The first thing that will strike many readers of The Geography of Thought(Nisbett) is that it boldly takes on what could be a controversial topic. Richard E. Nisbett claims that Asians (especially those from East Asia) and Westerners (cultures of European descent) think and even perceive differently in important ways and that these differences are sufficiently culturally embedded to make them statistically predictable for members of the cultures involved. Even the choice of the terms “Asian” and “Western” to define broadly large groups of disparate peoples may be found questionable by some. Nisbett recognizes this potential problem in his introduction, admitting that it may seem unfair, in particular to some of East Asian origin, to ignore the vast areas of differences within these cultures. Nisbett, however, does not shy away from these characterizations. They are central to his task.
The author starts with an introduction to his subject outlining the breadth and depth of his investigation. He believes that the differences he sees in different cultural matrices are not limited to a few cultural artifacts but that they form the basic cognitive orientations which direct and, to some extent, determine how individuals think about, act in, and perceive the world and other people around them. He hints at a much broader enterprise when he characterizes Westerners as being oriented toward rules and categories, while East Asians are oriented toward context, both human and natural. Because the differences he sees lie at such a basic level of cognition, Nisbett can apply his observations across many disciplines and areas of study. Science and mathematics, economics, language, philosophy, and the social sciences are all brought under the lens of the author’s investigation.
Nisbett’s first chapter is a historical sketch contrasting ancient Greece and ancient China. He credits ancient Greece with the development of the idea of personal agency. To modern readers living in individualistic societies, it might seem strange to imagine any culture not based on individual freedom and responsibility, but on this point the author has support from many students of both ancient and modern cultures. According to Nisbett, the ancient Chinese represent a specific version of another (far more common, according to many social scientists) cultural pattern: The Chinese believed in and acted upon the idea of collective agency. For them, everything was to be done within a pattern of prearranged roles and networks of mutual obligations under a hierarchical system of organization. The Chinese goal was using politeness strategies to get along with others, as opposed to the Greek goal of using competitive strategies to get ahead of (or at least free from) others.
Nisbett spends some time contrasting Greek and Chinese philosophies in the ancient world. He notes that the Greeks tended to have a concern not only for categorization but also for classification of their categories according to an idea—or even more, an ideal—of essence. For the Greeks, it was crucial to find the true nature of objects in the world, apart from what was constantly changing and transforming them. Thus, human beings retain their essential identities even as they age and die. The Chinese, in contrast, not only did not focus on what might be essential in objects but also did not focus on objects at all. For them, the salient features of reality were always to be found in fluid context, not in abstracted singularity.
In Nisbett’s second chapter, “The Social Origins of Mind,” he outlines what he considers to be the structure of “homeostatic socio-cognitive systems.” In what he himself might admit looks at first like a Western approach, he traces what he considers to be the roots of cognition, from ecology through economy, social structure, attention (or perception), metaphysics, epistemology, and finally cognitive processes. He escapes the linear trap, however, in that he sees this structure working as well in reverse and as being accessible at any point, such that the homeostatic system is self-contained and self-propagating. Nisbett admits that modern means of travel and communication have brought about unprecedented interaction between these disparate cultural types, but he claims that the distinctive modes of thought still persist. Furthermore, they can be, and have been, measured by a number of different psychologists and social scientists. Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of just such studies.
In his third chapter, Nisbett describes of the fundamental difference between group-based and individualistic cultures. The author’s ideas on this point resemble those of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, though he apparently has come to his ideas by a different route, as he does not cite her. Nisbett lays out cultural differences between the cooperative East and the competitive West that...
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