Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Understanding Binary Distinctions

Alice C. Linsley

The Philosophy 301 class has been studying ethical concerns of the Ancient world. In this first lesson we read about a way of viewing the world that involves binary opposites such as east-west, male-female, day-night, hot-cold, dry-wet, raw-cooked [1], life-death, good-evil, heaven-earth, etc. There is no doubt that ancient peoples (going back to at least the Neolithic period) thought of the world in these terms, having observed these binary opposites in nature.

Ancient peoples were close observers of nature. They found a fixed binary order in creation. That is to say that they recognized that seasons run in a cycle, the Sun appears to move from east to west, and people bring forth people, not plants or other animals. They observed the heavens and nature because they believed that these provided clues to the Creator's nature and how they should order their lives.

The binary opposites also provide direction. We turn to the right or we turn to the left. If we are lost, we can determine the direction of north with a compass. Knowing north helps us to know the direction of south.  Lacking a compass, we can watch where the Sun rises to determine east. Knowing east, we can detemine the direction of west. The binary distinctions help us to avoid confusion or disorientation.

In a survey of distinct linguistic or culture regions in west central Africa Wyatt MacGaffey has made a case for a macro tradition that "is simultaneously political, economic, and religious, and consists of institutions as well as mere ideas" (p. 17). This tradition involves cosmologies that deploy a series of complementary oppositions, concern for fertility and the power of ritual to order what has become disordered. The tradition extends to southern India, probably carried there by the ancient Sudanese (Sudra). This is why we find among the Dravidians "not only the complementary opposition of purity and impurity but also the importance of the principle of reproduction." [2]  The Sudanese view of the complementarity of gender roles assigns firm structure to males and softness and fluidity to females. The Sudanese are largely Nubian. Their genetic marker indicates that they migrated north from southern Africa. [3]

Let 's consider some examples from the Bible, a record of the beliefs of ancient Afroasiatic peoples.

The western Afroasiatics (Afro-Arabians who lived in Sudan, Egypt and Palestine) venerated the Sun as the Deity's emblem/chariot.  Because the Sun rises in the east, they faced the east in prayer and built their shrines, temples and pyramids facing east. This is what it means to be rightly “oriented.”  To face the opposite direction would be to turn your back on the ascending God. This is why the altars in the older churches were against the east wall and the priest celebrated facing east with his back to the congregation.

Now we can understand why the western Afroasiatics thought the Chaldeans and Babylonians were confused because they venerated the Moon. Since the Moon merely reflects the Sun's light, it is a lesser entity. Why would we want to venerate a lesser entity?  Abraham's father was accused of being an idol worshiper (Joshua 24:2) because he lived in the region of Ur and Haran where people worshipped Sin, the moon god.

Another example involves the distinction between heat and cool.  Abraham was visited “in the heat of the day” by God in 3 Persons (Gen. 18:1). Compare this to the binary opposite of “in the cool of the day”, the time of God’s visitation to Adam and Eve in Paradise (Gen. 3:8). Why are the two accounts posed as hot and cool encounters with God? Because in the first God has come to punish the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the second God has come to enjoy fellowship with the Man and the Woman.

Bible verses which forbid sowing 2 types of seed in the same field, weaving 2 types of fabric in the same garment, and boiling a baby goat in its mother's milk - speak of the necessity of not blurring the distinctions God has created in nature. The last is especially troublesome because the offspring is consumed in the life-giving mother's milk.

The prohibition against mixing types, be they fibers, seeds or blood, is like the prohibition against confusing the holy with the unholy, or blurring the distinction between life and death, such as happens when a baby goat is boiled in its mother's milk (forbidden 3 places in Scripture). That is why each seed is to go to its own kind. As plants are born from the earth, so the seeds of plants return to the earth. As the man is born from the woman, so the seed/semen of man is to return to woman. The spilling of seed called 'onanism' was regarded as an evil deed, a violation of the order of creation and therefore an affront to the Creator. So obviously was homosex.

