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A Role for Philosophy of Education in Intercultural Research: A Reexamination of the Relativism-Absolutism Debate

by Walter Feinberg - 1989

This article discusses the author's attempt to understand some aspects of Japanese society and his reflections on the role that philosophy of education, anthropology, and other disciplines can play in grappling with issues of intercultural understanding. (Source: ERIC)

Permission to print is granted by the Philosophy of Education Society Philosophy of Education 1989, ed. Ralph C. Page (Normal, Illinois: The Philosophy of Education Society, 1990). Appreciation is expressed to Charles Blatz, Eric Bredo, Cheiko Fons, Reiko Hattori, Taiji Hotta, Frank Margonis, Ralph Page, Alan Peshkin, to the students in my research seminar on Japanese education, and to the students and faculty of the Philosophy of Education discussion group at the University of Illinois. This research has been aided by the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission and the University of Illinois, College of Education, the Bureau of Educational Research, the Department of Education Policy Studies, and the University of Illinois Research Board, as well as by an International Program and Studies Hewlett Grant. This was presented as the Philosophy of Education Society presidential address for 1989.

For the last few years, I have been examining the educational implications of a new Japanese-managed factory growing out of a cornfield in the Midwest. Because the study requires that I learn something about the characteristic responses of Japanese people, there are times when, like an anthropologist, I must announce my status as a novice learning about a new culture. Yet I am more than a novice learning about a new culture; I am also a novice learning about how to learn about a new culture. It is this learning that I want to consider. I want to ask how a person brought up in the web of understanding of one culture can incorporate the understandings and, if necessary, evaluate the practices of another culture. Hence, this article is not only about my own attempt to understand some aspects of Japanese society; it also is about my attempt to grasp how I am coming to understand Japanese society.

The project has also led me to consider the role of philosophy of education and its relation to other disciplines and other ways of knowing. In grappling with issues of intercultural understanding, I have come to a reconsideration of the role of philosophy of education. Here I undertake this reconsideration through an exploration of the issue of relativism and absolutism.


In my study the issue of relativism has arisen in a number of ways. Take, for example, two of the most traditional parents in the study. When my Japanese translator and I interview the wife alone, she talks so much that we have difficulty interrupting her to ask a new question. Conversely, when we interview her husband alone, we are unable to elicit more than the briefest response. Yet, when they are together, and especially when they are with school authorities, he always initiates the conversation while she but nods her head in agreement with him. Moreover, when they walk, he always leads and she follows a few paces behind. Now if I were to ask them what all of this means, they would tell me that it is the wife’s way of showing respect for her husband. Yet as a Westerner privilege to a politically progressive, rights-injected, individualistic view of human behavior, I know that this description is wrong. Subordination and domination is what is important here, not respect. If when I talk to the wife alone, she continues to insist that she is just showing her husband respect, my Western wisdom would let me know that we have here a rather serious case of false consciousness. The woman is accepting a subordinate status on the basis of ascribed characteristics alone. Yet is our Western wisdom really adequate to understand this non-Western convention? Their behavior is extreme for modern Japanese society, but it does represent an important feature of the role of women, which from an American point of view is quite properly described by the word subordination. In her book Geisha, Dalby mentions that, for the most part, young Japanese women are not encouraged to speak freely with men, and that Japanese wives are dependent on their husbands for their economic base.1 Outside of the home, Japanese wives still have little independence and power, and there seems to be little ideological momentum for changing this. While Dalby attempts to place this position in a positive light by noting the unusual authority that Japanese women have within the home, she grants that it is not a role that would lit modern Western standards of liberation.2

The school provides another instance for viewing the problem of cultural relativism and absolutism. Recent critics of American schools have pointed enviously to the study habits and test scores of Japanese children. Yet the other side of this is that the Japanese child not only spends six days a week in school, but frequently studies for two or three more hours a day in a cram school to prepare for the high school or university entrance examination. Many children then return home to a private tutor. After the session with the tutor is over, they turn to their homework assignments. The primary reason for this effort is to gain access to a prestigious high school and university, thereby opening the doors to a job in a large corporation or a government agency. Those who pass the examination into prestigious universities receive a good deal of respect and are granted positions of high prestige and income. Yet even friendly critics of the Japanese system say that the examinations emphasize rote memory and a good deal of trivia. While we might question whether these are appropriate criteria on which to judge social worth, students who fail the exam tend to blame their own lack of effort. Perhaps the oddest thing about this struggle is that once entrance to the university has been attained, the competition is essentially over. As difficult as it is to gain access to a prestigious university, it is equally difficult to flunk out, and many students spend their years in the academy recuperating from the struggle that led to their acceptance.


