On Critical Thinking and Instrumental Thought

Critical thinking is often praised as a valuable asset in modern liberal democratic societies. While this may be true the admiration that follows critical thinking raises the question of what actually constitutes critical thinking proper. It seems to me that when people refer to thinking they mean either one of two things, but neither of these understandings of critical thought captures the meaning of critical thought if we take the idea to its logical limit. In fact, when critical thinking is taken to its logical limit it can be plausibly construed as calling into question the notion that thought is valuable merely because of its ability to produce benefits in the world. Consequently, critical thinking involves more than questioning means or particular goals, but rather questioning the whole notion of thought as a tool to produce positive results in the world.

Often, when people talk about critical thinking, they refer to the process of being able to come with a creative solution to achieve a predefined end goal. For example, on this understanding of critical thought, the politician who is able to discover the set of policies that produces the greatest amount of economic growth for a nation is a critical thinker and consequently displays critical thinking abilities as he is able to reflectively examine the policy alternatives available and figure out which one will best achieve the end of maximizing economic growth. I call this meaning of critical thinking, “instrumental critical thinking.”

On the other hand others understand critical thinking as the process of not only reflectively evaluating means to a given end, but reflectively evaluating which particular ends or values ought to be pursued. Consequently, the activist who questions the politician’s pursuit of the maximization of economic growth because of its deleterious effects on equality and ecological preservation exhibits this understanding of critical thought, as he is not only reflecting on means, but what ends ought to be pursued. I refer to this understanding of critical thinking as “evaluative critical thinking.”

While the two conceptions of critical thinking elucidated above are opposed in that one focuses on means, while the other focuses on means and ends, they are alike in that in both cases what is taken for granted is that the point of critical thinking is to produce some kind of benefit in the world. In the case of instrumental critical thinking, critical thought helps us to efficiently pursue the ends that we already accept. Similarly, evaluative critical thinking helps us to produce value in the world by ensuring that we are pursuing the proper goals or values. In both cases thought is a means to some further end beyond itself.

It seems that the essence of critical thinking is questioning as both understandings of critical thought explained above put forth a form of thought that questions something that is given, whether it is a given set of means or a given set of ends. Consequently, if we take this questioning, which forms the core of critical thought, to its furthest limit we are driven to not only question means and ends, but, also to question the notion that the point of thought is to produce some tangible benefit in the world, whether this benefit is more efficiently growing our economy, recognizing the values that we ought to pursue, or providing us with a better understanding of the world.

But some might say how could thought not simply be a tool to some end? We think so that we can solve problems don’t we? If thought is not meant to be a tool to produce benefits then what would be the point of it? We do think to solve practical problems and create benefits in the world and there is nothing wrong with this form of thinking, but this is not the only form of thought, and more importantly, form of critical thought that is possible. Sometimes we begin to reflect on a topic like justice and while initially we are trying to solve the problem of what the meaning of justice is, as we think, the wave of thought carries us and we spontaneously jump from one stream of thought to another without any sense of direction towards a particular end. While initially we set before ourselves a task in the process of thinking we lose our sense of this task and our driven as if possessed by a demon of thought from one stream of thought to the next. But in this moment we do not merely lose a sense of our task instead we lose a sense of ourselves as subjects trying to know a particular object, at that moment I am not a subject thinking about the object, instead I am thinking constituting itself. This appearance of thinking in this world is not a means to an end, but thought as something making itself present through its constitution in us, where the “I” and “we” disappear into thinking itself. This suggests that thought cannot simply be understood as a means to producing some benefit in the world. Thought makes its appearance as a tool to be used by humans, but thought also makes it appearance in a way in which it is not subordinate to human will.