Bloods were never permitted to mix or even to be present in the same space. For example, men were not permitted in the birthing hut. Women (and many men also) were not permitted where animals were sacrificed. This is why women were never priests and why in church tradition they waited 40 days to return to church, following the ancient custom requiring purification after shedding blood.

Ancient peoples recognized a fixed order in creation. The male is larger and generally stronger than the female. The male is equipped for war and hunting while the female is equipped for cultivation and childbirth. This leads us to the distinction between the blood shed by men and the blood shed by women. Male "blood work" was expressed in hunting, war, execution of lawbreakers, and in animal sacrifice by the rulers, priests or prophets.

The blood work of women is supplementary to the blood work of men. Women sacrifice blood in first marital intercourse. They bleed in their monthly cycle and in childbirth. The blood shed by women represents life and is distinct yet supplementary to the blood shed by men.

To understand the biblical worldview we must grasp the supplementary nature of the binary opposites. Male and females are supplementary (to use Jacques Derrida's term). Supplementary means that meaning is derived from the relationship of the opposites. According to the brilliant English philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, I recognize hateful acts as evil because I have experience of loving acts and know them to be good. The reverse is also true. The male-female relationship has meaning because of the supplementary nature of male-female. 
In November 1982, Anthropologist Janice Boddy's fascinating essay on Pharaonic circumcision appeared in American Ethnologist. The essay was titled "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan" (Vol.9, pgs. 682-698). Here Boddy sets forth her research on Pharaonic circumcision among the Sudanese. Among the Sudanese the practice of female circumcision parallels the circumcision of males and emphasizes the binary distinction (and therefore the supplementary nature) between females and males.

Boddy explains: "In this society women do not achieve social recognition by becoming like men, but by becoming less like men physically, sexually, and socially. Male as well as female circumcision rites stress this complementarity. Through their own operation, performed at roughly the same age as when girls are circumcised (between five and ten years), boys become less like women: while the female reproductive organs are covered, that of the male is uncovered. Circumcision, then, accomplishes the social definition of a child's sex by removing physical characteristics deemed appropriate to his or her opposite: the clitoris and other external genitalia, in the case of females, the prepuce of the penis, in the case of males" (Boddy, pg. 688).

Among Abraham's people it was taboo to allow distinct entities to become confused. This is why both men and women were circumcised, a custom that continues in many parts of Africa. Male circumcision is seen as an enhancement of maleness and the complement to the circumcised male could only be a circumcised female.

Today to speak about female circumcision is to stir the anger of feminists who call it "genital mutiliation."  To speak about the binary distinctions inevitably draws fire from the gay community. To suggest that the binary opposites are important is to invite ridicule.  Yet, this is how the ancients made sense of their world and their thinking informs us even today through the Bible, Law and Ethics.

Related reading:  Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; Ethics and Binary Oppositions; The Binary Aspect of the Biblical Worldview; Ethics and Ancient CosmologyThe Importance of Binary Distinctions; Binary Sets in the Ancient World; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions; Blood and Binary Distinctions


1. The title of Claude Lévi-Strauss' study of the mythology of tribal groups in Brazil is titled The Raw and the Cooked.  Here he explores the binary cosmology that he found among them.

2. B. Pfaffenberger, Caste in Tamil Culture: the religious foundations of Sudra domination in Tamil Sri Lanka, reviewed in JSTOR, Dec. 1983, pp. 805-806.

3. mtDNA analysis in ancient Nubians supports the existence of gene flow between sub-Sahara and North Africa in the Nile valley. Read the Abstract of Lucotte's study here. to read Lucotte's study go here.

For the Lesson Two Discussion Topic, go here.


Ryan Barnes said...

