Mormon Structuralism

January 6, 2004 | 6 comments
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There is an interesting post on “The Strange Career of Mormon Structuralism” over at the Metaphysical Elders about the relationship between structuralism and the thought of Hugh Nibley. I am not sure that I agree with everything in the post, but it does raise some interesting questions

The anonymous elder writes:

    What is odd is to look at the way that Mormon intellectuals pick up on and change structuralist concepts. Nibley loves the cross-cultural aspect of Eliade’s structuralist sacred space. However, unlike Eliade, Nibley doesn’t construe this as being a reflection of some elemental social fact. Rather, he takes it as evidence of apostasy and diffusion. All of the sacred spaces are trying, like Pharoah in the Book of Abraham, to copy the true order of the priesthood, even though they have forgotten the primal Adamic source of the concept. Eliade’s saving account of the apparently anomalous case of Christianity also dubs nicely into Nibley’s apostasy narrative, going so far as to name his favorite villain: Greek philosophy.

    Notice how this changes the basic meaning of Eliade’s concept. Structuralism claims to be able to reduce particular human phenomena to deeper, more fundamental structures. Thus ancient shrines, Bhuddist temples, and the Kabba are all reduced to the fundamental idea of “sacred space.” Nibley neatly side steps this reductionism, by shifting its emphasis. Rather than Mormonism being but another reflection of the fundamental human condition, the human condition becomes but a pale reflection of Mormonism! This is what one might call an intellectually ambitious move. This is the kind of chutzpah that makes Nibley so much fun, and which separates him from your run of the mill Mormon scholar. The problem is that the move is somewhat isolating. Most structuralists will not be persuaded by Nibley’s move and most Mormons are not even aware that he made it. Furthermore, like all baptisms of non-religious theories, it runs the risk of wedding our self-conception to a contestable theory. I mean, what is a Mormon to do with post-structuralism?

The question relates somewhat to the discussion that we have been having about the New Mormon History. Nibley is definitely more theoretically ambitious than the run of the mill New Mormon Historian, however I wonder if this ambition isn’t even more isolating than the theoretical silence of the New Mormon History. Furthermore, once you marry Mormonism to a particular theory, to what extent do you need to worry about the inevitable divorce once the theory falls apart or goes out of fashion. To a certain extent, I suppose that this is the question that Catholics have been struggling with since the Reformation. On the other hand, as Russell points out, what goes out of fashion can come back into fasion.

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6 Responses to Mormon Structuralism

  1. Clark Goble on January 6, 2004 at 7:39 pm

    It’s an interesting post and I made a few comments over there.

    One thing I’d add is how significant Nibley’s approach to Mormon history is on all histories done since Nibley. Take one historian who we generally associate with the “other camp.” Quinn actually does a lot of very similar things to Nibley but with the diffusion being taken a little more “simply” than Nibley does. I’m always uncertain exactly what Quinn thinks on some matters, but he seems to adopt in many ways a fairly structuralist approach utilizing a lot of the same methods as Nibley.

    The problem with structuralism (of all kinds) is the old synchronic vs. diachronic readings of texts. Overly simplified synchronic are structural elements that don’t change with time or are otherwise considered “static” or at least limited to a particular era. Diachronic elements view the more historical change. So with respect to language a synchronic analysis looks at the structure of say English at a given period. Diachronic analysis looks at how English changes with influence from German, French, new technologies, and other sources.

    With respect, I think, to a lot of Mormon history, there is a perceived sense that what diachronic analysis brings forth is elements of apostasy. This is true in Nibley and a lot of FARMS stuff, but also to a degree in Quinn and others working in Signature. The apostasy might be a falling away from the “truth” or original priesthood, as for Nibley. Or it can be an example of not fulfilling or perhaps showing inconsistencies with the stated truths of Mormonism for some at signature. (i.e. do our stories of the first vision line up with a diachronic analysis)

    The underlying hidden “assumption” is that change is bad. There is some fixed, present, stable truth that is ahistoric.

    I’ve long seen this in Nibley and that’s partially why I always find his railing on Greek philosophy so ironic. In many ways I am convinced he is a platonist.

    Quinn, I should hasten to add, has a somewhat more complex relationship. On the one hand he wants to bring out these diachronic elements, on the other he seems often trying to explain them away. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I see him as conflicted. I think he believes a position more in line with Nibley’s but see it as difficult to line up with his analysis. I think he sees it as either those people not living up or our views today not living up to some more organic view. Perhaps others will disagree. I think his Mormon Hierarchy series is most interesting here, although some of his other books are as well. (For instance his infamous article on women and the priesthood truly is a Nibley like approach to 19th and early 20th century history)

  2. brayden on January 6, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    My comment on Quinn is completely ignorant because I’ve never actually read him, but I’ll try to struggle through this anyway. For structuralists isn’t the diachronic explainable in terms of changes in historical context? That is, as the cultural, political, and social context changes, so does some of the content of social reality, although the synchronic syntax remains as a testament to the core structure underlying reality. If this is the case, then is Quinn that far off in arguing that changes in the way the priesthood was administered, etc. are really just a reflection of changing times?

    I have to admit I’m a little skeptical of any kind of structuralist explanation, but it is kind of fun to entertain the theory.

  3. Clark Goble on January 7, 2004 at 12:33 am

    Yes, that’s right Brayden. The point I was asserting was that there is some essential eternal truth behind it all that isn’t “changeable” or “unstable.” Thus Quinn’s paper on priesthood isn’t just that the notion of women and the priesthood has changed and is culturally dependent. Rather he makes the bolder claim that they *always* had it and this information has been lost through politics and poor historicity. (Well, he doesn’t actually say that — more insinuated) The point is that even as he establishes the temporal contingency required by the historical record he undermines it at the same time.

  4. clarkgoble on January 7, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Just to add to my comments, Bayden, even the diachronic readings tend to assume a stable meaning based upon “location.” i.e. that given a context and text there is an uniquely determined meaning. The poststructuralists show that this is somewhat problematic. One great example of this is ability to quote texts which undermines the stability of context.

    Quinn to me is interesting in that I believe his claims to have been an apologist. (I don’t know if that is still true – let’s say up through the end of his Magic World View second edition) To me what is most fascinating in this conflict between the diachronic and synchronic in his histories. I think it illuminating as it changed how I read Nibley quite a bit.

  5. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 9:17 pm

    Just to add to the above (and to hope someone else posts on the thread) the following is a good introduction to structuralism.

    http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/structuralism.htm

  6. Times and Seasons » Adam, Abraham, Atlantis on January 11, 2005 at 11:53 pm

    […] ve us and shape us still are just the fading echoes of it. Nate Oman has written about it here and tied it into structuralism and Mircea Eliade (whom Murray mentions). Clark Goble follo […]