Hallowell on 'Orientations for the Self'

The following summary of Hallowell's analysis as set out in his paper The self and its behavioral environment (most easily accessible as Chapter 4 of his book Culture and Experience (1955; 2nd Edition, 1971): University of Pennsylvania Press, has been taken from A. Lock (1981) Universals in human conception, in P.L.F. Heelas and A.J. Lock (eds.) Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self. London: Academic Press, pp19-36, with minor revisions.


The concepts of self and culture are interdependent: one cannot exist without the other. Thus, while it has become commonplace to regard the self as a cultural product, and enquire as to the 'environmental' (cultural) factors that lead to the expression or inhibition of this or that aspect of the self, we must not forget the reverse perspective; that culture itself is a product of the self. Selves are constituted within culture, and culture is maintained by the community of selves. The English language is not a particularly good medium in which to discuss such dialectic relations, reflecting as it does an implicit, straightforward cause-and-effect mode of structure; expressing one thing as a cause and predicating another to it as an effect; an example of an indigenous psychological constraint. It is quite possible that such constraints occur in other languages and affect the conceptualizations of their users. In formulating his Sunyavada (otherwise termed 'Madhyamika' - the middle way) - a dialectic for the refutation of metaphysical propositions by demonstrating their relativity - Nagarjuna (c. A.D. 200) was forced by his language to point to the 'void' (sunya, hence Sunyavada - Doctrine of the Void) thus:

It cannot be called 'void' or 'not-void',
Or both or neither;
But in order to point it out,
It is called 'the Void'.
(Madhyamika Shastra: xv, 3)

Similarly, when Zen Buddhism starts its pupils off on their path to enlightenment by asking them to come to grips with the relativity of existence, it does so by pointing out the relativity that is often cloaked in our everyday use of language:

When everyone recognises beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness;
When everyone recognises goodness as good, there is already evil.
'To be' and 'not to be' arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realised;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited; ...
Before and after are in mutual sequence.

(Tao Te Ching: 2)
And so it is with the mutual relation of self and culture. Selves are nurtured within a culture; and cultures vary in the self-constituting concepts they provide (thus the conventional). But culture has itself arisen from the protoself of preconceptual humans (thus the universal). In this context, Hebb and Thompson, for example, reported (1954) an observation of chimpanzees at Orange Park. On seeing visitors arrive they ran quickly to a drinking fountain, and after filling their mouths with water waited quietly for the visitors to approach before discharging it at them. Such an ability exemplifies 'the integration of attention, perceiving, thinking, purposiveness and the postponement of action in a rudimentary form' (Hallowell, 1960: 351) which is basic to the elaboration of culture from protoculture; a laying of the foundations for the more complex inner world of human experiences. Cultures provide external symbols that have emanated from inner experiences - experiences of time, place, goal, purpose, etc. The way in which such things are conceptualized will vary from place to place (the conventional); but that it is such things that are conceptualized will be constant (the universal).


Humans are not only social animals but also cultural ones; and that means that we are also moral animals: thus our society exhibits both a social order and a moral order. This moral order comprises norms of conduct and effective social sanctions, implicit or explicit, to back them up. Hence, the members of such an order are required to recognize some locus of responsibility for their actions in society. This, in turn, implies a

self-awareness of one's own conduct, self-appraisal of one's conduct with reference to socially recognised standards of value, some volitional control of one's own behaviour, a possible choice of alternative lines of conduct, etc. ... without the development of self-awareness as an intrinsic part of the socialisation process, without a concept of self that permits attitudes directed towards the self as an object to emerge and crystallize, we would not have some of the essential conditions necessary for the functioning of a human society. (Hallowell, 1971: 83))

And as Hallowell goes on to note, self-awareness is necessary and basic to the successful performance of the many different roles which the individual has to adopt within society. In order for a culture to maintain itself its individual members must have some awareness of their social standing with respect to age, sex, hierarchies of social precedent, etc:

If [they] were not aware of [their] roles they would not be in a position to appraise their own conduct in terms of traditional values and social sanctions. (Hallowell, 1971: 83)
Thus, self-awareness is at once both a distinctive and necessary component of human life:

we must assume that the functioning of any human society is inconceivable without self-awareness, reinforced and constituted by traditional beliefs about the nature of the self. (Hallowell, 1971: 83)

