All the World's a Classroom
This article is Part 2 of the Asian and Western Minds essay. Read Part 1 here. Together, they are the fifth edition of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.
In Part 1, we discussed the ancient philosophies that rooted the differences between the Western and Eastern worldview (see definitions of Western and Eastern in Part 1 of this article). Here, we continue with the specific ways in which they differ. Below are the key findings from a series of social psychology experiments done by Professor Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan, which are outlined in the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.
1. Objects vs. Relationships
When given a scene to observe and asked to describe it, Easterners tend to be more holistic, paying attention to more details in the background than Westerners. Westerners, on the other hand, focus on the prominent objects in the scene. For example, when a picture of an underwater scene with plants and fish was shown to test participants, Easterners were more likely to say, “It looked like a pond,” whereas the Westerners were more likely to say, “There was a big fish, maybe a trout, moving off to the left.”
“Like ancient Greek philosophers, modern Westerners see a world of objects—discrete and unconnected things. Like ancient Chinese philosophers, modern Asians are inclined to see a world of substances—continuous masses of matter. The Westerner sees an abstract statue where the Asian sees a piece of marble; the Westerner sees a wall where the Asian sees concrete. There is much other evidence—of a historical, anecdotal, and systematic scientific nature—indicating that Westerners have an analytic view focusing on salient objects and their attributes, whereas Easterners have a holistic view focusing on continuities in substances and relationships in the environment.”
Because Easterners pay more attention to the environment and Westerners attend more to objects, Easterners are more likely to detect relationship among events than Westerners. Cause and effects are explained differently—the Easterners would attribute events and behaviors more to environmental causes, and Westerners more to the actors.
2. Controlling Situations
Westerners tend to believe that they can control situations more than Easterners. Because Easterners see the world as complex and interconnected, their sense of personal agency is less compared to Westerners.
“If life is simple and you only have to keep your eye on the ball in order to achieve something, life is controllable. If life is complex and subject to changes of fortune without notice, it may not matter where the ball is; life is simply not easily controlled. Surveys show that Asians feel themselves to be in less control than their Western counterparts. And rather than attempting to control situations, they are likely to try to adjust to them.”
A large consequence of the Western view is the magnificent scientific progress in the Western world.
“Easterners are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world… On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that simple models are the most useful ones—at least in science—because they’re easier to disprove and consequently to improve upon. Most of Aristotle’s physical propositions have turned out to be demonstrably false. But Aristotle had testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not: It was Westerners who established what the correct physical principles are.”
“Westerners’ success in science and their tendency to make certain mistakes in causal analysis derive from the same source. Freedom to pursue individual goals prompts people to model the situation so as to achieve those goals, which in turn encourages modeling events by working backward from effects to possible causes. When there is systematic testing of the model, as in science, the model can be corrected.”
Indeed, I believe, this is where Western thinking have deep advantages, and why science—or modern science as we know it—was largely a Greek endeavor.
3. Stability and Change
Westerners believe more in stability, assuming that the world doesn’t change much and that progress is linear, where Easterners see change all the time, and that “movement in a particular direction…may be a sign that events are about to reverse direction.”
4. Organizing the World
Westerners organize the world into categories while Easterners emphasize relationships. When Westerners group things, they do it based on whether they can be described by the same attributes, certain inherent properties of the objects. For Easterners, things are classed together because they influence and relate to each other.
For example, given a picture of a chicken and grass, categories A and B, respectively, participants were told to choose the appropriate category for a cow. Westerners were more likely to choose chicken because cows and chicken belonged to the same taxonomic category, while Easterners preferred to group the cow with grass on the basis of their relationship; “cows eat grass.”
5. Role of Logic
Logic no doubt plays a prominent role in Western societies. It is used to understand events and also useful for argumentation. But if Westerners are concerned with reason, Easterners are more concerned with reasonableness, which means that they may “set logic aside in favor of desirability of conclusions.”
6. Resolving Contradictions
When confronted with apparent contradictions, Westerners are more inclined to insist on the correctness of one belief vs. another, whereas Easterners would try to find the Middle Way, transcend them and find the truth in both.
The Eastern principles in resolving contradictions are as follows:
- The Principle of Change – the world is not static but dynamic and changeable. “Because reality is in constant flux, the concepts that reflect reality are fluid and subjective rather than being fixed and objective.”
