What Kind of Object Am I?

I have been reading The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett.  The book discusses the different thought patterns of Western and Eastern minds.  In the West we tend to view the world as separate objects which have properties that we can classify.  We believe that by classifying and understanding the properties of the objects we can understand the truth of the world.  In the East, people focus first on complex interrelations and the context in which objects reside.  Objects are seen as having properties in relation to external forces.  When western children learn to speak, their first words are usually nouns.  “Cat.  Ball,” and so on.  Eastern children are more likely to utter verbs first.

As an illustration, Nisbett noted that “Aristotle explained that a stone falling through the air is due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity.’ But of course a piece of wood tossed into water floats instead of sinking. This phenomenon Aristotle explained as being due to the wood having the property of ‘levity’! In both cases the focus is exclusively on the object, with no attention paid to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. But the Chinese saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexities of the entire ‘field,’ that is, the context or environment as a whole. The notion that events always occur in a field of forces would have been completely intuitive to the Chinese. The Chinese therefore had a kind of recognition of the principle of ‘action at a distance’ two thousand years before Galileo articulated it.”

We laugh a bit at Aristotle’s assumption that a rock has “gravity,” as it might have “magnetism.”  But I got to thinking about how our object focus works when it comes to social categories.  It seems to me that we make exactly the same type of leaps every day.

For example, rather than saying “I have this framework for understanding the world,” we say “I am a Christian” or “an Atheist” or a “secular humanist.”  The person’s working hypothesis becomes a property of the person, a way of defining the person.  Rather than speaking about someone as being attracted to people of her own gender we say “she is a lesbian.”  Rather than saying a person has certain political views we say “He is a liberal” or “She is a conservative.”  Every aspect of a person becomes a way of classifying that person.  We want to know what kind of an object is this?  What kind of properties does he have?

Making an idea into an identity makes it hard for people to change and be flexible.  What if I have a crisis of faith?  Does that mean I am no longer a Christian and I am therefore an entirely different type of person?  What if I like the Democratic candidate?  Does that mean I am no longer a Republican and I have lost my identity?  If my house is foreclosed on does that mean I am no longer a middle class person and I am not who I thought I was?

How might we relate to one another and ourselves differently if we had not inherited this object classification mentality from the ancient Greeks?

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