About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Geography of Thought

Richard Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought, is about whether, and why, Westerners and Asians think differently. And, if so, what the consequences are for cognitive psychology as well as for politics and the near future of humanity.

Before anybody gets all worked up about a simplistic approach based on categorizing entire groups and ignoring differences among individuals, stop it right there. The premise is sound, and empirically based. Of course there are differences among individual Westerners and Asians. Moreover, as Nisbett himself shows through his research, there are different kinds of "Westerners" and of "Asians" (e.g., Europeans like French, Italian and Spanish behave significantly differently from, say, English, when compared to Americans as a reference group). But individual differences don't necessarily negate the existence of group differences, and it is on the latter that Nisbett focuses.

I can't possibly do justice to the entire book here (which is, however, rather short and very easy to read, so go ahead, put it on your list). Nonetheless, the picture emerging from it, based largely on comparative cross-cultural studies, is that Westerners do in fact think differently from Asians; indeed, the two literally "see" the world in different fashions. Westerners tend to focus on the role of individuals, adopting strongly causal views of history, relying on formal logic... and building a society in which lawyers far outnumber engineers (at least in the US)! Asians pay more attention to the environment in which individuals live, with its diffuse causal connections, have never developed a formal philosophy or logical system, and (in Japan at least) have far more engineers than lawyers.

Nisbett suggests that there is much good in both approaches. Science would not have been possible without the Western tradition of thought, tracing back to Aristotle. On the other hand, Asians have never seen religious wars, partly as a consequence of their tendency to try to diffuse in-group conflict (this is distinct from inter-group warfare, apparently that's an almost human universal).

In the end, there are three models of the near future: Francis Fukuyama's famous "end of history," in which the West's hegemony will become complete, and capitalism and democracy (which, of course, ain't exactly -- or even approximately -- the same thing) will prevail. Or Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations," in which the two systems of thought will collide (are colliding already? Though we are not talking here about the Middle East, which is a third, and distinct, cultural group). Or Nisbett's third way, a convergence where future humans will pick the best of each culture's contributions and discard the rest.

My own preference is for Nisbett's third way, of course, though the current trend seems to be a combination of Fukuyama's and Huntington's. It is up to each of us to attempt to steer the way, and a better understanding of the differences, pluses and minuses, of the various options is necessary to guide us. Nisbett's book certainly helps in that direction.

1 comment:

  1. Hi from a European point of view I see Nisbet's book as valuable.I see Europeans as a cultural group on a continuum from
    the more group centred thinking of Asians to the generally highly indvidualistic thinking of Americans. I agree that ethnic groups do see things differently. I hope Nisbet in the future goes on to further studies which would show the subtle variations in the continuum of group to individualistic thinking.


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