The theory that claims a nearly indistinguishable process of thought among all humans regardless of their culture assumes a Eurocentric worldview. This hypothesis neglects to consider the differences between Eastern and Western countries, while remaining apologetic towards Western ignorance by allowing its preservation in an increasingly globalised society. The reality of the complexities of human cognition are greatly attributed, instead, to a host of factors beyond biology relevant to an individuals environment.
In 2010, the journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences published an article that explored the nature of the types of research posted concerning human psychology and behaviour. They posited that such routine publications regarding behavioural science were drawing conclusions based on samples from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. After analysing top journals in the field, researchers discovered that 68% of their subjects came from the United States, while 96% of the the total subjects came from Western industrialised countries. This meant that the majority of psychological sample candidates were representative of only 12% of the world’s population. Such generalisations would not be so problematic if researchers were to provide either demographic information about their participants or rename their findings to reflect their sample population.
While psychological research regarding cognition appears to assume universality among subjects, comparative literature written by scholars in others such fields (history, literature, anthropology, sociology) maintains the idea theory that individuals from the East and West practice different patterns of thought. If we take into consideration the terms “individualism” and “collectivism” when referring to the overarching feature that defines the debate between East vs. West, we can first ask ourselves 1) why these terms are used to describe eastern and western mentality, and 2) find out how these came to be determining attributes in our collective consciousness.
When it comes to Western thought patterns, there is an agreement among scholars that their thought assumes linearity, meaning that the behaviour of objects can be understood in more straightforward terms to “help them know what rules to apply to the objects in question.” East Asians, however, consider a “host of factors” in a broader context, whose relationship cannot be boiled down in a “simple and deterministic way.” We can then hypothesise that the nature of thought is a complex system of regulatory factors characters to the culture rather than to solely the scientific make-up of the brain. And it is from here that we can begin to look more deeply into a truly fascinating idea:
“If people really do differ profoundly in their systems of thought – their world views and cognitive processes – then differences in people’s attitudes and beliefs, and even their values and preferences, might not be a matter of merely different inputs and teachings, but rather an inevitable consequences of using different tools to understand the world.”
In this section, I want to explore logic and truth, as the art of argumentation becomes one of the most utilised forms of expression in day-to-day conversation. At the heart of reality, explaining our truth to one another is how we form and build relationships in this world. It dictates our politics, our preferences, who we decide to interact with, and how others ultimately choose to interact with us.
A study conducted by Kaiping Peng and Richard E. Nisbett titled Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning About Contradiction sought to uncover the differences in how both Easterners and Westerners process contradiction using dialectical thinking and/or formal logic. They hypothesised that reasoning about contradiction is ultimately guided by tacit ontologies and epistemologies about the nature of the world and knowledge. Through five empirical studies, researchers found that among Chinese participants, dealing with contradictions resulted in a dialectical approach, meaning that individuals would retain “basic elements of opposing perspectives” by seeking a middle path. Yet, among European-American participants, researchers saw that Aristotelian logic was used, meaning the polarisation of “contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which fact or position [was] correct.”
Aristotelian logic, most often referred to as the “Laws of Thought” or the “Laws of Logic,” consist of three fundamental axiomatic rules that explain the basis for rational discourse in the West. Much of the formulation of logic and philosophy is based on these three laws, which are as follows:
- The Law of Identity, which states that if something is true, it is always true and identical to itself (A is A).
- The Law of the Excluded Middle states that something cannot be both true and false, it must either be one or the other. Between the two members of a contradiction, there is no middle term. (A is A, or A is not B)
- The Law of Noncontradiction states that something cannot exist and not exist at the same time in the same respect. A statement is not both true and false (A is A, or A is not A, A cannot be both A and not A)
While Westerner’s often view the world as objective and fixed when it comes to its relationship with concepts, the Chinese approach to the world is one that is in constant flux, therefore viewing reality as a process. There are three principles in Chinese philosophy that all relate and influence one another:
- The Principle of Change, which states that because reality is flexible and dynamic, the concepts that reflect reality are also active, changeable, and subjective.
