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Not Planning but Thinking




There is a phrase that has really stuck in my head recently. It comes from some philosophy reading, but I think one of the reasons it has stuck in my head is that it connects with something that happened in one of my recent solution-focused sessions. The reading was a chapter in the book by Richard Rorty called Philosophy and Social Hope, which I mentioned in my last blog post.


Talking about those great Americans, Walt Whitman and John Dewey, Rorty wrote


“What they hope is not that the future will conform to a plan, will fulfil an immanent teleology, but rather that the future will astonish and exhilarate”.


Rather than by having a blueprint of the future, pragmatism, the philosophical tradition of which Dewey was one of the “classical” proponents, is characterised by its “principled and deliberate fuzziness”.


That is a wonderful phrase, coming soon after a wonderful sentence, but the phrase I am referring to came a bit further down the page (page 28, as it happens, of Chapter 2).


Having brought the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, into the picture, Rorty went on to explain how he misunderstood Whitman, Dewey and pragmatism. For Heidegger, the branch of philosophy known as “metaphysics” is a “search for something clear and distinct, something fully present… that does not tail off into an indefinite future”. He thought of pragmatism as part of such a search and so, says Rorty, “got it completely backwards”. Here comes the phrase, the one I’ve put into italics: “He thought of Americanism as the reduction of the world to raw material, and of the reduction of thinking to planning”.


There are some fascinating ideas contained in this chapter about what Rorty somewhat chauvinistically calls America, though he is referring specifically to the United States. I have a poor habit of sometimes promising future blog posts that I then don’t deliver, but I definitely intend to write one related to this aspect of Rorty’s chapter - on solution-focused practice and the US. Here though I want to focus on this phrase, and the idea it contains, and how this came to mind when reflecting on a recent session of mine.


The reduction of thinking to planning


Maggie, my client, hoped to become clearer about certain things she had on at the time that we spoke, to have more focus, to lead her to be feeling more hopeful and confident. I invited her to imagine that when she woke up the following morning, all of this had come to fruition. Maggie began to describe what she would notice on waking up, on getting out of bed, and then on going down to the kitchen and putting on the kettle to make a hot drink. I asked what she would notice about herself as she was waiting for the kettle to boil, and she said she would be thinking of the day ahead, and of what she would do. I asked her what these thoughts might consist of, and here she - we - began to get stuck. Maggie suggested a few things that she might do, but she wasn’t sure.


There was something different about the session now; it had lost its flow. I thought I might have detected a little irritation on Maggie’s part, a sign if so that we should be doing something different. I realised that we had shifted from description to planning - a reduction of thinking to planning? Maggie was not sure what she would be doing from that point of her day onwards, and I was asking her to plan it now. Maybe the difficulty was a question of timing. Maggie might plan her activities tomorrow at some point, but perhaps now, the day before, was not the right time for her to do so. Maybe it was not until she was at the kettle tomorrow morning that she would begin to do her planning. I don’t recall whose idea it was to go back to the moment of waking up, and to describe the time between then and putting on the kettle in greater detail. This was not the first time Maggie and I had met, and our relationship was such, and Maggie’s own grasp of the solution-focused approach was such, that she might have advised me to do this.


Whoever’s idea it was, we went back, and Maggie described these few minutes in as much detail as I can recall a tomorrow morning being described. Maggie talked in such detail about how she would place her feet in her slippers that I found myself asking what her slippers would notice about her. This produced such a wonderful response that when Maggie described opening her curtains, more slowly than usual, I asked what the curtains would notice about the way she did that. In the same vein, later, what would her fridge notice about her when she took out the lemon for her drink (I have to credit my friend and former Focusing colleague, Rob Rave, here. It was Rob, a tennis coach among other things, who I first heard ask about the perspective of an inanimate object: ‘What would the tennis ball notice about your stroke?’ - beautiful).


By the time Maggie arrived at her kettle, there wasn’t a lot of time left in the session, just enough to leave the next day, return to now, and set up a scale.


So, that was a session in which (through my choice of questions) thinking had been in danger of being reduced to planning. We averted this danger in this case by focusing in more detail on the time before the moment of planning arrived. I guess an alternative would have been to go past that moment of planning, further into the day. But then how would Maggie know what to describe herself as doing, before having planned what this would be?


This issue must have been present in many of my sessions before this one, in the past 25 years, but I don’t think I have seen it so clearly before now. I think this makes a good case for what reading philosophy can bring to practice, as it was the combination of the Rorty chapter and the experience of the session that really crystallised the issue for me.


I am ending this blog post with a sense of having opened up a question and leaving it open, notwithstanding my account of what we ended up doing in that particular session. I’m not sure what I will do in my next session when a client says that the next thing they would notice themselves doing is planning the day ahead. There can’t be a “right” thing to do, as every session and every client is different.


Perhaps I should claim this as an act of “principled and deliberate fuzziness” on my part. It will clearly fit with the idea as Rorty set it out, if I don’t plan what to do in future sessions when such situations arise, but I can certainly continue to think about it.


Guy Shennan

27 November 2020

I would like to thank my fellow Solution-Focused Collective Reading Group colleagues for agreeing to read the Rorty chapter I have referred to in this blog post, and for the stimulating discussion that ensued. The reading group is open to anyone who subscribes to the aims of the Collective’s manifesto - if you are interested, just drop us a line at solfocollective@gmail.com

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