- The Principle of Contradiction – “because the world is constantly changing, oppositions, paradoxes, and anomalies are continuously being created” Opposites complete each other; they cannot exist without the other (Yin and Yang). Thus, apparent contradictions are in fact active harmony.
- The Principle of Holism – “nothing exists in an isolated and independent way, but is connected to a multitude of different things. To really know a thing, we have to know all its relations.”
These principles compel Easterners to find the middle ground between extreme propositions. In the Western thought, there is a counterpart to the above principles in the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. However, this form is seen as more aggressive because the purpose is to bolster one side and obliterate the contradiction rather than transcending the arguments.
For the Westerners, the principles of logic are committed to these laws:
- The Law of Identity – a thing is itself and not some other thing. This thing is also consistent regardless of the context.
- The Law of Noncontradiction – a proposition can’t be both true and false. A and not-A cannot be true at the same time.
For the Easterners,
“the rejection of conclusions because they seem formally contradictory can be mistaken, because concepts are merely reflections of things and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.”
“Each of these orientations—the Western and the Eastern—is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.”
The manifestations of these paradigms are reflected in the different ways Western and Eastern societies approach education, medicine, business–essentially all aspects of life–and can create misunderstandings in cross-cultural contexts. Results such as Nisbett’s are valuable for both Western and Eastern minds to understand each other.
Of course, the world is not divided as nicely as the East-and-West dichotomy. There are spectrums of worldviews around the world that we need to be more aware of, and I am now intrigued in mapping the world’s key thoughts to better understand humanity’s diversity and similarity.
Returning to Nisbett, it was hard for me not to abstain from performing self-diagnosis while reading a book like this, especially because my place of birth and upbringing is literally on the other side of the world where I currently live and work. I am both Eastern and Western, if calculated by the time I’ve spent in each world, near 50-50. Come back and visit the blog for an upcoming post on my personal cross-cultural experience!
Image credit: Freeimages
“You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line,” said a graduate student from China to social psychology Professor Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan. This, too, was how he began his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.
The graduate student continued, “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.”
This conversation would set Nisbett off to a quest of unpacking the differences in cognitive processes between “Westerners” and “Easterners,” and to measure them scientifically. The Geography of Thought summarizes the key findings from these studies.
First, some definitions. The term Westerner in the book is designated to people of European culture. European Americans are everyone but those of Asian descent. Although Americans of all backgrounds are submerged in Western ways of thinking, they in fact observe that Asian Americans display more Eastern behaviors more than Western.
The term Easterner is meant to represent communities influenced heavily by the Chinese culture, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. Nisbett admits that certainly there are differences amongst these cultures, but the discussion requires some working terminologies and indeed, there are many similarities in the social cultures of these societies.
Differences between the Asian and Western ways of thinking are rooted in their respective ancient heritage. Western thoughts claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece and the East Asians inherit theirs from the ancient Chinese. The philosophical differences between the two are stark.
“The Greeks…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.” Tied to this was a deep sense of individual identity and curiosity about the world. Additionally, there was a pervasive tradition of debate, public combats of rhetoric and logic. This display of oral prowess was how many questions and arguments were settled.
The Chinese counterpart to the Greek agency was the concept of harmony. A Chinese’s identity was derived from his community and relationships, i.e., so-and-so’s son. There was no concept of isolation, of an encapsulated unit, for an object or a person. Life’s preoccupation, then, was to minimize friction with others in the family or community. The agency was a collective one instead of personal.
“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… 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.”
In terms of understanding the world, the Greeks were “deeply concerned with the question of which properties made an object what it was.” They would regard the object in isolation for analysis, which tended to have linear and either-or orientation. In contrast, the Chinese concept of the world was that it was constantly changing and full of contradictions. Things were seen as a whole rather than in part, and that events were related to each other.
In Part 2 of this essay, I summarize the interesting key findings and observations from Nisbett’s experiments described in his book. Read Part 2 here.
Image credit: Freeimages
From the stunning last chapter and ending of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, here are inspiring excerpts on reading and the life of the mind:
If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.
A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second–and this in the long run is much more important–a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable–books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.
There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will ever be; in fact, many persons’ bodies have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age; only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence, does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.
Then, if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And when we cease to grow, we begin to die.
Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.
Read well, friends.