Objects and Their Contexts

One major difference between East Asian and Western thought, according to Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought, is the way we tend to see and understand things. Emphasis on things, as in, objects (including people). This has huge implications for personal identity and perceptions of causality, but those areas are for other posts.

East-West Differences in Cognitive Process:
Objects and Their Contexts

Put on your abstract-thinking hats. I’ll try to convey this in a way that makes sense. To boil it all down: when it comes of objects and their contexts, Western thought is oriented toward discrete objects while East Asians put much greater emphasis on context.


The differences between Western and traditional Chinese medicine provide helpful examples of how these abstract differences in thought orientation play out in daily life.

Medicine in the West retains the analytic, object-oriented, and interventionist approaches that were common thousands of years ago: Find the offending humour and remove or alter it. Medicine in the East is far more holistic and has never until modern times been in the least inclined toward surgery or other heroic interventions. Health is the result of a balance of favourable forces in the body; illness is due to a complex interaction of forces that must be met by equally complex, usually natural, mostly herbalist remedies and preventives. Dissection of bodies into their component parts was practiced by the ancient Greeks and … in the West for the last five hundred years, as well. Dissection was not introduced – from the West of course – to Eastern medicine until the nineteenth century (193).

Our practicum supervisor gave us a similar description when we recently observed his visit to a traditional Chinese doctor:

He explained that unlike Western medicine, which seeks to isolate and treat a specific problem (“attacking the one place only”), traditional Chinese medicine is more concerned with addressing the environmental imbalances both inside and outside the body that are causing the problem in the first place. The substances within the body must be brought back into proper relationship, or balance, with each other, the body as a whole, and the daily environment of the person. … He mentioned that for surgery people will go to Western-style doctors, but for most everything else they want the long-term, big picture oriented traditional approach.

Historical Heritage of Thought Processes

In Nisbett’s view, the differences in ways of thinking between the ancient cultures map onto the differences of current East Asian and Western ways of thinking (77).

Our heritage from the Greeks is largely responsible for our view of things. The Greeks came to value and develop logic, categorization (leading to science), and an obsession with the principle of noncontradiction, largely due to the widespread use of debate and rhetoric in their administrative and legal affairs. So when we reason, we use linear analysis. To understand our world we focus on discrete objects (whether physical or social), their respective inherent attributes, and the fixed relationships by which they relate to each other. We use an object’s attributes to categorize it. We articulate rules based on those categories to predict and explain its behaviour.

But rather than seeing and speaking of reality as a collection of discrete objects with fixed relationships, the ancient Chinese…

…saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexity of the entire “field,” that is, the context or environment as a whole (21).

In contrast to Western linear analysis, East Asians reason holistically. They emphasize an object’s context (or surrounding “field”), and therefore have less use for hard categories and universal rules. It’s not just that everything is related in some way or another. The identity and nature of a thing is in part determined by all the other things with which it is in active relationship:

To really know a thing, we have to know all of its relations, like individual musical notes embedded in a melody (175).

The Chinese conviction about the fundamental relatedness of all things made it obvious to them that objects are altered by their context (?).

Thus attempting to categorize objects with Western-style precision is not that helpful; actually, it’s often simplistic. The world is too complex and interactive for hard categories (23-24).

Our two cultures not only see different things when looking at the world, we think about what we see in different ways.

Asians see the big picture and they see objects in relation to their environments – so much so that it can be difficult for them to separate objects from their environments. Westerners focus on objects while slighting the field (context) and they literally see fewer objects and relationships than do Asians (109).

As you might imagine, this has big implications for answering why things happen. It also makes a significant difference in personal identity. Those areas are, for me, where it really gets interesting.

7 thoughts on “Objects and Their Contexts”

  1. I find fascinating the ways in which we humans come to describe and understand the world we live in. While reading your post I could not help but wonder if the Western and Eastern divide is made up of how we come to our descriptions. Does the West find it necessary to first describe the world in order to understand the world? If so, human reality lives in the context of what we can attribute to that world, which means humans have the ability, even the right, to create the foundations of understanding. Reality is then attained. Not so for the East. Their descriptions live in the context of a larger reality that cannot be attained, but only lived within. All sides inherently ask the questions that come with life, but they are divided according to the beginning assumptions. This is why I believe that philosophy trumps science, and perhaps the East has the advantage when it comes to finding answers.

  2. The “creating reality” idea definitely comes into play when you start comparing cognitive process.

    I cut out a section about language shaping the way we experience and articulate reality and how that impacts the stuff we’re talking about because the post was too long. But you brought it up, and I think there’s a point there. English and other Western languages lend themselves to a world of dichotomies and dualisms, where we choose between exclusive categories (good/bad, guilty/innocent, natural/supernatural, mind/body, etc.). We’re “either/or” oriented. Chinese and other Eastern languages lend themselves to plotting along a continuum between not necessarily exclusive categories. They are “both/and” oriented. It makes less sense to ask them “A or Z?” because for them it’s partly both. We experience this any time we ask our friends their opinions or preferences – we seldom get a “straight” answer.