Binary opposites are often overlooked in life, and their importance forgotten. We as the human race though all have binary mind-set. Most people are "black and white" thinkers; not very often do we straddle the fence on many issues. This often makes me wonder why there is and has been so much conflict throughout the world. What one culture sees as good and evil another culture may see just the opposite. What one culture believes is their higher power, another may regard as false idol. Just take the topic on abortion for example, I bet when everyone hears this topic within just a matter of seconds our view is formed. We have had our binary beliefs taught, observed, and sometimes pushed on us our whole lives. Binary opposites no doubt were and are necessary for survival but do they sometimes make us narrow and shallow in our views?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Ryan H has asked me to post this comment for him. Here it is:

"During my my nine years in the military, I have had the opportunity to experience the vast variety of cultures throughout many countries in the world. It amazes me to see how so many people interpret binary opposites. While serving in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Jordan, the citizens still stop and face East while praying. They begin praying one hour before sunrise, and then pray again one hour before sunset. During these hours, not one round was fired by the enemy due to their commitment and faith to their God. They do not rely on the technologies that Americans do. As in your reply to Chantelle, we rely so much on GPS and compasses to give us direction. We have women fighting wars now. In muslim countries it is still consider an insult to speak to a woman inside of a residence where there is a man present. So who is wrong? Are we wrong by changing these binary opposites? In my time in the military and now as a police officer, I feel that there are a lot of women that do the job just as good, if not better than man. Who are we to distinguish what roles men and women take? The bible states that God created Adam and Eve, but what if a person does not believe in God or the bible? How do you decide what religion to believe? I was raised as a Baptist, but how do I really know that what Catholics or Muslims believe is not really the truth? I agree with Brittany that ancient civilizations have paved a way for us to live, but now there are so many forks off the route that they paved. It is you as an individual to decide your beliefs, but also to respect the beliefs of others. It relies on how you were raised and the faith that you have in your God."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Ashley C, anthropological study suggests that circumcision originated in ancient Sudan (where some of Abraham's ancestors came from). The Sudanese view of the complementarity of gender roles assigns firm structure to males and softness and fluidity to females. To enhance this distinction between males and females, the soft fleshy foreskin of the penis was removed and the firm protrusion of the female was removed. I hope that this answers your question of how this started.

shandra said...

This was a wonderful article and full of interesting information. Binary Distinction is foundation to the Five Elements of a World View, I really believe that. We could not form a World View without such distinctions as right-wrong, female-male, up-down... No laws could be made, no government ran correctly, no order would exist. Life is order, therefore it is necessary that since the beginning of this worlds creation, it's inhabitance noticed it's natural order of things and clinged to it. It is not the small things such as the religious parts, or the cultural mentions in this article that stand out to me. What clearly stands out is the inevitable acceptance of ORDER, it has been, is, and will continue to be what rules not only us, but everything until it ends.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Leslie has asked me to post this comment for her. Here it is:

"It is very intersting how people have changed their practices of binary oppositions. These practices have played a great role in the beliefs of todays rituals and how times have changed. We now use GPS and other ways of getting directions opposed to the ancient practices of watching the sun rise to know directions. I grew up in a household where it wasa common practice for baby boys to be circumcized at birth and honestly it was a surprise to me that women are circumsized in other countries. I think that is a little over the line for what I am used to. It was an interesting topic to read about since I had little knowledge of the subject."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Matthew has asked me to post this comment for him. Here it is:

"I feel binary distinctions are necessary in some areas of. As we look back in history, I think that there are some areas that we needed to evolve from. The circumcision of women may be desired or required in some cultures but our culture gives us the freedom to make our own decision. Is the fact that east versus west or wet versus dry still necessary today, of course it is still needed as a method of survival and it does not offend any culture. In short, you can relate binary distinction to cultures. There are some that believe in female circumcision and some that don’t. I believe as time develops different cultures throughout the world, different binaries will develop as well but, there will always be the simple binary distinctions that are and will remain a common binary."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Karen has asked me to post this comment for her. Here it is:

"Women circumcision appears a social issue as opposed to religious. Some believe that the cutting the clitoris was promoted by the Prophet Mohammed. But in the Qur'an there was no mention of cutting or removing the clitoris, thus God intended it to be there.
If there is no evidence of religious concerns, then why do these cultures circumcise girls at such a young age? Is the answer because they believed that it would take their sex drive, keeping them pure virgins? If so how did they expect for the women of their culture to reproduce? How many children are women allowed to bear before being circumcised?
Its hard to believe they don't understand the long term ramifications, or the severity of the surgical procedure of this horrendous act of cruelty."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Karen, Circumcison developed as a religious practice for both males and females thousands of years before the time of Islam and the Quran.

