The geography of thought

In The geography of thought: how Asians and westerners think differently– and why, Richards Nisbett dismantles the universalist pretension that all peoples think alike and demolishes the radical environmentalist claim that differences in geography alone explains different historic paths.

Recently, Ian morris argued the radical environmentalist case:

So strong are the similarities between the Greco-Roman, Jewish, Indian and Chinese classics, in fact, that scholars often call the first millennium bc the ‘Axial Age’, in the sense of it being an axis around which the whole history of Eurasian thought turned. From the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea, larger, more complex societies were facing similar challenges in the first millennium bc and finding similar answers. Socrates was part of a huge pattern, not a unique giant who sent the West down a superior path.

So what do we learn from all this history? Two main things, I think. First, since people are all much the same, it is our shared biology which explains humanity’s great upward leaps in wealth, productivity and power across the last 10,000 years; and, second, that it is geography which explains why one part of world – the nations we conventionally call ‘the West’ – now dominates the rest.

But Nisbett shows that the structure of East Asian thought is markedly different from European thought when it comes to Logic, categorization, causal attribution, field dependence, etc (1). For example, when it comes to categorization, while Europeans tend to classify and group objects on the basis of category membership, East Asians tend to classify and group objects on the basis of family resemblance.

Figure 2. Fig. 2. “Which group does the target object belong to?” Target bears a family resemblance to group on the left but can be assigned to group on the right on the basis of a rule.

Nisbett goes on to make a strong case that these differences in ways of thinking, and cognitive processing (2), influenced historic societal development — for example, the development of scientific method in the West and all that that entailed:

The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners’ belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behavior.”

The greatest of Greek scientific discoveries was the discovery – or rather, as philosopher Geoffrey Lloyd put it, the invention – of nature itself, The Greeks defined nature as the universe minus human beings and their culture. Although this seems to us to be the most obvious sort of distinction, no other civilization came upon it. A plausible account of how the Greeks happened to invent nature is that they came to make a distinction between the external, objective world and the internal, subjective one

This was basically the case I made here:

These changes, of course, were not discovered, the discovery was the knowledge and technology that led to them, which happened, in some part, due to the unique ways of thinking which were collectively pioneered. People of different cultures have different ways of thinking about the world and thinking about thinking.

These ways of thinking and looking, or cultural perspectives, are culturally promoted ways in which we separate or combine basic elements of how we relate to the world, others, and ourself. That is, through mental synthesis and partitioning. For example, we typically relate to some entities, such as other people, subjectively and we relate to other entities, such as rocks, objectively — though sometimes what counts as what is debated. Regardless, how we relate varies across culture and time, and of course , across people within a particular epoch. And how we relate to one thing, effects how we relate to other things, as our ideas work in systems, and often dualities.

Western Caucasians pioneered a Rational-Empirical perspective, which allowed then to explore nature, or as some might lament, rape and pillage it in the most horribly productive way. This way of thinking came about, in part, due to the marriage of three unique cultural perspectives, ones adapted from the Hellenes, the Persians, and the Hebrews.

Overall, this book offers an antidote to some of the radical leftist ways of thinking — and all that that entails. That said, the culturalism gets out of hand, and the work could use a little biogeographic thinking(3).

(1) Refer to Nisbett and Masuda, 2003. Culture and point of view.

(2) For example, refer to: Chee, Zheng, et al., 2010. Brain Structure in Young and Old East Asians and Westerners: Comparisons of Structural Volume and Cortical Thickness

(3) Consider this tortured passage:

When I speak of Westerners I mean people of European cultures. When I speak of European Americans, I mean black and white and Hispanic — and anyone of non-Asian descent. This somewhat odd usage can be justified by the fact that everyone born and raised in America is exposed to similar … cultural influences. This is true for Asian Americans too,obviously, but in some of the research discussed they are examined as a separate group because we would expect them to be more similar to Asians than we would expect other Americans to be — and in fact this is what we find.

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