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Contradiction phobia

Published on 25 November 2011
Updated on 23 May 2023

In his excellent book: The geography of thought[1] Richard E. NISBETT points out that the Greeks never warmed to the concept of O (zero). Though considered, they rejected it, on the grounds that it represented a violation of the principle of “non-contradiction”. Zero is both a reality (as number) and a non-reality (as value). The concept of O (zero) drifted into Europe from the East. This is not the only example of Greek pig-headedness: Plato abandoned mathematics for geometry so as better to conceal irrational numbers, which undermined his view of the world as “rational”.

NISBETT’s book was published at the height of the controversy with “Asian values”[2]. The controversy was a “political game” – meanwhile the ascendancy of Asia (and China in particular) has muted the debate.

The book is grounded in experiments – which is a huge step forward from the telling (and stereotyping) anecdote. It presents a large amount of evidence to the effect that Easterners[3] and Westerners[4] differ in fundamental way about

  • the nature of the world; in
  • the focus of attention; in
  • the skills to perceive relationships and to discern objects in a complex environment; in
  • the character of causal attribution; in
  • the tendency to organize the world categorically or relationally; and in
  • the inclination to use rules, including the rules of formal logic. (pg. 189-190).

The experiments are clever and illuminating.

According to the experiments three principles seem to underlie Eastern thought (pg. 174 – 177):

  • Principle of change;
  • Principle of contradiction;
  • Principle of relationship, or Holism.

The West relies on the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction, which takes it into abstraction and disregard of context; it is a static and mechanic worldview, which contradicts the Eastern view of perpetual change.

“So what?” – a Japanese friend asked me.

The main reason for reading about experimental results – rather than anecdotes (or cross-cultural lore) – is: “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”[5]. Knowing that there is a “geography of thought” is a good way to read some sense into our own hectoring. It might help us to stop and think, rather than dismiss, the “other’s point of view”. Curiosity will kill the cat – but also self-righteousness.

Will these insights take one further? I don’t know. We are all different; such awareness, or even knowledge, is no patent medicine. I’ve always considered context as an essential part of any policy problem: I am exhilarated to discover, therefore, that others think alike. My being befuddled suddenly turns into wisdom. In the West context is often frowned upon: one must have “principles”, one must have a “clear line”. Maybe – sometimes. In other moments it might be simply a problem of communication – a failure to elaborate on how context impinges on decision.

Will globalisation move us to ward “homogenization” of thinking? The author is the book glosses over the subject in the Epilogue – it’s the major flaw I’ve found. I’ve learned to drive both on the right and on the left. I can do either, depending on the situation. Doing so has enriched me: I can drive into a lamp post anywhere in the world now.

[1] Richard E. NISBETT (2003): The geography of thought. Nicholas Breadley Publishing, London.

[2] See e.g. Kishore MAHBUBANI (2004 3d ed.): Can Asians think? Times Publishing, Singapore.

[3] Broadly defined as the cultural complex China-Korea-Japan.

[4] Broadly defined as the world of Europe and its cultural siblings (the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand). I’d like to point out, however, that the “eastern border of this “civilisation” is highly problematic. The Middle East and India would partially fit in: their exclusion reflects the experimental set-up rather than any objective difference.

[5] Ludwig WITTGENSTEIN (1953) : Philosophical investigations. § 129

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