Three things may be said about self-awareness:

(i) Self-awareness is a socio-cultural product. To be self-aware is, by definition, to be able to conceive of one's individual existence in an objective, as opposed to subjective, manner. In G. H. Mead's (1934) terms, one must view oneself from 'the perspective of the other'. Such a level of psychological functioning is only made possible by the attainment of a symbolic mode of representing the world. Again, this mode of mental life is generally agreed to be dependent upon the existence of a cultural level of social organization. We thus come to a fundamental, though apparently tautologous point: that the existence of culture is predicated upon that of self-awareness; and that the existence of self-awareness is predicated upon that of culture. In the same way as in the course of evolution the structure of the brain is seen as being in a positive-feedback relationship with the nature of the individual's environment, so it is with culture and self-awareness: the self is constituted by culture which itself constitutes the self.

(ii) Culture defines and constitutes the boundaries of the self: the subjective-objective distinction. It is an evident consequence of being self-aware that if one has some conception of one's own nature, then one must also have some conception of the nature of things other than oneself, i.e. of the world. Further, this distinction must be encapsulated explicitly in the symbols one uses to mark this polarity. Consequently, a symbolic representation of this divide will have become 'an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage of all human societies' (Hallowell, 1971: 75). Thus, the very existence of a moral order, self-awareness, and therefore human being, depends on the making of some distinction between 'objective' (things which are not an intrinsic part of the self) and 'subjective' (things which are an intrinsic part of the self).

This categorical distinction, and the polarity it implies, becomes one of the fundamental axes along which the psychological field of the human individual is structured for action in every culture. ... Since the self is also partly a cultural product, the field of behaviour that is appropriate for the activities of particular selves in their world of culturally defined objects is not by any means precisely coordinate with any absolute polarity of subjectivity-objectivity that is definable. (Hallowell, 1971: 84)
Similarly, Cassirer (1953: 262) in the context of kinship terminology, writes:

language does not look upon objective reality as a single homogeneous mass, simply juxtaposed to the world of the I, but sees different strata of this reality: the relationship between object and subject is not universal and abstract; on the contrary, we can distinguish different degrees of objectivity, varying according to relative distance from the I.
In other words, there are many facets of reality which are not distinctly classifiable in terms of a polarity between self and non-self, subjective or objective: for example, what exactly is the status of this page - is it an objective entity or part of its author's selves; an objective entity that would exist as a page, rather than marks on a screen, without a self to read it? Again, am I responsible for all the passions I experience, or am I as much a spectator of some of them as my audience is? While a polarity necessarily exists between the two - subjective and objective/self and non-self - the line between the two is not precise, and may be constituted at different places in different contexts by different cultures. The boundaries of the self and the concomitant boundaries of the world, while drawn of necessity, are both constituted by cultural symbolism, and may be constituted upon differing assumptions.

(iii) The behavioural environment of individual selves is constituted by, and encompasses, different objects. Humans, in contrast to other animals, can be afraid of, for example, the dark because they is able to populate it with symbolically constituted objects: ghosts, bogey men, and various other spiritual beings. As MacLeod (1947) points out,

purely fictitious objects, events and relationships can be just as truly determinants of our behaviour as are those which are anchored in physical reality.
In Hallowell's view (1971: 87):
such objects, in some way experienced, conceptualised and reified, may occupy a high rank in the behavioural environment although from a sophisticated Western point of view they are sharply distinguishable from the natural objects of the physical environment. However, the nature of such objects is no more fictitious, in a psychological sense, than the concept of the self. (My italics)
To the sophisticated mind, such objects are not naturally but only symbolically constituted: but in the psychological sense of their affecting a self which draws a boundary between the objective and subjective at a different point, such objects are necessarily as real as the self they are defined in opposition to, and 'must thus be considered as relevant variables because they can be shown to affect actual behaviour' (Hallowell, 1971: 87). The environment in which humans lives may best be described then as a 'culturally constituted behavioural environment' (Hallowell, 1971: 87).


Culture not only constitutes our behavioural environment, but also provides us with basic orientations that enable us to act in an intelligible manner in a world so constituted: all these are orientations for the self, and serve to give it its particular structure.

