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Can someone help me understand the difference between first-order vs second-order...

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prospecthearts | College Teacher | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted May 15, 2013 at 1:21 PM via web

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Can someone help me understand the difference between first-order vs second-order concepts?

I am reading James Beckford's Social Theory and Religion, and my question arises from page 21.

Also, I am confused about the distinction between "social theory" about religion and "the social scientific study of religion."

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted May 15, 2013 at 3:47 PM (Answer #1)

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The terms first-order and second-order belong to the discipline of formal/symbolic logic. These derive from mathematical logic systems that are distinct from both empirical reasoning from evidence and logical correct reasoning about life. This is an example of the conclusion of first-order formal/symbolic reasoning found in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A ⊨ φ [a] ⇒ B ⊨ φ [b]

Yet, these terms may be used in looser contexts in which they don't denote the application of formal symbolic language to a discussion. In these instances, first-order refers to individuals while second-order refers to sets of individuals ("individuals" need not mean "humans" in logic). Page 21 of Beckford's Social Theory and Religion states:

A further reason for being sceptical about the view that religion somehow exists independently of human constructions of its meaning is that the concept of religion is a second-order concept. It is an observer's construction that is supposedly based on the first-order beliefs, practices and experiences of human actors. (p 21)

In this instance, "first-order beliefs etc" means the beliefs etc of individuals practicing religion. This first-order language leaves great lee-way for what those practices might be: it includes individual Muslims praying (whether gathered in a body or isolated at a beach resort) toward Mecca and it includes individual Charismatic Protestants praying in tongues (whether gathered in a body or in isolation at home). This contrasts to "second-order concepts" by implied definitive reference to sets of individuals. Beckford is here asserting that religion is formed by social contract: it is the construct of a set of individuals comprising a collective society or culture.

These differences between individual and sets is important in the social scientific study of religion in which scientific researchers--seeking to quantify religion--try to propose evidential theoretic answers to relevant questions like: Why is there such certainty among religious people about religion? As Beckford puts the question relevant to the social scientific study of religion:

Social scientists ... search for clear and robust reasons for the strong religious convictions [of certainty] that they observe in some cases. Neither religious [uncertainty] nor religious certainty can be regarded as natural or given... (Beckford p 21)

Social theory long ago proposed the first social theories of religion: religion is a collective phenomenon that seeks to explain the unexplainable. Yet now the questions in social science about religion are being raised with a demand for quantitative analysis, and formal logic is one of the tools applied to these questions about religion.

I am advocating an approach that remains attentive to the uses that individual and collective actors make of the term [religion]. (p 21)


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