Wednesday


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In The Accidental World I said that individuals possess axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness — the very contingency of the world, the historical accidents of which we are the consequences, furnishes us with the concrete expressions of our individuality: faces, bodies, boundaries, borders — all that is ours.

It may have appeared mildly ironic to some that I should begin my trip to Japan with a meditation on individuality. Japan is, after all, known in the west as the source of the proverb that the stake that sticks up gets hammered down (出る杭は打たれる。 Deru kui wa utareru).

While Japan is stereotypically a land of stultifying conformity, Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the result of wartime research commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information, presents the reader with a sequence of dramatic contradictions of the Japanese character:

“The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep. Their soldiers are disciplined to the hilt but are also insubordinate.”

Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Chapter I, “Assignment: Japan”

In other words, the Japanese are human, all-too-human. There was never a more persuasive argument for universal human nature than a detailed study of the life of a people that reveals their inner nature to be as conflicted as the inner nature of any other people.

In the same spirit of Benedict’s contradictory character traits, one would expect that the Japanese are at once both pervasively conformist and yet profoundly individualistic. The same might be said of Europeans, Africans, Latins, Americans, and so on.

What is distinctive about a people and a culture — that which is distinctively theirs and not ours — is the way in which the conflicted components of human nature are manifested in social institutions. And social institutions can vary quite significantly. Every society must find a way to keep the better part of its people fed, clothed, washed, housed, and occupied, but within these rather generous parameters there are ample opportunities for social experiments not duplicated elsewhere in the world.

Human beings, being all derived from a single speciation event, have a unity that cultural institutions do not possess. Social institutions, far more than individuals, embody the historical accidents that vary from place to place and time to time.

What we find when we travel are human beings, the same as human beings any other place on the planet, but whose lives have been shaped by the geographical and historical accidents that remain localized — unlike ourselves. We individuals do not remain localized. Like our prehistoric ancestors, we can start walking, and if we walk long enough and far enough (and maybe canoe for a while as well) we will find ourselves in another world shaped by other forces of geography and history than those familiar to us.

It is an accident that any of us happens live where we live, just as it is an accident where we happen to be born. It is partially an accident, and partially a matter of choice, where we happen to travel. If we start walking, we first find ourselves at our neighbor’s, and then our neighbor’s neighbor, and so on. Their lives are as accidental as are our lives. That they are the closest Other (and therefore representative of the narcissism of small differences) is as much an accident as where we happen to be born ourselves.

If we spend a little more time planning our expeditions, not merely setting out to walk away from our accidental home, but seeking a place in the world that agrees with our temperament, tastes, or preferences — that, too, is an accident, for while human nature (if there is any) may be traced to a single speciation event, individual temperament is an accident of history, and the places in the world that happen to offer aesthetic, intellectual, pragmatic, or other satisfaction to the individual mind do so as a matter of chance.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

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