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How To Think

The Need To Move Beyond Homo Faber

Maria daVenza Tillmanns argues that we need to be holistic in our approach to solving complex problems.

In this article I would like to highlight a distinction between two essentially different orientations of thinking. One looks from the inside out, the other from the outside in. To focus from the inside out is to start from the individual problem, person, state, country, nation and his/her/its specific needs. To focus from the outside in is to start from the whole and its needs: from the earth as a whole, the country as a whole, the community as a whole, the person as a whole, the problematic situation as a whole. To start from the whole is to start from the context in which a problem presents itself, rather than to focus strictly on the problem itself. For example, I can focus on finding a cure to a particular cancer, or I can focus on finding a cure for the person who has a particular form of cancer.

The orientation which focuses on the problem looks at how I can use something for a particular purpose, and so is instrumental in nature. It is the thinking employed by Homo faber, Latin for ‘Tool Wo/Man’. Homo faber is a concept articulated by Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler referring to humans as controlling the environment through tools. Know-how is applied by Homo faber to the environment as one would apply a tool, in order to control it. The contrasting orientation, that looks at how to engage the whole for the sake of solving a problem, is the orientation of what I call Homo cognito (a term I invented) – the ‘Examining/Inquiring Wo/Man’, from the Latin cognosco, which means ‘I inquire/examine’. In this article, I want to specify some characteristics of both orientations, and show why it is important to move beyond the thinking of Homo faber, given its limitations.

Differences in Perspective

starry thinker
Homo cognito takes his/her place in the universe

Homo faber I’ve said is instrumental in nature, and focuses more or less exclusively on the use of an instrument or a tool of thought with a particular purpose in mind. We vaccinate young children in developing countries with the precise purposes of saving their lives and eradicating life-threatening diseases in those countries. This can have wonderful results. However, there are also drawbacks and limitations to this orientation, as it leaves out the context into which we bring our knowledge of the importance of issuing vaccinations. The community may therefore resent, fear, and even resist what we simply see as doing good. In contrast, Homo cognito, operating from the perspective of the whole, would focus first on the community, not the problem. Homo cognito would work in collaboration with the community to inquire how best to introduce something the targeted population is not familiar with. A context needs to be created so that community members can trust and incorporate practices without feeling they are being imposed upon them; so that they can understand how they will bring benefit and not harm. Homo cognito knows she will need to collaborate with some of the community’s leaders to explain the need and urgency for this activity, for example.

Homo faber creates systems which are meant to create infrastructures for dealing with life’s various demands and challenges. For example, Homeland Security had a system to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Only the system did not work very well. Many people were left ‘outside’ of the system, and were not helped in the way they needed. Other help, in the form of individual people trying to supply what was urgently needed, was turned away – to the horror of emergency aid workers, who instantly recognized the need for the practical help offered by individuals and groups in the form of food, transportation, etc. By contrast, Homo cognito tries to incorporate all relevant facets of the context within which a particular problem exists. So Homo cognito may structure a system loose enough to incorporate help offered by the community within a particular situation. For example, the Pipe Filter Project initiated by the Carter Center, designed water pipe filters in such a way that their cost is minimal and they could easily be reproduced and used. This method was highly effective in reducing Guinea Worm Disease in Sudan. Another example is the use of Solar Bottle Bulbs, whereby soda bottles are filled with water and three tablespoons of chlorine bleach. These Solar Bottles refract sunlight from outdoors and can glow with light equivalent to a 55W bulb. They light homes which were previously unlit in impoverished areas in Brazil and the Philippines. Both these projects incorporate a knowledge of the context in order to solve an existing problem, rather than trying to develop technology independent of knowing the context in which it is to be used. Whereas Homo faber creates pathways or systems for repeat use, Homo cognito creates one pathway at a time, in collaboration with those involved in a particular context. Pathways created for repeated use can easily become rigid structures that cannot accommodate the demands of a particular situation. As a result there may be as many people who fall victim to these systems as there are people who are actually helped by them. For a general instance, certain capitalist structures will increase the level of local poverty instead of helping alleviate people out of poverty.

The Right & The Best

Homo faber seeks certainty – she needs to have the ‘right’ answers to problems; whereas Homo cognito aims at achieving the best solutions in collaboration with others in the unique context of the situation. This always leaves open the possibility of there being even better solutions.

This is not to say that there aren’t right answers to keep bridges from crumbling, or buildings from collapsing during an earthquake. This form of thinking is certainly not irrelevant. However it cannot be the only form of thinking. Right answers depend on the right tools being applied; but too much can be ignored when the focus is solely on using the technologically ‘right’ tool for the job. On the other hand, Homo cognito, freed from the need for absolute certainty, can engage in the knowledge-making process with others. Collaborative teamwork works out case-by-case solutions to problems too complex to be reduced to fixed problems with fixed answers.

Homo cognito also has to evaluate the information gathered and determine its reliability and relevance. With so much information available to us these days, we generally need to know how to evaluate the knowledge (or ‘knowledge’) that is out there. We cannot depend on all the information being accurate, trusting that someone with authority stands behind the claims made. Instead of relying on the authority of the teacher or on possibly outdated textbook or internet sources, we ourselves have to determine the reliability of sources. We have to become our own authority, so to speak.

Thus Homo cognito becomes the authority on her contribution to the collaborative process, and is directly involved with deciding the relevance, importance and reliability of the information gathered. She is accountable for how she has made her decisions, and is able to give reasons and explanations for these decisions. In this way, instead of depending on the authority of instructor or text, Homo cognito now makes her thinking and reasoning visible and transparent to the collaborating group.

