This article is concerned with the analysis of representations and classifications of “Buddhism” as “philosophy” and/or “religion” in 19th century Britain. Still current in contemporary discourse on Buddhism, the distinction at the time gained prominence when new scientific discoveries and social change led to considerable religious and epistemological turmoil and challenged religious institutions and authority. In this context, conceptual frameworks including “religion”, “philosophy”, and “science” and their respective place in the taxonomy of knowledge were questioned and hotly debated. Elites of various backgrounds construed their discourse upon dichotomic pairs such as “religion” vs. “philosophy”, or “religion” vs. “science”, while others in contrast suggested novel conjunctions of these terms. Both philologists and historians of religion, who defined a newly circumscribed entity called “Buddhism” in roughly that period, and protagonists of the theosophic movement had their share in the more general taxonomic debate.
The then nascent concept of “Buddhism” may thus be considered a diagnostic marker of the taxonomic debates involving both academic elites and religious leaders representing established institutions and nascent movements alike. After an introduction on context and authors, this article will concentrate on a discourse analysis of major programmatic texts authored between 1883 and 1891 by three prominent voices: the book Esoteric Buddhism (1883) written by Alfred Percy Sinnett, the Bampton Lecture held by Bishop Frederic Temple in 1884 and the Gifford Lecture held by Friedrich Max Müller in 1891.