‘What are presuppositions and why pay attention?’,
I offer this except from my book.
Many people ask me how it is that I have created such huge change in my life.
As I reflect on that, I recognise that there were beliefs I held, some assumptions I made, that were very powerful. We all make assumptions that we belief to be true, even though we haven’t really explored or haven’t we really gather evidence for them. This is not all bad. We have to make some assumptions otherwise we wouldn’t be able to function – we wouldn’t be able to take any action.
However, many things that we suppose aren’t in our conscious awareness – they are ‘presupposed’. For example, when I turn on the tap, I don’t suppose water will come out, I don’t even think about it, – it’s pre-supposed in my experience – it has to be what I believe for me to take the action of turning on the tap, right? It only comes into my awareness that I presupposed that if water doesn’t come as I expected.
This is how I use the word ‘presuppose’, an assumption or a belief that is so permeating that it does not even come into consciousness. This is the ‘pre’ part of ‘presuppositions’, it is ‘pre’ or before our consciousness, it is supposed to be true without thought. We just assume something is true.
As I’ve suggested, it is really important that we make some assumptions, because we can’t allow everything to come into consciousness. Imagine if we stopped to think about everything before we did anything!
Right now, as I sit here typing this for you, I make the assumption that the chair is solid enough to hold me. You know, sometimes chairs are faulty and that they don’t hold you, but most of the time they do, so we just sit down and we have presupposed that it will support us. We open a door and walk into a room and we just presuppose that there are foundations and that they will hold the floor. These are just simple little things that I use to illustrate that there are many, many, many assumptions that we make, all day long every day.
Many of the assumptions that we make allow us to function and they are useful. Some of them though actually create problems for us. Never the less, what we presuppose to be true is very powerful because it informs the way we act and the choices that we make. I’d like to illustrate this with some stories from my life, if that would be ok.
As I think back on my life, I know that there was a belief that I held, an assumption that I had that was not very useful. You see, I was very, very, very shy, extraordinarily shy. So shy that I never spoke at all outside the home. Until I was about 14 or 15 years old I still really spoke to people, unless I had developed a close friendship with someone then I’d speak a little.
Why, you may ask. I had presupposed something that was not useful. I believed someone spoke only when they had a new truth to share – something new that was not yet known on this planet. I could not comprehend that people spoke things that was already known. So I waited to discover something, like the “law of gravity” or “e = mc2”, before I’d speak. Naturally, I never spoke.
That was not a very useful thing to believe because that made me socially dysfunctional. I’m sure you know, speaking is just as a way of connecting with other human beings, even though we are not really saying anything profoundly new.
So, here I was this 10 year old, waiting to discover a new scientific fact before I thought I had anything useful to say. A key thing here is that I didn’t know consciously I believed this. I wasn’t aware I thought this. I had never consciously thought this. I just presupposed it to be so.
But something happened to change this. One day in High School, when I was in year 9, I was invite to wag school, to a house where the parents had gone away and a whole heap of kids were going to hang-out. I was curious about normal kids and what they did, I suppose, because I wasn’t normal. Growing up in a cult, I was not allowed to socialise. I was allowed to go to school right at the start of the class, but I wasn’t allowed to do sport or do any of the social interacting, I was only allowed to go for the academic curricular things. So I was curious about how normal kids did being normal and how they did social interacting.
I sat in the corner. There was all this kind of social chit-chat going on. There was animation, energy and people were having a good time being happy. I was just sitting there in the corner, all by myself, not speaking to anyone. Sitting in the corner of the back wall, watching all of this social interaction going on, I asked myself a question, “How are they doing that? How are they finding so much to say”?
In asking that question I had to presuppose something… if they are able to do it, then I am able to do it. do you get that? In me asking, “how are they doing that?”. I held a belief about myself that I had an ability to learn. I knew that I could learn really well, and I actually learned more quickly than other people. These are the kids that are not excelling very well at school, because they wagged or for some other reason. They were the kids that were not that bright. I was thinking, ‘if they are not that bright and I am ok at learning and they are not so good at learning, and they can do this social interacting, then it must be possible for me. It is a matter of working out how’.
Because I presupposed this, I started to pay attention for the very first time to what it was they did and how they did it.
I realised that they weren’t saying profound truths. As I listened more and watched them, I realised that something just pops into their head and they just let it come out their mouth. Whatever is in their head they just spoke it. I learned that we make a social connection through talking, and I thought, ‘I can do that’ and I do now.
Now, I don’t suggest that I just talk meaningless rubbish, and only do chit-chat. But, I can, and I understand the value of it. We use speech to engage in a social dance, like when we ask, ‘How are you?’, we’re not asking for a medical report. We’re saying, ‘I care about you and I would like you to know I am interested in you’.
I am illustrating three things with this story; 1. I never spoke until I was about 15 years old because of an un-useful presupposition i.e. that speech is only for sharing new profound truths 2., when I presupposed that I had a capacity to learn I found I did, and 3., when I presuppose that anything done is doable, I listened in a different way, and discovered how.
I presupposed another un-useful thing, (which escaped my notice until THIS VERY MOMENT), ‘I’m not normal’. This isn’t true and it wasn’t a helpful story I was telling myself.
Fact is, or a more useful story is, ‘I’m as normal as anyone I’ve met. I just had an unusual context to learn and grown in’.
You’ll have stories of your own, as you think about it now.
So, if what we presuppose is so powerful, what will happen when we presuppose things that support what we really want; in life, in work and in love?