- The Principle of Contradiction claims that because change is constant, reality is full of inevitable contradictions.
- The Principle of Holism/Relationships says that nothing is isolated from one another, and to be able to understand something to the fullest, one must understand all of its relations.
These three principles are relational in their application. For the Chinese, because change is inevitable, contradiction by extension must also inevitably occur. Both the rational foundation for Eastern and Western patterns of logic are invariably different from one another, and because of this, approaches to concepts and abstractions become more inconsistent from one another. For instance, the idea of change from Chinese traditional thought will suggest that life is in a constant state of change, influenced by the past, present, and future all in the same moment. However, the Western approach, as we see from the law of identity, assumes a cross-situational consistency, meaning that traits remain the same regardless of their environmental contexts.
This is where we can delve into the understanding of truth and reality, as they are explored by each tradition in different ways. For researchers, they posited that ultimately, fundamental differences in ontology and epistemology lead to substantial cognitive differences. While Westerner’s understanding of contradiction aligns more closely with Aristotle’s logic of the law of contradiction, a Chinese dialectical thinker, given options A and B, may look for a third element C, or may take pieces from both A and B to find an answer within the supposed “contradiction.”
When I first began to read literature written by authors from different cultures, the idea of truth became more obvious to me, oddly enough, the less overtly it was explained in texts. My professor at the time explained that in order to understand the novels, and by extension the author’s purpose we needed to understand that “truth” and “Truth” were two different concepts. Truth with a capital “T” is something ingrained in the core of most westerners. It is the belief that there is one ultimate truth in the world and no matter where one is in society, all those under the same domain hold that truth to the same standard. We can take the Christian God as an example. The teachings found in The Bible for most Western countries would be considered the “Truth” – capital T, no questions asked – just look into the United States of America’s founding documents and you will understand how deep Christian ideals run.
Now there is another type of truth: truth with a lowercase “t.” This truth exists more commonly in non-Western minds, as this is the type of truth most often expressed in post-colonial literature. It is a truth that is held to a specific individual. This type of truth changes based on who you may be speaking to. Your truth is different than the truth of your best friend, your mother, your father, your teacher – it is the belief that because you have your own eyes and mind, you will always see the world slightly differently than the person next to you. The best way to illustrate this point is with the analogy of “The Slap.” Let’s say there are five of us sitting around a small circular table and I turn to the side and slap the person sitting next to me. Now, if you and I are both to write down the events that just took place, each piece of work would tell two stories. While the action of the slap would remain consistent, everything else in the situation would be recalled slightly differently. My story of the slap would be different from the person I slapped, as would the story you choose to tell sitting across from me. This is how truth with a lowercase “t” works.
We have two conceptual types of “truth” now. So, let’s continue by dissecting two ancient civilisations, both fundamental to the formation of present day societies in each section of the globe. On the Western side, we have ancient Greece, a society that hinged on the rapid development of personal freedom, individuality, and objective thought. Made up of city-states, which consisted of a major city, central to economic development and trade, and its surrounding areas for herding and agriculture, each state had its own laws and forms of government. Looking more closely at one of the city-states, Athens consisted of three main bodies of government: The Assembly (deciding laws), the Courts (lawsuits and trials), and the Council of 500 (day-to-day affairs). At the heart of Athenian government was the inclusion of the citizens, whether voted in or randomly selected, but regardless there was an underlying form of “demokratia” or “rule by the people.”
When commenting on political freedom, Greek historian, Herodotus said “there is, first the most splendid of virtues, equality before the law.” In Herodotus’ The Histories, he details the aspects of freedom and the principles behind it, arguing how it must be gained both internally and externally. In book 7, he writes that “Xerxes said that if they should return to Hellas, the Greeks would hear of his power and would surrender their peculiar freedom before the expedition with the result that there would be no need to march against them” (7.147.1). Under this second principle of both gaining and maintaining freedom, Herodotus emphasises the importance of a willingness to continually fight for freedom. This fight is not only a necessity, but under those who hold power or wish to hold power, it is one that should be expected.
