Western and non-Western Systems of

Thought:
Socio-cognitive Worldviews, Regimes of Truth, and
the Prospect of Consilience

Question:
“Discuss, using relevant examples, the proposition that we can
distinguish between "Western" and "non-Western" systems of thought.”
(Word Count: 2914 excluding charts and footnotes)

Department of Sociology
SO463 - Contemporary Social Thought

This paper examines the proposition that there are distinct “Western”
and “non-Western” systems of thought. The deeper question that needs
addressing here is, as I frame it, what are the valid (true, scientific,
politically just) Western and non-Western ways of thinking and how can
they be integrated? We must also consider the answers when they
produce conflicting conclusions. While they may seem contradictory on
the surface, they may be holistically integrated on a deeper level. I have
organized this paper into three sections. The first details the traditional
West vs. East dichotomy of thought systems. Second, I analyze critical
conceptions of knowledge construction and how this relates to the first
section. This is concerned with the ways of knowing within a state or
culture; a hierarchy of social epistemology. Third, I discuss the prospect
for consilience, the unity of knowledge across fragmented scientific
disciplines, as well as bridging East and West ways of thinking, and elite
and mass forms of knowledge.
When conceiving of non-Western systems of thought the imagery
typically invoked includes such systems as Confucianism, Taoism,
Buddhism, holism, Hinduism, Islam, and Chinese Communism. Western
thought is typically associated with concepts such as Marxism,
Christianity, rationalism, empiricism, positivism, modernity, among
others. These concepts may more appropriately be classified as
ideologies, methodologies, schools of thought, religions, or
philosophies. We will take 'systems of thought' to refer to the underlying
processes at work in constructing a specific worldview.
Section 1: Socio-cognitive Worldviews
It is a long-held popular assumption that Western and Eastern cultures
have fundamentally opposite ways of comprehending the world. Recent
scholarship has endeavoured to articulate the grounds for such belief,
and has highlighted the social factors that encourage the general
polarization of ways of thinking. The dichotomy is socially evolved and
reproduced based on the natural tension between Western and Eastern
ecological systems, economic strategies, and philosophical traditions,
but they are not inherently incompatible, or exclusive to either

hemisphere. Moreover, while this duality of worlds appears to be
intensifying for some, the overall trend is one of convergence and
hybridization.
The subtitle to psychologist Richard Nisbett's book The Geography of
Thought is pointedly “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…
and Why.” His book thoroughly recounts a slew of psychological studies
which uphold the assumption that Easterners view the world through a
dynamic/holistic frame and Westerners are more linear/reductionist.
Short of attempting to compress Nisbett's findings into several awkward
paragraphs, I've constructed a table (Fig. 1)[1] to illustrate the general
dichotomization between Western and Eastern systems of thought, as
laid out in his book.

Fig. 1
One particular survey asked respondents from difference countries
whether they preferred “individual distinction” or “harmonious
relations” when it came to job type preference.[2] The results favoured
individuality nine to one in the case of Westerners, whereas more than
half of people from Japan and Singapore favoured harmony.[3] Similarly,

American and Japanese test subjects were asked to identify what “dax”
was when looking at a pyramid made of cork. Two thirds of Americans
chose the pyramid (form), while two thirds of Japanese chose the cork,
demonstrating the differences in perception.[4] In the much cited work by
Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, The Seven Cultures of Capitalism,
the authors conducted comparative analyses into the organizational
psychology and business practices of corporations in different countries.
Their findings prove the existence of distinct perceptual and
organizational norms which variously correspond to the dichotomy
espoused herein. Fig. 2[5] depicts the different dominant models of
organizational hierarchy in the U.S. and Japan.

