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The book is intended as a comprehensive review of influential
psychological data about the self, and in particular about gender and cultural
differences in the perception of the self; private and public dimensions of the
self; emotions like embarrassment and shame; identity and self-awareness. It
would appeal to students and researchers in psychology who have an interest in
the concept of the self and its relation with character traits and emotions,
and who would like to see these issues developed from the point of view of
social, developmental and evolutionary psychology. However, psychologists and
philosophers who are interested in an in-depth analysis of the concept of the
self, or a critical assessment of the empirical literature might find Buss's
book a bit frustrating and superficial.
The introduction that opens the
book offers a very simplistic historical summary of the notion of the self and
its development. Authors' views are reported without being properly introduced
and there is no attempt to contextualise and structure the discussion. Some apparently controversial claims are
taken for granted and not independently supported, leaving the reader
unsatisfied. For instance, on page 21, Buss claims that "we share with
animals a primitive sense of the self, which includes body boundary, double
stimulation, and mirror image recognition" and that this 'primitive sense
of the self' is part of our sensory and not cognitive capacities. These claims
are not entirely correct. Very few non-human animals can recognise themselves
in the mirror. A chimpanzee can but has to play with the mirror image for hours
before it realises that what it is seeing is its own reflected image. This
seems to be a great cognitive (and not just sensory) achievement that should
not be overlooked, since human adults can lose that capacity when affected by
some psychotic disorders (e.g. delusion of mirrored self misidentification). I
am sure the author is aware of these complications, but the formulation of his
statements is imprecise and can be misleading.
Most of the argumentation in the
book is characterised by a lack of precision and by the failure to convincingly
support claims that are all but obvious. In chapter 3, on self-esteem, Buss
claims that the self-esteem that originates in morality is mainly to be
identified with religiosity and belief that a compassionate deity has the power
to restore the self-esteem of those who are sinful. No evidence is offered in
support of this claim. In chapter 5, on self-consciousness, Buss attempts to
explain the results of some experiments according to which the presence of a
small mirror in the room makes participants focus more on private
self-examination. Buss argues that we are accustomed to seeing our image
reflected in the mirror, and so that reflected image loses its impact on us as
social objects. This is what he concludes: "If the public aspects of the
self have habituated out, what remains as the object of self-focus when a
mirror is reflecting one's face? Presumably, the private aspects of the
self" (page 127). Now, it seems to me that this interpretation of the
results is scarcely convincing and depends both on assumptions that have not
been made explicit and on questionable empirical claims that have not been
defended. For instance, is it true that when we do not focus on the social
aspects of ourselves, we necessarily end up focussing on the private aspects?
And why should we believe that, as an effect of being used to our reflected
image, we do not perceive it as an indication of our public self?
There are very informative sections
in this book, such as the discussion of the experimental results on body image
in chapter 2, and the explanation of how individualism and collectivism
contribute to the formation of our identities in chapter 4. But I believe a
more critical attitude would have benefited this book, even if its most likely
readers are undergraduate students who have just started studying the self.
© 2003 Lisa Bortolotti
Bortolotti studied philosophy in Bologna (Italy), London and Oxford (UK)
before starting her PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. Her
main interests are in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology,
rationality, mental illness and animal cognition.
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