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Lions Roar : May 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2008 93 We Think, Therefore We Are IN ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING, thought-provoking, and scientifically grounded books on cultural relativity in recent years, distinguished University of Michigan scholar Richard E. Nisbett explores the dramatically different thought processes of Westerners and East Asians. “Human cognition is not every- where the same,” he states, for some people have used different conceptual tools to understand the world. His detailed journey into this profound (and some might feel politically incorrect) realm of difference spans history, philosophy, psychology, geography, and linguistics. Naturally, his conclusions will be of special interest to Western converts to Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual practices. But as Nisbett shows through a wide range of studies, surveys, and observational research con- ducted by himself and his colleagues around the world, these two fundamentally different ways of conceiving and experiencing re- ality influence every aspect of our contemporary life—education, law, business, child-rearing, and social relations—and account for much of the misunderstanding about behavior and expecta- tions that arise between Easterners and Westerners. Nisbett begins probing these worldviews that are at such vari- ance with an historical overture of the ecological and philosoph- ical foundations of thought in ancient Greece and China. Three characteristics are crucial hallmarks of Greek life 2,500 years ago, he says. First, “the location of the Greeks at the crossroads of the world” fed their sense of curiosity and brought this maritime trading people into contact with different cultures to such a de- gree that “Athens itself would have been rather like the bar in Star War s .” Secondly, the Greeks “had a remarkable sense of personal agency—the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose.” And lastly, “A strong sense of individual identity accompanied the Greek sense of personal agency.” This sense of agency, says Nisbett, fueled a tradition of debate in the Greek city-state, or polis. Debate was a spirited contest between individuals, with all the contention, dichotomies, and conflict one might expect when “persuasion by dint of rational argument” is the rule. That belief in individualism and agency also led early Greek thinkers, like Aristotle, to be “deeply concerned with the question of which properties made an object what it was,” regardless of the context or field in which one might find it. “A routine habit of Greek philosophers,” Nisbett writes, “was to analyze the attributes of an object—person, place, thing, or animal—and categorize the object on the basis of its abstracted attributes.” Categories are denoted by static, unchanging nouns (which Western children are taught as soon as they can talk), and this isolation of an object allowed it to be studied. Its unchanging, independent, static essence could be discovered, and none of this would have been possible without the logical princi- ples of noncontradiction, which states that a proposition cannot be both truth and false (“A and not-A are impossible”), and the law of identity, in which a thing is itself and not some other thing (“A is A regardless of the context”). Moving forward as he sketches a capsule intellectual history of the West, Nisbett concludes that “the history of Europe ... created a new sort of person—one who conceived of individuals as separate from the larger community and who thought in terms imbued with freedom.” The ontology underlying Asian thought is significantly differ- ent. Nisbett argues that in contrast to the exposure the Greeks had to so many different people (and views), which led them to address contradiction in an either/or fashion, the Chinese were ethnically homogeneous and unified as a people early on. The author notes that “even today 95 percent of the Chinese popula- tion belongs to the same Han ethnic group.” While the Greeks cherished agency, argued with each other in the marketplace, de- bated in the political assembly (“a contest between opponents”), and thought of themselves “as individuals with distinct proper- ties, as units separate from others,” the Chinese embraced har- mony as their social ideal. “Every Chinese was first and foremost a member of a collective ... the clan, the village, and especially the family. ... For the early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others.” In other words, Asian ontology emphasized a sense of collective agency. Added to that, Confucianism, with its complex network of social roles and obligations, and its “Doctrine of the Golden Mean—to be excessive in nothing and to assume that between THE GEOGRAPHY OF THOUGHT How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why By Richard E. Nisbett Free Press; 288 pp., $15 (paper) REVIEWED BY CHARLES R. JOHNSON CHARLES R. JOHNSON is a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His novels include Dreamer and Middle Passage, for which he won a National Book Award. MAY 80-105.indd 93 MAY 80-105.indd 93 3/6/08 11:36:42 AM 3/6/08 11:36:42 AM