In observing these aspects of Japanese society, I am not at all confident of my ability to describe them. One of the ghosts in my machine, the philosopher wanting some basis for transcultural judgment, insists that these are examples of exploitation on the part of the successful and false consciousness on the part of the unsuccessful—at least among those who stand willing to accept their fate and blame themselves for it. People seem to be complying in the appropriation of their own labor against their own interest. Yet another ghost, the voice of anthropologist, whispers that descriptions like these are simply examples of Western chauvinism and of our, or my, inability to take other cultures on their own terms. The voice of the anthropologist grows even stronger when I begin to consider the writings of the noted Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi in The Anatomy of Dependency. Using his own response to American society as a mirror to help him understand the Japanese concept of amae, Doi writes of his earliest experience in the United States.

[One] thing that made me nervous, was the custom whereby an American host will ask a guest, before the meal, whether he would prefer a strong or a soft drink. Then, if the guest asks for liquor, he will ask him whether, for example, he prefers scotch or bourbon. When the guest has made this decision, he next has to give instructions as to how much he wishes to drink, and how he wants it served. With the main meal, fortunately, one has only to eat what one is served, but once it is over, one has to choose whether to take coffee or tea and—in even greater detail—whether one wants it with sugar, and milk, and so on. I soon realized that this was only the American’s way of showing politeness to his guest, but in my own mind, I had a strong feeling that I could not care less. What a lot of trivial choices they were obliging me to make—I sometimes felt—almost as though they were doing it to reassure themselves of their own freedom.3

Doi wrote this not as a Japanese anthropologist intent on throwing light on the strange customs of Americans, but as a psychiatrist working to uncover some of the deeper aspects of Japanese culture and personality. His own response to American society is to be taken as a mirror reflecting for him something that is a key to understanding Japanese society. The concept of amae, which the translator tells us refers to the feeling that all normal infants at the breast harbor toward the mother, is the key to this understanding. It is described as the “desire to be passively loved, the unwillingness to be separated from the warm mother-child circle.” In short, amae, which Doi sees as a characteristic drive of Japanese personality, could be-appropriately described as the quest for dependency.

Yet if Doi’s reactions are key to understanding Japanese society, do they not also serve in a disturbing way as a key to understanding my own, characteristically American,- reaction to Japanese society? If I want to judge what I see and hear as instances of subordination, domination, exploitation, and false consciousness, then have I not simply brought into play a Western standard of freedom and independence, one that may not be applicable to the Japanese?

Doi’s work is frequently cited in commentaries on Japanese society and seems to be accepted by many experts both inside and outside of Japan. Yet one need not endorse Doi’s understanding of Japanese society to see that the concept of amae provides us with an important spectre for educational and philosophical thought. Suppose that there were a society like the one Doi seems to describe as Japan. Suppose that in this society a driving force was the individual’s quest for dependency. Suppose that many of the words in this society indicated values that are familiar to us but that where our language gives a certain value concept a positive tinge, theirs would give it a negative one. Similarly, where a certain behavior, attitude, or practice would be described negatively in our language, it would carry positive overtones in theirs. Hence, for example, words like manipulation, indoctrination, paternalism, and so forth, all of which communicate to us an unwarranted infringement on liberty, would be seen by them as describing appropriate and possibly praiseworthy behavior. Similarly, words like independent, autonomous, free choice, and the like—words we take as describing highly regarded acts—would, in their culture, carry a hint of disapproval. Doi himself does not carry his analysis of Japanese culture this far. Moreover, while he does explore the various ways in which the Japanese language provides a positive indicator for the presence of amae and negative indicators for its absence, it is unlikely that English and Japanese map so directly onto one another that one would stand as a mirror image of the other. Yet we could imagine a people inspired by the slogan “inequality, paternity, and dependency.”

