Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - and Why

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9781857883282: Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - and Why

When Richard Nisbett showed an animated underwater scene to his American students, they zeroed in on a big fish swimming among smaller fish.Japanese subjects, on the other hand, made observations about the background environment...and the different "seeings" are a clue to profound underlying cognitive differences between Westerners and East Asians. As Professor Nisbett shows in The Geography of Thought people actually think - and even see - the world differently, because of differing ecologies, social structures, philosophies, and educational systems that date back to ancient Greece and China, and that have survived into the modern world. As a result, East Asian thought is "holistic" - drawn to the perceptual field as a whole, and to relations among objects and events within that field. By comparison to Western modes of reasoning, East Asian thought relies far less on categories, or on formal logic: it is fundamentally dialectic, seeking a "middle way" between opposing thoughts. By contrast, Westerners focus on salient objects or people, use attributes to assign them to categories, and apply rules of formal logic to understand their behavior.

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About the Author:

Richard E. Nisbett, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Yale University and the University of Michigan, where he is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor. He received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the William James Fellow Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2002 became the first social psychologist elected to the National Academy of Sciences in a generation. The co-author of Culture of Honor and numerous other books and articles, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Chapter One: The Syllogism and the Tao

More than a billion people in the world today claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece. More than two billion are the heirs of ancient Chinese traditions of thought. The philosophies and achievements of the Greeks and Chinese of 2,500 years ago were remarkably different, as were the social structures and conceptions of themselves. And, as I hope to show in this chapter, the intellectual aspects of each society make sense in light of their social characteristics.

The Ancient Greeks and Agency

There is an ancient theater at Epidaurus in Greece that holds fourteen thousand people. Built into a hillside, the theater has a spectacular view of mountains and pine trees. Its acoustics are such that it is possible to hear a piece of paper being crumpled on the stage from any location in the theater. Greeks of the classical period, from the sixth to the third century B.C., traveled for long periods under difficult conditions to attend plays and poetry readings at Epidaurus from dawn till dusk for several days in a row.

To us today, people's love of the theater and their willingness to endure some hardship to indulge it may not seem terribly odd. But among the great civilizations of the day, including Persia, India, and the Middle East, as well as China, it is possible to imagine only the Greeks feeling free enough, being confident enough in their ability to control their own lives, to go on a long journey for the sole purpose of aesthetic enjoyment. The Greeks' contemporaries lived in more or less autocratic societies in which the king's will was law and to defy it was to court death. It would not have been in a ruler's interest to allow his subjects to wander about the countryside even if his subjects' ties to the land and the routines of agriculture had allowed them to imagine going on a long journey for purposes of recreation.

Equally astonishing, even to us today, is that the entire Greek nation laid down its tools -- including its arms if city-states were at war with one another -- to participate in the Olympics as athletes or audience.

The Greeks, more than any other ancient peoples, and in fact more than most people on the planet today, had a remarkable sense of personal agency -- the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose. One definition of happiness for the Greeks was that it consisted of being able to exercise their powers in pursuit of excellence in a life free from constraints.

A strong sense of individual identity accompanied the Greek sense of personal agency. Whether it is the Greeks or the Hebrews who invented individualism is a matter of some controversy, but there is no doubt that the Greeks viewed themselves as unique individuals, with distinctive attributes and goals. This would have been true at least by the time of Homer in the eighth or ninth century B.C. Both gods and humans in the Odyssey and the Iliad have personalities that are fully formed and individuated. Moreover, the differences among individuals were of substantial interest to Greek philosophers.

The Greek sense of agency fueled a tradition of debate. Homer makes it clear that a man is defined almost as much by his ability to debate as by his prowess as a warrior. A commoner could challenge even a king and not only live to tell the tale, but occasionally sway an audience to his side. Debates occurred in the marketplace, the political assembly, and even in military settings. Uniquely among ancient civilizations, great matters of state, as well as the most ordinary questions, were often decided by public, rhetorical combat rather than by authoritarian fiat. Tyrannies were not common in Greece and, when they arose, were frequently replaced by oligarchies or, beginning in the fifth century B.C., by democracies. The constitutions of some cities had mechanisms to prevent officials from becoming tyrants. For example, the city of Drerus on Crete prohibited a man from holding the office of kosmos (magistrate) until ten years had gone by since the last time he held the office.