The idea of a continuous fight for individual freedom is important when considering the fact that Greece was made up of influential city-states. With powerful civilisations sharing borders, any form of attack, whether it be one that could seep through the borders and spark intellectual rebellion, or an invasion of brute force, Herodotus’ concern with maintaining freedom is an understandable anxiety. Considering Greece’s geographical location as a place for encountering people with different religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds with separate traditions and customs, perhaps this crossroads played a role in the Western approach to truth. By coming in contact with so many types of individuals, Greeks would have a unique way of dealing with contradicting ideals. Encounters with those who held a different set of beliefs from outside the country, as well as “freely expressed contradictions among insiders’ views in the assembly and marketplace” might have forced people to develop formal logic when dealing with dissonance.
However, if we look at China, even today, we see a country where the vast majority of its population belongs to the same Han ethnic group, excluding a small minority population located in the west. This homogeneity may very well play into the lack of development of specific cognitive procedures needed for arguing as seen in the West. Rather, due to the push for a harmonious lifestyle when considering the day-to-day interactions that had to be maintained for the agricultural practices found in village life, the act of resolving conflict would have triumphed the need to prove the truth of a situation. If we consider Chinese social structures and practices today, relationships prove to be central, determining opportunities as well as societal constraints.
“If one perceives oneself as embedded within a larger context of which one is an interdependent part, it is likely that other objects or events will be perceived in a similar way. Folk metaphysics – beliefs about the nature of the social and physical world – would therefore both have been generated by one fact: the Chinese were attending closely to the social world.”
The ecological makeup of China, consisting of geographical features that favoured agriculture and centralised control, made the need for harmony among individuals all the more important. An article published in 2014 titled Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture details the psychological differences between Han subjects in East Asian countries. Researchers surveyed nearly 1,200 Chinese college students from six provinces ranging from the north and south. Among the subjects, regardless of where they were currently living, those who grew up in provinces with a “higher percentage of farmland devoted to rice paddies thought more holistically.” The study showed that those from rice provinces were more likely to see themselves as lesser than those from wheat provinces, as well as were less likely to feel the need to punish close friends for dishonesty. At its heart the study provided insight into the general mode of thinking in areas where rice farming was most prevalent. The importance of getting along with one another, or working amicably with neighbours, drives the agricultural practices that stress many individuals cultivating in concert with one another.
Irrigation systems in China also may be system to this type of centralised control circumspect to East Asian countries because of the ruling of despots. Due to the layout of the area, peasants needed to get along with every faction above them including the village elders, and regional magistrate.
So, if we look at how such agricultural differences appear to influence thought patterns today, we see that among Westerner’s the idea of individualism when it comes to one’s view of self as well as argumentation of a point was cultivated based on how the land was used. From the beginning’s of Western agricultural, we see the start of a culture where getting by meant profiting off others and promoting oneself in the marketplace. If the origins of Western agriculture advocate for individual freedom in order to thrive amongst the competition, such a deterministic view of life would appear to make much more sense logistically. As for the East, the idea of cooperation and harmony among a collective whole of people in order to prosper and live in their environment meant that the difference between right and wrong meant something wholly different. To maintain peace, people had to ensure that the middle path involving cooperation on all sides was always a priority. This translates to the type of collectivism mentality we often see today from individuals from Eastern countries.
Taking pieces of the agricultural history and philosophy behind logic from both the West and the East, we can begin to see where this pursuit of right vs. wrong, truth vs. lie, and good vs. bad is most often and most easily depicted: film.
Let’s take a look at two films, the first, Hayao Miyazaki’s 千と千尋の神隠し or Spirited Away. The film follows a young girl, Chihiro, on a journey to free her parents from the spell put on them by a witch, Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse in the spirit world. While there are many aspects of Spirited Away that make it so beautifully and inherently Eastern in its stylistic approach, I’ll focus on the complexities of Miyazaki’s characters that breathe life into the world of this film.
