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Ethos and Worldview Reconsidered: Geertz, Normativity, and the Comparative Study of Religions


  • Jung Lee

    1.  Department of Philosophy & Religion Northeastern University Boston
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    •  Correspondence address: Jung Lee, Department of Philosophy & Religion Northeastern, University Boston, Boston, MA 02115, USA. E-mail:


This paper examines Clifford Geertz’s theory of religion in terms of its fruitfulness as a resource for the comparative study of religions. Given the recent spate of critiques that have excoriated Geertz’s theory as theologically driven, epistemologically incoherent, and naïve in regard to the relations of power, its value for comparative work would seem limited at best. I argue that even with its limitations Geertz’s theory of religion, especially his reflections on “ethos” and “worldview,” can help guide contemporary discussions in the comparative study of religions, particularly comparative religious ethics. Although many of the recent critiques, particularly by Asad and Penner and Frankenberry, have taken Geertz to task for his putative metaphysical inclinations and dubious epistemological views, I want to suggest that we can read Geertz more productively by seeing ethos and worldview as part of a unified normative order rather than viewing them as two separate dimensions. To this end, the paper will develop Geertz’s notions of ethos and worldview in the context of an economy of normativity.