I use words like suppose and imagine in the above passage because the ghost of the absolutist in me is whispering that freedom and independence are not just culturally specific values, and that I will not find the slogan “inequality, paternity, and dependency” any more likely to inspire a crowd of Japanese than it would a crowd of Americans. Yet again I hesitate, for even if the Japanese own concepts like domination, subordination, and exploitation, if Doi is right they surely do not apply them in the same way that I do. This hesitation, this thesis and antithesis without resolution, is a part of the problem I am trying to address. Why do I not play the role of the social scientist and get on with the task of defining, classifying, measuring, correlating, and reporting the behavior? If I did not think that there must be something wrong with the value system I hear Doi describing as belonging to the Japanese, I would not be hemming and hawing as I am. This hesitation, this hemming and hawing, may eventually lead to a new, perhaps a better, reading of Doi, but for now I want to try to follow the implications that the first reading holds for cultural understanding and to examine this reading in terms of the issue of cultural absolutism and cultural relativism.


Traditional disciplinary stereotypes are useful in locating this issue as the conflict between philosophy and anthropology. Of course stereotypes are limited in value and these labels will not tell us anything about the arguments and commitments of particular anthropologists and particular philosophers. They do, however, point to the concern for capturing the texture of a culture, and for refusing to judge all societies by standards of so-called Western logic or morality that we find among many anthropologists. They capture too the concern to establish the legitimacy of a universal system of logic and moral principles, to reach for an Archimedean point by which to judge different social systems, which some philosophers have felt important.


One of the latest attempts to defend the philosopher’s point of view is to be found in MacIntyre’s presidential address before the Eastern division of the American Philosophical Association (APA). MacIntyre raises the example of a person who is a full member of two premodern language systems as a way to illustrate the problem of transcultural evaluation. In this example, the language systems carry different and conflicting cosmological, psychological, social, and legal assumptions and hence, to choose between them, as MacIntyre’s character must now do, is to choose between different ways of life and different ethical systems. The problem involves the dilemma of having to choose by employing standards and criteria that are implicit in one system but not the other and vice versa. Hence, without an alternative system, there is no possibility for a neutral and impartial decision.

MacIntyre tries to find a way out of the dilemma by suggesting the possibility of learning a third language, which, as he describes it, would be such that its

everyday use does not presuppose allegiance to either of the two rival sets of belief . . . or, indeed, so far as possible, to any other set of beliefs Record which might compete for allegiance with these two. And secondly, it must be able to provide the resources for an accurate representation of these two competing schemes of belief.4

MacIntyre proposes that because modern languages developed out of the clash of different value systems, they thereby transcend the values and commitments embedded in any premodern system. They thus comprise good candidates for the neutral linguistic point of view. While MacIntyre ultimately rejects the view that modern languages can in fact transcend the kind of dilemma he depicts, he clearly leaves the impression that they do constitute an advance over the premodern systems between which his indecisive linguist is trying to select. In other words, the implication is that while his linguist is not able to choose among his original alternatives, by discovering a modern language, he has already transcended the need to choose.

According to MacIntyre, we transcend relativism because we are able, through a modern language and the form of rationality that it provides, to reflect on its possible inadequacy in a way that the primitive cannot. In other words, a tradition that can conceive of its own value in a relative way and holds out the possibility for its own replacement has transcended relativism.5 Such, according to MacIntyre, is the tradition that we belong to. Because I am able to recognize that my own cultural tradition may meet its match someday in a superior tradition, I have thereby established, however temporary it may be, the superiority of my own tradition and have thereby transcended relativism.