One of the greatest strengths of Spirited Away, and many other films in the Studio Ghibli collection, is the approach they hold when it comes to the development of their characters. Initial impressions of the characters on screen in the first act (Chihiro’s ignorance and immaturity, Haku’s standoffish personality and conviction, Yubaba’s controlling and manipulative behaviour), ultimately change by the end of the film. While this can be true of a multitude of other films, the expectation that Chihiro must triumph over the ultimate evil within the film is essentially a nonexistent component of Spirited Away. There is an honest development in Chihiro’s character, one that is not forcefully shaped by the other character’s in the spirit world. The natural evolution of her character is one that feels so uniquely human. This string of organic narration is one that can be partially attributed to Miyazaki’s lack of a completed script when the film began production. When asked, he claimed that “the film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.” Perhaps this is the reason why many have expressed how Miyazaki’s work continues to touch the soul, due to its profound ability to capture the blend of complexities that make up the spiritual, emotional, realistic, and fantastic aspects of a community.
While Chihiro is not an exact representation of inexplicably “good” character, Spirited Away never places Yubaba as a solely “evil” character. By the end of the film, the audience grows to understand Yubaba’s position – Chihiro even thanks her along with the others in the bathhouse for taking care of her. While Yubaba takes turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs, such an action is not unwarranted given Chihiro’s parents were indulging in the food exclusively left out for the spirits, ignoring the warnings written regarding what consequences would occur if they were to engage in such gluttonous and selfish acts. There is never a point in the film where Miyazaki deliberately defines character’s as either good or evil, rather they occupy a space somewhere in between, balancing center of the two poles.
Now, let’s look at the 2009 American movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, Coraline. This movie, like Spirited Away, focuses on the plight of a young girl who must rescue her parents through a series of tests in an alternate reality found just beyond the comfort of her living room through a small locked door. Through this little door in the wall, Coraline discovers a world seemingly better than her current reality, where her Other mother and Other father dote on her as if she is the center of the universe, where her neighbours, brightly coloured with equally eccentric personalities to match, live uniquely exciting lives in their seemingly mundane world. However, as Coraline spends an increasing amount of time in the other world, she is rightly warned by a talking cat: “You probably think this other world is a dream come true,” the Cat tells Coraline. “But it’s not.”
While Coraline develops between the first and third act of the film, her path is wrought with hardships in which she is the sole protagonist – a hero against the throws of evil. There is no doubt that the Other mother is the source of all narrative strife in the film. Physically turning into a spider, she is representative of the other world’s evil center. Manipulative, controlling, and obsessive, the Other mother is the evil that must be defeated in order for Coraline to change so she can truly appreciate her reality. This a major component of Western storytelling. The philosophy of good vs. evil drives the plot forward through character’s individual action – a type of storytelling that foregrounds the literal event of an action that takes place over the collectivist psychology of inciting harmony. This is one of the biggest differences between Eastern and Western philosophy: The West values individualism and idolises triumphs over adversity, while the East values collectivism and harmony.
If we analyze how we feel about the villains found in Spirited Away and Coraline we can begin to understand these differences. Yubaba is more often misguided in her actions, while the Other mother is unmistakably wicked. When I watch a film like Spirited Away, I never find myself actively rooting for Yubaba’s demise, instead, I would rather her see her faults and change – in much the same way I want to see other characters in the film grow. Characters in these films are three-dimensional in the sense that they are never 100% evil, nor 100% good – they are gray, they are fragments of both, such is the same of humans in our world. While there are at times the bad guys hiding in the closet, or in another realm trying to pull us through alongside Coraline, this is an almost rarity. Human beings are extremely complex, their motivations sometimes too buried and twisted for even them to figure out and articulate completely.
As for me, I sit a leg in each camp – both overtly Western in a sense, but trying to take some of what the Eastern approach has asked of me. It’s unmistakable though, to see how these traditions influence us, and to see how they influence others. When you argue with someone from a different culture though, take a moment, slide into those metaphorical shoes, and know that there is in a fact a reason as to why they think the way they do. For some of us, it means taking on that in-between logic, that middle path towards harmony and cooperation, while for others, it means attempting to understand so that they can eventually tear apart, hurt, and dismantle. I sincerely hope that the first steps we take towards learning not to hate one another are closer to the first, but I often fear it may be the latter.