How and why Asians and Westerners think differently

I have been reading this interesting book of Prof. Richard Nisbett, entitled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently… and why (2003). Nisbett is a Professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan and has written several books and articles on cognitive processes, intelligence and how the environment is an important determinant of IQ and differences in world perceptions.

The aim of the book is to answer many questions about the differences in social relations and thought between East Asians and Westerners. It attempts to answer such questions as:

  • Why would the ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was a strength of the Greeks?
  • Why are East Asians better able to see relationships among events than Westerners, but find it relatively difficult to disentangle an object from its surroundings?
  • Why are Westerners so likely to overlook the influence of context on the behavior of objects and even of people?
  • Why do Western infants learn nouns at a much  more rapid rate than verbs whereas Eastern infants learn verbs at a more rapid rate than nouns?
  • Why are Westerners more likely to apply formal logic when reasoning about everyday events and why are Easterners so willing to entertain apparently contradictory propositions that sometimes are helpful in getting at the truth?

Nisbett understands that he is making strong generalizations about Westerners and East Asians, but assures us that such generalizations are still meaningful. He draws an analogy between his studies and the study of language groups: although Indo-European languages differ significantly from one another and East Asian languages differ at least as much, generalizations about the differences between these language groups are still possible and meaningful.

As Europe owes much of its thought to the intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece, and East-Asia owes much of its thought to the ancient Chinese, he starts the book with a comparison of the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese. I think the differences are very interesting, and will therefore write what Nisbett has to say about them.

Ancient Greece Ancient China
Makes a clear distinction between the external objective world and the internal subjective world. Separation of the individual from the environment leads to emphasis on individualism. Emphasis on interdependence or mutual reliance of different objects led to orientation toward social harmony and collectivism.

The concept of interdependence is well reflected in the concept of Yin and Yang.

Regards an object in isolation as the proper focus of attention and analysis. Objects were separated from each other by distance, just as humans were separate and construed as distinct wholes.

Emphasized on nature which they defined as universe minus human beings and their culture.

Also emphasized on properties of objects. Aristotle for example thought that a falling stone falls due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity’. A piece of wood that floats instead of sinks has the property of ‘levity’.

Oriented themselves to the understanding of the context or environment as a whole. Knowing that objects influence each other, even from distance – the Chinese had earlier knowledge of magnetism, acoustic resonance and that tides were caused by the movement of the moon, a fact that even Galileo eluded.
Used logic to decontextualize things.

Aristotle invented logic.

Although the 6th century BC philosopher Heraclitus and other early philosophers were concerned with change, the view that the world was always in flux soon made way for the view of a stable world. According to Heraclitus it is impossible to step into the same river twice.

Used dialecticism to contextualize things.

Used contradiction to understand relationships among objects or events, to transcend or integrate apparent oppositions, or even to embrace clashing but instructive viewpoints. In the spirit of yin and yang, A can also imply the existence of non-A or that A will soon become non-A. Events always occur in relation to something else, and to understand them you need to understand the whole.

Even though the Chinese philosopher Mozi also invented logic in 6th century BC, it was short-lived and his texts became lost.

Had no conception of non-being, infinity and infinitesimals. Parmenides said in the 5th century that to say of a thing that it does not exist is a contradiction. If nonbeing can’t exist, then nothing can change because, if thing 1 were to change to thing 2, then thing 1 would not be! The Greeks could either choose logic or their senses. From Plato on, they often went with logic.

Due to no conception of non-being, they rejected the number ‘zero’ and irrational numbers, just as the square root of 2. The Greeks lived in a world of discrete particles and the continuous and unending nature of irrational numbers was so implausible that mathematicians could not take them seriously. An understanding of ‘zero’, as well as of infinity and infinitesimals, ultimately had to be imported from the East.

The world is full of contradictions. Therefore, the Chinese also have had a clear concept of unintended consequences.

Much of Chinese wisdom is penned in metaphors and seeming contradictions. Take for example the ancient Chinese story of an old farmer’s horse that ran away. His neighbours came to commiserate with him. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man. A few days later his horse returned, bringing with him a wild horse. The neighbours came to congratulate the old man. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” he answered. A few days later, the old farmer’s son broke his leg while riding on the wild horse. The neighbours came to commiserate again. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man. A few weeks passed, and the army came to conscript all able-bodied men to fight a war, but the son was not fit and was therefore spared.

Aristotle believed that celestial bodies were immutable, perfect spheres and the essences of things do not change. Chinese believed that the world is always in flux.
Tries to explain the world in underlying principles and in a decontextualized manner. Tries to explain the world as a whole of intricate relationships.
Ideal of happiness is living a life that allows free exercise of distinctive talents. Ideal of happiness is living in harmony with your surrounding.
Invented polyphonic music where different instruments, and different voices take different parts. Chinese music was very monophonic. Singers would all sing the same melody and musical instruments would play the same notes at the same time.
Non-conformity is strong individualism and exercise of distinctive personal thoughts and strengths. Non-conformity is like a recipe where 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.
Greeks reflect a genius for scientific theory and investigation. Philosophers of Ionia of the 6th century BC were thoroughly empirical in orientation, but from the 5th century onwards there was a move toward abstraction and distrust of the senses. Chinese advances reflect a genius for practicality. Knowing contains a consequence for action.

Chinese civilization far outdistanced Greek civilization technologically. They have invented irrigation systems, ink, porcelain, the magnetic compass, stirrups, the wheelbarrow, deep drilling, the Pascal triangle, pound locks on canals, fore-and-aft sailing, watertight compartments, the sternpost rudder, the paddle-wheel boat, quantitative cartography, immunization techniques, astronomical observations of novae, seismographs, and acoustics.

Focus on properties of an object, categorization, abstraction and logic. Due to their focus on logic, they could invent geometry as it requires proofs that rely on formal logic and especially the notion of contradiction.

According to Robert Logan, the Greeks became “slaves to the linear, either-or orientation of their logic.”

Although the Chinese made strong advances in arithmetic and algebra, they made little progress in geometry as they focused less on formal logic and the formulation of contradiction.

This is by the way the first of a 4-parts series on the book. You can find part 2, part 3 and part 4 here.

6 thoughts on “How and why Asians and Westerners think differently

  1. I believe the generalizations are reasonable and important to discuss. Thank you for posting this. The Japanese are rigid people and conformity to certain ideals is central to their character.

    • Thank you! Yes, I think you are right that the Japanese have a strong inclination to conform to certain ideals – especially those ideals that are socially acceptable. I read your blog post about Japan’s missing boy which was interesting, but sad.

  2. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 2) |

  3. Pingback: From Chhay Lin Lim: ‘How And Why Asians And Westerners Think Differently – Chris Navin

  4. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 3) |

  5. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 4) |

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