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Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 140-144

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Book Review

Culture and Self: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives, East and West

Culture and Self: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives, East and West. Edited by Douglas Allen. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.xv + 184 pp.

Inspired perhaps by both deconstructive and constructive impulses, this important collection of nine essays undertakes to challenge the notion, common in both Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, that there exists such a thing as an objective, ahistorical, universal "self." At the same time, the volume as a whole makes a case for the value of a notion of the self that takes account of its cultural and historical situatedness. Douglas Allen's introduction succinctly frames the central claim of this project: While an increasing number of scholars, both Eastern and Western, appreciate the importance of the dialectical relationship between self and culture, and the vital role culture plays in determining the nature of the self, notions of the self as unconditioned by culture, or of the self as influenced by cultural factors that are merely superficial, subjective, and illusory, continue to dominate the religious and philosophical thought of both West and East. Thus it is the aim of these essays to undermine the dominance of those notions, in particular by means of a comparative, [End Page 140] cross-cultural methodology that highlights the existence of differing views of the self, thereby calling into question the dominant monolithic understanding.

The essays are divided into four sections. The first part, "Multiple Asian and Western Perspectives," contains two essays in which a number of different Asian views are considered, resulting in analyses that are broad rather than deep. Obviously this approach has its limitations: the observations about the various cultural understandings discussed in each of these essays tend to be somewhat lacking in complexity. However, both essays do a creditable job of presenting the cross-cultural resources available to critique the notion of an enduring, true, objective self, free of sociohistorical determinants.

Douglas Allen's essay clearly articulates the somewhat narrow understanding of the self against which his and many of the other views contained in this collection are implicitly positioned, characterizing it as post-Cartesian: autonomous, rational, individual, skeptical, and foundational. In spite of frequent references to the dominance within Eastern thought of the notion of an ahistorical, culturally unconditioned self, and in spite of the richness of views on the eternally unchanging nature of the self to be found, for example, in various forms of Hinduism, it is clearly and explicitly a modern,Western view of the self against which Allen wants to argue. His basic claim, then, is that this modern Western view is itself historically and culturally determined and that, moreover, there are pressing philosophical and political reasons for challenging it. In contrast to this post-Cartesian self, Allen offers four alternative conceptions--the self of the Bhagavad Gita, determined by karma and social position; the "no-self" of Buddhism; the Marxist self, constituted by the economic conditions of production within which it finds itself; and the relational self of much modern Western feminist theory--suggesting that these understandings provide richer views of the self by virtue of taking account of the self's location in history and culture.

The target of Alan Roland's essay is not the largely philosophical notion of selfhood considered by Allen, although clearly it builds on that notion. Rather, Roland takes up the self ofWestern psychoanalytic theory in order to ask whether, given the Western assumptions upon which it is based, psychoanalysis can be universally valid. He suggests, in the context of a critical reading of several major psychoanalytic studies of Asian cultures, that psychoanalysis in Asia can be found in three predominant guises, each limited in some important way: evolutionism, which posits the individualist self as the goal of psychological development, thereby dismissing the more relational selves of Asian cultures as developmentally inferior; universalism, which argues for a self that is essentially the same across cultural differences, imposing a single analytical standard on widely diverging...


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