Fig. 2
Nisbett is careful to stipulate throughout the book that these are
generalizations and that we each possess the alternate tendencies to
varying degrees. He explains how “priming” test participants with
information and symbols from the opposite culture leads to a shift to that
mode of thinking.[6] The constant interaction of the East and West
through media, communication, and global news would suggest that
people in general are slowly being drawn to the intermediate range of

the dichotomy, towards hybrid global cultures. The respective Western
and Eastern patterns of thought maintain their apparent rigidity because
each system socio-cognitive “self-reinforcing homeostatic system.”[7]
Illustrated in fig. 3 is the different conceptualizations of these mirrored
systems in the West (LEFT: linear) and East (RIGHT: holistic;
integrated), respectively.[8]
Fig. 3
In the homeostatic system, as economic forces promote different
social structures, different social conventions follow and different
worldviews arise, and so on.[9] I might add here that the logic of
international competition forces states to adopt contrasting economic
strategies, compounding the initial process that was prompted by
different ecologies. Moreover, cultural pride, nationalism, and the
‘culture industry’ play important roles in reproducing the system. Yet, as
indicated by ‘priming,’ the respective systems of thought are not innate
differences; they are socially constructed.
That we can successfully distinguish between what are popularly
considered to be Western and non-Western systems of thought should be
obvious at this point. But that one way of thinking absolutely
corresponds to either cultural hemisphere is misleading at best, and
patently false at worst. However, the fact that many people consciously
bind themselves in a cognitive framework of “methodological
nationalism”[10] normalizes and reproduces the dichotomy. This
'regionalization' is simply a cultural stereotype that is reified through the
homeostatic loops of worldview reproduction. As I will show in the
following section, there is a more important division of thought systems;
those stratified horizontally as opposed to mirrored vertically.
Section 2: Regimes of Truth / Systems of Power-Knowledge
This section is concerned less with how people think and more about
how they are manipulated through “systems of thought.” The term in
question originates with Foucault, although he does not offer an explicit
exposition of the term itself in any of his work. Rather, it is a blanket

term that refers to his archaeological findings from uncovering different
ways of knowing; namely, how epistemes and discursive formations are
bound by social institutions which limit what can be known in a given
time and place.[11] Foucault uses the phrase in the opening of his The
Order of Things, in reference to Borges' discussion of animal
classifications in a Chinese encyclopedia.[12] Remarkably, Nisbett opens
his sixth chapter the exact same way to illustrate other ways of
classifying knowledge, but they are talking about different things, and
Foucault is absent from the bibliography.[13]
Whereas Nisbett is interested in psychological profiles, Foucault is
concerned with how certain types of knowledge are (im-)possible. It
might help to consider 'systems of thought' as synonymous with his term
'regimes of truth,' or at least that the former is manifested from the latter.
He defines 'regimes of truth' as the means by which society sanctions a
hierarchy of truth and falsity through different discourses and
mechanisms.[14] This includes the endorsement of specific authorities of
truth (such as universities, mass media, juridico-political institutions) by
the state, although the state reserves the right to supersede these and
proclaim its own 'truth.' In this sense, we are meant to understand a
‘system of thought’ as the particular worldview generated through the
contradictions of capitalism, as opposed to being correlated with
Western or Eastern predispositions of thinking. Foucault’s approach
emphasizes that power is dispersed throughout society and operating in
knowledge itself, as opposed to being exercised by dominant individuals
and institutions.[15] The masses yield power to the system of domination
that produces the knowledge which passes through them by receiving
that knowledge uncritically.
In Social Mindscapes, Eviatar Zerubavel makes the case that thinking is
predominantly a social activity[16] contrary to the most cognitive
scientists’ assumptions.[17] A strong thread through the book is that of
“imperception,” meaning what we exclude in order to focus on
something.[18] Mass media and other institutions of thought system
production are, he argues, sinister forms of social control, as they
normatively curtail our attention span. Zerubavel observes a parallel

