The story of “relationality” is widely documented in empirically minded publications. One study to this effect presented participants with an aquarium holding a variety of elements which the study’s organizers asked the latter to describe. In the content of their descriptions, “Western” participants diverged in important ways from the “Eastern”. Whereas the former were more likely to isolate individual elements from the aquarium in their descriptions, the latter more often placed emphasis on the relation between those elements, be it in terms of physical position, similarity or aesthetics.
From this, authors in the social sciences have extracted a broader conclusion:
Whereas in the West the self is understood primarily as an autonomous ego whose existence is distinct from that of others, in the East, it is often argued there is no meaning of self that is independent of our relations to others. The self is irreducibly social.
This conclusion remains, as Baggini is swift to point out, painted in broad strokes.
We need only consider that such Western thinkers as Habermas have described the self as fundamentally intersubjective, a glove that, when turned inside out, reveals itself to be of many threads (Between Naturalism and Religion). Yet the focus remains on the person as a communicative agent, even if Habermas does not maintain any claims as to the existence of a metaphysically independent ego. Though this may seem equivocation of a kind, putting forth such reservations provides an important safeguard against essentializing differences between “Eastern” and “Western”.
All of this is no doubt true, but we misunderstand what it means if we see it as indicating a wholly other idea of self to that which holds in the West. That would be to fall prey to a kind of exoticization, the source both of xenophobia and romantic idealizing of the foreign Other. Many identities are relational in the West, such as those of parent, child, group member and so on. What we think of as different notions of self are largely a matter of differences in what aspects of self are expressed where and when.
This difference in purpose accounts for much of the divergence in talk of the self, for purposes can generally be said to come in two kinds: prescriptive and descriptive. (Insofar as pragmatists might allow for a relative distinction between the two.) The author pursues this thought in observing that:
Conceptions of self are usually assumed to be attempts to describe the objective reality of what a self is, and this is indeed what thinkers around the globe have often thought they were doing. But philosophies of self are usually at least as prescriptive as they are descriptive. For example, thinkers like Confucius knew that people could choose to live in isolation as rugged individualists. Living without relationality is perfectly possible; it just isn’t good. There would still be some self living such a life but it would be an impoverished, emaciated one. Differences between conceptions of self are therefore more ethical than metaphysical.
The reader may wonder what lesson we might take from the foregoing. In a word, this lesson amounts to the following: for each answer to “what is self?”, it is no less important to know the precise formulation of the question and its implications as well as the reasons the questioner had in mind when asking. In order to arrive at a different answer, it is enough to change the wording of the question. This does not, however, mean that all questions bear asking; certain may be more worth posing than others. Indeed, there may even exist cases where we have as much to teach others as others.