However, even if we were to find that MacIntyre’s characterization of language is correct, and even if we accept his view that a vision of a far, far better alternative than the one we know establishes the one we know as far better than all the windowless systems that have been, we are still left with a variant of the relativist’s dilemma. To return to our original example, surely modern-day Japanese is not a primitive language. It has arisen from a number of different linguistic bases, and has developed a philosophical tradition. Clearly, many of those who speak Japanese are able to envisage a time when their own traditions may no longer work and must be transcended. Indeed, regarding this latter point, one might even say that with the massive and conscious transformation of Japanese society after World War II, such a transcendence was no longer just an abstract possibility. To generalize the point, if MacIntyre’s transcendence works when we compare modern with primitive systems, it does not work when we compare modern systems with one another, and here the problem of relativism is still unsolved. Because MacIntyre is unable to address this problem, his approach remains, from a hard-liner’s point of view, soft on relativism.


The other side of this issue, the one provided by our stereotypical anthropologist, is no more satisfying than that offered by our stereotypical philosopher. This anthropologist takes caution too far and concludes that because all groups do not share the same values, there is no ground for comparison or judgment at all. In his study of the Ik, an impoverished people living in the mountains between Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya, Turnbull tends to take this course. In his preface, Turnbull warns against what he views as ethnocentricism.

In what follows, there will be much to shock, and the reader will be tempted to say “how primitive . . . how savage . . . how disgusting” and above all, “how inhuman.” The first judgments are typical of the kind of ethno and ego-centrism from which we can never quite escape, however much we try, and are little more than reaffirmations of standards that are different in circumstances that are different. But the latter judgments, “how inhuman,” is of a different order and supposes that there are certain standards common to all humanity, certain values inherent in humanity itself, from which the people described in this book seem to depart in a most drastic manner.6

Turnbull rejects this idea of common human values and concludes his preface with a personal note that the study has “added to my respect for humanity and my hope that we who have been civilized into such empty beliefs as the essential beauty and goodness of humanity may discover ourselves before it is too late.“7 He then goes on to describe a people who, having lost their source of livelihood, their hunting grounds, have grown callous, neglectful, and sadistic. These people refuse to care for their own children, sending them out to fend for themselves after they are three years old, and they experience none of the expected feelings of loss or separation. If the child dies, there is no one to bury it, no one to cry, and no one to mourn. Those who are not clever and quick do die, usually from starvation. Turnbull thus describes a people who have lost their capacity for kindness, affection, compassion, hospitality, generosity, and industry. In his words, “The people were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be.“8 He explains this by remarking that these qualities are no longer functional for the Ik. They do not have the time for “such luxuries” and must employ more basic survival strategies.9

Yet Turnbull is really not able to maintain this strictly relativistic point of view and it is not difficult to read between the lines and feel his anger against an international system that, under the banner of progress, has wiped out the Ik’s hunting ground, reducing them to their primitive, animal-like existence. He is quite explicit in warning that if progress is able to do this to the Ik, it may soon do the same to us.10

One may or may not agree-with Turnbull that given the environment of the Ik, both their behavior and their values—or lack of values—are appropriate. Yet even if we agree that the behavior is appropriate to the environment, most people would want to add that the environment is inappropriate for any member of the human species. If what they want is what they get, then we need to question why they want in the way that they do. Indeed, given his own framework, Turnbull can see better than the Ik that behavior they take to be quite natural is in fact environmentally and ultimately politically generated. Without this insight, the Ik lack the intellectual resources needed to develop the desire to change their own behavior. Yet, given Turnbull’s description, it would be a perfectly appropriate desire to develop.

If we are uneasy about using our own concepts and set of causal understandings to describe the Ik, it is because we are aware of the extent to which Western colonialism is responsible for their condition, and we do not wish to again impose an outsider’s set of categories on them. Even though the modern concept of colonialism has now been infused with the understandings of oppressed peoples, however, the Ik, having lost their own history, are not likely to approach this explanation. Our uneasiness arises then not because we are torn between the Ik way of understanding and our own. It arises because we are caught between two different ways of understanding, each of which is familiar to us and apparently foreign to the Ik.


