In a conversation recently, we were discussing about technology in the Indian context. Does context matter? Why wouldn’t technology designed and developed elsewhere fit here too? Don’t people’s minds work the same way everywhere? Is human cognition then like classical physics – it doesn’t matter whether Newton sat in Kammanahalli or Kuala Lumpur, the mango would still land on his head. Or is human cognition something that’s also shaped by the context we live in?
A North American professor who studied ‘human thought’, the underlying assumption being that there is something universal called human thought was challenged by his Chinese student who said, you think in lines and I think in circles. This led the professor, Richard Nisbett to examine how culture and context influences thought, and it is this journey that is captured in ‘Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.’
Nisbett starts by explaining the philosophical roots of different ideas and concepts that shape thought in Asian and Western societies, and one of the key differences is the focus on the individual in Western societies.
What’s interesting is the way Nisbett accounts for the focus on the individual, by invoking reduction. According to Nisbett, the Greeks ‘invented’ nature. He explains that the Greeks said anything that’s outside of you is nature, and in doing so they clearly drew boundaries between you and nature. Thus you could ‘study’ nature as it is outside of you and you are not connected to it, you cannot influence the study in any way, the philosophical basis of classical science.
Nisbett contrasts Aristotle and Confucius to bring out the differences between the two cultures. The interconnectedness that it is an integral part of the Confucian culture and how it differs from the Greek culture that relies on isolating objects and studying them in that isolation is brought out through different examples. It gets more interesting when Nisbett shows how reduction versus interconnectedness starts affecting other aspects, including language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning. Language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning – all these different threads are themselves interconnected, and in the book Nisbett illustrates these differences using examples, and drawing from firsthand research.
For instance, when it comes to language, apparently in Japanese the word for “I” is rarely used. “I” is a trans-contextual idea of self. It does not change whether you are talking to your parents or to your lover. On the other hand, in Japanese the words used to refer to one’s own self depend on the context. Similarly, consider the level of abstraction. In Chinese, instead of saying the object is far, you would say it is like viewing a fire from across the river. Instead of white, you would say like a rabbit’s fur or a swan’s wing.
By teasing out different threads, Nisbett’s book ends on a hopeful note, with a call for convergence — a blending of Western and Asian ways of thought, a best of both worlds vision of things to come.
In the introduction, Nisbett acknowledges that the word ‘Asian’ contains within it a host of different cultures, and that a broadbrush to interpret Asian in a particular way was used in the book. In some sense it is almost recursive — how much you abstract out of a geographical context.
In the spirit of Nisbett’s book, what if we were to push that abstraction and unpack different layers of what it is to be ‘Asian’. For instance,what would Nisbett’s book be like if the Indian context was taken into account?
We plan to explore that in the next blogposts.