Sunday, March 20, 2011

Inherited Traditions that Cause Asians and Westerners to Think Differently

In his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, Richard E. Nisbett discusses the research by psychologists that indicates cognitive differences between those brought up in the “Western” tradition and those with an Oriental background. He associates these differences with societal habits acquired over the past few thousand years.

“The philosophies and achievements of the Greeks and Chinese of 2,500 years ago were remarkably different, as were the social structures and conceptions of themselves. And, as I hope to show....the intellectual aspects of each society make sense in light of their social characteristics”
To be more specific, the research results apply to:
“....Westerners (primarily Europeans, Americans, and citizens of the British Commonwealth) and East Asians (principally the people of China, Korea, and Japan) have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years.”
Nisbett provides the reader with a few brief passages which serve as summaries of his conclusions. He proposes the Greek character as the prototype for modern Western thought.
“The Greeks, more than any other ancient peoples, and in fact more than most people on the planet today, had a remarkable sense of personal agency—the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose....A strong sense of individual identity accompanied the Greek sense of personal agency....The Greek sense of agency fueled a tradition of debate.”
The Oriental mindset is ascribed to the society that developed in ancient China.
“The Chinese counterpart to Greek agency was harmony. Every Chinese was first and foremost a member of a collective, or rather of several collectives—the clan, the village, and especially the family. The individual was not, as for the Greeks, an encapsulated unit who maintained a unique identity across social settings....The Chinese were concerned less with issues of control of others or the environment than with self-control, so as to minimize friction with others in the family and village...On the contrary, there would have been a sense of collective agency.”
Nisbett devotes the main part of the book to investigations of how these two different cultures manifested themselves in cognitive investigations of peoples from the two ends of the earth. That would be a topic for another day. My interest here is to consider his claim that the Western mindset is a direct descendent of that of the ancient Greeks. I will argue that what he is really observing is a mindset inherited from Protestant Christianity.

The author details the results of numerous studies that elucidate disparate responses from the two cultures. Most are followed by a statement similar to this one.
“About 75 percent of Americans chose the first definition, more than 50 percent of the Canadians, Australians, British, Dutch and Swedes chose that definition, and about a third of Japanese and Singaporese chose it. Germans, French and Italians as a group were intermediate between the Asians and the people of British and northern European culture.”
There was no uniformity of response within the “Western” community. It would seem that he is really drawing conclusions from studies of the English speaking countries.

Nesbitt describes the “Greek” tradition as one emphasizing the individual and individual initiative. Consider the results of the Hofstede study measuring the individualistic traits of given countries. This work resulted in the tabulation of a Country Individualism Index. Consider the values obtained for relevant countries. The top six scoring countries are:
U.S.A.           91
Australia         90
Great Britain   89
Canada          80
Netherlands    80
New Zealand  79
The countries with romance languages are:
Italy                76
France            71
Spain              51
Portugal          27
The Asian countries include:
Japan              46
Hong Kong     25
Singapore        20
Taiwan            17
Note that Greece itself comes in at a value of 35, which is more consistent with an Asian country than a European.

The Romans were the inheritors of Greek civilization and the propagators of culture throughout most of Europe for many centuries. But Nesbitt suggests that it is the regions that had no direct contact with Greece and the least contact with Rome that are somehow the inheritors of the Greek tradition.

Nesbitt provides us with a hint when he comments on the results of one of the studies he discussed.
“We generally find that it is the white Protestants among the American participants in our studies who show the most “Western” patterns of behavior and that Catholics and minority group members, including African Americans and Hispanics, are shifted somewhat toward Eastern patterns.”
The top countries on the individualism index list are either British derived, or the Netherlands. All of these countries were heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity, with Calvinism being one of the prime contributors.

I sympathize with the author. What he has written makes a very good story. It is rather unsettling to have to contemplate the fact that John Calvin may have had more of an influence on Western thought than Plato or Aristotle. In fact it is a damned scary thought. I will not bring it up again. I promise!


  1. The American Revolution was derided as the "Presbyterian Rebellion" by none other than King George III. As a Calvinist of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors fought for our freedom alongside Washington, I'm proud of that.

    Non-Christian Americans may not want to admit the debt they owe to the theology of Calvin, but the debt remains. Their every free breath proves that God richly blesses the just and the unjust.

    Absent the Protestant Reformation, this nation would not have been what she has been, both for our citizens and as the beacon of hope and freedom for the world.


  2. No one denies the tradition of fighting, the issue is: is there a tradition of intolerance and discrimination?

    And as for Mr. Calvin, there is Will durant's assessment:

    “But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.”

  3. It's hardly surprising that an atheist would be skeptical of Calvin.



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