Now why do I feel uncomfortable about providing the same kind of analysis of the Japanese treatment of women? Does it not warrant a judgment of exploitation, chauvinism, and false consciousness? I may not even have to stray too far from some internal Japanese interpretations in order to approach this judgment. Take, for example, Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Doctor’s Wife, a novel describing the struggle between a wife and a mother-in--law for the affection of a famous eighteenth-century Japanese doctor.11 The novel appears to be an acknowledgement of the fact that the treatment of women in Japan is a simple case of exploitation. Moreover, the competition between the wife and the mother-in-law to sacrifice themselves in order to become guinea pigs for the famous doctor’s dangerous experiments appears to be Ariyoshi’s way of acknowledging the fact that false consciousness accompanies such exploitation. Perhaps, though, I am still reading the novel with my Western eyes. Perhaps Ariyoshi simply wants to valorize the largely overlooked role that women within the household played in the development of Japanese science and culture without conveying the larger ideological message about exploitation and false consciousness that my Western sensitivities insist on receiving. Indeed, my hesitation arises because of this concern that my search for general categories of judgment will lead me to overlook that which is specifically Japanese. My hesitation—that is, my straightforward, unphilosophical hesitation—reflects the currency that Japanese culture holds for an uninitiated Westerner. It reflects an awareness of the complexity and richness of Japanese art, language, industry, and tradition, and it expresses the concern that looking with a Western eye will leave little room for understanding the Japanese on their own terms.

Yet my philosophical reflection tells me that the fact that Japanese culture has a large amount of currency should not necessarily lead to the conclusion that exploitation is an inappropriate concept for understanding the treatment of women in Japanese society. My philosophical reflection warns me that I am in danger of justifying the means by its end, by some grand cultural bonanza of Kabuki and Toyotas. Nevertheless, Ariyoshi’s novel is useful for understanding the source of my hesitation. It is not just the women’s self-destructive competition for the admiration of the doctor and his aloof indifference that makes this novel interesting. It is also interesting because of the background knowledge that Dr. Seishu’s experiments, around which the historical novel is developed, led to the use of anesthetics (fifty years before their use in Western medicine), opening up the possibility of treatment for breast cancer and other previously untreatable ailments. It is this kind of background knowledge that leads me not to discard the concepts of exploitation or false consciousness but to want to apply them with delicacy, care, and openness. It is this textual richness my anthropologist ghost fears the philosopher will overlook, but it is the possible injustice of the process that my philosopher ghost worries that the anthropologist will ignore.

The role of women in Japan, and the acceptance of that role by many men and women, is problematic to us precisely because of the awareness we have of the achievements of Japanese culture. We want to know how a culture so advanced on so many of our own scales understands itself when it departs from our notions of progressive behavior. Hence the label exploitation, because of its implications about independence, becomes a way of acknowledging a discrepancy in our perception of Japanese culture, while the concept of amae, because of its suggestion of connectedness and dependency, presents an opportunity to interrogate the concept of exploitation. Because the concept of exploitation implies a limitation on choice where one is forced to act in the service of another, it stands in a contrasting relationship to amae, where one expects the other to voluntarily act in one’s own behalf. It is because of this expectation that the agents expect their own choices to be happily limited by another.

From outside of the debate, the contest between the anthropologist and the philosopher, between the relativist and the absolutist, is easily declared a draw. Philosophers will point to the anthropologist’s inability to maintain a consistent relativistic standpoint. They will see the anthropologist’s failure to acknowledge the problems involved in allowing two contradictory ethical judgments to be equally valid, to be further proof of the dogmatic character of the anthropologist’s antidogmaticism. Similarly, the anthropologist will find the inability of the philosophical community to agree on a single system of ethics as further proof that all forms of absolutism are unstable.

To call the debate a draw will not, of course, bring the conflict to an end, but it can provide a somewhat different framework for approaching the issue of relativism. The debate has been cast within the framework of pure understanding, where issues are addressed as strategies in an argument, not as guidelines for action within a culture. In other words, practice is hypothetical practice brought in as a way to shoulder part of the burden of the argument for or against the relativist position. The anthropologist would rather not have to worry about seemingly clear instances of evil, a Hitler or Stalin, preferring Zunis and other small, isolated social groups, groups more often threatened than threatening. The philosopher is more likely to use examples about Hitler or Stalin in order to preserve concepts of good and evil without needing to add “evil from my culture’s perspective” or “from their culture’s point of view.”

