Chantepie de la Saussaye – Phenomenologist of Religion


Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye (1848-1920) was a Dutch theologian, philosopher, and historian of religion. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam from 1878 to 1899, and then theology at Leiden until retiring in 1916. Chantepie was an important figure in the historical development of the study of religion who employed Hegelian terminology such as essence and manifestation in his work.

Origin and Essence of Religion

Chantepie authored the Manual of the Science of Religion (1891), which evidences his interests in the origin of religion and its essence. He did not believe that the questions of origin and essence were the same as some other theorists believed,

“[The] question as to the origin of religion touches closely on that as to the essence of religion, but the two questions are not identical; for primitive and essential are not synonymous, and though our opinion as to the essence of religion may strongly influence our views on its origins, it would be a grave error to maintain that the essence of religion must clearly show itself in the earliest forms under which it appears” (1).

According to Chantepie, because origin and essence are distinctive it means that even if a theorist is able to explain fully religion’s origin it would say nothing of its essence, namely what it is in and of itself. Some theorists believed that uncovering religion’s origin would assist in explaining it away or in some way capture its essence. Further, the distinctiveness and interrelatedness of essence and origin, for Chantepie, legitimized a phenomenology of religion. He did not agree that the important characteristics of religion were reducible to religion’s origins and essence, although he had no intention of undermining the significance of these features. It is misguided nonetheless to look to religion’s origin as an explanation of religion’s meaning, and neither would fully discovering religion’s essence capture religion in its entirety. Essence and origin were no doubt important for explaining important features of religion, but they never explain it fully.

Religion as an Object of Philosophical Knowledge

Manual of the Science of Religion included Chantepie’s lectures and his efforts to counter the arguments of those who criticized the possibility of a scientific study of religion. He argued that religion should become an object of philosophical knowledge. Modern philosophy had recognized “the unity of religion in the variety of its forms” and Chantepie considered religion as a single phenomenon subject to “philosophical knowledge.” He credited Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher for providing the foundations of this knowledge although he saw George Hegel as the “true founder” given it was he who “first carried out the vast idea of realizing, as a whole, the various modes for studying religion (metaphysical, psychological, and historical), and made us see the harmony between the idea and the realization of religion” (2). He credited Hegel for distinguishing the various metaphysical, psychological, and historical modes for studying religion. Chantepie also distinguished between the study of the philosophy of religion and the study of the history of religion. He believed that the philosophy of religion is concerned with religion’s “essence” whereas the history of religion, as an empirical discipline, is concerned with “manifestations.”

The Three Parts of the Science of Religion

Chantepie divided the study of the science of religion into three parts. The first part is the philosophy of religion which included defining the idea and essence of religion as well as establishing specific categories for it. Chantepie held that there is an underlying essence of religion that manifested itself in various historical instances. He believed it possible to examine and array these manifestations by presenting them phenomenologically. The second part is the history of religion, which involved collecting the “actual facts” of religion. Chantepie included ethnographical evidence because it, he says, provides the details of the religions of the “savage tribes, the so-called children of nature, or that part of mankind that has no history” (3). The third part is phenomenology which is descriptive and attempts to classify components. Phenomenology also meant a concentration of the manifest features of religion. According to Chantepie,

“Even the outward forms of religion can only be explained from inward processes: religious acts, ideas, and sentiments are not distinguished from non-religious acts, ideas, and sentiments by any outward mark, but only by a certain inward relation. We must leave the accurate definition of the character of religious phenomena to philosophy, and content ourselves with classifying the most important ethnographic and historical material connected with the phenomena of religion. We shall not therefore attempt here an analysis of religious consciousness, but only discuss the meaning of the most important classes of religious phenomena” (4).

Chantepie’s notion of phenomenology was engaging the “outward forms” of religion and therefore functioned as a technique of classification that extracted elements from material instances of religion. The result was a collection and grouping of various religious phenomena.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Chantepie. 1891. Manuel of the Science of Religion. p. 30.

2. Chantepie. 1891. Ibid. p. 4.

3. Chantepie. 1891. Ibid. p. 8.

4. Quoted by Walter Capps (1995) in Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 121.

Murphy, T. 2007. Representing Religion: History, Theory, Crisis. p. 60-61.


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