The 11th Commandment

The Geography of Thought is an exercise in cultural polarization that makes two basic claims: There are profound cognitive differences between Westerners and Asians; and these differences have maintained themselves with striking continuity for thousands of years.  Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, locates the two utterly different modes of thought in two cultural continua (or “self-perpetuating homeostatic systems”): one running from ancient Greece to the modern West; another, from ancient China to East Asia.  India and the Muslim world, which apparently do not fit into his bipolar scheme, have been excluded.  The two subjects of Nisbett’s study are, however, severely circumscribed: East Asia refers only to China, Japan, and Korea, while the West embraces only those peoples who have inherited European culture.

Nisbett canvasses a large body of psychological experiments, including many of his own performed in the United States and China, for evidence to support his claim that Westerners and Asians differ fundamentally in their beliefs about the nature of the world, as well as in their ways of perceiving and understanding it.

In his first chapter, Nisbett develops the crude outlines of the dichotomy by contrasting the Aristotelian syllogism with the Chinese Tao.  The Greeks acquired a remarkable sense of personal agency and individualism...

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