Confucius vs Aristotle

jrieders's picture

To the contemporary American or Chinese person, it is nothing new to suggest that “Westerners” and “Easterners” act differently. As we have discussed in class, different behavior suggests different ways of thinking, and ultimately different organization of the brain itself.  One would then expect to see observable differences in “Eastern” and “Western” behavior, and some underlying neurological cause for such observations.

But what do the terms East and West really mean? Are these terms derived from a common region, culture, or language? The definition, to be sure, is a combination of many factors, which historically are ultimately selected to the definers’ (Westerners) advantage. For the purposes of this paper I will refer to East Asia as China, Korea, and Japan, and the West as America and Western Europe. The terms East and West are socially, politically, and economically weighted and the biases associated with them are so deeply rooted that even so called sinifiles may find themselves advocating the very stereotypes placed on the East by the West. For example, someone might argue how a mystic conformist society is far superior to an individualistic reason based society, without questioning how mystic or conformist Eastern culture truly is.

Provided that there may indeed be a difference in the fundamental thought processes of people from different regions with different cultural backgrounds and ethnicity, how is it possible to set up or interpret observations into something useful for both cultures involved? That is to say, if such a difference exists, wouldn’t the data collected likely lead the groups being compared to different conclusions? As Nisbett states in The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why, linear thought and formal logic arose from Greek culture, while cyclical and relationship dependant thought arose from the Chinese. How then can we hope to apply formal logic to Chinese culture and expect success? Despite Nisbett’s sensitivity to the meaning of the terms East and West, and the associated biases, are his interpretations and conclusions influenced by the same biases?

Nisbett claims the essential difference between East Asians and Westerners comes from the different relationships in a community in Ancient China and Ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, or about 500 BCE. The Chinese “had” to interact with their neighbors because rice farming required irrigation and the ecology allowed for clustered villages. The Greeks did not “have” to interact because they lived off hunting, herding, and trade, and the mountainous geography didn’t allow for clustered homes. Based on the already standing idea that East Asians have a more holistic worldview dependent on relationships and circumstance, and that Westerners have a more object oriented worldview dependent on essential analysis and agency, Nisbett inquired whether there are differences in the way we literally see the world.

In one study, they presented objects of a certain shape and substance, such as a pyramid made of cork, to Americans and Japanese of all ages. They then presented something made of cork but a different shape, as well as a pyramid made of a difference substance, and asked which one was the same as the previous “dax”. For the four-year-old Americans, more than two thirds chose the plastic pyramid as the “dax”, while the same number of Japanese children chose the cork as the “dax”, the same results were seen for all ages, though to varying degrees. Nisbett interprets this as evidence that East Asians see matter without borders, as continuous and defined by their substance. Westerners on the other hand see objects as separate entities and focus on their most prominent features. But I find this explanation lacking.  How can we call shape more prominent when substance is clearly more prominent to the Japanese participants?

In another study designed by one of Nisbett’s Japanese students, Taka Masuda, they questioned if East Asians paid more attention to the background or environment in a picture. Animated scenes of fish in a pond, with specific details like plants and other animals, were show to American and Japanese college students. In the foreground there was one fish that stuck out, it was highlighted with brighter colors, of a larger size, and swam faster than the other fish. Participants watched the animation for 20 seconds, and then were asked what they saw. The Japanese students made 60% more references to the environment and the background fish, and their first descriptive sentence was most likely to describe what they saw as a pond, while the American students were more likely to start off saying “there was a big fish swimming across to the left”. Later the students were shown 96 images, half of which were in the original animation. Some of the images, which the students had already seen, were in the same environment, while others were put in different environments. The American students did not have trouble recognizing the objects no matter what the background was, but the Japanese students had trouble when the backgrounds were different from the original animation, suggesting the image was tied to it’s environment. Nisbett sees this as further evidence that Westerners have object-oriented vision while East Asians have continuous environmentally oriented vision.

Although this research is indeed interesting and the data in itself is relatively unbiased, the interpretation, in my opinion, is skewed to support Nisbett’s original theory relating to types of community living. I question whether the time periods of Ancient Greece and Ancient China are truly analogous, Ancient Greece “proper” having started over a thousand years after Ancient Chinese civilization began. Furthermore, trading and hunting required complex interactions between the Greeks and other cultures, thus they must have developed adept relationship sensitivity. The Greeks also had infighting between city states, that members of city states we willing to fight for their neighbors and kin shows a high level community loyalty (if didn’t care much for their neighbors, then why would they care about people outside their city state?). Cooperation and coordination is necessary for any type of agricultural living, even if it is your own family that works for you. During the Zhou Dynasty, around 480 BCE, the rules of social interaction were complied and proscribed in the most minute detail. For example, The Book of Etiquette provides rules and specific dialogue for all manners of social interactions, for example when a gentleman visits another gentleman he must “present a freshly killed pheasant, and in summer a dried on. The bird is held up in both hands, the head to the left.”(42). The given example is probably extreme, but such proscribed behavior and dialogue make social interactions less complex, as the persons involved do not have to decide what they should be doing.  In both China and Greece human social development had been going on for thousands of years before, mustn’t there be factors that were more crucial to the way we think that happened at much earlier times? I agree to Nisbett’s explanation of “how” East Asians and Westerners think differently due to very fundamental differences in logic, social interactions, and perceptions, but for the reasons stated above and more, his “why” is not valid, and further research must be pursued.


Serendip Visitor's picture

failed in second paragraph

Greeks stopped.hunting and gathering around the same the.earliest civilisation in the leant.7500bc

They as a result of poor lands for agriculture had become merchant giants. from minoan times onwards the increase in luxury. But it was Athenian Democratic freedom that truly gave rise to philosophy. I believe there was communications between Greece and China well before recorded history.

Paul Grobstein's picture

east meets west, and vice versa

Could it be that Nisbet seeks explanation as a "westerner" would, and that an "eastener" might, like you, have a different conception of "explanation"?
jrieders's picture

It is fine if he wants to

It is fine if he wants to write a book that will be primarily helpful to "Westerners", but I still think the theory behind his observations is simply not enough, he writes as if agriculture in Ancient Greece and China is the sole reason for the observations, but I think there are a lot of holes in this theory, as I have pointed out, and there must be additional reasons. It is like he decided to publish his book even though it wasn't finished, maybe he wanted to get it out there before someone else did...
jrieders's picture


Wigan, Karin and Martin Lewis. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
Translated by Patricia Ebrey. The Book of Etiquette and Ritual. China, late Zhou (480 BCE).

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