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Naturalizing Rudolf Otto?

Panel Chair: Gregory Alles | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Almost 100 years ago, Rudolf Otto’s path-breaking book, Das Heilige, gave a major impetus to the academic study of religions. The terminology that his book introduced – the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – still retains some currency, and some writers who are not professional scholars of religions or particularly religious, such as Ronald Dworkin and Barbara Ehrenreich, still make some use of Otto’s ideas. Among professional scholars of religions, however, Otto’s thought has largely fallen into disfavor. One important reason has certainly been a turn away from the phenomenological toward the cultural, behavioral, linguistic, corporeal, and material. Another would seem to be the supernaturalistic stance that Otto presumes. After all, American scholars seem quite willing to invoke William James. This panel will explore, from various perspectives, the possibility of naturalizing Otto’s thought. It will assess both the possible usefulness of Otto’s ideas for a naturalistic study of religions today and the conditions under which these ideas may be naturalized.

Howard Wettstein

Otto on Doctrinal and Experiential Religion

The Significance of Religious Experience (Oxford University Press, 2011) I advanced a naturalistic approach to traditional western religion. The specifics provided pertained largely to my own Jewish religious tradition. But the broadly philosophic approach might be brought to bear on the other Abrahamic traditions. As I see it, the pillars of a religious take on the world are not doctrinal; they are rather affective/cognitive phenomena like awe and love. My approach is thus at once naturalistic and phenomenological. I take from Otto a great deal of insight about awe, and about the relation between doctrinal religion and religion-as-experienced. This contrast, and the question of the places of awe and love in doctrinal religion, will be my focus in this paper. A related matter is the co-existence of doctrinal and experiential aspects. Otto writes as if he wants not to negate the doctrinal approach. Yet it isn’t clear how the two coexist.

Yoshitsugu Sawai

A Semantic Perspective on Otto’s Theory of Religion

This presentation will reconsider Rudolf Otto’s theory of religion from the perspective of semantic theory, especially as developed by the Japanese scholar IZUTSU Toshihiko. As a category of understanding religion, Otto’s key-concept of “the numinous” has received special attention from scholars of religious studies. As is well-known, he emphasized the numinous experience as the core of religion. On his view, since the faithful have religious experience, this demonstrates the existence of the extraordinary dimension of religion. From Isutzu's semantic theory, however, the holiness of “the numinous” is not an a priori attribute of religious experience, but a historical response to it in the life of the faithful. Thus, from his semantic perspective of religion, there is no meaning of sacredness in a religious object or action by itself apart from the religious community which regards it as sacred. This perspective, then, requires us to reconceptualize Otto’s analysis of religion

Gregory Alles

Reconceiving Otto through Contemporary Philosophy of Mind

The major claim of this paper is that contemporary philosophy of mind in the analytic tradition contains resources for naturalizing Rudolf Otto’s thought. An important strand in this tradition, associated with thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Fred Dretske, and Michael Tye, claims that there is nothing particular to say about conscious experience aside from the physical processes involved in human perception and thought. Others, however, such as Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Frank Jackson, and David Chalmers, have argued that, while conscious experience perhaps supervenes on physical processes, there is nevertheless something about consciousness that is not exhausted by physical explanation. This paper will draw upon David Chalmers’ notion of a science of consciousness, the analysis of non-conceptual mental content by thinkers like Gareth Evans and Jose Luis Bermudez, and Jesse Prinz’s work with the emotional roots of morality to explore a naturalistic reformulation of some of Otto’s key concepts.

Edith Franke


Edith Franke will respond to the issues raised in the previous papers.


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