Consequently, given that there seems to be a form thought does not aim at producing benefits in the world it seems that critical thinking would not lead us to merely question means or ends, but rather to question the entire enterprise of thinking of thought as merely a tool to be used by humans for their benefit. This form of critical thought that questions thought understood as a tool, may not prove to be particularly immediately beneficial for societies, or the individuals who are constituted by it, but it does represent the result of taking critical thought to its furthest limit. So those of us who are committed to the practise of critical thought must necessarily question the vision of thought as a tool to produce further ends.

This entry is indebted to David Loy’s great book Nonduality – A study in Comparative Philosophy as my description of this kind of thought is deeply influenced by his thoughts on nondual thinking and I am also indebted to bloggingisaresponsibility for writing about David Loy’s book as this introduced me to it.

The Scientific Spirit and Modern Society

The scientist inquires into nature to discover what relationships exist between things. By his nature the scientist is one who does not think that he possess the entire truth, as he continues to grasp at it. His quest is to possess this truth and he devotes his life to creating experiments to test hypotheses and theories expressed in propositional knowledge.

The scientist can take many paths as he meanders through the abyss of existing knowledge and ideas looking for new ways test his hypothesis, but two paths are particularly worth highlighting. The first path and the one that is most common within modern societies in that which might be known as that of the builder. This path takes the scientist in the direction of proving theories and developing knowledge that can benefit mankind. The builder sees the great power of scientific knowledge to assist us, and consequently while he is committed to knowing the truth, he must necessarily become more possessed by a spirit of beneficence than a passion for grasping the truth. Over the course of his quest he has gone from experiencing a wide eyed awe towards nature that reaches out to meet it, to an attitude that wishes to merely experiment on nature in order to benefit mankind. While he started as primarily a thinker, he is now primarily an actor or doer.

The path of the builder is the most dominant path for the scientist in modern society as the scientist must justify his worth in terms that the society he inhabits understands. Given that most modern societies are fundamentally oriented around growth, economic concerns and improving material conditions for people the scientist must justify his worth as someone whose work benefits mankind, rather than simply someone who is enamored with the quest for truth. While Socrates was enamored with the spirit of science in that he devoted his life to questioning the nature of reality and knowledge, he would not be funded as a scientist because he refused to produce any tangible artifact that might benefit mankind.

Not always, but typically, the builder becomes a specialist. As a specialist he focuses in one narrow field of study to see what useful knowledge can be grasped within that narrow field for a particular set of practical problems, rather than a builder who wants to grasp the whole. That the builder typically becomes a specialist is not at all surprising as in order to fully experiment on one narrow aspect of nature in depth a scientist needs to devote much time, and study and there are very few scientists who are able to conquer more than one narrow region because of the simple demands of time that are required to fully understand this region.

In addition, the structure of scientific inquiry as it is constituted institutionally in modern society exhibits a structure of divisions in which one must primarily be a botanist, psychologist, physicist or member of another discipline, such that the demands of conformity to a professional discipline confine the scientist to working in a particular field. Of course the professional scientist can examine other fields outside of their work, but this must always be something separate from his professional work, and this pursuit must always compete with other pursuits such as friendship, love, family and other leisurely activities.

The second path for the scientist is far more difficult to pursue in modern society and somewhat ironically it tends to be at cross purposes with the professional scientific discipline. In this path we have those whose fundamental concern is to understand the whole. These individuals typically make unreliable researchers as their task cannot be confined to simply figuring out some particular sphere such as understanding the impact of the consumption of sucralose on appetite. These people are creative seekers who jump from one area of interest to another driven by their desire to synthesize their insights into some coherent understanding of the whole, rather than obedient workers who will be sure to accomplish the task to which they are assigned or have agreed to. Some of them may be able to make a career through scientific inquiry because of their genius and novel insights, but this will always be in tension with the spirit by which they are animated, as those who are driven by this spirit are not necessarily interested in producing treatises but in simply grasping the whole. This last point is one that has been made by many including Arendt, but I think it is worth reiterating because it points to the separation between building intellectual systems for the benefit of mankind or for glory, and to the pure quest for understanding.

