ARE THERE TWO ONTOLOGIES, EAST AND WEST AND TWO IDEALS OF THE GOOD PERSON?

Richard Nisbett’s (2003) best-selling book: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently provides a clear example of the east/west dichotomy. Nisbett argues: “East Asia and the West have had different systems of thought, including perception, assumptions about the nature of the world, and thinking processes, for thousands of years” (University of Michigan, 2014). One cannot help being impressed (if not surprised) by the sweeping range of this claim; that it is possible to separate out East Asia from what he calls the West, because he believes these two regions are sufficiently homogeneous in their respective epistemologies and ontologies to make this a clear distinction. For example, he says that East Asians are more holistic whereas westerners are more analytic (Nisbett, 2003; Nisbett et al., 2001). Well, this might appear to be consistent with the observation that western philosophy is often said to be primarily analytic, whereas eastern philosophy is more orientative, concerned with providing norms for a harmonious society (Sankey, 2008). However, I would suggest that in philosophy this is only a broad-brush distinction; it does not support the claim that there exist two homogeneous worlds of perception, thought and ontology, as Nisbett maintains. Moreover, the claim that East Asians are more holistic and less analytic thinkers does not fit easily with OECD claims that easterners such as Chinese, Koreans and Singaporeans consistently score higher than westerners in terms of mathematics and science. Something seems to be wrong.

What is wrong becomes clear when Nisbett and colleagues (2001) set their claims against the “assumption of universality of cognitive processes”, which they claim “lies deep in the psychological tradition” (p. 305). In other words, the notion of an east/west divide is rooted in the ‘universalist versus culturalist’ dichotomy within psychology. They say that when psychologists assume universalism and “perform experiments on ‘categorization,’ ‘inductive inference,’ logical reasoning,’ or ‘attributional processes,’ it does not normally occur to them that their data may apply only rather locally, to people raised in a tradition of European culture” (p. 305). This may well be true, but Nisbett and his colleagues similarly fail to notice that the alternative culturalist approach is open to the objection that it is based on sweeping stereotypes which may apply only locally. David Moshman has observed that a crucial problem with culturalist frameworks “is the tendency to construe cultures as homogeneous entities composed of monolithic norms and values” (Moshman, 2005, p. 65). Instead, he argues that “differences among individuals and social contexts within cultures are greater than differences between cultures” (Moshman, 2011, p. 100). He then adds: “Individual cultures are less monolithic than they may appear to an external observer; differences among them are not so profound as to rule out universal principles ofjustice” (Moshman, 2011, p. 100). In short, despite many (though often-superficial) similarities in the way Asians think about society, East Asia is nothing like a homogeneous culture, and nor is the ‘west’, by which Nisbett and colleagues seem to mean America.

A major problem with Nisbett’s dichotomy, as with all other dichotomies, is the tendency to posit contrasting views as an Either/Or - either one has to choose universality or cultural diversity. What is needed, surely, is a ‘third way’ that can incorporate universalism and cultural diversity, but not as a dichotomy, in accounting for the commonalties and differences across and within east and west. It seems to me that the ‘universalist versus culturalist’ dichotomy is based on a number of mistakes, not least the mistake of believing that the dichotomy is valid. Rather, I suggest, it simply mirrors the many dichotomies or dualisms inherited from the western Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, related to the onset of modern science and the dualistic mechanical philosophy of Rene Descartes. One of the main outcomes of that dualising inheritance has been a largely static and homogeneous view of culture and, by extension, what it means to be a virtuous person, as though there are fixed and different templates of the good and virtuous citizen, east and west.

The key message for this paper is that any attempt to define the ‘good citizen’ or ‘civic virtue’ on the basis of a dichotomous east/west divide is to be resisted. It is likely to be overstated. There may indeed be some truth in the stereotypes provided by the culturalist camp, but they nevertheless remain stereotypes. They pay no regard to individual differences within cultures, or to the dynamic and ever- changing nature of cultures themselves, which is increasingly the case as a result of economic and cross-cultural globalization in present times. Instead of setting ‘cultural difference’ versus ‘universal commonality’ as polar opposites and seeking answers to what constitutes a good citizen within an east/west divide, this paper will offer a third way based on a dynamics systems approach. This theoretical framework is increasingly taking hold in mainstream psychology and social theory, though it remains little known in education. It’s approach to human development would suggest a rather a ‘messy’, non-linear and shifting notion of culture and the virtuous citizen. This approach also broadens the debate, to include the developmental and neurobiological influences on the human person or ‘self’, including the moral or virtuous self. These perspectives will eventually take us beyond the mindset of dichotomies and divides, towards cultural pluralism and an acknowledgement of shared values. For the moment, by way of introducing DST into the discussion, we will set it against the universalism of the Kohlbergian tradition in moral education, which exercised an enormous influence during the second half of the twentieth century.

 
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