Divinity as a Category and Prototype Theory

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 furniturechair 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?


4 responses to “Divinity as a Category and Prototype Theory

  • Alan Hooker

    If the other gods are divine insofar as they replicate in some degree Yahweh’s divine nature, what qualities do other beings need to possess before they are ‘divine’. Or how close to the to the Yahwistic prototype do they need to be before they reach that status?

    Do you think Heiser’s locative understanding is enough, i.e. Yahweh lives in ‘heaven’, therefore anything which lives there too is also divine, or do you think the ‘scale’ is more graded than that?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      That depends on a lot of factors. If we unify the perspectives of the Hebrew Bible, we get quite a few different kinds of beings referred to as “gods.” Heiser’s approach is to find a single attribute that unites all those beings. If we understand relationships to the prototypical deity to refer to a variety of properties possessed by that deity, then we have to be sensitive to the properties in view in each case. In Psalm 82, for instance, the gods are identified as such apparently because of their immortality. Adam and Eve, however, are said to be as the gods because they gain a knowledge of good and evil. They are explicitly not immortal, though. When Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to determine who was “the god in Israel,” the criterion was power over natural phenomena, and specifically fire. Each of these attributes might render a being divine. The Israelites appear not to have wanted deity to be defined by any attribute that Yhwh lacked. As Yhwh absorbed more and more divine imagery from other deities (father, creator, storm deity, eternal one, etc.) he effectively subordinated the deity of all the other gods to his own.

  • Jimmy

    I don’t know that prototype theory is the best analoge for Israels understanding of Yhwh relation to other gods/powers. Prototype theory (as I understand it) is about the way human minds place similar things on a continuum within categories. So a robin is a good example of a bird (it has alot of features that a human would catergorize as “bird”) so it would be considered as a prototype or more prototypical while a penguine is less prototypical because it does not have as many features of “bird” as the prototype (which may not actually exist).
    The way I understand Yhwh compared to the other gods/powers is more of a heirarchy than a continuum. If Yhwh was the prototype then he would be in the same category “god” as the other deities like Baal, and would show more features or characterstics of “god” than the other gods/powers like Baal who would be less prototypical of “god”.

    Those are my thoughts

    Also “an Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics” William Croft and Alan Cruze is a good place for introductory information on prototype theory and frame semantics.

  • Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

    [...] and the idea that Christians shouldn’t explain Christianity. Daniel McClellan contemplates conceptualizations of theological boundaries and the prototype [...]

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