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Careful Thinking: Understanding Our Lived World

Starting Points: Realities

Communication is not a tool that we use to establish community and communion among people. If it were a tool, it would be a most unusual one, one that only exists while it is in use. To think of communication as a tool forces us to distinguish between means and task, when in fact both are the same event. We communicate when we act in such a way that others are welcome to notice and respond to our action. Thus, communication is not something that is 'merely' verbal; it includes many other activities.

Communication, community, and communion  inter-constitute each other and can only be found together. Community is the people and context, communication is the behaviour, and communion is the experience of common life and identity. In order for me to communicate with someone, I must first affirm our common place and identity together (as people). My very first act assumes a reality of community that I cannot know to be real until I have acted. At the same time, I cannot communicate with anyone in a situation where we have no common experience (communion). Thus, my act assumes both a community and a communion that is confirmed (or disconfirmed) by the response of the other person. When we look at a people who hold certain 'territory' in common (the community), we are looking at the identities or objects that are common. When we look at how these identities interact (communicate), we are looking at events. And when we look at relationships that exist between the identities, we are studying the network of common experience in the group.

Starting Points: Strategies

Common identity, action, and experience is borne of three human practices, hospitality, charity, and compassion. These three strategies each relate to a particular reality described above.

Hospitality makes a space for people. It is a strategy to include newcomers and outsiders within the community. A community grows by virtue of hospitality.

Charity takes actions in the best way possible. It is a strategy to understand the contribution others' actions make. Communication is enhanced as charity operates among people.

Compassion overcomes the distance between our understanding and the experience of others. It is a strategy to make another's experience one's own. Our common store of experience (and story) grows as compassion diffuses the experience of one throughout the community.

For more detail on realities and strategies, see  Basic Human Operations

Elements of Understanding

1. Part 

2. Place & Prominence

3. Purpose

4. Power

Who or What

We identify who or what we are thinking about.

This identification may be concrete, but it may also be abstract.

People may disagree over the identification or classification of what is being considered.

Where, When, or 
How Important

We consider the immediate context of what we are thinking about.

People may disagree over the context of what is being considered, or they may disagree over its relative importance.

Why or What Purpose

We discern the purposes or reasons for what we are considering.

Such considerations may be relatively uncontroversial, but they may also be extremely open to disagreement.

People may disagree over the purpose or reason for what is being considered.

People may also disagree over whether the purpose or the reason for an item is more important.

How Related

We consider the relationships between what we are considering and other items in our world.

Such relationships may affect the form, order, occurrence, or meaning of other items.

Such relationships are not limited to the immediate context.

People may also disagree over whether such relationships exist.


Ask the questions:

What is a cup?

Descriptions of a cup vary, but all of them seem to involve it being a vessel for drinking from. Cups are often distinguished from glasses in that they have handles, though some cups (as those for drinking Chinese tea) do not. Often cups are smaller in the size of contents they will hold than glasses. Cups can hold cold beverages, but are more often used to drink hot ones. Glasses on the other hand, are used more often for cold drinks. Cups are sometimes distinguished from mugs, with the latter being larger and heavier in composition than the former. 

Where and when are cups found? How important are they in that context?

Cups are found in two main contexts of use. They are placed as part of a formal place setting (for example). They are not the centre of attention in the place setting. The nuclear item in the place setting is usually a plate. Also in that context, a cup has a marginal purpose relative to the place setting. Most commonly dinner attendants are planning to eat a meal, and the cup may come into use after the meal for drinking coffee or tea.

Why are there cups?

It should not have escaped notice that cups are primarily for drinking from. Much of a cup's design revolves around facilitating this use. The base of a cup facilitates holding the cup stationary while it is not in use (but while it may have contents for consumption). The handle (if there is one) or barrel of the cup facilitates holding the cup while drinking. The shape of the cup facilitates securely holding contents for drinking, and the shape of the cup facilitates the drinking process with the comfort and ease of the one drinking in focus.

How are cups related to other things?

