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 from their long history as pirates and traders; that individualism, in turn, fueled a tradition of debate and rational analysis.  From a social system grounded in debate came rhetoric to structure the search for truth; from a penchant for analysis came logic to investigate objects and their attributes.  By contrast, the Chinese, living in agrarian collectives, emphasized harmony and communal agency.  Chinese social practices are reflected in the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and later Buddhism (more properly a religion), which stressed the importance of harmony and discouraged abstract speculation about salient objects.  The contrast, then, is between independent Greeks engaged in fractious debate to discover truth—or, at least, the best course of action—and interdependent Chinese searching for Confucian social and Taoist natural harmony.  Finally, Nisbett surveys science and medicine, comparing the Greek invention of nature, syllogistic logic, and intrusive surgery with the Chinese development of dialecticism and holistic medical treatment.

This summary, unfortunately, cannot suggest the muddle Nisbett has concocted here.  He mixes fact with cultural caricature, fills national stereotypes with historical errors, fails to provide any documentation for much of his sweeping Kulturkritik, and commits some serious linguistic errors along the way.  The Greek language, for example, does not itself encourage a focus on attributes and the reduction of attributes to abstractions.  The Chinese language supposedly lacks the ability of Indo-European languages to form abstract nouns because, as Nisbett asserts, its has no words for “size” or “whiteness.”  But it certainly does.  Virtually every linguistic statement in the book is wrong.

Chapter 2 traces the social origin of mind by an account that is essentially materialistic: “That is, it attempts to explain cultural facts in terms of physical ones.”  The justification for this mental evolution is provided in a basket note holding 11 citations, without any page references.  (Indeed, Chapters 2-8 are largely devoid of such references, making it hard to assess Nisbett’s use of sources.)  The evolution described here moves by stages from ecology through economy, social structure, attention (that which society attends to), folk metaphysics, and epistemology before it culminates in cognitive processes.  Nisbett then calls his “account” a scientific theory, because it leads to testable predictions.  But what are the tests showing that economic and social factors can affect perceptions?  Nisbett cites only four old papers, dating from between 1971 and 1975 and lacking a basis in modern research into cognition or brain science.

The book’s third chapter is quite otiose, reviewing the social-psychological dichotomy created in the first two chapters to show that the differences between modern Western and Asian societies would “tend to sustain or even create those different patterns even if they had not been present in ancient times.”  So the materialist account of social mind was not necessary after all!  The polarization between Westerners and Asians is merely heightened with more contemporary detail.  Along the way, we come on more misstatements about the Japanese language (use of pronouns; lack of a word for “self-esteem”) and simplistic assertions about Japan (deficient in concept of a lively discussion; reliance on awase or harmonious fitting-in).  Nisbett does allow that his generalizations do not apply to all members of a group, but he insists that variations “should not blind us to the fact that there are real differences, substantial on average, between East Asians and people of European culture.”

On balance, the evidence for these two monolithic divisions, with their associated cognitive differences, relies on rudimentary summary, exaggeration, and wholesale exclusion of counterevidence.  More specifically, many of the contentions about Greek and Chinese philosophy are trivial, imprecise, or wrong.

Nisbett tries to show that social realities “might produce very different patterns of literally seeing the world.”  He recites (in numbing detail) the experiments he and others have conducted to prove that the cultural dichotomy produces divergent cognitive processes between Westerners and Asians.  Chapter 6 is marred by a large number of further linguistic errors, including claptrap about the greater use of nouns in Western languages and verbs in East Asian languages—which is supposed to prove that Westerners are more object-oriented and Asians more relationship-oriented.  Nisbett here confuses the rate of learning nouns and verbs in the two language groups with the absolute prominence of nouns and verbs in them.  Although he ostensibly rejects the discredited Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic structure affects habitual thinking processes), absurd statements such as the following actually validate it: “Western languages force a preoccupation with focal objects as opposed to context.”

This book suffers from a fatal methodological weakness: Much of it is based on experiments in which college students were placed in a room and given diagrams, pictures, printed statements, or other stimuli to which they had to respond in some way.  This is a customary practice in social psychology, to which many anthropologists have raised strong objections.  Here, it means Nisbett has generalized from college students to Westerners and Asians in the aggregate.  He ignores counterevidence and only occasionally admits doubts about the problematic character of his two categories.  The statistical evaluation of the experiments is also problematic, since Nisbett never defines what numerical difference establishes a clear divide between Westerners and Asians.  In many experiments, the difference is relatively small, and in some that were broken down by nationalities, the French, Italians, and Germans drift very close to the Asians.

The Geography of Thought almost inclines me to augment Auden’s Decalogue in “Under Which Lyre” with an 11th commandment to match his own on social science: “Thou shalt not commit a social psychology.”


[The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett (New York: The Free Press) 263 pp., $24.00]