    Two unrelated authors have mentioned that our Western “either/or” perception of reality has more to do with our language than with actual reality.

    Some would say that while the East’s holistic, contextual approach may better reflect reality in the moment, the West’s perhaps tunnel-vision, oversimplified, quick-to-draw-conclusions view of reality is better in the long run because it lends itself to scientific trial, error, and revision. But I suppose “better” in this case depends on how much relative value we’re putting on scientific progress. We shouldn’t assume that our culture’s worship of science is necessarily appropriate, or embraced by all humanity.

  3. Nisbett’s a well recognized cultural psychologist, or social psychologist, or… I don’t know if those are different technical terms in his field or not. See here (personal site), here (faculty profile), and here (“bringing democracy to truth”). I recognized his name from anthropology readings years ago… for all I remember I may have even read some of his other stuff and just forgot (really wish I’d gotten sleep during college… )

    I wouldn’t doubt universal common ground. Reaching it beyond a superficial level is a chore, I suspect, but I’m sure open to being pleasantly surprised! At the risk of being overly cynical, getting along smoothly might be better attributed to lack of understanding in some cases (see Hitchhiker’s), or particular aspects of one or both groups that happened to be favourably compatible. Or mutually held values at some level.

    And yes, the term “worldview” is inadequate but until something better rolls along, I’m sort stuck with it (though I am actively trying to play around it). And yeah, when you really start to get into the differences (deeper and better articulated than what I’ve posted), trying to even conceive of them at all is really mind-bending. It’s an attempt to enter another world, in a sense, and certainly feels that way at times. Being here and seeing this stuff tangibly expressed makes a big difference, I imagine.

  4. I will (timidly) attempt to join in the fray.

    What is the definition of “Western”? Is it being used here as a synonym of “modern”? I’m sure most modern Greeks would be upset to be called “Western”.

    Language is a good way to go in terms of looking at how people interpret the world (as long as one avoids the trap of saying that language *determining* things).

    Hmmm, though I had more to contribute than this. Maybe after some sleep. In the meantime, please expound on this stuff, if you would.

  5. Rest assured that all terminology is rendered deliberately vague. This provides the greatest number of possible nuance for the purpose of avoiding having to answer for what’s being said. =)

    Whatever we call “modern” would only be a given instance in the long line(s) of historical development of “Western thought.” In Nisbett’s discussion, I think “Western thought” refers to the foundational perspectives and cognitive processes prominent/formative throughout the development of European/N.American culture, which trace their ancestry back to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. It’s the current general worldview foundations – and all their history – of Western Europe, North America, and the British Commonwealth. Not just the values held by the majority in these regions (i.e. individualism, freedom of expression), but the underlying cognitive processes that produce/encourage/support/reflect these values. What’s “modern” and what’s “ancient Greek” might both be considered “Western,” but only in the sense that they are connected by the historical development of one from the other. Both Western, but not synonymous.

    Western general foundational worldview perspectives come into sharper relief when compared to the foundational worldview perspectives of a region like East Asia, as both regions in question developed in relative independence from one another for thousands of years. We can then ask questions about what thinking is universal to humanity, and what is culturally conditioned.

    People of course criticize Nisbett for speaking in such broad terms, and he responds to that in the book. I agree that we can meaningfully talk in such broad terms so long as we’re careful in our conclusions. There are real, big, deep differences here, imo. And the existence of these differences, as Nisbett says, contradicts the currently prominent universalist perspecive in psychology.

    That whole language ‘creating’ reality discussion is a very sticky enterprise… I suppose I’m supposed to claim a critical realist perspective at this point. I could say language “creates” or “determines” “reality”, but only in very specifically nuanced sense of the terms. I don’t think any of this stuff warrants a plunge into absolute relativism or anything like that.

  6. There, I’ve had some sleep. Now let’s see what damage I can do.

    That all makes sense to me, so far. There have been, and continue to be, similar discussions in the literature on Indigienous peoples’ encounters with Europeans. That there’s a difference between how different cultures interact with the world is beyond a doubt (in my mind at least).

    But then there’s the fact of intercultural interactions running fairly smoothly (whether by fluke or not), which means that there much be some common ground for groups of people with divergent “worldviews”. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this stuff, especially since I’m contemplating doing a dissertation on Aboriginal interactions with Christian missionaries on the Northwest Coast of NA. At least, that’s one of my potential topics.

    Anyway, what’s this Nisbett’s background? Sociology? Anthropolgy? Psychology?

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