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Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society, by Paul Hernadi; ix & 156 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995, $27.50 paper.

Thinkers have often found the world rather Gaulish—or, if you prefer, have carved it up to make it so. In Cultural Transactions Paul Hernadi starts from the premise that “We typically experience ourselves as objectively existing organisms, players of intersubjectively assigned and evaluated roles, or as subjective selves” (p. 3), which correspond to the nature, society, and self of his subtitle. He then collects and creates triads which are meant to be homologous with the foundational trio. Some of these are traditional (truth, justice, beauty), others are cobbled out of folk psychology (desire with, desire that, desire for), some are taken from other thinkers (Martin Buber’s It, Thou, and I), but most are based on linguistic concepts. Thus, Hernadi sums up at one point by saying, “In the preceding sections I suggest that all discourse involves action, production, and signification, and that doing, making, and meaning tend respectively to predominate in speaking, writing, and thinking—the prime vehicles of communication, expression, and representation in our culture” (p. 28). The process culminates in the postulation of three triangles (discourse, awareness, and value) whose apices and sides constitute two triads. Each side is itself then divided into three, which makes for a total of five triads per triangle (pp. 111, 120, 130), to which we should add about twenty or so spelled out earlier. This is an argument by accumulation for a triadic human universe.

Hernadi sees life (and Cultural Transactions is about nothing less) as a complex dance both within and between these cooperative triads: “Yet the natural domain of Its (to be individuated as such by one of Buber’s two Is) and the social domain of Buber’s I-Thou relations would not be what they are without self-conscious individuals who are able to pick out themselves as [George Herbert] Meadian Mes and other particulars as Its or Thous from what [End Page 535] thereby becomes someone’s natural and social environment” (p. 88). Again: “Consensus, coherence, and correspondence have sometimes been invoked as rival criteria of truth. From the present book, they should emerge rather as mutually supportive goals in our lifelong pursuit of interactive doing, self-expressive making, and world-oriented meaning” (p. 109). Sometimes the triads run parallel to each other, and at other times they are nested. Thus, the triad within beauty consists of Dionysian “world-absorbed engulfment” (nature), “ludic” imitation (the social dimension of art), and Apollonian “self-controlled detachment” (self) (pp. 130–31). In the next triad up, Beauty is parallel to self, goodness is the value analogous to society, and truth corresponds to the world.

Some of the triads are indeed “quite clever” (p. 142) (Hernadi’s own phrase from a self-reflexive “Epilogue”), as when he writes, “Natural must gives way to social should only to make room, eventually, for personal may as well” (p. 99). This nicely captures our sense that freedom has degrees, but more often there are dubious appropriations and stretched similes. For example, Hernadi uses a mere pronoun to make his case for the possibility of a seamless blending of the three realms—“the ecumenical ‘we’ recombines the first-, second-, and third person perspectives of communication”—and he continues with a very unpersuasive simile—“just as a rapidly spinning top turns the three cardinal colors painted on it into the whitish hue of unrefracted light” (p. 75). This is not an argument, but the expression of a wish.

Although each triad is meant to be homologous with the foundational trio, there are quite a few uncomfortable fits. For example, I don’t see how “being with” is the apex formed by truth and beauty, while “being of” comes between justice and beauty, and “being toward” belongs between beauty and truth (p. 130). There are also odd omissions. Hernadi rejects Freud’s id, ego, and superego as insufficiently fine-grained to capture our complex subjectivity (p. 90) (which they were never meant to do), but the parallel to his major triad of nature, self and society seems obvious and strong.


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