between the Durkheimian definition of religion of determining what is
sacred and profane to the way bureaucracy similarly segregates the
“official” and unofficial.[19] These insights are intellectual tools to
question the authoritative versions of truth. Only through awareness of
the habitual tendencies of thinking in a categorical or prescribed way can
one overcome them.
In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer indirectly discusses the way in which
“systems of thought” arise from “systems of domination.” Speculative
thought is a privilege only affordable to a dominant class free from the
bonds of labour.[20] Unfortunately, this advantage, intentional or not,
generates an ideology that “hypostatizes” their privileged status as a
virtue, which, reinforces their class domination.[21] The “system of
thought” that encodes the dominant worldview of the masses reproduces
itself, albeit slightly reformed, by the intellectuals who escaped the
system. But Horkheimer laments that free time to contemplate is rare in
the globalizing era; because of the “ever-changing demands of reality,” it
becomes harder even for intellectuals to think outside the dominant
zeitgeist. A higher value is placed on “pragmatic intelligence” and
technocratic knowledge than reflexive knowledge and wisdom.[22]
Quantum physicist David Bohm has coined a novel term which may
help explain the process at work, “endarkenment,” to describe the
contamination of the storehouse of human knowledge (accumulated
through history) by the onslaught of misinformation.[23] Cultural
knowledge and social facts give meaning to people but they don't always
correspond to what we know about the world through science.
Deconstructing social reality fails to catch on as a popular enterprise.
Bohm cites a thought experiment in which everyone's memories were
wiped clean in the midst of World War II and Hitler forgot he was Hitler,
Nazis forgot they were Nazis, and so on. They had to rediscover their
purpose through concrete reality rather than the abstractions that
dominate our thought. The point is to illustrate how many problems arise
from the “knowledge” we think we have, and how it affects our
consciousness and identity, which raises questions about human
motivation.[24]

The problem, Bohm protests, is that there is a “systemic fault” in our
way of thinking.[25] Our solutions to problems create new problems
because the mind does not reflexively criticize itself while it is in
operation. For example, nationalism wasn't conceived so that people
would go to war on account of it.[26] People rarely ask the deeper
questions, he argues, such as 'what is a nation?' Rather, they are stuck
with what Bohm calls “sustained incoherence.”[27]
Here I want to highlight the point of scientific and non-scientific ways of
thinking as it relates to the geographical division of thought systems. It
is useful to look at the clichés of Western medicine as purely analytical
and Eastern as holistic and naturopathic. I argue this produces harmful
consequence. On the one hand, it means that the strictly false doctrines
of homeopathy, acupuncture, and related pseudoscience can develop as
an industry leeching off the real progress of medicine. Conversely, there
is an equally great problem with the hubris of Western medicine in
pretending that it can cure everything with pharmaceuticals, the creation
of which is influenced by science compromised by conflicts of interest
and lobbying. Thus, from an epistemological standpoint, the popular
dichotomization of Eastern and Western medicine has enormous costs.
The crucial point is that there are valid practices unique to both cultures
but both have their quacks and frauds; an understanding of which
escapes the conventional notion of Western and non-Western systems of
thought. In this section I have tried to dissect the typical East/West
dichotomy to show that there are segregated systems of thought in terms
of power-knowledge. To this effect, there is no Christian math or
Chinese biology, but a discoverable reality which includes an objective
explanation of human nature. The points raised in this section by
Foucault, Zeruvabel Horkheimer, and Bohm all substantiate the notion
of a 'homeostatic reproduction' of systems of thought, albeit in a
different sense. The next section will move towards an integrated system
of thought.
Section 3: Consilience

In Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity, Stephen Shennan
gives a brief account of Horton's 'primary theory' of a root level of
universal human rationality based in evolution which “(undermines)
strong relativist conclusions derived from anthropological studies of
different systems of thought.”[28] To explain the more practical
differences in culture and society Horton suggests a 'secondary theory' of
how different 'technological, economic and social' circumstances result
in the use of different means to achieve universal ends.[29] The theory of
primary and secondary rationality is substantiated in part by Nisbett's
discussion of 'priming' individuals to influence their thought system.
There is a hardwired rationality beneath our mental programs which can
be modified by the cultural-political system. Like different software, in
effect, running on the same hardware, human beings are subject to
socialization and reprogramming. Both arguments are also a tacit
endorsement of John Locke's early conception of a person as a tabula
rasa (blank slate). The project at hand here is to bridge the physical and
social sciences, and use this knowledge to rehabilitee society and social
thought systems.
E.O. Wilson's idea of 'consilience' refers to a synthesis of knowledge
between fragmented specialist fields of science. His own words define it
best, as “literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of
facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common
groundwork of explanation.”[30] He speaks of the “Ionian
Enchantment”[31] as the almost religious feeling that there is a secular
harmonious order to the universe. Naturally, this would transcend any
Western and non-Western systems of thought, as it would encompass
them and explain away their inconsistencies and contradictions. This is
not to say it would eliminate paradoxes all together, which are
necessarily intrinsic to the world as we understand it, but it could
certainly drive out Bohm's 'misinformation' and save us from
‘endarkenment.’
Since the Enlightenment, this sense of unity has been obscured by the
boom of fragmented and specialized knowledge. Yet, ironically,
consilience is in a sense at work through interdisciplinary fields such as

behavioural economics. It is the broader unification that is contentious,
especially between the physical and social sciences. Although, many
disciplines still need to attain a degree of internal consolidation before
total consilience is possible. Physics is case in point, as it strains itself to
reach a unified understanding of natural forces and make science a
“'perfect' system of thought.”[32]
Fig. 4
Inspired in part by Wilson's project, psychologist Gregg Henriques has
developed a meta-theoretical framework, called the “Tree of
Knowledge” (ToK) to unify knowledge by ordering the four classes of
science (physical, biological, psychological, and social) as a matter of
evolution of complexity (see Fig. 4).[33] It links the four corresponding
levels of complexity and “connects Quantum Mechanics to Sociological
processes and everything in between into a coherent whole.”[34]
Following Freud's postulate that there is a “systematic relationship
between conscious and unconscious processes” Henriques argues that
our egos evolved to explain and justify human action, which in turn leads
to the understanding of “large-scale justification systems.”[35] Thus,
reflexive understanding of how the social world is a complex projection
of our evolutionary psychology is enabled by the ToK approach. As
Henriques articulates, “humans everywhere construct elaborate linguistic
systems of thought that attempt to provide a causal explanatory
framework for their behavior and the behavior of the people around
them.”[36] We still have a long way to go to understanding ourselves, but
the promise of the bridge across the different levels of science
potentially provides a great leap forward in resolving the dissonance
internalized by disciplines such as psychology and sociology.
As the theory is still a sapling, several conferences have been dedicated
to nurturing the growth of the 'tree', and it reflects the increasing
parallelism between the quantum and social sciences One critic, Michael
Katzko, already suggests “pruning the tree of knowledge” of its Freudian
and Skinnerian pillars, as they carry certain metaphysical
presuppositions inconsistent with the ToK.[37] Neverthless, a consilient

system of thought is more than just a dream, it’s a necessity. The idea of
'pruning the tree' is salient with regards to Bohm's 'endarkenment' and
Horkheimer’s ‘systems of domination.’ Furthermore, a consequence of
the proliferation of technical knowledge is the emergence of the
‘specialist’ - a “learned ignoramus” - who, while an expert in his own
field is radically ignorant of other potentially relevant knowledge.[38] The
unity of systems of thought need not carry the stench of Grand Theory
which turns off so many scholars and scientists, but it will require a
critical look at the diffusion of power and knowledge in society. The
common theme in this section is one of regard for scientific path toward
a universal epistemology; we just have yet to create a universal way for
all to access the knowledge we have.
Conclusion
In this paper I examined the proposition that there are distinct “Western”
and “non-Western” systems of thought and concluded that they partly
mutually constitute each other and form a greater whole. However, one’s
judgment of the world can be deeply impaired by falling into certain
patterns of thought and perception. My inquiry led me to consider how
systems of thought are reified and how they simplify the complex nature
of reality. Also, this raised the more important question of the
stratification of thought within societies. In the three sections, I
summarized the traditional dichotomy of systems of thought, discussed
the political dimensions of social epistemology, and reviewed the
scientific literature which encourages us to transcend the dichotomy on
the vertical axis as well as mend the horizontal division knowledge. A
binary division of the world is sometimes arbitrary and Manichean, but
it can also be a necessary way to conceptualize the larger whole.

