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Thinking to Some Purpose

A British scholar by the name of Susan Stebbing wrote a book (1939) on the importance of purpose in thinking. In it, she said: "To think logically is to think relevantly to the purpose that initiated the thinking: all effective thinking is directed to an end." We agree. All thinking pursues a purpose. We do not think without having something we are trying to accomplish, without having some aim in view, something we want. When humans think about the world, we do not do so randomly but, rather, in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values. Our thinking is an integral part of a patterned way of acting in the world, and we act, even in simple matters, with some set of ends in view. To understand someone's thinking - including one's own - we must understand the functions it serves, what it is about, the direction it is moving, and the ends that make sense of it.

Much of what we are after in our thinking is not obvious to us. Raising human goals and desires to the level of conscious realization is an important part of critical thinking. Though we always have a purpose in thinking, we are not always fully aware of that purpose. We may have some vague idea of it. Perhaps we have not clearly come to terms with our purpose. For example, you might call a meeting to discuss an important issue with your staff, but you may not know exactly what you are trying to accomplish in the meeting. As a result, the thinking during the meeting may diverge in many unhelpful directions. Without a clear sense of what you are about, the thinking you do may be very unproductive.

One problem with human thinking is that we sometimes pursue contradictory ends. We might want to become educated and also want to avoid doing any intellectual work. We might want others to love us, but not behave in loving ways toward them. We might want people to trust us, but behave in ways that undermine trust. The purpose we might explicitly state may be simply what we would like to believe of ourselves. Our real purpose, however, might be one that we would be ashamed to admit. We might think we want to pursue a medical career to help and care for people when our actual purpose may be to make a lot of money, gain prestige and status, and be admired by others. We must be careful, therefore, not to assume that our purposes are consistent with one another or that our announced purposes are our actual purposes.

Also, the purposes we pursue influence and are influenced by our point of view, as well as by the way we see the world. Our purposes shape how we see things, and how we see things shapes what we seek. Each person formulates his or her purpose from a given point of view, determined by the context of his or her own experience. To understand our goals and objectives, then, we should consider the perspectives from which we see the world or some situation in it.

A hairdresser, for example, because of her perspective, might be more concerned than most janitors with personal appearance. Looking good and helping others to look good are more intimately connected with her view of herself and the world. An orthodontist would naturally think much more about teeth and their appearance than most other people would. Having straight teeth would naturally seem more significant to her than it might to, say, most professional football players. The orthodontist's purpose in fostering straight teeth arises out of her perspective or point of view

Test the Idea
Identifying Your Purposes: Understanding Your Thinking

To begin to see how intimately interconnected thinking is to purpose, we suggest the following activity. First, make a list of five fundamental goals you have. Then comment on how your thinking is shaped by those goals. Fill in the blanks: "One of my purposes is _______________. I can achieve this purpose best by ________________."

Second, identify five things that you think about a lot. Then comment on how those things are tied to your fundamental purposes. For example, if you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how to improve your performance at work in order to make more money, one of your purposes is probably to make as much money as you can. Or if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve your intimate relationship, one of your purposes is probably to have a more meaningful intimate relationship.

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