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The Geography of Thought- Book Commentary

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

Whenever someone tries to compare or analyze the underlyingbases for the culture and customs of different races or groups of people, theperson making the comparison or analysis almost always runs the risk of beingcriticized for what appears to be “generalizations” as to why certain groupsbehave, act and think the way they do. It is, therefore, very important for aresearcher doing a study on human behavior, such as a people’s way of thinking,to define at the outset the scope of the study being made and the methodologyto be used.

            Studies relating to the social and psychological sciences (and the so-called “inexactsciences”), in particular, almost always face the risk of being criticized formaking conclusions that appear to be generalizations and are questionable or oflittle use. Unlike the “measurable or exact sciences”—chemistry, biology andthe physical sciences, the study of human behavior, including the way peoplethink or do things do not lend themselves easily to measurement orquantification. Thus, a social scientist or social psychologist like ProfessorNisbett analyzes and studies group behavior (or people’s way of thinking ordoing things) by using, as best he could, scientific methods to arrive at“proving” certain theories or assumptions about human behavior and thinking. Acritic or commentator reviewing the study, therefore, has to approach hiscritique or review of the study from a social science research perspective:namely, that the conclusions reached by the social scientist are notnecessarily the type of “exact or quantified” conclusions that a chemist,physicist or a natural scientist would make. The simple reason for this isbecause studies involving the social sciences do not easily lend themselves toquantification, the way the chemical and physical science experiments could.Like a doubting Thomas, today’s scientifically-oriented world gives morecredence to scientific proof as opposed to simple human observation.

            There is no question, however, about the validity of conclusions relating to thesocial sciences made from observations using scientific methods. The use ofpublic opinion polls, for example, is fairly conclusive in making predictionson election matters, although it is true that they have a range of error withinplus or minus four points. From simple and general observations, however, we doknow that people of different cultures and customs do things differently fromother groups of people in different parts of the world. We know this for a factbecause we see it.

            In his book The Geography of Thought, Professor Nisbett attempts to explainhow and why Asians (e.g. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) and Westerners (e.g. Americansand Europeans) differ in their ways of thinking and how such differences inthinking came to be.  The premiseof his study about the way people from the East and the way people from theWest think is that their respective cultures, customs and beliefs have beenpracticed in their respective geographic areas for over 2,500 years. Inparticular, Nisbett argues that the way Asians and Westerners think were influencedby their respective influential thinkers and philosophers: such Confucius inthe East, and Aristotle in the West.

            The writer of this commentary comes from the Northern Mariana Islands, a very smallgroup of islands in the Northwestern Pacific. In addition to our native cultureand custom, my people have been influenced by and have had to assimilate thecultures and customs of the countries which have colonized our islands foralmost 500 years: first Spain, then Germany, then Japan, and now as a part ofAmerica. Thinking “both ways” appears to have been ingrained in me by myparents and grandparents, as a result.

            Japan took over the islands forthirty years, until 1944 when it lost World War II. The islands then becameadministered by the United States. The fact that our political system haschanged so many times does not alter the other undeniable fact that ourculture, customs, beliefs and ways of thinking were also fundamentallyinfluenced by these four nations: three from the West, and Japan from the East.I, therefore, “feel” like a pseudo-authority on the subject of how the thinkingof a group of people is shaped, whether initially by a dominant thinker orphilosopher, or subsequently by authoritarian rule.

            I believe that it is not simply the thinking of dominant philosophers likeConfucius and Aristotle that shape how a large group of people think. There areso many variables in the equation of life, culture, custom and tradition thataffect and shape the way people think.

