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.