Skip to main content


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

General Programming

dateOctober 21, 2010 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

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.

  • Adam Smith Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations University of Pennsylvania