Today most of the countries where it is practiced have large populations of Muslims (if not Muslim majorities).

Alice C. Linsley said...

Mary has asked me to post this:

"In the "Understanding Binary Distinctions" article it gives one a better understanding of where, why, and how different ideas are derived from. I find it very interesting to better understand why people of past times think and believe the way they did. Ideas today came from ancient people and their ideas originated from nature and biblical studies."

Tammy Towles said...

I am a firm believer that everyone is different for a reason. We all have our different beliefs and ways of living. Most of our beliefs come from generations past with new ones being created along the way. I personnaly do not understand why you would have to face the East to pray to God, but their reasons were real to them. Thats not to say they were wrong or that I am wrong. And since I will be dead when I finally find out the truth, I will have to go with what I feel is correct. I personnally do not like women as preists, but does it actually matter? Aren't they spreading the word like we are told to do? MY point being that everyone is different and that is what makes the world go around. Could you imagine how boring life would be if everyone had the same beliefs and thoughts all these years and nothing ever evolved? Binary distinctions are an esintial part of our lives and wil continue to evolve over time.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Timberly asked me to post this for her:

"I believe that binary distinctions is impossible to exist and understand in our modern society. There are way too many theorist and underlying concepts that people derive on a daily basis. It would make life a whole lot easier, I believe, if there was just a right or wrong, hot or cold, east or west, but people today make things so much more complicated. The legal system has too many twist and turns and so does the minds of people in our society. I'm not a big fan of some of the beliefs and concepts that the Afroasiatics stood for, although I can sense that their life was alot less confusing and stressful than life in our society, because life's meaning had more clarity to them. Who's to say that circumcising little male newborns isn't cruel and unusual to another culture, but to us it is the "norm". And to them doing it to both genders only seemed normal. I couldn't image that be done to me, and I don't think it's right to do it without pain management, but I can understand why they did such things."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Again, I encourage you to not focus so much on the issue of circumcision.

What about the idea of Hot and Cold encounters with God? Any thoughts on how we modern Americans might understand this distinction?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Barbara has this to say:

"From west central Africa extending to southern India, gender roles complemented one another by stereotyping the characteristics of, "firm structure to males and softness and fluidity to females." This practice in my opinion started because of the differences in structure of their physical beings and the fact that the woman was a life-bearer.

The western Afroasiatics did not understand the Chaldeans and Babylonians fascination with the moon. In their eyes, the Sun represented the Deity's symbol, not knowing that the Babylonians focused more on astrology which pertained to the moon and stars.
The fixed order in creation was adopted by the Ancient peoples. As males and females were looked upon as a separate entity in regards to "blood work," together as a whole from the biblical standpoint, they appeared as a natural unit.
Binary distinction and supplementary nature are emphasized in rural Northern Sudan through male and female circumcision. Being from the western world I was shocked by this cultural brutality of circumcision to young females. This procedure is supposedly done to make them look less like males;O.K.!?!

...and as time passed, civilizations adapted to the changing times."

Alice C. Linsley said...


All ancient peoples were fascinated by the stars, the moon's cycles and the constellations. A principle in understanding their fascination is their belief "as in the heavens so on earth."

The ancients didn't invent "fixed order" of creation. They observed it to be so.

Kim said...

I have never heard of binary distinctinctions until having this class but I do remember a friend of mine being able to tell the time of day by looking at her plant and telling how the sun hit against it which I thought was silly but that was her way of telling time. I also watched something on the news about a teenage girl from another culture whose parents wanted her to be circumcised because of tradition and because of her living in America Social Services wanted to step in because they thought it was cruel. I too thought it was cruel, but who are we to question one's tradition in another's culture? I found this article to be very interesting.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Brian has asked me to post his comment. Here is is:

