This is not a review of the 2001 book of that title by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani
. Rather, it is an attempt at a review of Richard E. Nisbett
's fascinating The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why
The first chapter, titled "The Syllogism and the Tao," outlines ancient Greek and Chinese thought by examining and contrasting the teachings of Aristotle
. It's a brilliant beginning. As an intellectual descendant of the former, I find myself unable to think of a world in which "freedom and individuality" as well as the "sense of curiosity about the world" are not prime considerations. But, having lived more than a decade among intellectual descendants of the latter, I cannot help but concede that "self-control" and the "the satisfactions of a plain country life within a harmonious social network" are of equal, if not ultimately greater, importance. And while the Greek (and Western) "concern with abstraction" often leaves me cold, so does the Chinese (and Eastern) "lack of curiosity."
The author expands upon these ideas in the next chapter, and at one point says that "[a]s the West became primarily agricultural in the Middle Ages, it became less individualistic" and that "[t]he European peasant was probably not that different from the Chinese peasant in terms of interdependence or freedom in daily life or in a rationalist approach to reasoning." He does not mean this as a compliment─as I take it to be─; in fact, he later erroneously refers to this period as a "millennium of torpor." This is strange seeing that he normally─and rightfully─praises Chinese "interdependence" and avoidance of an overly "rationalist approach to reasoning." He also notes that "the Mediterranean countries plus Belgium and Germany are intermediate between the East Asian countries on the one hand and the countries most heavily influenced by Protestant, Anglo-Saxon culture on the other." My conclusion─not the author's─is that it is The Catholic Faith
that balances the East-West Yin - Yang
The following chapters, which detail various studies (many of them of Koreans) carried out by the author and his students (whom he acknowledges readily), are fascinating but not as convincing as the philosophers covered in the first chapter. In fact, these latter chapters border on Scientism
, as any attempt to use the methodology of the natural sciences to study social or cultural phenomena tend to be. (I say this having been exposed to the same in my own meagre field, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
, an experience that immunized me from any desire to pursue a doctorate.) Later, Prof. Nisbett says, "The two Western vices of separation of form and content and the insistence on logical approaches often operate together to produce a lot of academic nonsense." I don't accuse him of this; I only note that these are the least convincing─but most reported on─chapters of the book.
The book picks up momentum again with a chapter that asks, "Is the World Made Up of Nouns or Verbs?" Noting that Western children learn the former and Eastern children the latter at a much faster comparative rate, and that Eastern and Western languages tend to give emphasis to one or the other, Prof. Nisbett is unabashed in his support for The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
, which holds that language not only influences
how we think. Westerners grow up in a world of objects; Easterners in a world of relationships.
The final chapters leave me more firmly in the Chinese camp. He quotes two modern Chinese philosophers, Shih-hsien Liu and Lin Yutang
respectively, with the following remarkable statements:
...It is precisely because the Chinese mind is so rational that it refuses to become rationalistic...
An educated man should, above all, be a reasonable being, who is characterized by his common sense, his love of moderation, and his hatred of abstract theories and logical extremes.
(This "hatred of abstract theories and logical extremes" is key to the Traditionalist Conservatism
as championed by Russell Kirk (1918–1994)
, is it not?)
At the back of my mind from the book's outset was the most important question─left unaddressed, naturally, by the author─which is: is there anything in the Eastern Mind which makes acceptance of The Catholic Faith
impossible or nearly so? My answer to that question is a resounding, No! In fact, quite the opposite is true; while the Chinese distaste for logic might make Thomism
a tough sell, the Chinese lack of a "contradiction phobia" might make it easier to accept Spiritual Liberation by Christian Paradoxes
. Edward Yong of In principio erat Verbum - Εν αρχη ην ο Λογος
has suggested that the Chinese psyche is more at home in Eastern Christianity
, and after reading this book, I am inclined toward his opinion.
In his epilogue, Prof. Nisbett expresses his belief that "the twain shall meet by virtue of each moving in the direction of the other" and that "this stew will contain the best of each culture." This, I believe, is the promise of Postmodernism
, which, it goes without saying, is not all crap. To paraphrase and expand upon the famous words of Pope John Paul II
, may the world
breathe with both lungs.
Labels: Confucianism, Conservatism, Corea, Europe is the Faith, Philosophy, The Age of Faith, The Catholic Faith, The Middle Kingdom, Ut Unum Sint