Patrick's Reviews > What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger

What Really Matters by Arthur Kleinman
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's review
Mar 26, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: 2011, borrowed, philosophy, politics, psychology
Read in March, 2011

I'm afraid I came away from this one more disappointed than anything else. Quite frankly if this were a two word review those words would be "confused muddle." I failed to see the connection between the anecdotes (though most were very interesting standing alone), and had I been able to figure out the main point of this book to my own satisfaction I doubt I'd have been able to connect said anecdotes to that point.

And in one sense I really butt heads with the author: I simply could not see in his "Idi" the heroine that he did. Quite frankly portions of her life seemed like nothing so much as some sort of exercise in self-flagellation, whether as some sort of atonement for the sins of her grandfather (which Kleinman brought up many times himself, curiously) or as a weird interpretation of a very weird doctrine -- her "commitment to Liberation Theology" -- or as something else entirely I honestly have no idea. And undoubtedly she did more good in one year than I shall ever do in my lifetime, that part I do not question. It was her motivation and attitude while doing it that rang false with me.

And, even more strangely, if you accept the one place in the work where generalizing occurs, in the Epilogue, I see no way someone like "Idi" could be used as an avatar of this "remaking of the moral life" Kleinman presents. Subjectivity? She was certainly a pragmatist, but it was pragmatism harnessed to an ultimate goal of something she felt was objectively correct, or at any rate I don't see how to conclude otherwise. I'm also unsure how "local cultural representations" and "social experience" apply to her, or even how they avoided colliding as she tried to, say, keep women from being raped. Perhaps there is a "local cultural representation" vis a vis rape as wrong in all cases in the parts of Africa she worked, but the problem seemed so widespread I'd need to see evidence nowhere presented in the book in support of this claim. Leading me to wonder how was it anything but her "social experience" as a Westerner that motivated her to act as she did? (Which I guess would also knock the pin out of the "subjectivity" leg of his triad?)

Perhaps everything I've said in this review is a product of my own ignorance, as I am certainly not the expert in these matters Kleinman is. But I'll go out on a limb and assume I'm also a member of the reasonably intelligent general public Kleinman is hoping to reach via this book. Well, in my case, he obviously did not, whether my thoughts are right, wrong or somewhere in between. A very odd book, at any rate. I had to give him two stars for making an effort to tackle an extremely difficult topic, a topic I personally would not even know where to begin with. But, yes, my "confused muddle" thought still stands.


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