Ways of Thinking: the Syllogism versus the Tao

“In Confucianism there was no thought of knowing that did not entail some consequence for action.”  – Donald Munro

“The Greeks became slaves to the linear either-or orientation of their logic.”  – Robert Logan

Do Asians and Westerners think differently and why?

In The Geography of Thought, Richard Nesbitt provides a clear, detailed and researched explanation of many of the ways in which Westerners (most typically Americans and Western Europeans) and Asians (most typically East Asians from China, Korea and Japan) think differently and some of the reasons for these differences.  Before I start, neither Asians or Westerners are “better” at thinking, although there are clear differences which explain many of the common misunderstandings and misconceptions as well as some of the cultural differences between the West and Asia.  Or, should I put it that cultural differences explain the differences in patterns of thinking, as all are bound up in traditions, language and societal norms.

To be clear, most of the work which supports the book focuses on Westerners from US (and occasionally Western Europe) and Asians from China, Korea and Japan (East Asia).  Richard Nisbett tells a great story about the start of his investigations which were prompted by a Chinese student who told him one day, “I think the world is a circle, and you think it is a line.”

Why are there differences?

Confucius and especially Aristotle set the tone for many of the differences, and certainly laid the groundwork for many of the themes in the book, if not personally responsible themselves.

The above sentence encapsulates one of the most fundamental differences, so let’s focus on Aristotle, as I was brought up in the Western style of thinking (and I know Aristotle better than Confucius).  Aristotle set in stone the ancient Greeks’ focus on personal agency (although the idea goes back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), along with the importance of control of the environment and others (even if that was ultimately in the gods’ hands).

Confucius would have answered very differently, saying it had less to do with himself and Aristotle and more to do with the environment in which their different cultures found themselves.  East Asians focus far more on harmony and collective responsibility along with control of self.  To Confucius, the cause of any difference would be due to differences in environment and context.  In fact, in asking the question I am assuming a direct cause and effect relationship which may not be relevant to understanding the difference!

These differences in personal agency and causality are also expressed in organisation of knowledge, determinism, attention, perception, reasoning and language (or is it the other way round?). [For the record, I should state that in many ways, Chinese civilisation was much more advanced than it’s Western equivalent around 500-300 BC when many of these ideas where first written down.]

Atoms and spaces

Democritus is credited with developing the ancient Greek idea of the world as composed of atoms, and this is still seen in the way that Westerners tend to focus on objects, while East Asians focus on relationships as more important to understanding the world.  This is also seen in the way that Westerners focus on categories to explain and understand the world around them, rather than the relationships between those objects.

To take a simple example, based on the work described in the book, the picture above provokes different reactions in Asia and the West.  When presented with a cow, hen and grass, East Asians are much more likely to group the cow with the grass, based on the relationship which exists between them (‘the cow eats the grass’), whereas American are much more likely to group the cow with the hen as belonging to the same category (or more similar categories, eg animals).

Objects and relationships

These differences can also be seen in language and language acquisition.  In Western cultures, infants learn nouns much more quickly than verbs, but in East Asian cultures learning is initially focused on verbs, and nouns are learnt later than is typical in Western countries.  Language structures also reflect this, with verbs being more salient in East Asian languages (in Chinese, Korean and Japanese they are near the start or end of sentences, whereas in Western languages they are buried in the middle).  Western parents can sometimes be noun obsessed, pointing at objects in turn and calling their name, whereas Asian parents are more likely to explain relationships and social routines (focusing on verbs).  In all languages, nouns reflect objects and verbs relationships.

Also in Western languages, nouns tend to be much more specific with many more generic words for different categories.  For example, it would be impossible to tell the difference between “cows eat grass” and “this cow is eating the grass” in Chinese, which would require further context to properly interpret.

[As an aside, Chinese also has no word for ‘individualism’ – the closest term translates as ‘selfishness’.  In Japan, the word for “I” depends on context.  We will come to the importance of relationships and context shortly.]

Western language and thinking focuses much more on ‘qualities’ or ‘attributes’ which can be ascribed to objects (going back to ancient Greek and Plato’s forms), and this is even reflected in the way that adjectives can be turned into nouns very easily.  In English this is easily done by adding ‘ness’, so attentive becomes attentiveness.  Many Asian languages do not represent concepts and qualities so concretely.

