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How the World Thinks Book Summary – Julian Baggini

What you will learn from reading How the World Thinks:

– How different countries in the world have alternative approaches to the idea of truth.

– How the eastern part of the world thinks and the key differences from the western mind.

– How different cultures ask different questions and what this means.

How the World Thinks Book Summary:

How the world thinks is a eye-opening book to the key philosophical ideas that guide the world. By comparing the east ‘way-seeking’ philosophies to the wests ‘truth-seeking’ philosophies it allows us to understand the structure of our societies better.

A key insight I took away was that the philosophical ideas that underly a culture can be seen as the underlying operating manual that guides the values and behaviour of people. This is a must read for people interested in philosophy and how people think.


The majority of people operate with surface level philosophical knowledge:

Most Americans and Europeans, for example, assert the value of individual freedom and liberty without any deep knowledge of how these concepts have been justified and explained by their philosophers.

Millions of Indians live their lives according to principles of karma without an in-depth knowledge of the rich and complex literature articulating what precisely this involves. Ordinary Chinese assert the importance of harmony with little more than a cursory knowledge of the Confucian and Daoist texts that analyse and describe it.

Throughout history people usually haven’t held their beliefs for philosophical reasons. People generally take on the beliefs that surround them, and only a minority rebel.


Different cultures have different core ideas:

The main differences between countries philosophies is the different weight each idea carries in different cultures. What is in the foreground in one culture may be in the background of another.


Cultures have implicit epistemology:

Nonetheless, at a societal level – if not the individual level there are always some justifications for belief which carry more weight than others; reasons why some things are accepted as true and others rejected as false. Every culture has an implicit, folk epistemology – a theory of knowledge – just as almost every philosophy has an explicit one and these formal and informal epistemologies are connected.


The modern time and the wests democratisation of Truth:

In the west we have a collective gullibility that the Internet is a trusted repository of truths. This is a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge that is widely taken for granted today yet was not shared by others at different times and places in history.

Our trust in the Web reflects a culture that has for several centuries understood knowledge as collectively produced by human beings with different areas of expertise. In our new collective understanding, genuine knowledge is comprised of the most up-to-date true facts that can be listed and collected.

So, if  something is properly recorded, anyone with time and resource can discover knowledge for themselves. Truth is not owned by elites, it has been democratised.

Ordinary people have not always been deemed competent to find out and understand truths for themselves. Human inquiry has not always generally been seen as the sole legitimate source of knowledge – divine revelation has often been taken to be far more reliable. Nor has being ‘up to date’ always been seen as a virtue.


Alternative Routes to Truth – Insight and Seeing:

Many traditions still assert that the deepest truths about human nature were revealed to ancient sages, prophets and seers.

A clue is in the traditional word for philosophy in India: darsana. Darsana comes from the root drs, meaning to see’. It means both philosophy and to see, or to look at.

That helps explain why one of the giants of Indian thought, Sankara (sometimes Sankarācārya), who is believed to have written in the eighth century CE, used the terms māya (illusion) and avidyā (ignorance) interchangeably. Ignorance is a failure to see correctly, the flip side of the view that seeing and knowing are identical.

The philosophy of India takes its stand on the spirit which is above mere logic, and holds that culture based on mere logic or science may be efficient, but cannot be inspiring. More pithily, he says, ‘Philosophy carries us to the gates of the promised land, but cannot let us in; for that, insight or realisation is necessary.”


Insight and Elitism:

When Western philosophers use their insight, they invite you to attend in the same way and observe yourself. As one of the senior scholars at the Indian Philosophical Congress explained to me, in Indian philosophy too ‘any individual can develop his own faculties and can acquire the power to see something, particularly the things that are beyond, to have a direct perception of those realities’. But before you can do that you need to trust the rsis that you are on the right path. If you do not see what the superior mind sees, the response is that you are insufficiently developed in your wisdom and must practise harder, perhaps for years.

In that sense, Indian insight is unashamedly elitist, Western insight determinedly egalitarian. But it is not obvious which is more plausible.

