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Abstract Background

As its title suggests, Nalven’s “wicked inquiry” into questions of race, ethnicity, difference, and perception in contemporary society delves deeply into the “metaphysics of self” while calling for a greater understanding of the “I” and the “Other.” He kicks his impassioned treatise off with the urgent question such terms suggest: “Am I the Other?” Calling the “I” (or self) that, among many other things, shapes our individual perceptions “a useful fiction,” Nalven challenges readers to accept that “Society and culture may impose demands on us to view the Other with a particular lens” and to question whether our perceived gender identities, ethnic identities, class identities, and more are “a trap, springboard, gift, or albatross.” We know the world through fictions, he argues, and he endeavors to expose and challenge them. 

This is heady material, proudly unbound by orthodoxies and written in a searching, allusive style, as Nalven draws on thinkers and writers like Rumi, Augustine, Schopenhauer, Huxley, and Carlos Castaneda, plus his own experiences and observations in a career and education that has always blended the philosophical with the practicalities of anthropology and urban policy. He unveils what he calls the “psychology of the self” in rich, sometimes playful prose that can at times be demanding for lay readers to keep up with, though there’s drama in his anecdotes, such as the ones asking students in his anthropology courses “What have you done to combat racism?”

In several appendices, drawn from opinion pieces published in the early 2020s, Nalven’s assailing of orthodoxies extends to ideas about systemic racism, the 1619 Project from the New York Times, and the “path” of the government addressing “grievances attributed to racism.” Nalven prefers the path of Candace Owens and Glenn Loury, of “ridding ourselves individually of a slave mentality.” This material is much easier for lay readers to argue with, as he makes his case in more down-to-Earth language than in the book’s main body.

Takeaway: A challenging treatise on the concepts of self and otherness, especially with issues of difference. 
Great for fans of: Robert L. Woodson Sr., Werner J. Krieglstein’s A New Philosophy of the Other. 

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