The importance of context

In the scene above there are several elements.  Westerners tend to focus on the fish in the foreground (‘there was a big fish’).  Asians tend to focus on the environment (‘it looked like a pond’) and to relationships between objects (‘the big fish is swimming towards the plants’).  In fact, Asians often find it difficult to ‘untangle’ the objects in a scene from the context in which they are set, whereas Westerners find this much easier.  This extends to ideas of causality.  For example, when asked to explain the behaviour of fish in the scene, Westerners focus on personal agency (‘it wants to go to the left’) whereas Asians focus on the environment and relationships to other objects (‘it is following the other fish’).

Similarly, ask Westerners to “describe yourself” and they will typically describe their personality traits (humble, hard working), life categories (trainer, son) and activities (I play rugby, I write blogs). Ask an East Asian and they will refer to specific contexts in describing themselves (‘I am serious at work’, ‘I am fun loving at home’) and also make reference to social roles (‘I am your friend’, ‘I play tennis with my husband’).

These differences have even been found in the media’s interpretation of specific events.  In one review of newspaper reporting of murders (which has been replicated), Western media focused on personal agency (ie personal dispositions, traits and attitudes), whereas Asian media focused on situational factors (ie relationships, pressure points, cultural influences).

It seems that Asians are far less prone to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) than Westerners!

Reason and circumstance

Westerners are much fonder of applying formal logic in everyday decision making and explanations than Asians, who seem much more able to cope with holding contradictory propositions in their minds.

This brings us back to the syllogism.  Western civilisation has been strongly influenced by Socrates (and other Greeks) love of dialogue and debate. Debate always demands contradiction, and the role of logic in such discussions is to make one answer ‘right’ and it’s opposite ‘wrong’, something that Asians often find difficult to understand.   To quote Japanese anthropologist Nobuhiro Nagashima, “To argue with logical consistency …. may not only be resented but also be regarded as immature.”

How do Asians think differently?

East Asian thinking can be (loosely and imprecisely) described in three key principles.

  • Eastern traditions of thought emphasise the constantly changing nature of reality.  Even if you are in a given state, then this is only a sign that the state is about to change, as reality is in constant flux and reality is subjective.
  • Asians also appreciate that the world is full of oppositions and paradoxes.  Old and new, good and bad, strong and weak are interdependent and exist in everything, with each completing it’s opposite half..  Taoism teaches that the two sides of each side of any apparent contradiction exists in active harmony with it’s opposite, connected and mutually controlling. As Mao Tse-tung said, “On the one hand opposites are opposed to each other, and on the other they are interconnected, interpenetrating, interpermeating and interdependent, and this character is described as identity.”
  • Finally, Asians appreciate that nothing exists in an independent way, but is connected to a multitude of other things.  To know something, we have to know all it’s relevant relationships, in the same way that a musical note only makes sense in the context of a melody, rhythm and harmony.

Thus Asians always take the middle way, and do not let logic and oppositional thinking take them to extreme points of view.

In one interesting study, which involved placing three brands against two key dimensions of choice, one brand was placed as very good on one dimension, very bad on another, and a second brand bad and good.  A third brand was presented as average on both dimensions. You may not be surprised to know that Westerners were much more likely to focus on one (to them important) dimension and pick a brand which performed best.  After all, that’s the raison d’etre of brand differentiation!  East Asians were much more likely to pick the brand which performed ‘average’ on both factors, finding a middle way, and having a greater preference for compromise and for holistic arguments.  Westerners phobia of contradictions often leads them to become more extreme in their judgements, taking one side or another, finding and following more simple rules of thumb to justify decision making.

How to think about the modern world?

In summary, there are many differences in thinking between Asian and Western cultures, with some of the key themes summarised below:

  1. Asians attend much more to environments and relationships and Westerners to objects.
  2. Westerners are more likely to believe that they can control the environment.
  3. Westerners see the world as much more stable than Asians who see a world in constant flux.
  4. Westerners focus on personal agency in seeking explanations for events, whereas Asians focus on environment.
  5. Asians look to relationships and Westerners to categories in organising the world.
  6. Westerners are more likely to use logic-based rules to interpret events than others.
  7. Asians are more likely to seek a middle way and compromise when confronted with contradictions, whereas Westerners tend to focus on the correctness of one belief (or rule) over another.

Both West and East can learn from each other in developing better ways of thinking and decision making.  There is much to learn from these differences, and I hope to write more on this over the coming months.


The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently …. and Why by Richard E. Nesbitt (2004)

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