Mark Sedgwick on Sylvain Lévi’s Criticism of Guénon’s Thesis

In his book Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (2004), Mark Sedgwick lists Sylvain Lévi’s three main reasons for rejecting the Sorbonne “thesis form” of René Guénon’s Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues. Sedgwick cites Lévi’s report to Dean Ferdinand Brunot as quoted in Marie-France James, Ésoterisme et Christianisme: Autour de René Guénon (1981). The first reason (I will comment on the other reasons later) is that the thesis “ma[de] light of history and historical criticism”.

Sedgwick remarks that this was “a criticism of Guénon’s methodology that was in many ways justified”, and that Guénon “made no pretense of following the standard scholarly methods of Indology: for reasons examined later, his approach was theological rather than anthropological or sociological. For Guénon, Hinduism was a repository of spiritual truth, not the body of beliefs and practices modified over time that late nineteenth-century Western scholarship recognized.” [Sedgwick, 22-3; James, 194.]

Having only read the book published in 1921, I don’t know if there is any difference between it and the “thesis form”, and, if there is, what it is. Sedgwick does not – as far as I can see right now – say anything about this. It is hard to think there could be no difference. The book does not have the form of a doctoral thesis at all. But if there is no difference, or if there is no difference with regard to what Lévi criticized and Sedgwick discusses, Sedgwick’s formulations, while certainly true, are at the same time a little strange in view of the nature of the thesis.

For reasons discussed in the thesis/book, Guénon would have objected to the description of his approach as “theological”. He would not even have accepted that his approach is a “methodology” at all: not only did he not make any “pretense of following the standard scholarly methods of Indology” – he did not follow any standard modern scholarly methods. And something needs to be said about the relation between “history and historical criticism” on the one hand and an anthropological or sociological approach. But these are not the main reasons why I find Sedgwick’s formulations somewhat curious.

The reader unfamiliar with Guénon’s work would, I think, be inclined to take Sedgwick to mean that Lévi’s criticism, the criticism from the position of historical criticism, is justified “in many ways” but not in every way since Guénon does not only “make light of” historical criticism but also to some extent, alongside the theological approach, himself correctly applies or practices historical criticism.

The problem for such a reader is that this interpretation is impossible in light of Sedgwick’s other formulation that Guénon “made no pretense of following the standard scholarly methods of Indology”. If, or since, this is so, i.e. since there is in Guénon’s book no historical criticism but only a “theological” approach, Sedgwick must mean something else.

The reader might then think that what Sedgwick means to say is that criticism from the point of view of historical criticism is not in every way justified, that it is in some ways acceptable to make light of historical criticism, that a “theological” approach is also in some ways valid, and that Lévi is wrong not to allow this. Lévi’s criticism is thus justified “in many ways” but not in every way.

Unfortunately, Sedgwick does not make clear that this is what he means, and, left to itself, there is nothing in the formulation except the barest semantic possibility to indicate that this could indeed be what he means. It is not a natural interpretation.

If, quite regardless of the legitimacy of other approaches, it is not acceptable to make light of historical criticism, Lévi’s criticism is justified in every possible way. Probably there were also other formulations in Lévi’s report, which Sedgwick and perhaps James do not cite. But taken alone, even Lévi’s formulation that Guénon’s thesis just “makes light of” historical criticism is a little surprising.

For the thesis, if the same as the book or the same as the book in the respects here discussed, cannot be said to be one that simply applies a “theological” “methodology” and that also, alongside it, “makes light of” historical criticism. The thesis is a Guénonian traditionalist exposition of Hinduism related to a continuous, extensive polemic against the non-traditionalist approach of modern scholarly methodologies, primarily historical criticism. There is almost as much criticism of historical criticism as traditionalist exposition. The criticism, the “making light” of historical criticism, is a basic theme. Throughout the book, Guénon seeks to show that, how, and why the historical critics have failed to understand the “spiritual truth” of which Hinduism is “a repository”. Indeed, several separate chapters are devoted to this subject alone.

Thus, it is not just the case that Lévi’s criticism is justified in every possible way if making light of historical criticism is inadmissible. It is also the case that the statement that the thesis makes light of historical criticism is justified in every possible way as a description of the thesis. There is no way in which it is not justified to say this about the thesis. The statement that it is “in many ways” justified to say by way of description that it “makes light of” historical criticism while adopting instead a “theological” approach would be much too weak, absurdly weak. Lévy must have rejected the thesis as the totally uncompromising, elaborate attack on historical criticism that in reality it is.

Of course, one cannot doubt that Sedgwick must be thoroughly familiar with the thesis, the foundational work in the whole intellectual current which his book is about. It is a little difficult to understand how he could describe it in the way I have discussed. But this is a minor criticism. After all, his book is not a philosophical or theological study of traditionalism, nor does the lack of philosophical and theological and other analysis qualify it as a proper work in intellectual history. Rather, it is an ambitious piece of a kind of journalism (as is signalled already in the subtitle’s sensationalist use of the word “secret” – at the most, the intellectual history he writes about could be said to be comparatively “unknown”); but in that genre, it sometimes does a good job.

The real, substantial questions that must be asked here are related to what, if Sedgwick had meant it, he would have made much clearer. To what extent – in how many ways and in which ways – is the justified descriptive statement about Guénon’s thesis also justified as criticism, and to what extent it is not? And these are important questions indeed, which I will return to shortly.

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