Theory, practice & reflective living

There are broadly three categories of critical reasoning, namely, conceptual theorising, practical deliberation, and introspective reflection.

Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, is by its nature uncritical. This is not because it is necessarily irrational or prone to error, though it can be; it is uncritical in the sense that it doesn’t explain itself to itself. It is the possibility of explanation, and explanation of the explanation, that makes reasoning critical.

The gap between theory and practice is a stubborn reality. Where conceptual theorising is pulled towards abstraction and detachment, practical deliberation is anchored in the concrete and engaged. However, it is possible for introspective reflection, which is more concrete than conceptual theorising and more detached than practical deliberation, to serve as a bridge between them.

The distinction between the three modes of critical thinking is a question of what is being explained, who is doing the explaining and the purpose and intended audience for the explanation.

Conceptual theorising is concerned with the objective world at an abstract and generalised level and theoretical explanation tends to generalisation about types of entities and events. Theory is the mind engaged in the construction and application of conceptual models. It therefore tends to ignore the specificities of the individual entity or event in favour of what is common to the class. This tendency to abstraction and generalisation holds also for the point of view from which the explanation is offered and the audience towards which it is directed. Theoretical explanations are meant to be neutral, applying from every point of view and to every possible audience.

Today, most theorising is carried out within the framework of specialised disciplines in the arts and sciences. Each disciplinary matrix, to borrow Thomas Kuhn’s term, includes not only conceptual models, generalisations and methods and techniques but also funding models, career structures, rewards & recognition, publications, public communication, pedagogy, curriculum, literature and what Kuhn called paradigms, the accounts of past achievements that describe the accomplishments of the field and provide its exemplars.

This division of labour has huge advantages in terms of the development of the arts and sciences but professionalisation and specialisation also has its disadvantages. For one thing, the institutionalisation of knowledge brings with it an inevitable bureaucracy and an inevitable politicisation.

More importantly, there is a lack of synthesis among specialist fields and a fracture between specialist domains and the general culture. The disciplines of the arts and sciences as forms of critical thinking are constrained by the scope of the specialism; the flipside of disciplinary autonomy is that explanation stops at the frontier. In a highly specialised environment, conceptual theorising remains a set of technical accomplishments, rather than a world-view. In this way, specialisation adds an additional layer of obstacles to the possibility of integration between theory and practice.

Explanation in practical life, on the other hand, tends to individuation and therefore towards the concrete and the specific. It is concerned with the totality of a particular situation and how that situation might evolve. This individuation extends to the function of practical explanations, which are offered from an engaged point-of-view and intended for an engaged and interested audience.

Practical deliberation is the mind engaged in the determination of a course of action. It is, like conceptual theorising, concerned with the world, but from perspective of a particular agent in a particular predicament. Practical deliberation is a time-dependent engagement with a worldly predicament. The outcome of practical reasoning is a decision to initiate a course of action that can be defended and explained. Its substance is shaped by the circumstances.

The significant consequence of the gap between theory and practice, if it were unbridgeable, would be fragmentation and alienation. If we can’t bring together what we do with what we believe we will be left as strangers to our own lives.

This concern with integration is specific to individuals. The gap between theory and practice is not a concern to the cosmos, so to speak; it only matters to introspectively reflective agents who are concerned with the integration of their actions and their beliefs. Introspective reflection is the location of this convergence because it is the meeting place for a concern with the concrete and individuated and at the same time a concern for the trustworthy that leads to detachment.

Reflective thinking is the mind looking at itself in the mirror; it is concerned with the questions: what do I think I know, what do I believe, how do I feel, what do I want to achieve and what do I want to do with my time. The end goal is a lucid understanding of oneself and one’s predicament. Unlike practical thinking, it is concerned with what is the case rather than with what might be or should be the case. Unlike the arts and sciences, it is concerned with the particular rather than the general and with the integration of our point-of-view rather than the integration of our understanding of the target domain.

This means that introspective reflection is concerned in the first instance with truthfulness. By this I mean that it is concerned what we actually do believe rather than what we should believe and what we actually want to do rather than what we should want to do. Questions of truth are not always resolvable, particularly in a timely fashion. Questions of truthfulness, because they are established by inward observation, can be. Truthfulness is as much a matter of character as it is conceptual ability or access to information.

Reflective thinking can serve as a bridge between theory and practice. The simplest way of explaining this is to imagine that between the theoretical question what should I believe and the practical question what should I do there are two reflective questions, namely, what do I actually believe and what do I actually want to do.

The first question, what do I actually believe, naturally leads to two further questions, namely, why do I believe this and am I right to believe it, which is equivalent to, what should I believe. In this way reflective thinking will be drawn naturally into conceptual theorising.

Similarly, the question what do I actually want to do leads naturally to the questions why do I want to do this and am I right to want to do it, which again is equivalent to what should I do. Such a train of thought starts from the private and the particular and ends with in a view about what has value, what is worthwhile, more generally.

Reflection is innately private rather than public; publicity will tend to compromise the truthfulness that is the objective of reflective thinking. This means that it is not so much constrained by either practical demands or social and institutional pressures. There aren’t necessarily the same boundaries that exist for the arts and sciences and for practical deliberation. However, at the same time, we don’t normally want there to be a contradiction between our public and our private selves.

Reflective thinking is concerned with the self as both theorist and agent. It is both the last resort when conceptual theorising and practical deliberation are baffled and the perspective from which conceptual theory and  practical deliberation can be integrated with the subjective self. There can be a seamlessness to explanation across theory and practice, a continuity of attitude, methods and goals. This means, in turn, that there can be a coherence and consistency across theoretical and practical thinking.