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The Western Illusion of Human Nature: With Reflections on the Long History of Hierarchy, Equality and the Sublimation of Anarchy in the West, and ... Conceptions of the Human Condition (Paradigm) Paperback – June 24, 2008


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Product Details

  • Series: Paradigm
  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Prickly Paradigm Press (June 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0979405726
  • ISBN-13: 978-0979405723
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 0.4 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #411,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"In this latest in a series of contentious . . . pamphlets, really, distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (who is also executive publisher of this series) opposes the Western idea of human nature (at least its Hobbesian branch) as avaricious, pugnacious and destructive, unless severely governed. He cites earlier and non-Western societies in which this view is by no means prevalent. Think, he says, of the many societies in which beasts are considered substantially human rather than humans being substantially beasts."

(Martin Levin Globe & Mail 2008-07-26)

About the Author

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. The author of numerous books, Sahlins is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Adam Piontek on August 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
Unlike the other reviewer here, my rating doesn't relate to the degree to which I agree or disagree with this or that in this book, but rather the quality of the book itself. It's very thought provoking, short, insightful, and useful to a reader pondering human nature or other culture concepts. It's also very densely written, and wanders in tone from seriousness to coyness. I suppose the former is to be expected in a short work tackling such a complex topic - the author would no doubt wish to cover all his bases as deeply as possible, hence, dense, sometimes convoluted writing. The latter is an academic tic one may or may not want to forgive. For these reasons I'm rating it less than the five it would otherwise deserve.

As to the content, I don't think the other reviewer quite grasped it, although it's hard to really know what she's talking about since he provides no evidence of her own to qualify or back up her simple assertions that what Sahlins is discussing is actually universal. I'm really not sure what she means when she says "it's a well documented aspect of human nature" and "it is not about human nature [but] about human behavior under certain specific conditions."

This makes no sense. Sahlins is arguing that the concept of "human nature" as utilized in Western Civilization excludes culturally and socially mediated behaviors, and thus pits an imagined "culture-less human animal and behavior" against the culturally-informed behavior that is dependent on society and circumstances. This is a very strange, very distorting point of view to have. Evidence suggests that, to the extent that there is a base "human nature," it includes social activity and culture, without which no human is fully human.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful By laurent sueur on August 15, 2014
Format: Paperback
It is true that in the United States reason, willpower and intelligence are now explained a very simple way: the flesh and its chemistry explain human behaviour! Hence, Marshall Sahlins is one of the rare people who dares say that materialism is a stupid point of view. In this book, the author shows that the Western thinkers have a very pessimistic definition of man and human nature. We would like to know now what human nature is: in other words what comes from nature (the psychological stages) and culture.
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3 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Zane on August 21, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Sahlins' lengthy essay is an aggressively tedious read. It is almost as if the author went to considerable lengths to render his work as incomprehensible as possible. The writing is about as opaque as it can get. The purpose of such a work, if I understand correctly, is to elucidate an idea and edify the reader. This, in my opinion, might be best achieved through the use of simple, declarative sentences. Instead Sahlins employs an obnoxiously obtuse and overtly complicated style. Because of this, most of his work can be taken to mean absolutely anything or, conversely, absolutely nothing at all. Query: how is one to engage with a work, to argue for its intellectual merit or the paucity thereof, when one has no idea what the author is trying to say?

If one is patient enough to tease out the meaning of Sahlins' work, a rather simple point emerges: that Sahlins believes the Western perception of "human nature" is the product of historical and cultural contingency, not a reflection of careful scientific reasoning and empirical evidence. There is partial merit to this. While the Hobbesian view that, in the absence of centralized authority and the rule of law, human life is "nasty, brutish, and short" is at best an oversimplification, there is insight to be found in the realization that something like a "human nature" does exist. Sahlins' browbeating is primarily concerned with a very specific and rather outdated perception of human nature. Considering his decision to use Hobbes' "Leviathan" as his archetype for Western views on human nature, this should come as no surprise. Sahlins seems to be debating E.O. Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon in the 1970s and 1980s rather than any of the researchers involved in the extant study of "human nature" (i.e. Darwinian explanations).
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4 of 25 people found the following review helpful By dune cruiser on August 10, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
this is an exciting and thought provoking piece by mr sahlins that contains his personal reflections on historical interpretations of a certain kind of human behaviour

i, personally, disagree with him on two counts. first, what he labels as the 'western illusion of human nature', that, basically, humans are savage by nature, is not a western illusion. it is an interpretation of observation that, although distributes in space and time unevenly, certainly does not peak in 'the west'. second, it is not 'of human nature'. it is about a particular kind of human behaviour that can occur under certain conditions

an intriguing, informative and occasionally challenging read. the three stars reflect not as much the value of the book than, say, the extent of my agreement with it
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