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Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger and Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred have had a continuous impact on cultural anthropology and the study of ancient Chinese thought, respectively, but neither has typically been read as a contribution to comparative religious ethics. This paper argues that both books developed from profound dissatisfaction with the empiricist presuppositions that dominated their fields into the 1970s and that both should be associated with the revival of American pragmatism that is currently driving a reinterpretation of ethics as a social practice embedded in historically contingent discourse about agency, virtue, and social organization. This pragmatic turn results in a shift of comparative ethics away from issues of methods and metaethics in the direction of history and fieldwork as the preconditions for useful comparison.

Keywords: Carl Hempel; Confucius; Herbert Fingarette; Mary Douglas; fieldwork; functionalism; history; holism; pragmatism; universalism; virtue

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of ReligionUniversity of RichmondNorth Court 117Richmond, VA 23173804.298.8331, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2008

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