In the mid-eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist, figured out what mammals are: hairy, warm-blooded, live-born, mammary-feeders (hence, the term mammals). At this point, Europeans breathed a collective sigh of relief that they could be certain to know a mammal when they saw one.
Linnaeus’s taxonomy was the perfect Enlightenment project. Having pulled down the idol church of the medieval ages and following on the Renaissance’s careful measurement of humanity’s fitness for the niche, the Enlightenment charged towards the audacious defining and cataloging of everything that would demonstrate that everything is, after all, definable and catalog-able.
And then came the platypus. Hairy. Check. Warm-blooded. Pretty much. Lays eggs. Wait, what?
The initial response among the naturalist fundamentalists of Europe was that the platypus wasn’t even a real thing. They tore apart the preserved carcasses that their marveling colleagues sent back from Australia, looking for the stitches whereby a duck’s bill had been attached to a mole’s head. Obviously, they reasoned, if it defies the concepts we have invented, it doesn’t exist.
Eventually, there was no way around it. The term mammal had to be an ‘open concept’.
In a 1950’s essay, Morris Weitz took to task the critical inclination to define art. It seemed to Weitz that everyone was unnecessarily certain that any critical theory of art had to begin with a comprehensive and concise statement of what art is. That is, every idea about art—whether some piece of art is good, bad, or ugly, for instance—had to begin with a solid definition of art. Which, obviously, meant that some things are not art, and, therefore, beneath our theoretical consideration.
But maybe not, wrote Weitz. A definition doesn’t much help us understand a phenomenon that, as often as not, is actively trying to defy understanding. Rather than beginning with a definition, which will unjustly exclude all sorts of things that we have not yet encountered, we might accept that art is not a thing with a definition, but is an ‘open concept’, the phenomena of which share some characteristics. But the ‘open concept’ adapts itself at every moment to account for the new instances and new characteristics that are always coming into being, and always different from what has gone before. Whatever the definition of art is, it does not determine what is art; rather, if there must be a definition, it’s always, ever, being changed by the very art it reaches toward.
When mammal is an open concept, the platypus doesn’t make zoologists run around the room with their hands in the air, shrieking, “There Will Be No Hairy Egg-Laying!” The definition just adapts, and now we have egg-laying mammals. And the open concept of art can accommodate Karen Finley, when she comes along.
What about religion? And what about particular religions?
Religion is… goes the definition that gives us the assurance that everything exists and is ordered by our preferences. Then we encounter a Buddhism, or a Grateful Dead, or a Vitamix blender—a platypus that exists for itself without any concern for the religion box we have built to determine what is and what is not. And then either our religion box becomes an open concept and gets a little bit bigger, or the box hardens and we slip just a little further into fundamentalism.
The increasingly popular refrain “I’m spiritual, but not religious” complains, at least, that religion has been defined, unjustifiably, to exclude things that seem genuinely religious in some distinct, obvious ways. If religion is to survive, we will have to acknowledge that religion does not yet know what it is, and will never know what it is, but can only unbox itself in anticipation of religious possibility.
And we might consider the open-concept-ness of particular religions.
What is Hinduism? Well, hm.
There are polytheistic Hinduisms. There are monotheistic Hinduisms. There are atheistic Hinduisms. There are Hinduisms in which god is personal and has qualities. There are Hinduisms in which god is impersonal and has no qualities. There are Hinduisms that are strictly non-violent and strictly vegetarian. There are Hinduisms that do animal sacrifices. There are cremating Hinduisms. There are burying Hinduisms. There are gnostic Hinduisms. There are devotional Hinduisms. There are nationalist Hinduisms. There are apolitical Hinduisms. There are Hinduisms that this list can’t note and can’t anticipate.
Maybe Hinduism has to be an open concept.
What is Islam? Well, hm. Maybe it’s an open concept.
What is Christianity? Well, hm. Maybe it’s an open concept.
What is Mormonism? Well, hm.