Moving to Homo cognito is like moving to a heliocentric universe

This process encourages care-ful and thought-ful attention to one’s thinking and decision-making, rather than simply reacting to the facts at hand. To react is to let the facts predominate; to respondis to let relationship predominate. For example, a tutor discovers that the child she is assigned to work with in the fourth grade reads only at a second grade level. This fact is a precondition for how the tutor chooses to relate and interact with the child. However, if she lets this fact determine the nature of her interaction with the child, her relationship with the child is what the philosopher Martin Buber would have called an I-It (subject-object) relationship. Alternatively, if she establishes a relationship with this child as a human being, her relationship is an I-Thou (subject-subject) relationship. To respond is to give careful and thoughtful consideration to the unique child and the challenges she faces as a result of not being able to read at a fourth grade level. Moreover, in responding as opposed to reacting, Homo cognito decides beforehand to consider and evaluate the unique situation she is dealing with.

Homo cognito’s thinking is reflective, contextual and relational, then. However, Homo faber’s thinking is reflex-oriented, and narrow in that it is only instrumental in nature. It does not consider anything other than the immediate use in the situation at hand, sometimes to the extent of blindness. To move from Homo faber to Homo cognito is like moving from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking; or from thinking that sees itself – or its community, its country – as central, to thinking that sees itself in relation to others – other people, other communities, other countries.

Answers & Questions

Moreover, instrumental thinking does not lend itself to developing self-knowledge, for it doesn’t involve awareness of the thinking process itself. It simply applies reason for the purpose of solving problems. To become self-knowledgeable, we have to move beyond Homo faber towards Homo cognito, for Homo cognito inquires about and examine even their own thinking processes, and in so doing becomes aware of thinking as a set of skills we can learn to develop, as we learn to develop any other skill. To be a critical thinker is also be self-critical and examine one’s own thinking and thoughts. We think to reason things through, but rarely to think through our reasoning.

Very often, our opinions and beliefs serve as answers to questions we have in life; yet Homo cognito sets out to question these opinions and beliefs. Homo cognito questions the very lenses through which we see and interpret the world. Ordinarily, we may question what we see through those lenses (Homo faber); but rarely do we question those lenses themselves (Homo cognito). As answers, opinions and beliefs tend to become fixed, and lose their flexibility to accommodate to life’s unique situations. Thinking becomes shortsighted. We lose the ability to see the nuances of every situation and we respond accordingly. All we can do is react to things in a limited, instrumentalist way. However, to be able to respond to the uniqueness of a particular situation requires an exercise of free will where one is free to respond with one’s whole being (Buber) and for which response one is solely responsible. How I choose to respond may or may not be the ‘right’ way; but we can learn better and worse ways to respond to a situation. We will never know whether the way we have chosen to respond is the absolute best way, so we have to be able to act decisively in the face of not knowing.

Homo cognito accepts that there are no ultimate answers in any given situation, only better or worse answers. Homo cognito is not searching for the ultimate answer, or Truth in science or religion; but rather is searching for the next question to bring us closer to a deeper understanding of how the world works. The next question comes out of relationship, which is in constant flux. No concert piece is ever played exactly the same way twice, which is why it is art. If playing a piece of music were a mechanical, purely technical matter, the piece would not only always sound the same, it also would not make a difference who played the piece. We would presumably know the right way of playing the piece, and it would always have to be played that way, no matter the pianist. But instead, different people contribute ideas and skills from their different perspectives. For this reason, Homo cognito develops the ability to not instantly jump to the defense of her opinions and beliefs, but rather to test them against the opinions and beliefs of others.

Cultural Transformations

We seem to have moved away from art and artful thinking. In perfecting herself, Homo faber, the ‘tool-maker’, has made herself obsolete. When a relationship still existed between a tool-maker and his materials (wood, iron, masonry), or his land (cattle, crops), or his family (immediate and extended), he could exercise his free will with his whole being, in terms of how he chose to respond to the uniqueness of a particular challenge. Yet, with technical advancement, technological skill started to replace human skill. We sacrificed relationship for profit. There was money to be made by doing things the ‘right’ way or the only way. Free will was no longer needed. Instead, we’ve ended up on the conveyor belt of technological processes and processed knowledge.

For this reason I believe we need to do philosophy with children now more than ever. We have increasingly taken away their free time, their ability to make up their own games, their ability to solve their own problems, their ability to be by themselves and figure out the world on their own terms. We need to restore their relationship with the world around them so they can learn who they are and what matters to them. Doing philosophy with children helps to achieve just that. It restores their relationship with their own and others’ thinking, which is important for creating a community of inquiry and collaboration. In the process, self-knowledge is gained, and with that character and integrity can develop. Once again, we have to embrace the uncertainty inherent in the pursuit of knowledge, as opposed to presuming its certainty.

The importance of this cultural transformation cannot be overstated. It is a necessary step toward greater human freedom. When we have learned not just to make and use tools, but to think for ourselves, question ourselves, and take charge of our own lives, while becoming increasingly conscious of our dependence on each other, on that day we will have taken the next great step forward in our evolution. On that day the age of Homo cognito will have arrived.

© Dr Maria daVenza Tillmanns 2015

Maria daVenza Tillmanns is a former President of the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling and Psychotherapy (ASPCP), and is currently a philosophy instructor at California College, San Diego.

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