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Motivation, In Theory

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Through the Faculty Fellows program, Tisch College is supporting Prof. Ichiro Takayoshi's important interdisciplinary scholarship.


Assistant Professor of English and Tisch Faculty Fellow Ichiro Takayoshi is working at the intersections of literature, history, and psychology. Bringing together methods and insights from these different fields, he hopes to advance the understanding of the deep motivations behind human behavior.

“My work is very interdisciplinary. I teach politics, literature, and intellectual history in the American context,” Takayoshi explained. “Citizenship is part of that work. I’m very interested in citizenship because it’s a matter of behaviors, attitudes, and values, and so is open to symbolic manipulation.”

Takayoshi’s Faculty Fellowship project is focused on theoretical questions of where our cultural aspirations originate, and various ways to make active citizenship culturally desirable.

“I’m trying to narrow in on a few concrete questions of specific motivations, and juxtapose them to really broad basic questions about human nature that cut across time and space,” he said.

“For the past ten to fifteen years, the humanities and social sciences have been in a discussion around how political complaints, grievances, and desires come into being and motivate action,” Takayoshi continued.  “The convention has been to classify these motivations into two categories, one dealing with things like income, food, shelter, health – material concerns broadly speaking – and the other dealing with psychological, cultural, and symbolic concerns.  My project is to question that dichotomy.  I think there is something unique about human nature and behavior that makes the second group more motivating than the first – cultural needs are put before material ones.”

“My insight, which I hope to elaborate and refine through engagement with speculative writings by Augustine, Hobbes, Smith, Frank Knight, Kenneth Burke, and Ernesto Laclau, is basically: economic needs must be given cultural importance in order to be recognized by us as needs. I want to develop a better theoretical understanding of how our cultural values shape our conception of what’s necessary.”

While his work is very theoretical, Takayoshi is incorporating empirical findings from other Faculty Fellows’ research projects.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s easier to share a language between those of us in the humanities and faculty in the social and natural sciences than I expected,” he said.  “At the core, on issues of perennial and fundamental importance, we’re really not that different, and the cultures of the disciplines can be bridged.”

Takayoshi says this common language exists in part because “economic needs have a cultural dimension, and I want to develop a better theoretical understanding of how cultural needs shade into economic ones.”

“Usually, social problems are only recognized as such through a process of cultural legitimation,” he explained.  For example, Takayoshi cites water and the different ways water can come to be classified as clean or polluted, both spiritually and physically.  In America, those concerns usually center on chemical tests, industrial history, and debates about sewage treatment and additives like fluoride.  These attitudes can be compared to other regions, such as India where bodies of water are central to religion, or the Middle East where water and national security, and so national identity, are bound together.  Geography and history get intertwined in the ways cultures debate and understand their most basic resources.

Originally from Japan, Takayoshi earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in American studies from the University of Tokyo then moved to America to study for his PhD.

“Since childhood, I’ve been drawn to the various roles ideas and words play in the world, and I knew I wanted to be a scholar by the time I started college,” he said. “But I came to specialize in American culture largely by coincidence. I was interested in cultural studies in various national or regional contexts, be it Russian, French, German, Japanese, but the best professors I met at the University of Tokyo happened to be in American studies.  At the same time, though, my decision to study American culture may not have been so arbitrary. The power and prestige of the United States are ever present all over the world, but there’s a particular intensity in Japan, and it shapes the relationship between Japan and America.  American culture permeates Japanese culture, and that fired my curiosity. I began to wonder, where were all these influences that shaped Japanese society coming from?”

Takayoshi sees active citizenship as central to his work.

“At its most basic, I think active citizenship is about developing a sharper awareness of the self as a part of larger communities.  That starts with being a part of groups—a family, a neighborhood, a school, a city, a nation state – concentric circles expanding outwards.  Beyond that awareness is the effort to accomplish something to help meet the needs of those shared communities and the people in them.”

“This gets back to questions of motivation,” he continued.  “Something has to motivate people to join groups larger than the self, and help their affiliated members. If this something is largely symbolic, then that motivation, no matter how materially based it may appear, is a matter of cultural classification.  As a student of American culture and history, I want to understand those motivations, and make some meaningful contributions to Tisch College’s mission.”