This is all to say that the professional discipline of science is not simply a constitution of the spirit that continually pursues an understanding of the whole. Rather, the professional discipline of science is a historical manifestation of many factors, and those of who are captured by the aforementioned spirit may be marginalized and degraded, rather than supported by the institutions of science as they exist in modern societies. Consequently, the institutionalization of science may be as much of a threat to the spirit of continuous inquiry directed at understanding the whole as those who decry science in favour of unreflective forms of faith and tradition.

The Inability to be at Home in the World: Religion, Salvation and Value Pluralism

It is rare for a human being to be completely at home in the world. No matter how well things go for us we have a sense that our lives are missing something important. As we move about our lives we may have moments of exquisite joy, and we may feel that our lives are going extraordinarily well, and yet it always seems, for me at least, like my life is incomplete as it misses out on some valuable good. In this entry I would like to point out that while traditional religions like Christianity are very good at explaining this incapability of humans to be at home in the world, the Berlinian philosophy of value pluralism is also adept at explaining it. In a sense, this entry is meant to be a response to theorists like Peter Lawler who contrast the attempt to make humans at home in the world through technological and social progress with traditional religion’s acceptance of this anxiety as a necessary part of our worldly condition. For theorists in this tradition of thought the fact that we have not gotten rid of human anxiety and made human beings entirely at home in the world is a testament to the truth of traditional religion, and Christian faith in particular. While this contrast discloses an element of reality, by not making mention of non-religious philosophies that can make room for the human incapability to be at home in the world, it leaves out something very important.

Many traditional religions are adept at explaining our inability to be at home and our perennial sense that there is something more, but for the sake of this entry I will examine Christianity in particular. At its most basic thinkers like Lawler point out that society or nature is not our natural home, and in these places we are still estranged from God no matter how idyllic the environment we inhabit is. We are creatures who have fallen from grace and while we may be able to get closer to God through faith and religious practise, our anxieties will not be abolished as long as we are estranged from him, and we will remain at least somewhat estranged during this life. This explanation is powerful, and while I am not a Christian I cannot help but find it beautiful in a certain way.

On the other hand, we might explain our inability to be at home in the world by looking to the nature of value. According to Berlin, and his many followers, values are incommensurable or incompatible in some basic sense. Thus, while it may be true that life of a monk and the life devoted to artistic creativity are both valuable, these values cannot be simply evaluated according to simple criteria, and further these goods may not be able to be woven into the life of person or the life of a community.

For example, if I commit myself to the pursuit of artistic creativity this necessarily means that I will not be able to fully develop other goods in my life like familial affection, or the life of quiet reflection, as goods must be developed and commitment to one good tends to exclude others. That said, there is no reason to commit to one single good, but even for those of us who try to combine many goods into a single life, there is a limit to which goods can be combined into a single life. For example, I may appreciate the generosity and courage exemplified in the life of the aristocrat who takes care to make sure that his subjects are protected and well cared for, but I could not combine these goods with a life that affirms the legal and political equality of human beings. I cannot be an excellent aristocrat while being an excellent jobholder in a liberal democratic society.

From this understanding of value we might say that the reason why we are unable to feel completely at home in the world in our lives is because our lives always lack a significant array of goods that we recognize as valuable despite their incompatibility with the goods we have built our lives around. These goods that we lack call to us and tell us that there is something more, but yet they cannot be coherently brought into our lives without destroying other goods that we hold dear. So we are never to be completely satisfied or at home with the lives we build as they always remain the cobbling together of many valuable things, but at the expense of others that we never stop longing for. This longing is what underlies our lack of ability to be at home in the world. Consequently, an affirmation of value pluralism can serve as another basis for explaining our perennial anxiety and sense that there is more, and thus traditional religion does not have the monopoly on being able to explain the human inability to be at home in the world. Therefore, the contrast is not simply between technological and social progress directed towards eliminating all anxiety and traditional religion.