The Flexibility of Abstract Concepts

I can discuss Daoist ideas with Taiwanese friends easily even if they have no background in Daoism. But when I try the same thing with white people it often feels as if I’m trying to explain quantum field theory to someone who has never heard of mathematics. It is easier for me to discuss Zen with a Taiwanese atheist than a Western psychonaut.

In his book review on The Geography of Thought, PeterMcCluskey draws attention to differences between Westerners’ and East Asians’ ways of thinking. This post elaborates on one specific difference: the flexibility of abstract concepts.

Western people are trained to think terms of universal principles. East Asians are trained to think contextually.

The Dao [map] is not the Dao [territory]

East Asians are conditioned from an early age to understand that the map is not the territory. Saying “the map is not the territory” would be like saying “the sky is up”, “money is valuable” or “don’t kick kittens”. The distinction between map and territory has been understood for literally thousands of years.

道可道也,非恒道也。

The “dao” referred to by “the dao” [map] is not the dao [territory].

― 《道德经》Dao de Jing by Laozi 老子, 4th century BC

Of course the map is not the territory. How could anyone who comprehends the concept of lying possibly confuse the two? And yet, I was talking to an American a couple months ago who literally did not believe me when I tried to explain how the word “infinity” has different meanings in different contexts.

Western Rhetoric

Western society has a long tradition of rhetoric where you debate the truth of statements like “murder is bad” or “the Greens should win the next election”. Practically every grade school essay states a claim and then defends it. “A theme in The Great Gatsby is…”.

American rhetoric reaches its purest form in the Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate format. In the LD debate format two competitors debate a resolution like “Resolved: The United States ought to guarantee universal child care.”[1] One side is debates in favor. The other side debates against.

Resolutions never center around objective facts. (That would be a policy debate.) Instead, they come down to questions of value. Each debater defines victory in terms of a value criterion. A value is something universally agreed to be good like “justice”. The criterion is a method of measuring the value.

Throughout the entire process it is implied that if you specify a value and if you specify a criterion then the resolution has a truth value between zero and one (inclusive). Except that’s almost never the case because words don’t have well-defined meanings.

Consider a simpler resolution: “Resolved: Murder is immoral.”

Some people consider murder to be immoral[2]. But murder is just the killing of another person in violation of the law. There are lots of cases where murder is moral. You can start by shooting the guards at Dachau.

Abstract statements tend to be broad. Broad statements tend to have exceptions. When a blanket statement has lots of exceptions it is said to “depend on context”. By training children in the tradition of adversarial competitive rhetoric, Western society trains its population to ignore context because in a debate, the map really is the territory. Americans even think of ourselves as context-independent personalities.

“Tell me about yourself” seems a straightforward enough question to ask of someone, but the kind of answer you get very much depends on what society you ask it in. North Americans will tell you about their personality traits (“friendly, hard-working”), role categories (“teacher,” “I work for a company that makes microchips”), and activities (“I go camping a lot”). Americans don’t condition their self-descriptions much on context. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean self, on the other hand, very much depends on context (“I am serious at work”; “I am fun-loving with my friends”). A study asking Japanese and Americans to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a particular kind of situation showed that Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation—at work, at home, with friends, etc. Americans, in contrast, tended to be stumped when the investigator specified a context—“I am what I am.” When describing themselves, Asians make reference to social roles (“I am Joan’s friend”) to a much greater extent than Americans do. Another study found that twice as many Japanese as American self-descriptions referred to other people (“I cook dinner with my sister”).

Quote from The Geography of Thought in a comment by Kaj_Sotala

Post-Modernism

Western philosophy’s reaction to taking taking words too seriously was the Post-Modernist movement. The Post-Modernists improved Western philosophy by throwing out the map. They damaged Western society by throwing out the territory too.

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

Keep your identity small by Paul Graham

No, no, NO. This is backwards. The mistake you should “keep your identity small” stems from the erroneous assumption that identities are well-defined. It confuses the label with the underlying reality. A small identity merely does no harm. You can do better than that. The best approach is strong beliefs loosely held. If can shed your identities like you shed clothes then you can keep your identity large without mistaking your identity for your self. You can get the best of all the worlds.

The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy…. Even a concept as dear to us as I. It took me a while to grasp this, but when I did it was fairly sudden, like someone in the nineteenth century grasping evolution and realizing the story of creation they’d been told as a child was all wrong…. Everyday words are inherently imprecise.

How to Do Philosophy by Paul Graham

That’s better. And it illustrates how the flexibility of abstract concepts is not hammered into every child in the West until it becomes second nature. If you grow up in East Asia then the first, last and most important thing you are taught is how to blend in.

Context Switching

There’s an old Daoist teaching technique where you say something like pain is not the unit of effort and then say the opposite like pain is the unit of effort. The Western response is to figure out which one is true. The Eastern response is to quickly shift contexts because each statement is true in the appropriate context ala Chapter 1 of The Art of War.

Consider race. Race, like all abstract concepts, is flexible and context-dependent. People have mistaken me for Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Ethiopian. I don’t mean I told them I was and they didn’t argue. I don’t mean I walked around Japan without anyone noticing me. I mean an Ethiopian, unprompted, literally asked me “Are you Ethiopian?” while both of us stood on American soil and then, when I answered no, he asked if my family was Ethiopian. I’ve been asked “Are you a Muslim?” in Tokyo. My race is a function of where I am, who I’m with, who I’m talking to, my language, my accent, my clothing, my posture…and sometimes even the color of my skin.

There is a secret game Asian-Americans play among ourselves called the “What kind of Asian are you?” game. Whenever an Asian-American meets another Asian-American we try to guess each other’s nationality. If you guess right you gain charisma points. If you guess wrong you lose charisma points. Of course, you don’t literally say “I know you are a <whatever>.” That is a faux pas. Instead you imply it by demonstrating common cultural understandings not shared by the wider Western world.

What makes this game interesting is you can’t do it by physical appearance—national boundaries aren’t drawn phenotypographically. Nor can you do it from accent. You have to read subtle cultural cues. For example, I like roleplaying a Chinese nationalist when I’m online—nevermind that my family is from the Republic of China[3].

When I want to look white I use words like “Manuchuria”[4].

Be the grey man.


  1. This topic is the 2021 March/​April Topic of the National Speech & Debate Association ↩︎

  2. Thank you MaxG for granting me permission to link to your post. ↩︎

  3. This sentence is a joke about 20th century East Asian history. ↩︎

  4. This sentence is another joke about 20th century East Asian history. ↩︎