"This article was very interesting and allowed me to realize how “lost” many (probably including myself) have become today. I believe that binary opposites provide direction for guiding each of us in our lives, but many have become so caught up in today’s world that the basic thoughts of the universe escape them. Technology has made people lazy where they think and do less. As someone stated earlier, how many people think to navigate by using the sun or even the stars….most are lost if the GPS breaks. Binary opposites are crucial for guiding us in all aspects of life. If we harvest we must plant, if we destroy we must rebuild. These are common sense thoughts that are essential to the survival of nature, people and the planet. The ancients knew that they must travel (be nomadic) to ensure the survival of nature, knowing that if they took from the land then they must leave to allow for regrowth and rebirth. Today we just continue to take and destroy with little regard to the opposite actions that are needed to counteract the actions we are taking. For all good there is evil, for all life there is death. We must realize that binary opposites are important in natures balance and can guide everyone towards the proper path. As always, every situation has a gray area which is where most of us live, but the idea of binary opposites does provide a clear path to help guide each of us when it is needed."

Sweeney's said...

Binary distinctions is a way of life now and forever. It was placed into history long ago and continues to have an impact on everyone. Not only does it affect the human race but everything in the world around us.

Trying to keep opposites of everything is a tough task. Hot and cold, dry and wet, sunny and cloudy. When you can have both. Warm, dry but wet, sunny yet cloudy.

Then you have the difference in what men are for and what women are for. Nowdays women can do what men can do and men can do what women do. It's all in how they want to be perceived.

Rachel Duggins said...

Binary distinctions is very interesting and I believe that it is a normal way of life. It is very interesting and I have never before this sat down and took time to understand it. I think that throughout time it has definatley changed but the main standards have stayed the same. I believe that the bible should be taught to each child so that they understand before they get older what is to be expected of them and what they should expect in life.

I think that one thing about binary distinction that would send the ancient world for a spin is the fact that the gay community has place in this world now and the belief that man came from woman so the mans semen should go back inside the woman is not followed by a huge number of people.

I think it is interesting that from the ancient world figuring out seasons, which way the sun sets, and how to get back to North from East we now have so many different opportunities.

Binary distinctions is just a way of life and a way of nature, it is very interesting to me.

Jason Sweet said...

Binary opposites are still a part of our society today; however, it seems that less emphasis is placed on their significance than in the ancient world. The significance of binary opposites in the world today depends on the culture. People in less developed countries seem to rely more on nature and may follow more aspects of binary opposites passed down by their ancestors. In cultures with advanced technologies the importance of binary opposites seems to be fading, even though some binary properties have contributed to modern technology. For example, the sun rising in the east, the length of day-night, the distances between earth and the heavens have allowed people to understand direction and orientation in the world and universe. This technology is used today for GPS location devices, satellites, and space exploration.

Many ancient practices involving binary opposites are not generally accepted in most developed countries today. For example, homosexuality is much more widely accepted today than in the ancient world. In the ancient world blood was not to be mixed, but today blood transfusions are a common practice. The binary order of creation says that people bring forth people. What about cloning? Or artificial insemination in which life is brought forth as a result of ‘onanism’? However, the issues surrounding binary opposites are usually controversial which indicates that people have not totally disregarded ancient teachings.

Savia said...

Hi Alice,

Are binary distinctions not Gnostic dualism? Based on an either/or system?

How do binary distinctions apply to the Eucharist and other sacraments or Holy Mysteries as they are called? How does this fit in with valid form and matter.

I am very interested in learning about this.


Alice Linsley said...


Binary distinctions are more complex than dualism, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida has demonstrated and as shown in the anthropological studies of Levi-Stauss.

One of the entities in the binary set is regarded as superior to the other and this is based on empirical observation. Men are bigger and stronger than women. This enables them to protect and defend the weaker. The Sun is the source of light. The moon merely reflects the sun's light. The ancients knew this. The priests before Abraham were doing sidereal astronomy.

God is greater than Man and therefore has the power to save. In the Sacraments we recognize that God in Christ condescends to save us and that He alone is strong to save. We recognize that heaven and God's presence is more glorious than tour mundane existence. We recognize that His holiness surpasses our ability to imagine.