The idea that some talented and experienced people have better insight than others is no more shocking than the idea that some people are better than others at playing music, designing bridges or conducting scientific research, because they have a hard-earned combination of explicit learning and implicit skill. The idea that no one has better insight than others is arguably less credible than the idea that some do.

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical.

Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

There are innumerable very clever, very scholarly philosophers who can pick apart an argument better than anyone but who don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to their discipline. What they lack is not an ability to be even more systematic in their analysis, but an ability to spot what is at stake, what matters. Insight without analysis and critique is just intuition taken on faith. But analysis without insight is empty intellectual game-playing.


The Ineffable and the limitations of language:

Doctrines are less important than they are in Western Christianity in part because it is believed that the purest knowledge of reality comes from direct experience and so the most fundamental truths cannot be captured in language. They are ineffable, literally unsayable. This is a common idea in East Asia, most evident in Chinese Daoism (or Taoism).

In Zen, language and rationality are both intellectual straitjackets. ‘Language is a product of intellection and intellection is what our intellect adds to, or rather, subtracts from, reality,’ wrote Suzuki. Language adds to reality in that it creates an extra layer on top of it, and this in turn subtracts from reality by obscuring its fullness. ‘Meanings and judgments are an abstracted part of the original experience, and compared with the actual experiences they are meagre in content,’ said Nishida.

The deep appreciation of the limits of language and a refusal to confuse the world as it is with our conceptual categorisations are enduring strengths of philosophy all across Asia.


The mind has structure:

From a Kantian perspective, all the other Asian philosophies that claim the possibility of concept-free, ineffable experience of the world as it truly is are clinging to an impossible dream of being able to escape our human cognitive apparatus. You can strip away language, but you can’t strip away the human mind.

Interestingly, in the early twentieth century, that most analytical of philosophers Bertrand Russell, no fan of the ineffable, distinguished between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. I know Bristol, the city I live in, by acquaintance, but I know Trieste only from descriptions I’ve read of it. Russell also claimed that all knowledge by description is rooted in knowledge by acquaintance, that experience of the world is primary.


What are we seeking:

David Hall and Roger Ames describe this as the difference between ‘truth-seekers’ and ‘way-seekers’. Western philosophy is characteristically truth-seeking. It seeks to describe the basic structure of reality, logic, language, the mind. One example of this is the Western emphasis on science for science’s sake. For truth-seekers, disinterested learning is the best kind, while for way-seekers to be disinterested is as nonsensical as driving a car without caring where you end up.

The Chinese are predominantly way-seekers, who, according to Chenyang Li, ‘typically do not see truth as correspondence with objective fact in the world; rather, they understand truth more as a way of being a good person, a good father, or a good son. For them, truth is not carved in stone, and there is no ultimate fixed order in the world.’ Whereas Western truth is ‘absolute, eternal and ultimately true’, the Chinese dao ‘is not present; it must be generated through human activity’?

Here Chinese philosophy contrasts with both Indian and Western philosophy, which are ‘cosmogonic’

(from the Greek cosmos, ‘universe/order’, and gonia, ‘creation’).

In a cosmogony, understanding the world requires an account of the first principles behind its structure. Cosmogonic traditions tend ‘to be driven initially by the question “What is there (really)?”” while ‘Chinese philosophy tends to ask “What should be done?”


Different cultures, different questions:

It is easy to assume that each tradition offers a different answer to the same question, when often they are asking different questions.

For example, the nature of the question of how we know, how we define knowledge, is changed within different traditions because their interests in asking this question are quite different.

For some, ‘How do we know?’ is always ‘How do we know what we need to know in order to live well?’ For others, the question is essentially about ‘How can we best understand what we know to be true by the revelations of gods or sis?’ For yet others, it is about how we can establish objective facts.


Removing dualism:

Dualistic thinking is a hard habit to break, but if it is ditched distinctions assumed fundamental disappear. Take away the mind/ body distinction and you also take away the interior/exterior distinction, because there is no matter for the immaterial mind to be housed in.



There is a deep philosophical assumption that has informed Western ways of thinking for centuries: reductionism. This is the idea that the best way to understand anything is to break it down into its constituent parts, emphasising these over wholes.

