Thoughts on “The Geography of Thought”

First things first: I wanted to read this book because my wife is Vietnamese. I’ve spent 20 years married to Alexis and had time to observe how she handles things and I handle things. This puts me at a disadvantage. When she moved from Vietnam to New Orleans, she was five or six, so she has a good 14 or 15 years on me in observing differences and navigating her way in a culture that is different than the one she experiences with her immediate family. I wanted to do a little catch up.

She summed it up nicely when I asked if she wanted to read the book: “I’m sure it won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

The book’s shortcomings are apparent almost immediately:

I believed all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. … [I wrote a book] titled Human Inference. Not Western Inference (and certainly not American college student inference!), but human inference. The book characterized what I took to the inferential rules that people everywhere use to understand the world…

I’m a little more than a little surprised that someone could become an academic in human psychology and not understand that people from different cultures see the world in remarkably different ways.

Now, that aside, the book does have the some great insights that come from research the author and others have performed.

If you want a 30-second (or less) synopsis of the book, here it is:

People in the West see the world consisting of various parts. Understand how an individual thing acts and you’ll be able to make reliable predictions about how it will act in any situation.

Meanwhile, people in the East see the world more like an interdependent system. Making predictions based on how you’ve seen something (or someone!) act in isolation is foolish since context is the determining factor in what will happen now.

Of course, when you divide the world up this way, you run into the problem of over-simplification. And, as he makes apparent by comparing populations, the Eastern and Western modes of thought are not a binary system. Asian-Americans, people from Hong Kong and sometimes Germans regularly straddle the East/West divide.

The people who are the penultimate Westerners are Americans, followed by Canadians and the British. Meanwhile, Easterners start with the Chinese and Japanese and move from there.

In the first part of the book, he talks about Aristotle and Confucius and how they created two different systems of thought. The origins of these two modes of thinking, then, are presented as Greek vs Chinese.

What interested me was that Western thought later became more clearly Protestant thought – the connection to Greece was in its generation, but not the “best” modern form. In fact, a lot of my exposure to Orthodox thought has shown that there are sometimes more similarities with Eastern religion than with American Christianity.

Overall, even though this book provided some good food for thought and the studies performed were useful, I was put off by the author’s acknowledgement that he was relatively unaware of thse differences until relatively late in his career.

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