What’s “heterodoxy”, anyway?

It’s been a slow day at work. I might as well finish it off (and inaugurate the weekend) with sharing some simple reflections that are relevant for this blog: What the heck does “heterodox” mean, anyway?

On the etymological level, “heterodoxy” is part of a cluster of words building on the Greek doxa (δόξα). That is already an interesting and loaded term in ancient Greek philosophy, usually translating to “opinion”, and especially in the derogatory sense of largely unjustified beliefs held by common people. Unjustified popular doxa is thus contrasted with real “knowledge, episteme (ἐπιστήμη). At least this distinction is in place with Plato’s attack on the Sophists – the latter were accused of manipulating and playing around with popular doxa. Aristotle more clearly tied doxa up with a kind of social epistemology (or doxology?) with his distinction between doxa and endoxa – or “good opinions”. That is, opinions that should be considered credible and hence taken into account, not because we can directly demonstrate them for ourselves, but because they are held by the wise – society’s knowledge specialists, we might say.

The dynamism changes somewhat with the invention of the pair of opposition which we are more familiar with: orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy. Largely after the advent of Christianity, orthodoxy has been established as denoting  “correct” opinion in matters of religious doctrine. Heterodoxy, conversely, signified a deviance from correct opinion.

In this ecclesiastical context we need to note one important thing: heterodoxy is certainly not interchangeable with “heresy” (another word with a fascinating history – but let’s not go there now). This goes for the Eastern and Western churches alike. The Eastern Orthodox Church will use it to refer to other types of Christianity, not confirming to what is held as proper “Orthodox” doctrine. Similarly in the Roman Catholic Church, heterodoxy is typically a matter of holding unusual doctrinal views that go beyond the official teaching of the Church, while not directly contradicting it.

To put it shortly, distinguishing heterodoxy from both orthodoxy and heresy provides space for a more inclusive sort of deviance. In one sense, it creates a specific kind of pluralism – an organization of difference – which is compatible with a hegemonic orthodoxy. People with heterodox views, although deviant, can be met with dialogue and exchange of arguments. Heretics, on the other hand, must burn.

In more recent times, of course,  all of these words (orthodox, heterodox, heresy) have been appropriated and used more loosely in other contexts. You can be an orthodox proponent of neoclassical economics, or adhere to one of the many “heterodox economics” proposed in the 20th century. Or you can be a scientific heretic and deny the evolution of species, propound geocentrism, or both.

Attempting to generalize a little bit, the concept of heterodoxy, as in fact most of the other variations on doxa, intricately connects social with intellectual concerns. It signifies a degree of deviance which must always be in relation to an established body of knowledge. On an intellectual level, this means that deviance is determined on the basis of disputes over specific claims to knowledge. But for the distinction to bear any significance beyond simply “dispute”, the “established” side must also socially enforce its hegemony, whether it be through intellectual prosecution and institutionalized violence, by polemical battles of words, or more subtle discursive strategies of exclusion.

This brings me to a sociological concept I find myself using quite a lot these days: boundary-work. This concept was introduced by sociologist Thomas Gieryn to make some observations on the demarcation debate in the history and philosophy of science:  where is the line to be drawn between science and pseudoscience?

Boundary-work is useful for analyzing the social and historical processes that lead to such demarcations (rather than trying to normatively stipulate where it ought to go), especially emphasising the strategic actions of prominent spokespersons to draw up and fortify sharp boundaries around a “science” , or differentiate a specific discipline form other competing disciplines.Furthermore, it has been observed that boundary-work in this sense is not a one-way street: in fact, it is more dialogical in the sense that those who are defined out will typically try to answer. Instead of a simple exclusion, we sometimes get a never ending dialogue, albeit a rather hostile one. A good example of this process is the exchanges surrounding the scientific status of parapsychology, which has been going on continually since at least the 1920s.

The applicability of these ideas to the orthodoxy/heterodoxy distinction should be rather obvious. It also brings me to one final comment in this semi-theoretical rant. The notion that boundary-work is more open-ended, dialogical and recursive, gives an opportunity to re-evaluate the position of heterodoxy between orthodoxy and heresy. This is maybe what to my mind makes it more interesting than both: heterodox may be seen to exist really at the borders of a given system of knowledge, being in a position where constant negotiation is possible. It is not sufficiently “out there” to be completely ignored or condemned; yet it is deviant enough to have at least the potential to challenge and destabilize its orthodox other. This, in my opinion, is a feature which is present in the most intriguing disputes within (and between) science, religion, and politics alike.


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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  1. […] this, these opinions are of outliers, anti-christ, heterodox, and […]

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