First the good. Several experiments on human subjects have shown that Asians and Westerners at a very basic level have biases in perception and categorization. Some experiments on human subjects even show that these differences are, surprise, a bit situational. I have lived in Japan for nine years, and I have noticed several of these things myself. So it was rather refreshing to see experimental data that actually objectifies a lot of these differences. I do think people are often unaware of just how different even a simple picture might look to someone from a different culture. As descriptions of these experiments take up a large part of the book, it certainly might be worthwhile to purchase the book merely to read about them. However, one caution I must add is that Nisbett preludes every experiment's reported result with an "as expected" or an "as anticipated." Nisbett seems content to try and find tests that support his views, but one is forced to wonder how hard he tried to falsify them. A subtle but important difference.
Now, for the bad. If Nisbett had stuck to his interesting and fascinating experiments on human subjects, this book might have made for some interesting reading. Instead, his aims are much larger. He wants to show that, "Each of these orientations -- the Western and the Eastern -- is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews: the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the world views and support the social practices. Understanding these homeostatic systems has implications for grasping the fundamental nature of the mind, for beliefs about how we ought ideally to reason, and for appropriate education strategies for different peoples." There is so much philosophical absurdity packed into this phrase it's hard to unpack it all, but it spills out all over the book making it disconnected and confused at times. What would it mean to understand how we "ideally ought to reason." If we "ideally" knew how to reason we could shut off all debate. Where is Karl Popper when you need him? Think about it. If there is an ideal way to reason, then all future debate is shut off immediately. There's no reason to argue or debate about anything, merely turn the levers and use the "ideal" reasoning principles. Where's Kurt Godel when you need him? Another thing Nisbett might want to ask himself is this, how does he escape his own homeostatic system? After all, if the system determined his beliefs about the system then how do we know they are true at all, and not just products of the system itself?
Given this fundamentally flawed thesis, and his attempt to take some very narrow experiments on human subjects and basically roam sloppily over virtually any area he chooses, ranging from philosophy to history to culture, we get a phantasmagoria of stereotypes and confusions. Nisbett's biases are clear, he favors the Western system, after all, the entire approach of the book is mostly logical and argumentative. Yet, Nisbett wants to alternate between putting on his homeostatic-system-hat-for-Asians and his homeostatic-system-hat-for-Westerners as he compares the two with complete relativistic glee. He states: "Medicine in the West retains the analytic, object-oriented, and interventionist approaches that were common thousands of years ago: Find the offending part or humour and remove or alter it. Medicine in the East is far more holistic and has never until modern times been in the least inclined towards surgery or other heroic interventions." What's he got against Western medicine? He thinks that removing the offending humour is the same as modern surgery? He claims he isn't a relativist, and that's right. He's just confused.
There's a lot going on in Japan, where I live, worthy of interest and study. There is a serious problem, though, with critical thinking in Japan. After all, there is a lot of authoritarianism in Japan, just as there is throughout Asia. People in Japan need to learn to express their opinion and they aren't learning how to do that enough. (For that matter they could do a better job in America as well!). The former Japanese ambassador to the UN Yoshio Hatano once said, "Study should not be memorizing what our teachers teach us but learning how to think on our own. And what many Japanese need is to be able to clearly express and advocate their own opinions, even if these might be "minority opinions."" He said this in reference to the fact that many Japanese can't argue their opinions. Nisbet reduces issues like this to : "Is it a form of "colonialism" to demand that they [Asians] perform verbally and share their thoughts with their classmates?" Give me a break! With Nisbett's confused homeostatic-system-causes-beliefs model he just muddles his way through a host of important ethical issues spreading more confusion than enlightenment.
All in all, I would say Nisbett's problem is too much looking for ideal methods of reasoning and too little Karl Popper. In _Objective Knowledge_ Popper states, "An observation always presupposes the existence of some system of expectations." Basically Nisbett's whole program revolves around giving Asians and Westerners vague commands like "observe" or "choose" and then seeing how their expectations or preconceptions influenced them. This is interesting, but it doesn't tell us much we didn't already know. People from different cultures have different preconceptions. According to Popper we all have preconceptions and it's trying to improve them and get a little closer to the truth that is important. Is this a Western approach? Is this an Eastern approach? Is that all that matters?
I do recommend people interested in Asia check out some of these experiments on human subjects, they are interesting and worth reading about. Nevertheless, I can hardly recommend this book in clean and clear conscience. It's just too ugly.