The Geography of Thought

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The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why is a book by social psychologist Richard Nisbett that was published by Free Press in 2003.[1] By analyzing the differences between Asia and the West, it argues that cultural differences affect people's thought processes more significantly than believed.[2]

Thesis[edit]

In the book, Nisbett demonstrates that "people actually think about—and even see—the world differently because of differing ecologies, social structures, philosophies, and educational systems that date back to ancient Greece and China".[3] At its core, the book assumes that human behavior is not “hard-wired” but a function of culture.

The book proposes that the passion for strong ontology and scientific rationality based on forward chaining from axioms is essentially a "Western" phenomenon. Ancient Greece's passion for abstract categories into which the entire world can be taxonomically arranged, he claims, is prototypically Western, as is the notion of causality.

In the Chinese intellectual tradition there is no necessary incompatibility between the belief that A is the case and the belief that not-A is the case. On the contrary, in the spirit of the Tao or yin-yang principle, A can actually imply that not-A is also the case, or at any rate soon will be the case...Events do not occur in isolation from other events, but are always embedded in a meaningful whole in which the elements are constantly changing and rearranging themselves. [In the Chinese approach to reasoning], to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions. It is the Middle Way that is the goal of reasoning.

In other words, he claims that the law of the excluded middle is not applied in Chinese thought, and that a different standard applies. This has been described by other thinkers as being hermeneutic reasonableness.

Reception[edit]

Cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner wrote a critical review in the New York Times, pointing out its methodological flaws (most of the experimental subjects are college students, leading to sample bias) as well as interpretational ones ("How much difference does there have to be between the Asians and the Westerners in a particular experiment to demonstrate a cultural divide?"). She was most critical about his "relentless attempt to cram everything into the Asian/Western dichotomy...into these monolithic units of East and West" without really addressing "differences within the categories" such as gender, religion, ethnicity, which are "occasionally acknowledged, but generally set aside".[4]

Other reviews were more comfortable with Nisbett's generalities and vague word usage. He notes that "East Asians" indicate Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, while "Westerners" typically means "America, but can be extended to the rest of the Anglosphere, and occasionally also to Europe".[5] Robert Sternberg, president of the American Psychological Association, called it a "landmark book".[3]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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