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Book: Thinking with J. Z. Smith

Chapter: 6. The Semantics of Comparison in J. Z. Smith

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39927


The topic of comparison, another of J. Z. Smith’s persistent preoccupations, is addressed also by Mark Q. Gardiner and Steve Engler. As they note in their chapter, “comparison as a method in the study of religion has had a bumpy history. At one time it was the method; more recently it has been attacked in various ways” and J. Z. Smith’s perceived position in this history is quite ambiguous: “on the one hand, he is widely regarded to have launched a formidable, if not decisive, assault on comparison. On the other, he is widely regarded as one of its modern-day champions”. This ambiguity, in Gardiner’s and Engler’s opinion, stems from a misunderstanding of Smith’s starting point on which, as they point out, he was never quite explicit. Smith’s work, Gardiner and Engler argue, presupposes a specific view of the nature of meaning: interpretationism. Pairing Smith’s ideas on comparison, redescription, and rectification with interpretive methodology proposed by philosopher Donald Davidson, they submit, not only helps us make sense of the somewhat sketchy account of comparison in Smith’s work but additionally it increases Smith’s ongoing relevance by bringing to light his particular semantic presuppositions.

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