Selfhood and Western Questions

Recent class discussions about autonomy and selfhood have prompted me to examine my own understandings of the self. Throughout the semester Butler’s work has pushed me to grapple with the concept of self-understanding and left me with many questions — more questions than answers, perhaps.

Tonight in Milne library, I was browsing the shelves for an eye-catching title (I sometimes do this when I am procrastinating… now you know what a thrilling life I lead). Anyway, I came across a book entitled Designs of Selfhood, which turns out to be a collection of anthropological studies concerning individual and collective understandings of the self across a multitude of cultures and regions. Vytautas Kavolis, the editor of this work, makes significant arguments in the preface of this work that I find highly relevant to the topics of this course. Here’s some of what he says in the preface:

“Our experience of ourselves and our efforts to construct a civilization do not possess a privileged centrality in the accumulated experience of humanity as a whole… We must begin with ourselves, but we cannot stop there.

Even cross-cultural psychology asks, on the whole, only Western questions of both Western and non-Western psyches. Efforts to develop non-Western psychologies out of the heart of non-Western experiences and from within the linguistic universes by which these experiences have been structured are rarely (mainly in Japan and India) beyond elementary beginnings” (10).

The point Kavolis makes here about our experiences and understandings having no privilege over the experience of humanity as a whole is one that I think has come up, perhaps subtly, in our course several times. We discussed in our last class meeting about the use of terms like “we” or “readers” in our writing, and how these terms can be problematic as they can assume the understandings of others whom the writer may know nothing about. I find it interesting that Kavolis examines something similar to this on a global scale – he suggests that the tendency to view one’s own experiences as privileged over those of another is one born out of Western culture.

Kavolis’ point about asking only Western questions of both Western and non-Western psyches seems extremely relevant to this course and Butler’s fiction in general. Throughout this course, we have been examining worlds that I would not classify as “Western”, and yet, have we been asking Western questions? To take this one step further, have we not been asking human questions of non-human psyches?

Looking at this anthropological text has taken me back to our discussions about Yoruba culture and its influences on Butler’s writing. I remember reading one of the articles in class – I believe it was the one about Yoruba understanding of gender(?) – and finding myself rather lost in a sea of lengthy words I couldn’t pronounce, coupled with meanings that were difficult for me to grasp. Through the lens of my Western-influenced understanding, it was difficult to understand the views of this other culture. Similarly, I remember a group discussion in class where the difference between gender and sex came up, and Dr. McCoy reminded us that not all cultures, or even individuals, consider there to be a difference between gender and sex. In Designs of Selfhood, one study examines a Hindu culture where the self is understood as being comprised of the familial self and the transcendent self (188). What I take away from all of this is that the way one person, culture, religion, or philosophy understands the world is often vastly different than the way another might understand it. There are more obvious differences in understandings that might not be so challenging to grapple with. For example, you probably know that vegetarians do not eat meat, many because they understand it to be morally wrong, and you have decided whether or not you share in this understanding. But when it comes to concepts more deeply engrained within our conceptualizations of our very being, such as the understanding of ourselves, that is when I, at least, seem to feel myself being pushed to my outer mental limits. Which, of course, tells me that I am probably on the right track to thinking about something valuable.


What I suppose I’m getting at is this – I think it is important to remember that our understandings about even such things as the self, even things that we might feel a tendency to generalize about, differ from the understandings of other people and cultures, many of which are widely underrepresented in our own lives.

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