Different Cultures, Different Selves

Friday, January 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Cultural Psychologists claim that people in different cultures have different selves. They  have a lot of data showing that Asian selves and American selves are quite different. But what does this even mean? I think we need to make a couple of distinctions before this make sense for those of us coming from the direction of philosophical discussions of the self and personal identity.

To begin with, what is a self?  My view is that a self is just a person, a human being with the normal capacities of thought, memory, reason, and the like.  ``My self” is like “my neighbor”.  My neighbor is just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who lives next to me.  My father was just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who fathered me.  `Self’ means `identical with’.  Suppose I say, ``Obama doesn’t like `drama kings or queens’ and expects everyone in his office, his secretary, his national security advisor, and himself, to remain cool and rational.  When I say `himself’ I'm just referring to Obama by the relation he has to the person I am talking about --- namely, identity.

Now admittedly this simple theory doesn’t fit with a lot that we say and think about selves.  Philosophers often talk of the self as though it were an inner principle of some sort.  We say that a person should be true to himself, or that a person is not herself this morning.  This doesn’t seem to make much sense if the self is just the person.

I think that’s better thought of as talk about our concepts of ourselves.  We each have a very important concept, the one we express with the word `I’.  It’s the way we think of ourselves.  It’s where we store all the information we get, like what we’re thinking and our reasons for doing things.  My concept of myself has a quite special structure, compared to my concept of other people.   But it seems likely to me that in many basic ways my self-concept will be similar to the concepts of themselves that other persons have of themselves, whether they are from Japan or China or even Ohio, like Ken. 

For example, we all think that we have bodies, that we can control in ways no one else can, just by deciding and willing what to do.  We all think we have special ways, our senses, of finding out about what is going on around those bodies.  We all think we have special access to our own thoughts and sensations.  And so on and so forth.

Even within this agreement, there is room for important differences between people, and patterns of difference between cultures.  One important consideration is which things we find most important about ourselves, the ways we can’t even imagine being different.  For example, I’m from Nebraska.   But I have clearly not seen that fact about me as being tremendously important.  When I left Nebraska after college, I didn’t think anything important about me had changed; I was just in different situation, with different opportunities.

That’s a pretty common attitude for Americans.  We pick up and move at the drop of a hat.  Cultural psychologists will tell you that that's pretty unusual.  Far more common, especially in Asia, is that who one is --- one’s self-concept in my vocabulary --- is rooted in one’s home, one’s family, one’s ancestors.   Moving across a country, or across the world, is hard to imagine.  It may be necessary, but it will be traumatic.

For example, my friend Syun Tutiya commutes three hours every day across the whole of Tokyo to his job at Chiba University.  He won’t move closer, even though the housing is less expensive, because it would mean moving away from his father and mother and brother, who all live in a neighborhood where his family has lived for generations.  I think this is sort of odd, but he thinks its sort of odd the way I moved away from Nebraska, the home of my family for several generations, with no thought of returning.

One important difference is the western emphasis on ``individualism”.  We think what is most important about people are their individual values and ideas, the beliefs they've developed from their own unique perspective.  Data shows that Americans, if asked about who they are, will emphasize facts about their biography that differentiate them from other people, while Asians will emphasize where they are from, and what the  people in that city or region do.  We think of our “American individualism” as an expression of the great discoveries of the Enlightenment, which Americans are kindly educating the rest of the world about.  But cultural psychologists may think it is a culture-bound way of thinking that’s no more valid than any other way of thinking.

To help us think through all of this, our guest is Hazel Markus from Stanford University, editor of Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies.

 

Comments (6)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

This is a construction of the relation between Cul

This is a construction of the relation between Culture and self, and in that way may not be successful in the consideration of the ultimate relation between Culture and self. that the self's relation with culture may inform the self in an intellectual manner, in that Culture is a gathered, product, of consciousness and the activity of the self. Culture is an accompaniment to consciousness, and in that way a FULL relation between Culture and Self may not be possible.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Once One finds his true self One finds the truth o

Once One finds his true self One finds the truth of All.
One is All.
Truth is,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I did not know that Ken Taylor is from Ohio. I kne

I did not know that Ken Taylor is from Ohio. I knew I liked that guy! David Bohm wrote about the cultural differences between East and West in his Wholeness and the Implicate Order, simplifying those somewhat, but not overly so, for my mind. Bohm said that those in the East have focused on religion and philosophy, while us westerners are all about science and technology: they are inscrutible, we are, inquisitive(?). Sometime after WW2, the Japanese made a right turn. The Chinese did the same after the Maoist influence finally went the way of all failed despotism (well, sort of...)
Culture, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is changable. The aforementioned examples are illustrative. Eastern thought considers self illusory, illusive or an illusion. I think it, like culture, is merely changable---just a hunch though. Philosophy is like that. As to the individualism issue? Everyone has some of that--there are degrees---of and in everything.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 22, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

SELF ESTEEM There are two kinds of self-esteem.

SELF ESTEEM
There are two kinds of self-esteem. 1. What has become central to the American primary school curriculum: self conferred esteem, and 2. Esteem of the culture conferred on a self. The first is a product of hyper-democracy, and hyper-egalitarianism; it is standardless, and subjective to such a degree as to be actually harmful to education and development of the self.
The second relies on ideas of standards, criteria, the objective value of one?s abilities, and the earning of reward for practice, skill, self-improvement and effort.
I can play the trumpet (though my wife would dispute it), but I?m not very good at it. I have to face it: I may enjoy it, but it isn?t up to even some minimal standard of performance that could allow me to esteem myself for it. How does an education system that teaches me to esteem myself for lousy trumpet-playing do me, or my society, any good?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 23, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Culture and religion are inextricably linked with

Culture and religion are inextricably linked with one another, in my opinion. In a most rudimentary and primitive form, culture probably came first although I am sure someone would argue that notion. Lately (within the last five to ten years), there have been efforts to foster tolerance and acceptance among different cultures. Public sector entities, chiefly federal and state governmental bodies, have designed "cultural diversity" literature and training seminars. Results have been mixed, but some positives have accrued.
This idea is still in its infancy, I think, but it bears pursuit. Will it work for everyone? I doubt it.
Is it better than prejudice and enmity? No doubt about it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

At the risk of stating something overly fundamenta

At the risk of stating something overly fundamental, cultural differences have been around for as long as humans have had the consciousness to recognize and name them. Language scientists such as Pinker have no doubt considered this, as have others involved in human studies of various depths. Culture is both an enriching aspect of civilization and a divisive conundrum. The prospect of the first ultimately overwhelming the second. while appealing, seems remote. As remote, possibly, as the Christian world converting the Islamic world, or vice versa. Similar aspects, similar prospects.

 
 
 

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