East-West Differences in Seeing: Object or Substance?

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An intriguing experiment may show cultural difference in how people see the world—either as discrete & differentiated objects or as interconnected substances.

Told that a simple shape & material item (like a cork cone) was an imaginary name (dax), Americans & Japanese were asked to choose either same shape/different material or same material/different shape as another dax. Americans tended to classify by object, Japanese by substance.

While English language distinguishes nouns as differentiated things or substances, many Asian languages don’t make this distinction so clearly. This is why learners of English as a 2nd language have difficulty distinguishing the use of “much” versus “many.”

Philosophies emphasizing harmony & nature, like Taoism, or religion emphasizing connectedness with the natural world, like Buddhism, influence Asian culture to see the world holistically. Western philosophies that break the world into forms & their attributes promote seeing the world as distinct objects that can be analyzed individually. This is just one interpretation of a few experiments & cultural observations, but it’s certainly worth pondering the ways in which cultures might truly see differently.

You can read the report of one of the experiments here:

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