Scientific progress has depended on reductionism, but it creates weaknesses in a culture where it becomes the default frame of mind. The reductionist tendency blinds people to the complex effects of whole systems and leads to an overconfidence that the key to solving problems is identifying discrete elements.

We know now that atoms to can be split, but their name derived from the belief they could not, atomos meaning ‘indivisible’.

In the West, this is reflected in the way in which individuals are always placed at the heart of intellectual, political or social history. Christianity is the only major world religion named after its founder.

In philosophy, you can be a Platonist, an Aristotelian, a Kantian, Spinozist, while in other cultures schools like Daoism, Rujia, Sāmkhya, Yoga, Nyāyá, Vedānta, Kalām and Falsafa are typically not named after people.


Value in the separate or the whole?

Cultural anthropologists have observed how Japanese culture privileges intimacy over integrity in personal and professional relationships. If you ask someone about their occupation, Japanese typically say, ‘I work for the such-and-such corporation’, whereas Americans specify their role.

Japanese instinctively think of their part in the whole, whereas Americans just as automatically think of their discrete function. Kasulis finds that whereas Americans studying for MBAS are looking to learn principles, Japanese students who go to the USA to get an MBA are looking to meet people and to form business relationships for the future.


The concept of Harmony:

A soup requires a variety of ingredients with different but complementary flavours, or else it is bland and unwholesome. The right and left hands both have their own strengths, and so ‘merging them into a “middle hand” does not make one better off’, as Li puts it. Whenever anyone promotes uniformity in the name of harmony, they are getting harmony wrong.

If Westerners are more likely to mistake harmony with uniformity, it is perhaps because, as Li points out, ideas of ‘an underlying fixed cosmic order’ or ‘a transcendent, static foundation’ have been dominant in Western thinking.

Pythagoreans also thought that harmony required us to live in accordance with the pre-existing ratios of the underlying cosmic order, an idea strongly echoed in Plato, who canonised the notion of innocent harmony.

In addition, the very fact that the Chinese government speaks the language of harmony tells us something about how central a value it is, just as the need for every prospective president of the USA to talk about freedom tells us how much that is valued in America, irrespective of whether their policies will increase it or not.

Harmony is linked with the value of ubuntu, which emphasises the bonds of humanity between us. This leads to a way of dealing with social problems which is very different from the Western legalistic, rule-based system which has become the global default. Rules are readily discarded if they are seen to create more problems then they solve.


Hierarchies and enforcement:

This also illustrates the Confucian point that if you have to resort to the law to enforce virtuous behaviour, society has already failed.

However, the Confucian can turn the criticism into a challenge against the critic. Could it not be that one of the problems of the contemporary West is that it has come to see hierarchy as a dirty word and has failed to appreciate how social harmony requires fair, just hierarchies?

This leaves plenty of room for what we might call just hierarchies, which have three key features.

First, they are domain-specific. In medicine, a doctor’s views carry more weight than mine, but no one need defer to their surgeon in matters of politics or sport.

Second, they are dynamic. Someone’s place in the hierarchy is determined by merit or experience, which means that others might acquire such expertise and move up the hierarchy, or lose it and slip down. Hierarchies become unjust when they are ossified and movement is impossible: think of rulers who are fairly elected but then cling on to power after they lose their mandate, or parents who try to maintain their authority over their children after those children have grown up.

Third, they are empowering. What ultimately justifies the superior position of the teacher over the student is that the student can benefit from this relationship to acquire some of the teacher’s skills and knowledge. If the teacher is not teaching, then their position is not merited and the hierarchical relationship loses its purpose. Likewise, a parent’s authority over a child is only justified to the extent to which that parent helps to bring up that child. An abusive or neglectful parent has no superior status to the child.


When to accept criticism:

Criticism and disagreement are only disrespectful when they come from a combination of arrogance and ignorance.



The very word for ‘things’ in Chinese, wu, does not mean ‘entities in isolation’, says Wang. Wu are better seen as ‘phenomena, events, and even histories’ which have stages and ‘are always becoming’. In Chinese thought, the principle is not so much ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ as ‘parts become less when artificially isolated from the wholes to which they belong’.