Works Cited
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Bohm, David. Thought as a System. London: Routledge, 1994.
Bohm, David, and Lee Nichol. The Essential David Bohm. London:
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Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human
Sciences. London: Routledge, 2002.
Gutting, Gary. “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/
(accessed May 1, 2011).
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psychweb.cisat.jmu.edu/ToKSystem/other%20research.htm (Accessed
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Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of reason. New York: Oxford University
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Macfie, A. L.. Orientalism: A Reader. New York: New York University
Press, 2001.
Nisbett, Richard E.. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and
Westerners Think Differently... and Why. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W.W.
Norton & Co., 1932.
Shennan, Stephen. Archaeological approaches to cultural identity.
London: Routledge, 1994.

Turner, Charles, and Alfons Trompenaars. The Seven Cultures of
Capitalism: value systems for creating wealth in the United States,
Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands. New
York: Currency/Doubleday, 1993.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive
Sociology.. 2. print. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press., 1999.
Wilson, Edward O.. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York:
Knopf, 1998.

 
 
[1] Richard

E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think
Differently... and Why, (New York: Free Press, 2003), page numbers as cited in chart.
[2] Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, 63.
[3] Note: American, Canadian, Australian, British, Dutch, and Swedish respondent 90%,
while Germans, Italians, Belgians and French were intermediate.
[4] Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, 81.
[5] Charles Turner and Alfons Trompenaars, The Seven Cultures of Capitalism: value
systems for creating wealth in the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain,
Sweden, and the Netherlands. (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1993), 156.
[6] Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, 67.
[7] Ibid., xx, 32.
[8] Ibid., 33.
[9] Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, 38.
[10] Cf. Ulrich Beck, Cosmopolitan Vision, (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).
[11] Gary Gutting, “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N.
Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/ (Accessed May 1, 2011).
[12] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
(London: Routledge, 2002),
xvi.
[13] Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, 137.
[14] A. L. Macfie, Orientalism: A Reader (New York: New York University Press,
2001), 42.
[15] Bill Ashcroft and D. P. S. Ahluwalia, Edward Said, (London: Routledge, 2001), 68.
[16] Eviatar Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, 2nd
print ed., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press., 1999), 7.
[17] Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes, 3.
[18] Ibid., 36.
[19] Ibid., 58.
[20] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of reason, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947),
103.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] David Bohm and Lee Nichol, The Essential David Bohm (London: Routledge,
2003), 261.
[24] Bohm and Nichol, The Essential David Bohm, 265.
[25] David Bohm, Thought as a System (London: Routledge, 1994), 20.
[26] Ibid., 11.

[27]

Ibid.

[28] Stephen

Shennan, Archaeological approaches to cultural identity, (London:
Routledge, 1994), 3.
[29] Ibid., 5.
[30] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, (New York: Knopf,
1998), 7.
[31] Note: Wilson borrows this phrase from physicist and historian Gerald Holton
[32] Wilson, Consilience, 5.
[33] Gregg Henriques, “The Tree of Knowledge System and the Theoretical Unification
of Psychology.” Review of General Psychology 7, no. 2 (2003): 156, Accessed May 1,
2011, DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.7.2.150
[34] Gregg Henriques, "The Tree of Knowledge System." ToK FAQs.
[35] Henriques, “The Tree of Knowledge,” 166.
[36] Ibid., 171.
[37] Michael W. Katzko, “Special Section: Pruning the Tree of Knowledge.” Theory
Psychology 18, no. 6 (2008): 817, Accessed May 1, 2011, DOI:
10.1177/0959354308097259
[38] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
1932), 124.