The Discursive Construction of Knowledge

Whether religion and science conflict, whether they are paired, even whether or not religion and science is a topic to speak of at all are all historically and socially situated ‘facts.’ But facts can’t be contradictory, right? Wrong. As I’ve shown over these past blog posts, there is substantial historical evidence for all of these ‘facts.’ And they can easily be contradictory and still count as ‘facts’ because, according to discourse theory and the sociology of knowledge,[1] knowledge is a communicative and social product.

This all sounds a bit ‘out there’ perhaps. But think about it.

[credit: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia excerpt from YouTube]

What is taken for ‘fact’ in one time and place is often turned on its head, quantum mechanics being one of the more recent major transformations in scientific thought, involving significant changes to ‘classical physics.’[2] Setting aside the validity or invalidity of these ‘facts,’ lets focus on how ‘facts’ become ‘knowledge’ and the process by which ‘knowledge’ is taken for ‘reality.’[3] In the words of Kocku von Stuckrad, “there is ‘no thing’ in the world that determines what is being said but that the meaning of things are generated by the chain of signifiers that the speaker is introducing.”[4] Today, we will break this down and discuss discourse-historical analysis and relevant concepts. [5]

Von Stuckrad, and myself, use the term ‘discourse’ in the tradition of Michel Foucault and others who apply the term beyond a linguistic context to that of cultural studies.[6] Discourse is defined as follows:

[P]ractices that organize knowledge in a given community; they establish, stabilize, and legitimize systems of meaning and provide collectively shared orders of knowledge in an institutionalized social ensemble. Statements, utterances, and opinions about a specific topic, systematically organized and repeatedly observable, form a discourse.[7]

This perspective includes the ideas that reality and knowledge are socially and historically constructed.[8] In other words, there are certain structures that produce and support knowledge in a given historical and social context.[9] In a Foucauldian sense, ‘knowledge’ is all kinds of meanings attributed by people to interpret and shape reality, derived from the respective discursive context.[10] Put differently, discourse supplies the concepts and the knowledge used to carve up reality into the ‘shape’ we understand it as. The historical dimension comes in with the fact that discourses have historical roots and can be understood as “the flow of knowledge […] throughout all time.”[11]

[credit: Wikimedia Commons; "Broekbr" by Koosg—Own work]

[credit: Wikimedia Commons; “Broekbr” by Koosg—Own work]

To give a crude example, imagine farmland that goes barren and becomes a soccer field: the object in question changes depending on how we talk about it (fertile, barren, or recreational) and what practices are associated with it (farming, lying fallow, sports). There is no thing ‘out there’ in reality that determines what this ‘land’ is (even ‘land’ can be changed depending on the context, say into a grassy parking lot, showing not even material changes are needed). Discourse then is an instrument in the social and historical construction of reality.[12]

Discourse analysis is as an examination of the formal conditions that give rise to meaning structures, present in written and spoken language, but also manifest in signs and symbolic actions as well[13] and other extra-linguistic processes, such as research programs, professional institutions, media, the Internet, television, or educational systems.[14]

How is discourse analysis done? This can be done “by revealing their [i.e., discourses] contradictions and non-expression and/or the spectrum of what can be said and what can be done covered [sic] by them, and by making evident the means by which the acceptance of merely temporarily valid truths is to be achieved.”[15] For example, if discourse tells us that religion and science have mutually exclusive meanings (see post  “‘Science’ as ‘Not Religion’), then there can be no talk of integration: this is non-expressible. It would be like saying ‘let’s integrate life and death, up and down, backwards and forwards.’ However, some suggest that religion and science can be integrated based on their common intellectual foundations, as theology has played an instrumental role in the development of many scientific ideas.[16] Then, the discourse changes: religion and science are not understood as perfect opposites any longer, even though nothing has ‘really’ changed, one might say. Discourse forms the object of which we speak and determines the temporarily valid truth of whether or not religion and science can be related.


[credit: Wikimedia Commons]

To analyze discourse, one must focus on particular ‘discourse strands,’ an ongoing formation of a certain theme. These themes are typically ‘entangled’ with other strands, since many themes can be found in an interrelated manner within one text, for example. A discussion of Spiritual Ecology (2012) for instance, entangles themes on spirituality—which are in turn entangled with notions of religion—and ecology—which are entangled with biology, the general sciences, and broad understandings of nature.[17] This book was the winning entry in the category of ‘Science’ at the 2014 Green Book Festival[18]—another manifestation of the discourse, as the prize not only provides social legitimacy of religion-science integration, but also demonstrates that what counts as ‘religion/spirituality’ can also count as ‘science,’ in a socially acceptable way.

One can also examine ‘discursive events’—events that “influence the direction and quality of the discourse strand to which they belong.”[19] For example, the Scopes Trial was a major discursive event in the religion-science discourse strand, as it resulted in public debates, polemics, educational reform, new laws, etc., having a major impact on the perception and direction of the religion-science relationship.[20] One way to examine discursive events, and thus using a historical perspective, for instance, would be to examine ‘synchronic cuts’ of a discourse strand to outline changes and continuities through time[21]—that is to highlight illustrative examples of these major historical, discurisve events.

However, discourse analysis is commonly thought of as a research perspective, rather than a methodology,[22] and thus we still need some further direction for our analysis of religion and science. Before turning to my own approach, let’s see what the field of the sociology of knowledge has to offer to this analysis in the next post.