Nevertheless, despite the array of practical examples that relativists and their detractors bring to the argument, decisions about how to conduct practice are not the reason for the debate. The anthropologist wants to understand other cultures and, in doing so, clearly finds our own normative apparatus to be an impediment. The philosopher wants to understand the nature of normative principles and judgment, and, in doing so, finds our own normative intuitions tested by alien ones. True, the issue of cultural relativism is important to both of them, but not for the same reasons. It is the crossroad on which they meet while pursuing different objects of understanding. In both cases, however, the point of the debate is a question about understanding. In the one, it is a question of how we are to understand other cultures; in the other, it is a question of how we are to understand the normative claims of ethics, aesthetics, and the like.

Situations of practice, like educating, ground the issue of relativism around specific activities, not around global questions of the merits of one culture over another. In practical activity, we are not choosing among whole cultures, but rather are making selective decisions about certain aspects of a culture.


Philosophy of education involves reflection on the purposes and procedures of a practical activity and it has an interest in improving practice. Thus, philosophy of education alters the point of the debate. The question changes from how to understand, to how to act. With this question in mind, the philosopher of education recasts the debate between the pure philosopher and the anthropologists by examining the framework of practice and its characteristics.

To put the matter differently, within philosophy of education, the problem of cultural relativism arises when judgments about the appropriateness of a specific practice must be made, such as when two cultures are brought together and when members of one are given the task of instructing members of the other. The issue of relativism is taken as a real problem only when there is a belief in the value of the learning that is to form the object of the instruction and where there is a conflicting recognition that the student’s culture is also viable and holds different values and beliefs. The issue arises when situations are encountered in which the values held by the two cultures are such that to teach an appreciation of the values and practices of one endangers the values and practices of the other, and where some set of values must be taught. Moreover, the condition for the recognition of the problem of relativism is a situation in which the teacher stands as a representative of one cultural traditional and the student stands in a different tradition, and where each tradition is held in reasonable regard.

For example, to some American teachers working with Japanese children in an American school, the analysis of amae provided by Doi would be disturbing because of two mandates that are said to be appropriate guides for the practice of teaching. The first obliges teachers to respect other cultures and accommodate the special needs of culturally different children. The second obliges them to develop in children the traits of independence and self-reliance, and to do so by allowing as much individual autonomy as is consistent with levels of maturity and classroom order. It is because Doi’s analysis suggests that these goals may conflict, at least in the case of an American teacher and a Japanese child, that the issue of relativism becomes a felt problem for the teacher, and an appropriate issue for philosophy of education.

For the philosopher of education, the solution is to be found in neither the anthropologist’s nor the philosopher’s alternative. Teachers cannot put aside their own reflective categories in order to render equal respect to all cultures, and educational philosophers cannot assume some impossible standard of cultural neutrality in trying to evaluate the teaching act. Yet respect for members of other cultures will not allow us to assume that the values we just happen to learn in our own family, school, and community are the universal standard by which every other culture should be judged.

Practice belongs neither to the philosopher nor to the anthropologist. Philosophy of education requires a different approach to the issue of relativism. This approach takes the anthropologist’s call for pure cultural understanding as an expression of the concern that cultural differences, if possible, be respected. It takes the philosopher’s quest for absolutes as a concern to understand the basis for determining whether or how respect should be given in a specific instance. Because it is grounded in practice, philosophy of education requires an analysis of the different conditions in which respect is granted and the different forms that respect can take. What follows is an effort to provide such an analysis in the context of my recent experience with Japanese culture.


Within the context of practice, respect for other cultures may arise for different reasons and be expressed in different ways. First, I may respect a culture even though I realize that the life it represents is not one that I would recommend. My respect is given when I realize that this other culture supports a landscape of values I can understand and appreciate.


