Hermeneutics in History: Mircea Eliade, Joachim Wach, and the Science of Religions
November 3-4, 2006
The University of Chicago
1025 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
Mircea Eliade and Joachim Wach, two giants in the academic discipline of the history of religions, are the founders of the "Chicago school" that basically defined the field for the second half of the twentieth century. Although Eliade is far more famous than Wach, it was Wach who provided the more historically grounded, social science aspect of the school, as well as the connection with German approaches to Religionswissenschaft (a particular approach to the history of religions), which have influenced important teachers in the Chicago tradition, notably Joseph Kitagawa and Frank Reynolds, and are an essential part of that tradition. After his death in 1986, Eliade became the object of attack on the grounds of evidence of his political activity in Romania in the 1930's, which had been discussed for some years in Europe but largely ignored in the United States. Now these arguments began to be increasingly cited as part of a more general movement that questioned the political past of other important intellectuals, particularly the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the deconstructionist Paul de Man. The historic pasts of these figures were often assumed to be known, when it was still open to debate, and thus frequently used to discredit the scholarly work, though the actual link was too rarely worked out in any detail. In the case of Eliade, the unilateral focus on the political life was often trumpeted at the expense of a consideration of the work itself, short-circuiting a long overdue debate on the ways in which his scholarly work was compromised by contexts other than the political, such as his dependence on now outmoded paradigms of anthropology and theology. This conference will attempt to do justice to the lives and work of Eliade and Wach within their historical context and within a wider spectrum of concerns. It will seek the integration of historical material with the scholarly record, asking how recent history impacts thought, and how a personal heritage constrains scholarship. And it will ask what we can salvage from the work of two scholars who have made much of our own work possible.