Why do we do what we do? To please others? To live up to what culture expects? Or for our own reasons –- as "autonomous agents"?
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.