In my last post I wrote a bit about the Analytic Imperative, which I think implicitly structures scientific reasoning. In that post, I took analyticity to be a property of arguments or lines of reasoning. That’s the shiny new formulation, the one I think will pass muster in Academia. But the original formulation, the one that got this project going almost 10 years ago, was much more psychological. I’m not sure how much of this more cognitive dimension will make it into the final project. The last few years I’ve tried to hedge my bets by finding ways of talking about the same issue without needing to bring in the cognitive psychology of scientists. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because I think it may be helpful for people to get an intuitive picture of what I’m up to, I’ll try to summarize the analytic/holistic distinction as it exists in cognitive psychology.
I’ll be drawing almost entirely on an excellent book by Richard E. Nisbett called The Geography of Thought. Nisbett is a psychologist who works on things like social cognition, the culture of honour and violence in the American south and people’s use of probabilistic reasoning. But it was a 2001 meta-study called Culture and Systems of Thought: Analytic and Holistic Cognition (pdf here) that set my mind on fire. The book is an extension of that work, and I highly recommend either if you’re interested at all by what follows. He argues that it has hitherto been assumed by psychologists that human cognition is everywhere the same. By studying white, middle-class undergraduate psychology majors, researchers believed that they could make generalizations about all human beings. This assumption, Nisbett claims, is demonstrably false. Using fairly standard psychological methodology, he tries to show systematic differences in the way ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners’ think and perceive the world.
Just as an aside, you can probably already see why I’d want to excise this from a project in analytic philosophy. Issues about race and culture are inevitably difficult, in that sticky way that only hot political questions can be. I grew up in a town so ethnically homogenous that for most of my young life, I believed that acknowledging or mentioning a persons race counted as being racist. I consider myself ill-equipped to deal with the political complexities. Nevertheless, let’s dive in anyway. I can really only give the flavour of the work that has been done.
Which two of the following things are most closely related?
The interpersonal version of this difference is familiar enough. American children are, according to Nisbett, “protagonists of their autobiographical novels” (p.87). He describes the work of developmental psychologists Jessica Han, Michelle Leichtman and Qi Wang  which suggests that this is the case:
[They] asked four- and six-year-old American and Chinese children to report on daily events, such as the things they did at bedtime the night before or how they spent their last birthday. They found three remarkable things. First, although the children made more references to themselves than to others, the proportion of self-reference was more than three times higher for American children than for Chinese children. Second, the Chinese children provided many small details about events and described them in a matter-of-fact fashion [ed: they’re like little historians!]. American children talked in a more leisurely way about many fewer events that were of personal interest to them. Third, American children made twice as many references to their own internal states, such as preferences and emotions, as did the Chinese children.
So in sum, Westerners seem to rely more heavily on categories and treat objects as isolated from their environment, whereas Asians tend to see things as embedded in a context. Each strategy has its own domain. The analytic strategy is really nice if you can make it work – the messiness of particularity falls away, and you can make definitive claims about things. On the other hand, holism is a safer bet if you believe the world is a goddamn mess. If things are always changing, relying on categories is a bad mistake. If context always matters, it is never safe to use abstract categorical reasoning.