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  • The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought
  • Warren Todd
The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought. By Harold Coward. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. Pp. 219. Paper $24.95, £17.75.

Harold Coward of course needs no introduction, and those familiar with his earlier works, such as Yoga and Psychology (2002), will notice a return to the question of perfectibility in his new book, The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought. Coward is equally at home in Indian and Western thought, and it should be noted that the “Eastern” in the title basically means Indian (p. 1).

The Introduction to his new work does not have the same clarity as that found in Yoga and Psychology. Coward opens with T. S. Eliot’s “still point,” which leads on to a less than helpful lake-versus-stream analogy, which is apparently supposed to clarify the difference between “Hindu” and “Buddhist” views on perfectibility (p. 2). The implication here is that there is a single Hindu perspective on consciousness as well as a single Buddhist perspective. After reading the rest of the book, it will become quite apparent that Coward himself would not take such a claim seriously. Also, those readers unfamiliar with the Yogācāra, but more familiar with śamatha meditation, or Śāntideva’s ideal of tranquility, or with the Zen notion of “mirror-mind,” or even the Dzogchen notion of spaciousness, may be forgiven in thinking Buddhist perfectibility to be more analogous to a lake. It would appear at this point in the book that, in aiming for a more general audience, Coward has compromised somewhat through over-generalization. Thankfully, the rest of the book goes against this simplistic view, offering us a surprisingly broad range of Indian concepts and paths.

Once we escape the Introduction, then, we find Coward in full flow. Part 1 offers a summary of Western thought, beginning with philosophy. First, by introducing Passmore’s summary of classical views on perfectibility, Coward offers the useful distinction between “technical perfection” and the perfectibility of the human per se. The latter is either linked with a telos of happiness, or moral purity, or with an ultimate vision of God. Second, he highlights the European shift toward social progress, culture, and education as the means to perfectibility. Corruption is seen in social and political terms, rather than individual and religious terms (i.e., sin). It is legislation that clears the road, and freedom which leads to individual advancement. Third, the European debate then shifts to the question of commerce and the relative positioning of the classes. Humanity, as well as state and society, are struggling to reach ever higher forms. This ushers in the fourth stage, that of scientific progress and the possibility that genetic manipulation might bring the actualization of the long sought-after utopian society.

After this gallop through the history of Western Philosophy, Coward leads us through the history of Western Psychology. Emphasis is first placed on the “tabula rasa” view of the person, who, subjected to environmental conditioning, either succeeds or fails. Next we find Freud’s notions of gratification, scarcity, and repression, which contribute not to perfectibility but to civilization. It is Freud’s student, Carl Jung, who reinstates religion, giving it an archetypal role. Of course, Jung himself was [End Page 568] influenced by the East, and is thus a pivotal player in the East / West dialogue. Nevertheless, as Coward had already pointed out in Yoga and Psychology, even Jung was never convinced that humans were perfectible. William James seems more optimistic in that saintliness can be known in certain moments of consciousness. Similarly, Maslow posited the potential for peak experiences, where reality was seen to be as it ought to be. In the likes of Jung, Allport, and Maslow, Coward recognizes the notion that “perfecting oneself involves endless progress toward a constantly moving horizon” (p. 26), a concept he believes is being challenged by the Eastern-influenced transpersonal psychologies of Washburn, Tart, and Ornstein. Though Coward’s method appears chronological, one feels that the real intent is to show a progression in Western Psychology as it tends...