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  • Purity and Pollution: Resisting the Rehabilitation of a Virtue
  • Amy Mullin

“Purity” is a term used infrequently in contemporary academic literature. A survey of periodical indexes for the past ten years shows that references to purity occur predominantly in metallurgy. Purity is an increasingly important topic in anthropology, religious studies, and history, but it is a decidedly rare concern in philosophy. In my most recent search I found three references.

Yet “purity” was once a recurrent term in the philosophical tradition ranging from Plato through Augustine and Kant to Kierkegaard. Today when we encounter the many references to purity in the history of philosophy we too often filter them out. We assume either that “pure” is a generic term for good, or, in what seems a more knowing and sophisticated response, we read “pure” as a code term for chastity or sexual morality, the elimination, suppression or control of sexual desire. In both cases purity is written off either as a generic or as an old fashioned and rather embarrassing virtue. Hence it seems there is little reason for contemporary philosophical investigation into the rhetorical use of the language of purity and pollution.

Three assumptions account for the lack of contemporary philosophical interest in the topic. First, it is assumed that purity is no longer a concern in twentieth-century philosophy. Second, purity in historical discourse is considered to be limited to a prudish or downright misogynist hostility to sex. Third and finally, it is assumed that the work historians and anthropologists have done recently into connections between purity beliefs and practices and social cohesion is irrelevant for philosophy. This is because purity in philosophy is supposed to be a resolutely individualist virtue, having little or nothing to do with unified and coherent communities.

There are elements of truth to all three beliefs, but they also contain important distortions of the truth. As regards the first assumption, purity remains a concern in contemporary aesthetics, where it often means roughly something like a priori and apolitical; but I am interested in whether the concern with purity has survived in philosophies with ethical implications. [End Page 509] Here it is my contention that authenticity is the twentieth-century descendant of the virtue of purity.

Second, there is much more to the rhetoric and practices of purity than concern with the sexual dimension of life, though this is a key aspect of most, and the beliefs and practices are often misogynist. There have been numerous anthropological documentations of ways in which purity beliefs, particularly an emphasis on sexual purity, are used to control women. Santi Rozario’s work, for instance, makes this point in her analysis of contemporary Bengali village life. 1 The connection between the language of purity and the practice of female circumcision, which I will not discuss in this paper, is in itself evidence enough of connections between purity beliefs and practices harmful to women. 2 However, I hope to show that there is more to purity than misogyny. Purity most basically is about order, both social and personal. 3

My response to the second assumption, that purity masks an obsession with sexual control, indicates the source of my disagreement with the third, the contention that purity in philosophy is exclusively an individual virtue. Communal beliefs and practices associated with the language of purity and pollution are relevant to the philosophical treatment of purity because of the presence in both the practices and the philosophies of an interplay between social and personal order. As a result I believe an understanding of the dynamics of beliefs about purity in social practice can inform a philosophical concern with purity.

First I investigate shifts in beliefs and practices concerning purity and pollution. I will concentrate on three models: ancient Greek (from the eighth to the third century BC), biblical to Talmudic Judaism (from the third century BC to the third century AD), and early Christian (from the first to the fifth century AD). These represent three traditions which have played a very significant role in shaping western civilization, theology, and philosophy. 4 They were also frequently interrelated in this period, as Christian and Jewish Platonists writing in Greek attest and of course as...

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pp. 509-524
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