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Carl Olson

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Eliade, the Comparative Method, Historical Context, and Difference

Carl Olson

By taking seriously Jonathan Z. Smith's criticism of Mircea Eliade's use of the comparative method, this essay attempts to determine if Eliade's use of comparison was an improvement over its previous use by scholars of religion, to inquire if comparison is a useful tool for the historian of religions, and to propaedeutically suggest the importance of difference by utilizing the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze when using a comparative approach to the study of religion. In order to accomplish the first task of determining how Eliade's use of comparison was different or an improvement, it will be necessary to review the use made of the method of comparison by previous scholars of religion. Although it is not possible to include all uses of the method of comparison in a single essay, a selected group of scholars are examined to determine how they used comparison in their theories of religion. This historical survey is arranged around the following topics and figures: Quest for the origins of religion (Spencer, Tylor, Lévi-Bruhl, Frazer, and Lang); the possibility of a science of religion (Müller, Tiele, Chantepie de la Saussaye); comparison and the sociological perspective (Durkheim, Weber, and Wach). After examining Eliade's use of comparison and its role in his method and how his use of it differs from that of his predecessors, this essay will attempt to suggest the future usefulness of comparison for the history of religions and also to make some suggestions for the role and importance of difference.

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Carl Olson is Full Professor and former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion (New York: Crossroads Publishing Company, 1983); The Mysterious Play of Kali: An Interpretive Study of Ramakrishna (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990); The Theology and Philosophy of Eliade: A Search for the Centre (London: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992); and The Indian Renouncer and Postmodern Poison: A Cross­Cultural Encounter (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997).

His articles on Eliade are: "The Fore­Structure of Eliade's Hermeneutics," (Philosophy Today (Spring 1988): 43­53); "The Concept of Power in the Works of Eliade and van der Leeuw," (Studia Theologica, Vol. 42 (1988): 39­53); "Theology of Nostalgia: Reflections on the Theological Aspects of Eliade's Work," (Numen, Vol. XXXVI, Fasc. (1989): 98­112).

He has also published over 100 journal articles, essays in anthologies, and book reviews, and has been the holder of the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair at Allegheny College (1991­94).