The Difference In Western and Confucian Thinking (And the Lesson We Can Learn From the East)

According to Drake Baer, writing for Business Insider, Western and East Asian cultures think very differently when it comes to resolving disagreements. Although these differences exist in every sphere today, the differences in thinking are rooted in our respective ancient philosophies. Baer tells us that:

• The Greeks followed the “law of the excluded middle,” which states that if two people are debating, then one of them must be exclusively right and the other exclusively wrong. 

• The Chinese followed the “doctrine of mean,” which states that if two people are debating, then they’re probably both partly right and partly wrong — the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. 

Baer also mentions:

...a widely cited 1999 paper, psychologists Kaiping Peng and Richard E. Nisbett gave Chinese and American college students a range of scenarios describing conflicts between people and asked for advice about how to resolve them.

As Confucianism would suggest, the Chinese students were more likely to give “dialectical” responses, or seeing truth and fault in both parties. 

One prompt was a family conflict:

Mary, Phoebe, and Julie all have daugthers. Each mother has held a set of values which has guided her efforts to raise her daugther. Now the daugthers have grown up, and each of them is rejecting many of her mother’s values. How did it happen and what should they do?

The responses were remarkably different:  

• 72% of Chinese students gave compromise-oriented responses, like “both the mothers and the daughters have failed to understand each other” 

• 74% of Americans found fault on one side, with responses like “mothers have to recognize daughters’ rights to their own values.” 

The West sees the world in polar opposites (right and wrong, good and evil), apparently, while the East Asians prefer to seek resolution, by finding where each side has a point. Seeking to see where our opponents may be right is a difficult thing to do, but it is also essential for personal growth. That’s something we can, perhaps, learn from the Confucian East.

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