            With the foregoing thoughts as a background, it is my opinion that ProfessorNisbett’s study contrasting the ways of thinking between people of the East andWesterners do have some basic validity. Just as Christianity has had amonumental impact in the way people think, the influential philosophers of theEast and the West (such as Confucius and Aristotle), appear to have laid thefoundation for some of the basic values that people in their respective regionsof the world adopted, followed and practiced for centuries since then. Theirrespective philosophies (for example, on what is the “highest good,” on how tolive the good life, your duties to society, on the ideal from of government, onthe after-life, and so forth) were practiced and spread out in the East andWest respectively. Their respective ways of thinking, therefore, assimilatedthe philosophies of these influential thinkers. Over the centuries theirphilosophies have become a part of the psyche of their respective geographicalsphere, if you will. They affected the way people do things, their values, andthe way they think. I do not think for a moment that the way people think inAsia or America today just came about recently, during the past two to threecenturies.

            Cultures, customs, traditions and ways of thinking are all intertwined. They havedeveloped over the last two to three millennia. It is true that there arecontributing factors and events (other than influential philosophies) regardinghow people think and perceive things. For example, the Industrial Revolutiondid much to shape the way people live and think. Other major thinkers andphilosophers have also come along and changed the face of governments: frommonarchies, for example, to elected democracies. So, with this in mind, thereis really nothing wrong with Nisbett’s observations and conclusions as to whyWesterners and Easterners think differently. His thesis that their present waysof thinking was shaped over the centuries by the influential thinkers andphilosophers of the East and the West makes sense.

            After reading Nesbitt’s book, I began to recognize certain differences in the wayWesterners think from that of people of the Orient. Their respective valuesystems were first developed by their influential thinkers and philosophers.Their way of thinking and their value system became, more or less, a permanentpart of their culture, customs and traditions over the centuries. Theirrespective way of life is not the reason for the way they think. Rather, theway they think is the basis for their way of life.  

            One important difference that Nisbett points out between, say, East Asians andAmericans is that the former have a more “holistic view” of life, while thelatter have a more “objective view” of life. According to Nisbett, East Asiansclosely coordinate their behavior with each other and work together. They workfor the achievement of the whole group and are concerned with each other. Theylook at the entire picture of their community. In contrast, Americans valueindividual work ethic; prize individual honor and merit; act independently ofeach other; usually view things from an individual perspective; and live “oneday at a time.”

            In carrying out his study, Nisbett performed some interesting experiments toconfirm his hypothesis, such as the one with the scene of fishes in a pond. Inthis particular experiment, Asians looking at this scene saw the pond, whileAmerican participants said they concentrated on the fishes in the pond. Thissimple test persuaded Nisbett that Asians appear to have a more holistic viewof their environment; they look at the entire picture, while Americans appearto take a more practical view of things, concentrating for example only thefishes swimming in the pond.

            I thought this experiment was quite revealing because from own personalexperience, I too have seen similar differences occur. I remember watching amovie once with some friends. Two were Americans and one was Japanese. Therewas a scene with a girl in a room standing next to a table with a book on topof it. The scene did not change, but there was a switch in the shot, whichcaused my Japanese friend to notice that the book that was on the table haddisappeared. I thought her observation was interesting in that she had noticedsuch slight detail in the picture that I thought had no relevance to the movie.My American friends, like me, did not notice the book disappear and we had torewind the movie to actually see the book on the table. This incidentconfirmed, for me at least, Nisbett’s observation that Asians do tend to lookat the “whole picture,” not just parts of it.  

            Nisbett explains throughout his book that the different way of thinking between Eastand West are shaped by the history of the people in the East and the West. Inancient China and Japan, for example, people lived “in communion” with oneanother. They worked together on the rice plantations in order to provide foodfor the whole village.

            In contrast, ancient Greeks lived separate and apart as city-states, with eachperson or family pretty much living independently. Each hunted and gatheredfood independently of each other. Because each community is a self-sustainingcity-state, the values each group have an independent nature to it. Greekphilosophers and writers, such as Sophocles and Aristotle, took an objectiveview of the world. This view was subsequently passed on to the Romans, andlater to the rest of Europe. Some of the Greek philosophers saw the world asmade up of atoms and molecules and many questioned the reason for existence.

