As part of my research for my thesis I’m reading a fascinating article by Gebhard J. Selz entitled “The Divine Prototypes,” from the freely available Chicago University Press publication, Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond. The thesis of the article is basically that the standard dichotomous Aristotelian categories of divine and human are insufficient to account for the data we find in the texts from ancient Mesopotamia vis-à-vis divine kingship. Selz proposes that a theory of cognitive science called Prototype theory may better digest the data. Selz offers no good definition of that theory, so I had to go find one on the Great Whore:
Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory also plays a central role in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.
As formulated in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch and others, prototype theory was a radical departure from traditional necessary and sufficient conditions as in Aristotelian logic, which led to set-theoretic approaches of extensional or intensional semantics. Thus instead of a definition based model – e.g. a bird may be defined as elements with the features [+feathers], [+beak] and [+ability to fly], prototype theory would consider a category like bird as consisting of different elements which have unequal status – e.g. a robin is more prototypical of a bird than, say a penguin. This leads to a graded notion of categories, which is a central notion in many models of cognitive science and cognitive semantics.
This theory is intriguing to me because it makes better sense of the existence of quite fuzzy boundaries in most definitions of ancient religious categories. It also, in my mind, seems to accord better with the way modern religionists conceptualize of theological boundaries, especially in terms of monotheism (the subject of my thesis). For instance, most Christians and Jews these days acknowledge the existence of multiple divine beings in the worldviews of ancient (and modern) Judaism and Christianity. Their view of those worldviews as thoroughly monotheistic is defended by many on the grounds that no other divine beings are divine in the same way, or to the same degree, that God is divine. In such a conceptualization of divinity, Yhwh functions as a divine prototype, and other divine beings are divine (or “gods”) only insofar as they approximate God’s prototypical divine nature. There are other ways to define monotheism today, of course, but this is not an uncommon one. Thoughts?