In some cases respect may require that I take a laissez-faire attitude toward the education of children by the community. It may require that I stand aside and enable the community to establish the mechanisms for the perpetuation of its own form of life without interference from the outside. For example, when we respect the desire of the Amish to educate their own children, it is because we accept the values of care, craft, and devotion their way of life represents. We understand that while theirs is not the only way to express such values, it is an appropriate one. Yet we also recognize that theirs is a fragile culture, one easily endangered by the thunder of choices that our own life-style presents. In this situation respect requires that we allow the Amish to educate their own children knowing that some choices will not be offered and that some child’s potential, as we judge potential, will not be fulfilled. Yet leaving them alone is, in this case, the most appropriate form of respect that we can give.


There are other cases in which we may know very little about a culture, where we find the landscape of values hazy and difficult to discern yet still feel that respect is warranted. In this situation respect arises out of two considerations. The first involves a recognition of the importance of culture in the construction of identity and personality. The second involves a general understanding that some cultural practices are tied together in such a way that changing one may create disturbances among many, and it also involves an awareness of the fact that we do not know enough about this culture to identify its critical practices. In the absence of specific knowledge about a particular culture, the hesitation of teachers to interfere with specific cultural practices may be taken as a form of respect arising out of this more general knowledge about cultures as such. For example, teachers working with children from certain Native American groups are sometimes told not to demand that the children look them in the eye, since the children’s culture takes this as a sign of disrespect, not honesty. When the teachers agree to adjust their practice so as not to interfere with this cultural norm, it is likely that they do so because of their general understanding about the relationship between personality formation and culture. In this case respect takes the form of a constraint that the culture places on the teaching act. The teachers adapt their practice so as not to interfere with certain cultural norms. This is different, however, from cases in which the values of the culture determine the goals and content of instruction, or where the role of the teacher is, as with Freire’s pedagogy, to help give voice to the culture. In one, respect involves a constraint on the teaching act. In the other, respect serves to determine how to constitute the teaching act.


Our encounter with amae is different from these other situations. When we decide to leave a culture alone to educate its own children or when we allow another’s cultural norms to constrain our own behavior as teachers, we need not doubt the value of our own conception of education. The issue with amae, however, is not whether we should act to effect our understanding of good education. Nor is the issue whether we should impose our norms on a culture that we know little about. Rather the issue is what we are to take as constituting a sound and reasonable notion of personhood and thereby of education. As we examine the process through which this issue is encountered, a third form of respect becomes apparent—one that places many of our own cultural values under scrutiny.

Because we already hold Japanese art, industry, language, and tradition in generally high regard and because our reading of Doi suggests that our two societies hold such radically different conceptions of the good, we may feel a need for a radical act of self-reflection, one that makes problematic our own values of individuality and independence. Yet these values serve as the foundation for many of our own most basic understandings and judgments, and to question them requires that we challenge more about our own form of life than just our appraisal of Japanese culture and personality. It would require, for example, a reappraisal of many of our taken-for-granted judgments about rights and personhood. Moreover, since these values are themselves the foundation of our judgments, we would seem to lack a platform from which to examine them. It is wiser to begin our reconsideration by focusing on a feature of our judgment that is more self-contained. We would do better to begin by questioning our interpretation of Doi’s treatment of amae rather than puzzling about the value of our own standards.

Some misreading of Doi’s concept of amae actually does seem likely. I have tended to interpret amae on a political plane paralleling and contradicting our ideas of freedom, autonomy, and independence. Yet on reconsideration this reading seems inappropriate. It is unlikely that we would find in Japan the cultural evidence that would support the view that dependency is a political quest of the Japanese. No serious political party will truly advance itself on a slogan calling for “inequality, dependency, and paternity.” No cultural critic will write a book lamenting the escape from dependency. No children will appeal to their inherent right to be dominated by their parents and no newspaper will chide politicians for failing to consistently manipulate the population. The idea that we are working with a political concept does not make sense. There is no network of social or political activity—no easily projected expectations that could be observed in Japan—that would serve to support this view. Dependency cannot be a political quest in Japan in the way that freedom is seen as a political quest in the United States.