            Chinese philosophers (such as Confucius), in contrast, saw the world as one, singleholistic place. Confucius saw the world not as having conflicting views, but aworld that complements each different aspect, from which there is harmony.Because of such philosophical views, Asians and Westerners have grown to seethe world differently. I tend to agree with Nesbitt’s theory. However, oneaspect that I do not understand is why Nisbett claims that Westerners are stillindividualistic as a society. We have already begun to see Americans becomemore and more concerned with the welfare and well-being of the rest of theworld. It is true that Westerners used to be hunters and gatherers hundreds ofyears ago, and this fact man have been one basis of Western individualism. Butit is also true that the West later became an agricultural society, albeit withindividual work ethic still ingrained.

            Further, America used to be a non-interventionist country; but today it is as concernedas most counties about the welfare of all people. This shift in attitudetowards the rest of the world appears to be a convergence in the way the Eastand the West think: namely, the West is becoming more holistic in the way itthinks and does things.  This shiftin thinking though appears to be more the result of society becoming more andmore “global” in terms of nations interacting with each other. It has little ifany to do with any dominant modern philosopher.

            In one chapter of his book, Nisbett also explains the way language in the West andthe East differ from each other and why this difference in use of language, attimes, causes conflicting views. Although he spent 30-pages on the topic oflanguage, he concludes that the structure of language does not support hisargument about why Asians “contextualize” their thinking and Westerners“categorize” in their way of thinking; that is, Asians put everything intocontext while Americans put everything into categories (page162). I tend todisagree with Nisbett on this particular point. I believe that the way peoplethink are affected by the way they speak and write. People in the East thinkcontextually and people in the West think in a way that makes them categorize.Let me give an example.

            I have taken Japanese language courses for fives years and could converse fairlywell in Japanese. In the English language, the nouns are emphasized, while inJapanese, the verbs are. In Japanese, the verb comes at the end of the sentenceso that it is the last word one hears-- making it the most important part ofthe sentence. The noun is usually somewhere in the middle, or sometimes is noteven mentioned. Therefore, when Japanese people converse, they must not onlylisten to each other but also take into account the context of the situationbeing discussed. Because the noun is sometimes not mentioned, one must listencarefully and in order to understand what is being said in relation to the situationbeing spoken of.

            Japanese people are by nature shy and timid. They will not directly state that theydisagree with you. Instead, they’ll express their disagreement by saying"That sounds good, but…." Americans in contrast will simply anddirectly say “I disagree.” It is also important to note that Japanese use thepassive voice about ninety percent (90%) of the time.

            Unlike English speakers who, for example, would say, "Paul laughed at me," aJapanese speaker would say, "I was made fun of by Paul." English is adirect language that emphasizes the noun and it is easy to know what the otheris saying even if one is only half paying attention. In Japanese grammar lesson,we were taught, as a rule, never to use the passive voice. In speaking though,this rule is never followed. The fact that the passive voice dominates Japaneseconversation appears to support the reason why Japanese tend to contextualizethings, rather than categorize them.

            The different ways of thinking and viewing things between Easterners and Westernersappear to support the theory that there appear to be a relationship between thehuman nervous system and the way man constructs his realities. The different waysin which people think appear to affect their reality. Similar groups of peoplesuch as Asians or Westerners tend to have similar ways of thinking and viewingthings. Like biological and human evolution, man’s way of thinking hasdeveloped over the centuries from the constant repetition of certain practicesand beliefs that are a part of a group pf people’s culture and way of thinking.Because there has not been much interaction between the East and the West,largely as a result of geographical isolation from each other, each side of theglobe developed their own way of thinking independently of each other. Some ofthese are language usage, the way we view the world, and how we think.Ultimately, as Professor Nesbitt theorizes, the differences between the Eastand the West in the way they think have reached a point where we could see thedifferences.

            I have observed the cognitive differences in Eastern and Western people, since Iwas young and going to school with classmates from Japan and America. ProfessorNesbitt’s study book has confirmed my personal observations. The book has alsoenlightened and given me a new perspective on the subject. It should beemphasized that the study does not opine as to which way of thinking is better.