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Apples and Oranges

Explorations In, On, and With Comparison

Apples and Oranges

Explorations In, On, and With Comparison

Comparison is an indispensable intellectual operation that plays a crucial role in the formation of knowledge. Yet comparison often leads us to forego attention to nuance, detail, and context, perhaps leaving us bereft of an ethical obligation to take things correspondingly as they are. Examining the practice of comparison across the study of history, language, religion, and culture, distinguished scholar of religion Bruce Lincoln argues in Apples and Oranges for a comparatism of a more modest sort.

Lincoln presents critiques of recent attempts at grand comparison, and enlists numerous theoretical examples of how a more modest, cautious, and discriminating form of comparison might work and what it can accomplish. He does this through studies of shamans, werewolves, human sacrifices, apocalyptic prophecies, sacred kings, and surveys of materials as diverse and wide-ranging as Beowulf, Herodotus’s account of the Scythians, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the Spanish Civil War.

Ultimately, Lincoln argues that concentrating one's focus on a relatively small number of items that the researcher can compare closely, offering equal attention to relations of similarity and difference, not only grants dignity to all parties considered, it yields more reliable and more interesting—if less grandiose—results. Giving equal attention to the social, historical, and political contexts and subtexts of religious and literary texts also allows scholars not just to assess their content, but also to understand the forces, problems, and circumstances that motivated and shaped them.  

368 pages | 19 halftones, 12 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018


History: Ancient and Classical History

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Religion: Comparative Studies and History of Religion


"Gathered here is the fruit of Bruce Lincoln’s decades-long engagement in cross-cultural comparison in what he describes as its preferred “weak” mode. But more than demonstrations of this style of comparison, Lincoln’s efforts are also theoretically suggestive, showing how in many different ways, for him, comparison is an 'indispensable instrument of human thought.' As a polemic, as well, Lincoln’s efforts fly irreverently in the face of much of unthinking, trendoid dismissals of this essential human cognitive act. A much welcomed tonic for the malaise of parochialism afflicting the study of religion today."

Ivan Strenski, University of California, Riverside

"Lincoln’s brilliant and learned book reflects a rare and convincing effort to renew the classical comparative approach to religious phenomena, by establishing it on a new basis. Side by side with representing a truly novel and sophisticated contribution to the study of ancient religions, it offers us a beautiful stroll through some of the most curious landscapes of modern scholarship."

Guy G. Stroumsa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Oxford

"Bruce Lincoln’s argument for weak comparisons, developed with amazing erudition and great methodological subtlety, will be a scholarly point of reference in the years to come. The section on the ancient Scythians is a jewel. An indispensable book."

Carlo Ginzburg, University of California, Los Angeles

"A persuasive argument for fine-grained historical and cross-cultural comparisons. At the same time, by an erudite scholarly critique of ruling ideologies, Bruce Lincoln gives new meaning to speaking truth to power."

Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago

"Combining bracing critique and scrupulously pursued case studies, Apples and Oranges ranges from the history of studies of 'religion,' to the Spanish Civil War, to Beowulf, to Herodotus’ Scythians, and the Lakota Ghost Dance, and urges what Lincoln calls 'weak' comparison, fortified in his case by dazzling erudition and an unfailing ethical commitment. Lincoln includes a critique of 'recursive apocalypticism,' as in the exhortation to make America great 'again.' Inspiring and persuasive, this is the work of a great scholar at the height of his powers."

Page duBois, University of California, San Diego

"Scholars in the field of religious studies, which is Bruce Lincoln’s discipline, vary on the propriety of comparativism. On the one hand, some scholars argue for universal similarities. . . . On the other hand, specialists in particular religions are often like specialists in the French Revolution: they root their studied religion in its own locale and hesitate to engage in comparativism, even to find differences. Lincoln falls in the middle of these camps. He advocates, not opposes, comparisons, but only as long as they are limited."

Reading Religion

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables

I. General Observations
1. Introduction 3
2. The Future of History of Religions
3. Theses on Comparison

II. Recent Attempts at Grand Comparison
4. The Werewolf, the Shaman, and the Historian
5. The Lingering Prehistory of Laurasia and Gondwana

III. A Comparatist’s Laboratory: The Ancient Scythians
6. Reflections on the Herodotean Mirror: Scythians, Greeks, Oaths, and Fire
7. Greeks and Scythians in Conversation
8. Scythian Priests and Siberian Shamans

IV. Weak Comparisons
9. Further on Envy and Greed
10. King Aun and the Witches
11. Contrasting Styles of Apocalyptic Time
12. Sly Grooms, Shady Magpies, and the Mythic Foundations of Hierarchy
13. In Hierarchy’s Wake

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