A. Self-orientation

Culture provides a self-concept through the linguistic marking of self from non-self. All languages must provide deictic marking if they are to be humanly serviceable. Personal pronouns, kinship terms and personal names all function to this end. But, as Hallowell (1971: 90) notes:
while one of the constant functions of all cultures ... is to provide a concept of self along with other means that promote self-orientation, the individuals of a given society are self-oriented in terms of a provincial content of the self-image.

Thus while all cultures will provide a basic vocabulary for self-orientation, none of those lexical or conceptual items need be directly translatable into those of another culture. In using the word 'self' here as a universal marker, we are not implying that our provincial concept of self, indicated, unfortunately, by the same word, has any universality in human conception.

B. Object-orientation

If the self is recognized and delineated, then so necessarily is the non-self, that being
a diversified world of objects ... discriminated, classified, and conceptualised with respect to attributes which are culturally constituted and symbolically mediated through language. ... Object-orientation ... provides the ground for an intelligible interpretation of events in the behavioral environment on the basis of traditional assumptions regarding the nature and attributes of the objects involved, and implicit or explicit dogmas regarding the 'causes' of events.

(Hallowell, 1971: 91) Such orientating cosmologies supply the conceptual framework that makes human action possible.

C. Spatio-temporal Orientation

Place-names appear to be among the universally occurring categories of deictic markers, for a culturally constituted orientation to a world of objects other than the self must be integrated with a spatial orientation of the self that provides a frame of reference for action. Time and place are intertwined for a self-aware being:
for self-awareness implies that the individual not only knows where he is, but where he was at some previous moment in time, or where he expects to be in the future. (Hallowell, 1971: 93)

This further implies the existence not only of a self-identity component of self-awareness, but a self-continuity one as well. And this brings us full circle to the concept of culture as a moral order in which a temporal dimension for the self is necessary, for in order to maintain roles and assume moral responsibility, 'I not only have to be aware of who I am today, but be able to relate my past actions to both past and future behavior' (Hallowell, 1971: 95). There is a further important relation between this temporal orientation of the self and self-continuity: the time-span of recalled experiences that are related to the self. Thus we find, for example, in the Hindu doctrine of rebirth that events 'recalled from previous lives' may be regarded as having happened to the self. Hallowell (1971: 95) notes that in many cultures

Self-related experiences are given a retrospective temporal span that far transcends the limits beyond which we know reliable accounts of personal experience can be recalled.

D. Motivational Orientation

A motivational orientation is as necessary for the continuance of a moral order as it is for the orientation of a self within that order, since motivational factors - needs, desires, goals, attitudes - underpin the functioning of human social orders. The world of objects which the self inhabits is not only discriminated but classified as possessing attributes, positive or negative, that are culturally constituted as relevant to the self. Needs necessitate actions and actions require direction: this is why the self requires motivational orientation to be able to discriminate the relevant objects towards which it must act.

E. Normative Orientation

Since the human social order is also a moral order, there is always the presumption that an individual is not only aware of his own personal identity and conduct in a spatio-temporal frame of reference, but that he is capable of judging his own conduct by the standards of his culture. Thus normative orientation is a necessary corollary of self-orientation. (Hallowell, 1971: 106)
From this it follows that an individual possesses volitional control over his or her own acts. But this does not necessarily imply that acts for which the individual is morally responsible will be attributed by him or her to his- or herself. For as Hallowell goes on to note (1971: 101):
Just as, in terms of a given self-image, naturalistic time and space may be transcended in self-related experience and the self may interact socially with other- than-human selves, so in the moral world of the self the acts for which the self may feel morally responsible may not all be attributed to waking life, nor to a single mundane existence, not to interpersonal relations with human beings alone.


Cassirer, E. (1953) The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Vol I: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hallowell, A. I. (1960) Self, society and culture in phylogenetic perspective. In S. Tax (Ed.) Evolution after Darwin. Vol II: The Evolution of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 309-372.
Hebb, D. O. and Thompson, W. N. (1954) The social significance of animal studies. In G. Lindzey (Ed.) Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol I. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
MacLeod, R. B. (1947) The phenomenological approach to social psychology. Psychological Review 54: 193-210.
Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

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