[credit: Wikimedia Commons; "Glühwendel brennt durch" by Stefan Krause, Germany—Own work]

[credit: Wikimedia Commons; “Glühwendel brennt durch” by Stefan Krause, Germany—Own work]

In conclusion, I have in past posts problematized ‘religion’ and ‘science,’ the ‘conflict’ between them, the ‘pairing’ of the two, and now I have argued even our precious ‘facts’ are open to analysis. Where will my critique of knowledge end? Not yet, but it will come. But, as Rene Descartes suggests, to know anything, we must first doubt everything. Thus the lightbulb of eureka moments must burn and break, letting darkness descend, before we can see where the light of knowledge originates.



[1] For an overview, including many references, see Kocku von Stuckrad, “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 25.1 (2013), 5–25. See also von Stuckrad, “Discursive Study of Religion: From States of Mind to Communication and Action,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15.3 (2003), 255–271; and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966).

[2] For the historicity of natural scientific knowledge, see Ludwik Fleck, Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv (Basel: Benno Schwabe, 1935); for the English translation see Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton, eds., Frederick Bradley, trans. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979). For problematizing science as the pursuit of truth in representation, see Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). See von Stuckrad, “Discursive Study of Religion” (2003), 257–258 for a discussion of the problems of the “crisis of representation” and the “situated observer,” and also von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2013), 7 for other references on similar issues. Regarding the quantum transformation of science, see Kent A. Peacock, The Quantum Revolution: A Historical Perspective (Westport: Greenwood, 2007).

[3] The importance of this is discussed in Berger and Luckman, in passim, but see 1–18 for a brief introduction to various thinkers in the field of the sociology of knowledge. See also Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Chicago: Free Press of Glencoe, 1957) and Werner Stark, The Sociology of Knowledge (Chicago: Free Press of Glencoe, 1958).

[4] von Stuckrad, “Discursive Study of Religion” (2013), 6.

[5] Following von Stuckrad, I agree a discursive approach to the study of religion (and here, along with science) should include both contributions from the sociology of knowledge and the historical analysis of discourse, see von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2013), 3. Today, however, we will largely limit the discussion to von Stuckrad’s approach and the sociology of knowledge will be discussed in further detail next time. For a discussion of the sociology of knowledge, see Berger and Luckmann. For a discussion of discourse-historical analysis in the context of the wider field of critical discourse analysis, see Ruth Wodak, “What Is CDA About?,” in Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, eds., Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (London: Sage, 2001), 1–13, here in passim.

[6] This is in contrast to Hans G. Kippenberg who discusses the discursive study of religion in reference to speech-act theories, see von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2003), 266.

[7] von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2013), 10. An alternative definition of discourse is: “an institutionally consolidated concept of speech inasmuch as it determines and consolidates action and thus already exercises power.” Quoted in translation in Siegfried Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge: Theoretical and Methodological Aspects of a Critical Discourse and Dispositive Analysis,” in Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, eds., Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (London: Sage, 2001), 32–62, here 34. Original quote from J. Link, “Was ist und was bringt Diskurstaktik,” kultuRRevolution 2 (1983), 60–66, here 60. See also Ruth Wodak, “The Discourse-historical Approach,” in Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, eds., Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (London: Sage, 2001), 63–94, here 66: “‘Discourse’ can thus be understood as a complex bundle of simultaneous and sequential interrelated linguistic acts, which manifest themselves within and across the social fields of action as thematically interrelated semiotic, oral or written tokens, very often as ‘texts’, that belong to specific semiotic types, that is genres.”

[8] See Berger and Luckmann.

[9] See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, Colin Gordon, ed. (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), discussed in relation to discourse theory in von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2013).

[10] Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 33.

[11] Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 34, quoting himself, from Jäger, Kritische Diskursanalyse. Eine EinfuÈhrung (Duisberg: DISS, 1993). See also Wodak, “What Is CDA,” 9.

[12] Wodak, “What Is CDA,” 9, said according to the perspective of T. van Leeuwen. See Leeuwen, “Genre and Field in Critical Discourse Analysis,” Discourse and Society 4.2 (1993): 193–223.

[13] See von Stuckrad “Discursive Study of Religion” (2003), 263–265.

[14] While ‘discursive practices’ can be thought of as “speaking and thinking on the basis of knowledge,” ‘non-discursive practices’ are acting on the basis of knowledge, while ‘materializations’ of knowledge are the product of acting/doing. See Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 33.

[15] Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 34. More specifically: “Discourse analysis encompasses the respective spectrum of what can be said in its qualitative range and its accumulation and/or all utterances which in a certain society at a certain time are said or can be said. It also covers the strategies with which the spectrum of what can be said is extended on the one hand, but also restricted on the other, for instance, by denial strategies, relativizing strategies, strategies to remove taboos, and so on. Demonstration of the restrictions or lack of restrictions of the spectrum of what can be said is subsequently a further critical aspect of discourse analysis.” See Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 35.

[16] For example, Edwin A. Burtt in Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (1924) argued that science often rests on theological foundations, and Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World (1926) suggests that the origins of modern science lie in the medieval theological idea of God’s rationality and rational creation.

[17] Leslie E. Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology: A Quite Revolution (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012).

[18]Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution by Anthropology Department’s Emeritus Professor Leslie E. Sponsel Wins the Science Category at the 2014 Green Book Festival,” College of Social Sciences, UH Mānoa, (accessed 18 August 2014).

[19] Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 48.

[20] The Scopes Monkey Trial (The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes) is a famous American legal case regarding the teaching of evolution in schools. See, for instance, Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[21] Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” 52.

[22] Although various theoretical approaches and methodologies have been proposed. See, for instance, Jäger, “Discourse and Knowledge,” containing rather specific process for methodology and analysis and see Wodak, “Discourse-historical Approach,” for an alternative approach based on four levels of context analysis.



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