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.

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3 thoughts on “On Critical Thinking and Instrumental Thought

    • I think the instrumental reading of critical thinking is the standard one, and I too usually think of critical thinking in its instrumental or evaluative sense. But I do think the idea of questioning the value of creating solutions to pursue further ends is valuable and seems to be in the spirit of critical thinking. Yet, this latter form of critical thinking would not be something that it would ever make sense to put on your resume; it rather seems to be more of a quality of the philosophic spirit a la Socrates, and Socrates would make a horrible employee. Haha.

      • Ha! Yeah, I don’t think I’d hire Socrates. Although they say he fought well in the battle of Potidaea and saved Alcibiades’ life, so maybe I’d hire him as a bodyguard? Or maybe a bouncer at a night club? Maybe not the latter since he’d end up talking so much that no one would get through the door to buy drinks.

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