Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

East vs West: The roots of different thought patterns

Published on 25 November 2011
Updated on 10 April 2024

In his excellent book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, Richard E. Nisbett points out that the Greeks were reluctant to accept the concept of 0 (zero), rejecting it on the grounds that it represented a violation of the principle of ‘non-contradiction’. Zero is both a reality (as a number) and a non-reality (as a value). The concept of zero drifted into Europe from the East. This is not the only example of Greek pig-headedness; Plato focused more on geometry, which better aligned with his view of the world as ‘rational’, while downplaying the significance of irrational numbers.

Nisbett’s book, published during the peak of the controversy surrounding ‘Asian values’ (see Kishore Mahbubani’s book Can Asians Think?), described the situation as a ‘political game’. Meanwhile, the rising influence of Asia, particularly China, has since diminished the intensity of this debate.

How are you by Siyu Cao
‘How are you’ by Siyu Cao (@tineyeyescomics).

The Geography of Thought 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 Easterners1 and Westerners2 differ in fundamental ways, including:

  • Nature of the world
  • Focus of attention
  • Skills to perceive relationships and discern objects in a complex environment
  • Character of causal attribution
  • Tendency to organise the world categorically or relationally
  • Inclination to use rules, including the rules of formal logic

The experiments presented are both clever and illuminating.

Principles of Eastern and Western thought

According to the experiments, three principles underlie Eastern thought:

  • Principle of change
  • Principle of contradiction
  • Principle of relationship (holism)

The West relies on the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction, leading to abstraction and a disregard for context. It is a static and mechanical worldview, which stands in contrast to the Eastern view of perpetual change.

‘So what?’, a Japanese friend asked me.

The main reason for reading about experimental results, rather than relying on anecdotes or cross-cultural lore, is that, as Ludwig Wittgenstein explains in Philosophical Investigations, ‘the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’.

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 so will self-righteousness.

How to disagree by Siyu Cao
‘How to disagree’ by Siyu Cao (@tineyeyescomics).

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 an essential part of any policy problem. Therefore, I am exhilarated to discover 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. At other times, it might be simply a problem of communication – a failure to elaborate on how context impinges on decisions.

The impact of globalisation on thinking patterns

Will globalisation move us toward ‘homogenisation’ of thinking? Nisbett glosses over this 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: now, I can drive into a lamp post anywhere in the world.

  1. Broadly defined as the cultural complex China–Korea–Japan.
  2. 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.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog