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Centering Oneself in Compassion
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Centering Oneself in Compassion: Synthesizing Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Compassionate Practice in University Teaching, with Reference to M. Nussbaum, Hua-Yen Buddhism, and A. N. Whitehead

By Adam Scarfe, Ph.D.
University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Many thanks to the University of Saskatchewan Process Philosophy Research Unit: Bob Regnier, Howard Woodhouse, Mark Flynn, and Ed Thompson, without whom this paper could not have been possible.


I. A Defense of Compassion in Higher Education

Many outstanding philosophers of education, such as Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Martha Nussbaum have articulated the necessity and importance of a compassion-based approach to teaching.  Compassion is a central message in Whitehead’s ‘rhythms of education’, of John Dewey’s call for democratic education, Paulo Freire’s dialogical theory of education, and Martha Nussbaum’s elaboration of emotional intelligence in education.  Therefore, here, I defend that university teachers center themselves in compassion, as a fundamental academic value in itself.  Compassion is sorrow aroused by the suffering or misfortune of another: sympathy, or mercy (late Latin compassio, from compati meaning ‘to sympathize’, from Latin, com- + pati, meaning ‘to suffer).  I advance a notion of compassionate education that integrates cognitive and feeling-based conceptions of compassion, in logical contrast.  This ‘contrasted’ notion of compassion shall derive itself largely from the philosophical nexus of Freirean, Deweyian, Nussbaumian, Whiteheadian, and Hua-Yen Buddhistic visions of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

II. Nussbaum’s Cognitive Conception of Compassion
In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum sets forth a cognitive account of compassion based in eudaimonistic judgments of value.  Nussbaum defines that ‘empathy’ is “an imaginative reconstruction of another’s experience” (Upheavals 302), while ‘sympathy’, “like compassion is a judgment that the other person’s distress is bad” (Upheavals 302).  While empathy is an act of conceptualizing the experiences of others, it does not necessarily involve any judgment regarding suffering, or any feeling of solidarity or agreement with the sufferer, as in sympathy or in compassion.  That is to say, empathy does not relate “a shared vulnerability to pain” (Upheavals 319) as do the concepts of sympathy and compassion.  Therefore, as Nussbaum notes, empathy, which conceptualizes the others’ purposes and desires may be used for benevolence and good or for destructive evil, and as such it is not necessarily compassionate.  In outlining the requirements for compassion, Nussbaum claims that
Compassion (…) has three cognitive elements: the judgment of size (a serious bad event has befallen someone); the judgment of non-desert (this person did not bring the suffering on himself or herself); and the eudaimonistic judgment (this person, or creature, is a significant element in my scheme of goals and projects, an end whose good is to be promoted (Upheavals 321).

This passage depicting the three cognitive judgements of the extent of the suffering, the injustice of the suffering, and the significance of the particular living being for my aims is the central articulation of the criteria for having the emotion of compassion.  It may be said that it is largely deliberative, differentiating, and highly selective, as it implies the cognitive judgment of particular living beings or students.  There are an infinite number of practical examples to which we may apply Nussbaum’s cognitive notion of compassion to university teaching.  For example, professors making time to tutor certain students who have not done well on a test because of a family tragedy is an example of selective compassion on the basis of the judgments of size and of non-desert.  Or, alternatively, on the basis of the eudaimonistic judgment, professors may act with ‘selective’ compassion by way of praise, bestowing onto certain students a sense their own importance in a class for good work done.  By way of their differentiation out from the multitudes and by being treated benevolently by the professor, students positively feel like they are an intrinsic part of his or her research, interests, and ends, namely, as being valued in and for themselves.  But, regardless of the contingent situations, Nussbaum’s criteria for compassion goes a long way to explain Deweyan notions of “intelligent compassion” based in “selective interest” (Garrison 34-35) by which the task of professors in teaching is to assist the individualized processes of self-realization of the students.  The very fact of such selection and deliberation means that the professor is actively engaged with, and being compassionate towards his students, instead of treating them with pity, with cruelty, or with indifference.  Through differentiation and selection, the compassionate professor is able to gauge the particular problems, concerns, and needs of individual students, and to direct the class in such a manner as to address their own particular processes of self-realization.  He also makes the subject-matter of the class relevant and meaningful to the students’ lives, suffering, and struggles, instead of lecturing condescendingly on irrelevant topics or by using radical instrumental criticism which thwarts their capacity for self-realization.  Thus, it is through such selective compassion that university classes are made meaningful to, and ‘at the service of’ students, which in turn improves the quality of teaching.  In this way, the very meaning of truly compassionate education is that the professor’s own process of self-realization is rooted in the assistance of the students’ respective processes of self-realization.  Similarly, in the compassionate pedagogy, the professors’ own satisfaction of his process of self-realization is rooted in the extent to which he has advanced the students’ processes of self-realization.  However, we must be somewhat wary of the selectivity and deliberative nature of Nussbaum’s cognitive theory of compassion, so as not to construe that selection implies that others are rejected.  Precisely, we should not overstate the selective caring of some students, over others.  This lacuna will be dealt with in the next section.  Nevertheless, as will be shown, Nussbaum’s theory constitutes one side of a logical contrast in developing a fully compassionate approach to university teaching.

III. Hua-Yen Buddhism’s and Whitehead’s Feeling-Based Notion of Compassion
In The Aims of Education, Whitehead asserts the necessity of a compassionate pedagogy, particularly, one which “bring(s) (teachers) into intellectual sympathy with the young” (92-93). Whitehead’s holistic, feeling-based account of sympathy and compassion in his speculative writings provides much of the conceptual material for the possibility of this approach to teaching.  It also helps us to address the view that suffering is largely contingent and is universal, based in the finite nature of living beings.   Such a perspective, as held in Hua-Yen Buddhism, could offer a possible challenge to the deliberative and selective aspect of Nussbaum’s cognitive account of compassion.  Precisely, Hua-Yen Buddhism holds that suffering is universal to the experience of all sentient beings, and no one can be said to live a life completely free of suffering.  In other words, Hua-Yen Buddhism defends that the acuteness of suffering in its affliction of living beings largely depends on contingent situations, and holds that suffering is a reality faced by all, and felt by all in situations largely not of our own choosing.  Therefore, Hua-Yen Buddhists claim that suffering could afflict anyone at anytime, therefore, when it comes to the possibility of suffering, no one is in a superior or an inferior position.  In effect, Hua-Yen Buddhism defends three principles: 1.) that all sentient beings are interdependent, and all belong to our scheme of ends; 2.) that, universally, all sentient beings qua sentient suffer; and 3.) that living beings have been ‘thrown’ undeservingly into a world of suffering, not by their own choosing.  To be sure, as one commentator has pointed out, Hua-Yen Buddhism defends the metaphysical view of a “complete non-obstructed interpenetration” (Odin 143) of all beings which has significant ethical ramifications.  For the Hua-Yen metaphysical perspective necessarily involves “a doctrine of altruistic social engagement and benevolent rectification of affairs through compassionate saving activity and moral responsibility” (Odin 143).  Hence, Hua-Yen Buddhism may be said to hold that all living beings, universally, and in any circumstance, meet Nussbaum’s cognitive requirements of compassion of a judgment of size, a judgment of non-desert, and the eudaimonistic judgment.  Therefore, Hua-Yen Buddhism subverts the very need for any cognitive judgment of the suffering of the perceived sufferer, whatsoever, and holds that all are to be treated compassionately, without selection.   Hence, following from this persuasive argument fundamental to Hua-Yen Buddhism, there would seem to be a need for an original, primitive sympathy or compassion, prior to judgment, cognition, and the objectification of the world, precisely, one which represents a genuine pre-cognitive and a pre-selective openness to all sentient beings.