The size and shape of the cup are necessitated by properties of human users. Materials used in the cup should not leach into the contents, both for the sake of the cup's durability and the health of those drinking the cup's contents. Cups can be property in some communal settings such that one needs pay attention to whose cup is whose. For example in a formal setting, the cup is usually placed to the right of the plate for each attendant. In many cultures, participants would restrict their drinking to the cup that is so located at their place setting and would not randomly sample contents of other cups around the table.

Much more could be written in answer to each sort of question, but for the present, this description should exemplify how the questions help us consider various aspects of things as we are describing them. Of course, the description of something as mundane as a cup excites little interest. However, it serves as a starting point for more complex situations that need to be described.

Move to parts of a cup and ask questions concerning each part:

What parts does a cup have?

We could say that a cup has a (necessary) shape to contain a liquid for consumption, a base on which it sets, and a handle (optional). Cups may also optionally have lids, either those that merely set upon the cup or those that clip or screw into place. The overall size of cups vary, but are generally at least large enough to contain 50 mL. Usually they are no larger than sufficient to contain 500 mL.

How important is each part (essential or optional)? If essential, is the part nuclear or marginal?

It should generally be understood that whatever is optional is also marginal to the object's purpose and use, but there are obligatory parts that are still marginal to the use of an object. This is illustrated by our consideration of cups. The base of the cup is obligatory (in that I have no experience with cups that have no base upon which to be set). However, given that the purpose of a cup is to provide humans a vessel to drink from, the base is marginal. The specific part of a cup that holds the liquid is also obligatory, but also much more nuclear with regard to the function cups fulfill.

What purpose does each part have?

The base is to allow the cup to be set down, the handle (if there is one) or barrel of the cup is for the user to hold, and the main part of the cup is for drinking from. Any lid would serve the purpose to keep the contents warm (in the case of a lid that merely sits on top of the cup) or to keep spillage to a minimum (in the case of more securely fastened lids).

How are the parts related to other things in the world?

This aspect of our consideration of a cup is truly infinite, capable of going on and on to further and more distant connections. However, as a minimum, we should not that cups can belong to specific people (that's my cup, not yours!), that they are more likely to be ceremonial and less likely to be practical in accordance with their size, with smaller cups being more likely to be ceremonial. Cups need to be an shape and size to allow users comfortably to drink from them. The materials of their construction must also permit continued use without disintegration or decay. Cups may be chipped, stained, or otherwise showing damage or wear—even to the extent of broken handles—but a cup must not leak. A cup that leaks would probably only be kept for sentimental reasons or ornamental uses.


Ask the questions:

What is walking?

Where and when do people walk, and how important is it?

Why do people walk?

How is walking related to other things?

Move to questions about the parts of walking:

Careful Thinking

Ask the questions:

What is careful thinking?

Where and when is careful thinking found, and how important is it in that context?

What purpose does careful thinking serve?

How is careful thinking related to other things?

Move to questions concerning the parts of careful thinking:

Part: “What” Questions

  • How can I tell this when I see it?
  • What features does it have?
  • How does it differ from other things?
  • How much can it vary without becoming something else?

These questions help us understand the essential nature of any object. We cannot truly recognize an object if we cannot communicate how the object is to be distinguished from other similar objects. 

  • What parts does it have?

All objects are composed of parts, and the examination of these parts can help us understand the object better, as well as how the parts are related to each other in terms of their basic function.

Place & Prominence: “Where”, “When”, and “How Important” Questions

What is this a part of?

What is its most relevant immediate context?

How many parts does this including context have?

Does this lead to or follow from something more important?

Purpose: “Why” Questions

What purpose does this serve in its immediate context?

What is its significance for people?

How might people understand its role?

What would be the reason for this?

Power: “How Related” Questions

What other things are affected by this?

What other things affect this?

How it the form, place, presence, or meaning of this governed by other things?

How does this thing govern the form, place, occurrence, or meaning of other things?

We cannot understand things fully without recourse to these particular examinations of features of anything in the world of our lived experience.

Part: the thing itself, but not the thing in itself

Place: location and prominence "where it belongs"

Purpose: value, function, or use

Power: control relative to its (remote) context