As striking as the Greeks' freedom and individuality is their sense of curiosity about the world. Aristotle thought that curiosity was the uniquely defining property of human beings. St. Luke said of the Athenians of a later era: "They spend their time in nothing else but to tell or to hear some new thing." The Greeks, far more than their contemporaries, speculated about the nature of the world they found themselves in and created models of it. They constructed these models by categorizing objects and events and generating rules about them that were sufficiently precise for systematic description and explanation. This characterized their advances in -- some have said invention of -- the fields of physics, astronomy, axiomatic geometry, formal logic, rational philosophy, natural history, and ethnography. (The word "ethnocentric" is of Greek origin. The term resulted from the Greeks' recognition that their belief that their way of life was superior to that of the Persians might be based on mere prejudice. They decided it was not.)

Whereas many great contemporary civilizations, as well as the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian and the later Mayan civilizations, made systematic observations in all scientific domains, only the Greeks attempted to explain their observations in terms of underlying principles. Exploring these principles was a source of pleasure for the Greeks. Our word "school" comes from the Greek schole-, meaning "leisure." Leisure meant for the Greeks, among other things, the freedom to pursue knowledge. The merchants of Athens were happy to send their sons to school so that they could indulge their curiosity.

The Ancient Chinese and Harmony

While a special occasion for the ancient Greek might mean attendance at plays and poetry readings, a special occasion for the Chinese of the same period would be an opportunity to visit with friends and family. There was a practice called chuan men, literally "make doors a chain." Visits, which were intended to show respect for the hosts, were especially common during the major holidays. Those who were visited early were perceived as more important than those who were visited later.

The Chinese counterpart to Greek agency was harmony. Every Chinese was first and foremost a member of a collective, or rather of several collectives -- the clan, the village, and especially the family. The individual was not, as for the Greeks, an encapsulated unit who maintained a unique identity across social settings. Instead, as philosopher Henry Rosemont has written: "...For the early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others...Taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person."

The Chinese were concerned less with issues of control of others or the environment than with self-control, so as to minimize friction with others in the family and village and to make it easier to obey the requirements of the state, administered by magistrates. The ideal of happiness was not, as for the Greeks, a life allowing the free exercise of distinctive talents, but the satisfactions of a plain country life shared within a harmonious social network. Whereas Greek vases and wine goblets show pictures of battles, athletic contests, and bacchanalian parties, ancient Chinese scrolls and porcelains depict scenes of family activities and rural pleasures.

The Chinese would not have felt themselves to be the helpless pawns of superiors and family members. On the contrary, there would have been a sense of collective agency. The chief moral system of China -- Confucianism -- was essentially an elaboration of the obligations that obtained between emperor and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend. Chinese society made the individual feel very much a part of a large, complex, and generally benign social organism where clear mutual obligations served as a guide to ethical conduct. Carrying out prescribed roles -- in an organized, hierarchical system -- was the essence of Chinese daily life. There was no counterpart to the Greek sense of personal liberty. Individual rights in China were one's "share" of the rights of the community as a whole, not a license to do as one pleased.

Within the social group, any form of confrontation, such as debate, was discouraged. Though there was a time, called the period of the "hundred schools" of 600 to 200 B.C., during which polite debate occurred, at least among philosophers, anything resembling public disagreement was discouraged. As the British philosopher of science Geoffrey Lloyd has written, "In philosophy, in medicine, and elsewhere there is criticism of other points of view...[but] the Chinese generally conceded far more readily than did the Greeks, that other opinions had something to be said for them..."

Their monophonic music reflected the Chinese concern with unity. Singers would all sing the same melody and musical instruments played the same notes at the same time. Not surprisingly, it was the Greeks who invented polyphonic music, where different instruments, and different voices, take different parts.

Chinese social harmony should not be confused with conformity. On the contrary, Confucius praised the desire of the gentleman to harmonize and distinguished it from the petty person's need for conformity. The Zuozhuan, a classic Confucian text, makes the distinction in a metaphor about cooking. A good cook blends the flavors and creates something harmonious and delicious. No flavor is completely submerged, and the savory taste is due to the blended but distinctive contributions of each flavor.

The Chinese approach to understanding the natural world was as different from that of the Greeks as their understanding of themselves. Early in ...

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