Caring thinking about caring thinking

by Oscar Brenifier, April 2008
Revision and suggestions by Janette Poulton

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Matthew Lipman’s “caring thinking”

But let us now examine briefly the way “caring thinking” is thought of by Matthew Lipman, the reference par excellence for many P4C fans, although as far as we often saw it, his work is ignored—deliberately or through ignorance—by the ones that supposedly refer to him.

His basic claim on the matter is that “There is such a thing as caring thinking, and that it is the third prerequisite to higher-order thinking (along with critical and creative OB)... It is based on the contention that emotions are judgments: the emotion is the choice, it is the decision, it is the judgment. And it is this kind of thinking that we may well call caring thinking, when it has to do with matters of importance.”

We can summarize this by saying that emotions are a form of thinking, since they produce judgments. Therefore, says some happy reader, there is no reason not to listen to the emotions! And they will identify and use such a declaration as an anti-rational declaration, which is not the claim of the author, as we understand it. And to temper their enthusiasm even further, let us give another quote from the auctoritas:

“Is it possible to teach children to consider the appropriateness of having the emotions they have? The answer seems fairly obvious: in their upbringing of their children, parents and siblings constantly contribute to the shaping of the young child’s emotional outlook. By reward and reproof, they let the child know which emotional expressions are deemed appropriate in a given context and which are not. (Their rationales may be fairly idiosyncratic: laughing at funerals is often reproved, but not crying at weddings.) But if there can be an education of the emotions in the home, there can be an education of the emotions in the school and, indeed, there already is... Consequently, if we can temper the antisocial emotions, we are likely to be able to temper the antisocial conduct.”

In other words, there is some content to emotions, emotions express a judgment, but at the same time, like any other form of thinking, emotions have to be educated, even though we take into account their arbitrariness, often socially determined. Just like opinions, emotions have to be examined, evaluated, criticized, in order to modify them and discriminate them, since some are desirable and others less. There is no particular reason why they should be trusted more than anything else in the human mind. We are therefore not falling here into some wild “flower children” or psychotherapeutic “express yourself”.

Let us now take the risk, while we are examining an author “promoting” emotions, to provide some criticism of those views. In order to do this, we wish to add here a comment of Lipman explaining the thinking of Martha Nussbaum, endorsing her position: Nevertheless, it rests, she argues, on normative premises, such as the need for self-sufficiency and detachment, that are highly controversial in an age when the need for community seems to outweigh, by far, the need for individual independence.

This passage seems to us important, because it recognizes the bias of the concept of “emotional thinking”—since many philosophers traditionally criticize emotions mainly for the confusion they bring to the mind—while it attempts to justify it under the guise of some modernist perspective, where the “need for community” would be more important than the “need for individual independence”. This is rather interesting, since we are contemplating a little judo operation typical of our times, where pragmatic philosophy, for whom the concept of community is important, attempts in its traditional way to impose its world view by pretending to some objective argumentation: time and evolution. Therefore, any other form of philosophy is nothing but the immature preamble to pragmatism. In other words, the Taoist master, the stoic philosopher, Descartes in his lonely meditation, Cusa in his contemplation, are nothing but the stuttering of real accomplished philosophy: American pragmatism. Of course, one should not be surprised: a crucial form of American contention to world cultural hegemony has been for a number of years the “soft spoken”, “humanist”, “politically correct”, “scientific”, “concrete”, “democratic” way of thinking, very much inspired by pragmatist philosophy. This way of thinking being very critical of “idealist”, “dogmatic”, “ideological”, “abstract”, “cold”, “continental”, “authoritarian”, “sterile”, “traditional” philosophy. Any caricature being presented here only for heuristic reasons... This is one of the reasons why P4C practitioners periodically fall into a certain sectarianism, even in a “mild” way, without realizing it: intuitively, they reject forms and content of philosophizing that do not correspond to pragmatist or “modernistic” attitudes and schemes of thought.

It is interesting that such a world view promotes “other directedness” rather than “self directedness”, because in the facts, it does the contrary. It does the contrary because the epigones of such a perspective, like epigones always do, take out of the original message what fits them best and run away with it. In this case, they take concepts like “emotion”, “feelings”, “otherness”, and use them to justify or glorify the subjectivity of the individual being in a very complacent way. They graft on to this scheme some moral justifications, calling it “respect” or “tolerance”, and thus they establish a system that perfectly fits our “consumer society” outlook, where psychologizing is used as an alibi for everyone to say exactly what pleases him, where the basic deal is “let me say what I want and think what I want, and I will let you do the same”. And this “opinion based” way of conceiving social exchange, for which society or community is only an empty shell, a gathering of listeners for our own ramblings, is indeed what one sees a lot called “Philosophy with children” or “community of inquiry”, where there is neither “community” nor “inquiry”. The only rule universally applied being that one has to be nice and wait for his turn to speak, what can be called politeness. Adding the fact that the child is being glorified as a natural thinker, his emotions being qualified therefore as genuine and legitimate. Unless he starts “behaving badly”, or being “not nice”, adjectives which will be attributed to him if he refuses the world outlook that is thus presented to him, where one is not supposed to confront explicitly his neighbor. In other words, “critical thinking” is being totally overtaken by this special “caring thinking”, the first one being dangerous, the second being more comfortable. Let us add here that as far as we understand it, this is not the purpose pursued by Lipman and Nussbaum, nor is it what P4C always is, as we have witnessed other types of practice, for example in Australia or Norway. But at the same time, we have to know that the consequences of our ideas include as well what they produce in other persons, in the listeners, in the readers, in the followers. One cannot ignore the by-products and fallouts of one’s own mental production.


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Page created: 26.01.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.