To understand the concept we would do well to remember that Doi is a psychoanalyst, not a political theorist, and remembering this we might do well to restrict our thinking about amae to the interpersonal realm, to view amae as a drive, a fundamental motor force of behavior in the way that Freud understood libidinal forces. If this is the proper view of amae, then there may well be a connection between it and other forms of dependency. However, rather than viewing the connection in terms of a denial of freedom, we now should perhaps come to view it in terms of the overarching trust that we might place in someone who we believe will always act out of care and concern for our own well-being. Amae would then be understood not in terms of a negation of a goal such as freedom, but rather as an assertion of a relationship of care. When we know that someone cares for us completely, we need not deny our freedom, but we may feel no need to affirm it in order to assure ourselves that we still hold on to it. We may even reveal our childlike qualities of playfulness and irresponsibility with the understanding that, at least in this setting, we will still be accepted. This interpretation seems consistent with Doi’s reaction when he thought that perhaps his American hosts provided so many trivial choices in order to assure themselves of their own freedom. Perhaps when amae prevails, such continuous assurance is not required.

If amae is to be understood as a basic psychological drive, then we should be able to find a sensible connection with our own experience, our own wants and longings. When we do touch base with the concept of amae, we will do so, as Doi suggests in his critique of Western psychoanalysis, by announcing needs that we feel but often fail to acknowledge.

Yet, if we have gone this far in our reinterpretation of the concept of amae, and if we have found something promising in Doi’s critique of Western psychoanalysis, will we still be able to hold on to our own standards of judgment? Is interpretation the only issue that is at stake? Here it seems to me that respect takes a different turn. As we explore the meaning of amae, our own values become vulnerable to interrogation. Doi provides not only a critique of psychoanalysis as it developed in the West, but also an implicit critique of the ideal of independence that serves as the telos of the psycho analytic process—as the goal, as psychoanalysis sees it, for all normal forms of development. Doi speaks of the overemphasis in psychoanalysis on self-reliance and of the indifference he noticed among analysts toward their patients’ sense of helplessness. He speaks of Freud’s neglect of expressions of infantile desire for love and attachment. He mentions the distortions that arise in understanding when the foundation for identity is located in the separation associated with the Oedipus complex while overlooking the need for tenderness and the quest for attachment that precede it. If we were to succeed in developing our own sense of amae, then we would become sensitive to features in our own culture that facilitate or block its expression, and when these were absent, we might find ourselves appealing to the need for amae in the same way that we appeal to freedom or equality. In this case, amae would serve to challenge some of the standards we use for judging normal development.

The case I have just elaborated provides a third way of thinking about respect. Unlike the situation where the other culture served to constrain the teacher’s behavior, here the other serves as an active guide to a newly constituted behavior. Moreover, we can use the concept of amae to help us see some aspects of Japanese education that are often overlooked by Western observers. The gentle relationship between Japanese adults and children, along with the sense of mutual caring and responsibility that teachers in Japan develop with some success among young children, become perhaps more important than the high test scores of Japanese children. These new observations may become important in reformulating our own conception of teaching.

It is ironic that as we elaborate the concept of amae, finding new interpretive ground on which to build our understanding of Japanese society, we come close to one aspect of Western feminism. That is, we approach those forms of feminism that have stressed a philosophy of care. Yet it is still difficult to ignore an important difference between the two, for along with a philosophy of care is feminism’s insistence that the public realm be open to all and that the role of caretaker no longer be distributed on a gender-specific basis. To hold on to this principle is to open the door to a political analysis of the role of the Japanese household in supporting their corporate economy. Of course, the way the conflict between care and opportunity is resolved in each society will become the material out of which new patterns of identity will evolve.

It is in this kind of encounter between cultures that a third form of respect emerges. Here the other serves to reflect one’s own interpretations and standards, providing a foundation for reconsidering the commitments and goals of the educational process itself. It is not the mimicking of the other that this third form aspires to nor is it the molding of the other according to one’s own norms. Rather, each provides for the other a reflective moment on which conceptions of education can continue to develop. In these moments philosophy of education can articulate the notions of personhood involved in different educational practices, and it can provide the conceptual material needed to consider new and emerging identities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 2, 1989, p. 161-176
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 422, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:58:13 AM

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