Whitehead’s notion of ‘hybrid prehensions’ may be said to account for such a Buddhistic conception of compassion.  His theory of prehensions is itself a general argument against modern conceptions of human experience such as those of Descartes and Hume, in which the primacy of consciousness is presupposed.  Rather, for Whitehead, our conscious experience of the world involves a high degree of abstraction, and belongs only to the higher-grade organisms, such as human beings.  For him, consciousness is a rare, subsidiary event, since most of our experience of the world occurs through our primitive bodily feeling of the world.  He states, “consciousness is the crown of experience, only occasionally attained, not its necessary base” (Process 160).  As depicted in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the chief operation in the passage from feeling to consciousness is selectivity, involving a fluctuation between the positive reception and appropriation of certain data as relevant to our aims, and the negation and elimination of other data from experience as irrelevant to our ends.  In this way, according to Whitehead, consciousness is constituted by what he calls an “affirmation-negation contrast” (Process 243), a process in which some objects are accepted into the constitution of the living being while others are rejected.  In Whitehead’s scheme, the rare event of consciousness can only occur in two circumstances: first, in what he calls a ‘negative intuitive judgement’, and second, where there is a ‘conscious perception’.  In his view, consciousness itself implies determination and judgement, and especially, negative judgment.  Basically, with respect to our dilemma regarding the cognitive requirements of compassion, consciousness would only occur if one judged or makes the determination that ‘this person is suffering’ or ‘this person is not suffering’.  Alternatively, the determinations: ‘this person is suffering greatly’ or ‘this person is not suffering greatly’ also imply consciousness.  Consciousness, as in the ‘negative intuitive judgement’ and the ‘conscious perception’ involves comparative feelings of the two sides of the contrast between what could be and what actually is.  That is to say, from a Whiteheadian perspective, the cognitive account of compassion is implied when one makes a judgment or strict determination regarding the possibility that the suffering of this person is or is not real.  In the cognitivist account, compassion would be withheld if it were judged that the person is not suffering.  Therefore, a cognitive conception of compassion involves a great deal of selection, as opposed to the Hua-Yen Buddhism’s emphasis on universal compassion.

The notion of a ‘hybrid prehension’ is presented by Whitehead as a sub-category of physical feelings and can be said to account for a primitive conception of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.  As a sub-category of physical feelings, which are representative of the most primitive bodily experience of our world, Whitehead emphasizes that ‘hybrid prehensions’ are among the very first feelings felt, prior to the mass of data selection leading to consciousness.  Therefore, it could be said that ‘hybrid prehensions’ involving a “compassionate yearning in the bowels” (Process 118), are pre-selective feelings which may be able to account for Hua-Yen Buddhism’s authentic attunement of compassion and benevolence towards all sentient beings.  In defining what a ‘hybrid prehension’ is, Whitehead states that they constitute the “prehension by one subject (,) of a conceptual prehension (…) belonging to the mentality of another subject” (Process 107).

Such prehensions of the conceptual feelings in other entities implies the realization of the fact that the other being encountered has subjective aims, namely, fundamental and legitimate aims that control and guide their own life-process of becoming and development.  The actualization of these subjective aims in the world are largely responsible for the flourishing and satisfaction of each living being.  By way of a subject prehending the conceptual feelings in another living being, ‘hybrid prehensions’ represent a fundamental attunement to the sheer fact of another’s subjective aims and their capacity for self-realization or flourishing. Thus, ‘hybrid prehensions’ allude to a subject’s feeling of another as a subject, their struggles, their suffering, and their striving for self-realization.  As such, the occasion where two living beings mutually prehend each other’s conceptual feelings is representative of intersubjectivity, writ pre-cognitively and pre-selectively.  For as soon as one comes into contact with another, ‘hybrid prehensions’ account for an immediate, spontaneous compassionate engagement with the other, which may be applied to the teacher-student relationship.  Therefore, ‘hybrid prehensions’ may be said to form the basis of a universal compassionate pedagogy, in which all students are valued in and for themselves as subjects, prior to any selectivity.  Furthermore, in a similar manner to Nussbaum’s notion that emotions have cognitive judgments of value within themselves, Whitehead writes that ‘hybrid prehensions’ contain “sympathetic conceptual valuations” (Process 247) within themselves.

In further explaining the primitive conception of empathy, sympathy, and compassion through his notion of ‘hybrid prehensions’, Whitehead writes,
The primitive form of physical experience is emotional – blind emotion – received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion.  In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience (meaning for Whitehead that this definition stems from the point of view of consciousness), the primitive element is sympathy, that is feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another (Process 162, my addition).

Stemming from Nussbaum’s analysis and this last statement by Whitehead, sympathy is defined as ‘feeling the feeling in another, and feeling conformally with another.’  In other words, in the language of cognition, sympathy is a feeling of the subjective aims and conceptual feelings in another and feeling in agreement with or in solidarity with the other.  Specifically, one is in solidarity with another in their struggle to overcome hardships.  For when one is sympathetic to another, one is on the ‘same side’ as that other, such that the other is felt as a subject whose ends or goals are to be advanced.  Sympathy contrasts with empathy, which along Whiteheadian lines could be defined as ‘feeling the feeling in another’ without necessarily feeling conformally with the other.

As alluding to an objectification of another’s conceptual feelings and subjective aims, namely, their purposes and ends, empathy can be used for good or for evil.  As Nussbaum points out, “enemies often become adept at reading the purposes of their foes and manipulating them for their own ends: once again, this empathy is used egoistically, denying real importance to the other person’s goals” (Upheavals 329).  By continuously revealing our purposes and our character, our enemies can destroy us, as is the case in some of the personal tragedies predominant in academia.  As such, it is necessary to preserve Nussbaum’s cognitive / deliberative account of compassion, which may be said to operate in conjunction with the feeling-based account.  Nussbaum’s cognitive account of compassion based in a judgment of the actuality and size of the suffering of the other, contributes to ensuring that one does not get ‘seduced by pity.’  For it is by way of judgment that one may guard oneself, for example, against being ‘seduced by pity’ by those who feign suffering to appropriate and profit from our limited resources, be they physical or mental.  Specifically, by incorporating judgment into compassion, there is some determinate assessment as to the extent of the other’s suffering, not available in the pre-selective, feeling-based conception.  Hence, the benefit of the cognitive perspective of compassion is that, while not completely fail-safe, it helps it guards against those who feign suffering or aim to aggrandize our own egos, in order to then lead us to wrongly sacrifice our own resources and legitimate aims and aspirations to them.  Alone, the Whiteheadian and Hua-Yen Buddhist conception of universal compassion, which is based in primitive feeling possibly leading to a complete altruistic self-sacrificing of one’s legitimate ends for another, has no way of guarding us against being used and manipulated by the other.  Consequently, because it seeks the highest good, the feeling-based notion of compassion may risk “lacking (an) emphasis on caring for oneself” (Garrison 57) leading to self-sacrifice and the burnout of teachers.  Also, it does not emphasize that the students themselves must be active, and make substantial efforts if they are to advance their own processes of educational self-realization.  Furthermore, the feeling-based notion of compassion may be suggested that the actual task of one being compassionate to all sentient beings is impossible.  However, by maintaining a conception of compassion based equally in the logical contrast of feeling and consciousness, one allows for a genuine, benevolent openness to all sentient beings and retains the very the possibility of self-preservation.

Balancing selective and non-selective conceptions of compassion lays the foundation for a truly dialogical pedagogy, depicting a reciprocal sympathy and mutual growth on the part of both teachers and students.  As two sides of a ‘logical contrast’, in which both sides are not opposed but “stand to each other in their mutual requirement” (Process 348), the consciousness-based account and the feeling-based account can be said to mutually inform each other.  By preserving the validity of both sides, professors universally and spontaneously greet students with compassion and subsequently, professors treat students with compassion through deliberative means in respect of their individual processes of self-realization, struggles, and sufferings.  Furthermore, by maintaining both universal and particular perspectives as necessary elements within the concept of compassion as mutually requiring one another, the foundation for a compassionate educational community is established.  Finally, university professors acting on the basis of this logical contrast represent what it means to be centered in compassion.

Selected Bibliography:
Dewey, J.  Construction and Criticism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1930.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1993.

Garrison, J.  Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching,  New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.

Kim, Sang Yil. “Wonchuk's Transformation of Yogacara Buddhism: A Process View.”  In Towon Yu Sung-guk paksa hwagap kinyom nonmunjip kanhaeng wiwonhoe, ed. Tongbang sasang nongo. Seoul: Chongno sojok ch'ulp'an chusok hoesa, 1983.

Luk, C. (trans.), The Vimalakrti Nirdesa Sūtra, Berkeley, CA: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1972.

Nussbaum, M. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Odin, S.  Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration Versus Interpenetration.  Albany: S.U.N.Y. Press, 1982.  

Sherburne, D. W. (ed.), A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Whitehead, A. N. The Aims of Education (1929), New York: The Free Press, 1957.

Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality (1929): Corrected Edition, Edited by D. R. Griffin and D. Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978.



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