for the question arises as to which of these components should be regarded as essential. When a genetic definition of the content of the concept is sought, there remains only the ideal-type in the sense explained above. It is a conceptual construct (Gedankenbild) which is neither historical reality nor even the “true” reality. . . . It has the significance of a purely ideal limiting concept with which the real situation or action is compared and surveyed for the explication of certain of its significant components. Such concepts are constructs in terms of which we formulate relationships by the application of the category of objective possibility. By means of this category, the adequacy of our imagination, oriented and disciplined by reality, is judged.
In this function especially, the ideal-type is an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts. Let us take for instance the concepts “church” and “sect.” They may be broken down purely classificatorily into complexes of characteristics whereby not only the distinction between them but also the content of the concept must constantly remain fluid. If however I wish to formulate the concept of “sect” genetically, e.g., with reference to certain important cultural significances which the “sectarian spirit” has had for modern culture, certain characteristics of both become essential because they stand in an adequate causal relationship to those influences. However, the concepts thereupon become ideal-typical in the sense that they appear in full conceptual integrity either not at all or only in individual instances. Here as elsewhere every concept which is not purely classificatory diverges from reality. But the discursive nature of our knowledge, i.e., the fact that we comprehend reality only through a chain of intellectual modifications postulates such a conceptual shorthand. Our imagination can often dispense with explicit conceptual formulations as a means of investigation. But as regards exposition, to the extent that it wishes to be unambiguous, the use of precise formulations in the sphere of cultural analysis is in many cases absolutely necessary. . . . If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.”
Weber does not address dying and rising gods but he does use the amorphous concept of “Christianity” as an illustration of the messiness of reality against the type:
* Apply that highlighted point to the ideal type of dying and rising gods on the one hand and the specific instances of different gods, means of rising, form of dying, etc. on the other.
Thus the causal relationship between the historically determinable idea which governs the conduct of men and those components of historical reality from which their corresponding ideal-type may be abstracted, can naturally take on a considerable number of different forms. The main point to be observed is that in principle they are both fundamentally different things.* There is still another aspect: those “ideas” which govern the behavior of the population of a certain epoch i.e., which are concretely influential in determining their conduct, can, if a somewhat complicated construct is involved, be formulated precisely only in the form of an ideal type, since empirically it exists in the minds of an indefinite and constantly changing mass of individuals and assumes in their minds the most multifarious nuances of form and content, clarity and meaning. Those elements of the spiritual life of the individuals living in a certain epoch of the Middle Ages, for example, which we may designate as the “Christianity” of those individuals, would, if they could be completely portrayed, naturally constitute a chaos of infinitely differentiated and highly contradictory complexes of ideas and feelings. This is true despite the fact that the medieval church was certainly able to bring about a unity of belief and conduct to a particularly high degree. If we raise the question as to what in this chaos was the “Christianity” of the Middle Ages (which we must nonetheless use as a stable concept) and wherein lay those “Christian” elements which we find in the institutions of the Middle Ages, we see that here too in every individual case, we are applying a purely analytical construct created by ourselves. It is a combination of articles of faith, norms from church law and custom, maxims of conduct, and countless concrete interrelationships which we have fused into an “idea.” It is a synthesis which we could not succeed in attaining with consistency without the application of ideal-type concepts.
Historians speak of the power of the new teachings of Calvin or the driving forces identified by Marx even though we know any individual may well have entirely idiosyncratic psychological motivations for behaviour. To the historian that does not invalidate the function of the ideal type in historical analysis:
The relationship between the logical structure of the conceptual system in which we present such “ideas” and what is immediately given in empirical reality naturally varies considerably. It is relatively simple in cases in which one or a few easily formulated theoretical main principles as for instance Calvin’s doctrine of predestination or clearly definable ethical postulates govern human conduct and produce historical effects, so that we can analyze the “idea” into a hierarchy of ideas which can be logically derived from those theses. It is of course easily overlooked that however important the significance even of the purely logically persuasive force of ideas — Marxism is an outstanding example of this type of force — nonetheless empirical-historical events occurring in men’s minds must be understood as primarily psychologically and not logically conditioned. The ideal-typical character of such syntheses of historically effective ideas is revealed still more clearly when those fundamental main principles and postulates no longer survive in the minds of those individuals who arc still dominated by ideas which were logically or associatively derived from them because the “idea” which was historically and originally fundamental has either died out or has in general achieved wide diffusion only for its broadest implications. The basic fact that the synthesis is an “idea” which we have created emerges even more markedly when those fundamental main principles have either only very imperfectly or not at all been raised to the level of explicit consciousness or at least have not taken the form of explicitly elaborated complexes of ideas. When we adopt this procedure, as it very often happens and must happen, we are concerned in these ideas, e.g., the “liberalism” of a certain period or “Methodism” or some intellectually unelaborated variety of “socialism,” with a pure ideal type of much the same character as the synthetic “principles” of economic epochs in which we had our point of departure. The more inclusive the relationships to be presented, and the more many-sided their cultural significance has been, the more their comprehensive systematic exposition in a conceptual system approximates the character of an ideal type, and the less is it possible to operate with one such concept. In such situations the frequently repeated attempts to discover ever new aspects of significance by the construction of new ideal-typical concepts is all the more natural and unavoidable. All expositions for example of the “essence” of Christianity are ideal types enjoying only a necessarily very relative and problematic validity when they are intended to be regarded as the historical portrayal of empirically existing facts. On the other hand, such presentations are of great value for research and of high systematic value for expository purposes when they are used as conceptual instruments for comparison with and the measurement of reality. They are indispensable for this purpose.
Avoid value judgments, ideological prejudices….
An “ideal type” in our sense, to repeat once more, has no connection at all with value-judgments, and it has nothing to do with any type of perfection other than a purely logical one. There are ideal types of brothels as well as of religions; there are also ideal types of those kinds of brothels which are technically “expedient” from the point of view of police ethics as well as those of which the exact opposite is the case.
Take the concept of the state:
It is necessary for us to forego here a detailed discussion of the case which is by far the most complicated and most interesting, namely, the problem of the logical structure of the concept of the state. The following however should be noted: when we inquire as to what corresponds to the idea of the “state” in empirical reality, we find an infinity of diffuse and discrete human actions, both active and passive, factually and legally regulated relationships, partly unique and partly recurrent in character, all bound together by an idea, namely, the belief in the actual or normative validity of rules and of the authority-relationships of some human beings towards others. This belief is in par consciously, in part dimly felt, and in part passively accepted by persons who, should they think about the “idea” in a really clearly defined manner, would not first need a “general theory of the state” which aims to articulate the idea. The scientific conception of the state, however it is formulated, is naturally always a synthesis which we construct for certain heuristic purposes. But on the other hand, it is also abstracted from the unclear syntheses which are found in the minds of human beings.
Don’t confuse the analytical tool with the data:
We have purposely considered the ideal type essentially — if not exclusively — as a mental construct for the scrutiny and systematic characterization of individual concrete patterns which are significant in their uniqueness, such as Christianity, capitalism, etc. We did this in order to avoid the common notion that in the sphere of cultural phenomena, the abstract type is identical with the abstract kind (Gattungsmässigen). This is not the case.
Weber, Max. 1949. On the Methodology of Social Sciences. Translated by Edward Shils and Henry A. Finch. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!