Thinking as the Good




The Good Life As Thinking Well



What is the good life for a human being? It is hard to think of a more pressing and important question, or an older one.[1]Two remarks on the question, as so formulated, should be made immediately. The first is that there might be several goods for human beings, which may or may not be ranked, not a single good. I mean to be asking what is the deepest and most distinctive good for human beings: what, given our nature, is the highest form of good for us? What is the ultimatehuman good? Second, the question concerns what is good specifically for human beings (and possible creatures relevantly similar to us), not for animals in general. The highest good for a dog or a snake is doubtless different from the highest good for a human, because these three species have different natures, especially psychologically. Our specific form of good depends on what we are—centrally, essentially, distinctively. I shall accordingly say that I am concerned to discover the coregood for humans—the good that is closest to our specific nature.

Two answers to our question have been historically prominent: hedonism and moralism. Hedonism says that the good life consists in feeling good—in individual pleasure, happiness, or wellbeing. Your life is good if and only if it is full of pleasurable or agreeable sensations and emotions. Promoting the good life is maximizing such sensations and emotions, in oneself and others. Moralism, by contrast, says that the good life consists in doing good—that is, in moral or virtuous actions. Your life is good if and only if it is full of virtuous acts. The worthwhile life is the moral life. Hedonism presupposes that we are beings with the capacity to experience pleasure, while moralism presupposes that we are moral agents. If we had neither attribute, it would be pointless to claim that the good life for us consists in either thing. And if we were to lose either attribute, as a result of some catastrophe, then human life would become devoid of value, given the truth of hedonism or moralism: for there would then be nothing about us that could constitute a good life. If the pleasure centers were removed from our brain, or we were rendered unable to act virtuously (say by total paralysis), then human life would be made meaningless, empty of value, not worth living. There would literally be nothing of value for us to live for (this reflection might already make us suspicious of both doctrines, at least as complete accounts of the good life.)

The thesis I wish to advocate is that we have a third type of capacity and that this is where human good ultimately resides. I do not say that pleasure and virtue are not human goods (I think they clearly are); my point is that there is a third type of human good that is more central—that is closer to our core nature. This good I call thinking well. We have this good because it is in our nature to be thinking beings: we are rational, reflective, meditative, and cognitive. Hence my title: the good life for humans is thinking well. There is no established label for views of this type (which hark back to the ancient Greeks), but just for the sake of a name we can call the view “intellectualism” (though this has some misleading connotations). According to intellectualism, the reason it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is that Socrates is still thinking well, even if he is not feeling any pleasure or satisfaction (and not acting virtuously either). But a pig dissatisfied has no other good to fall back on (assuming virtuous action is also out of its reach). I shall now elaborate this intellectualist thesis.


What do I mean by “thinking well”? What does cognitive value consist in? Two views may be distinguished, according as the value in question is construed intrinsically or instrumentally. A very widespread opinion is that all value consists in the satisfaction of desire—the utilitarian position. Thus the value of thought must depend instrumentally upon its ability to aid in the satisfaction of desire. Thought is taken to be a useful device for producing desire satisfaction, and its value resides wholly in that instrumental function. Perhaps the rational capacity evolved so as to help in furthering the organism’s goals, and hence its value is instrumental in relation to these goals (“the better you think the more you get what you want”). Now I do not doubt that thought can have this kind of instrumental value, but I do not believe this exhausts its value; what I maintain is that thought also has intrinsic value—value quathought. Thinking well is not just thinking effectively in the desire-satisfaction sense; there are other characteristics thought has that render it intrinsically valuable, i.e. valuable independently of the good states of affairs it can bring about. An incomplete list of the characteristics in question would include: clarity, precision, creativity, profundity, truth, justification, explanatory power, importance, acuity, brilliance, and objectivity. These features have value in themselves, I maintain, and not merely instrumentally in relation to goals and desires. Thus it is a good thing for thinking to be clear independently of any desirable state of affairs such clarity may bring about. Clarity is in itself a desirable trait of thought—a good way for thought to be, inherently. By contrast, if a thought is unclear or muddled, confused or tangled, then this is a bad way for thought to be—even if it might happen to bring about some amount of desire satisfaction. To characterize someone’s thought with the adjectives I listed is ipso factoto praise or commend his or her thought: it is to assert that the thought in question is good(in some respect). So what I am saying is that thinking well consists in having the traits listed, where these traits themselves have intrinsic value. And if thinking well is our highest good, then our highest good consists in having thoughts with these valuable characteristics. For instance, our highest good consists in having clear thoughts—as well as creative and brilliant thoughts, and so on. If our thoughts are good in this sense, then our life is (to that extent) good.

We could put this by saying that thoughts can have various “cognitive virtues”. This notion is close to what is sometimes called “epistemic virtue”, but that notion tends to focus on procedural aspects of belief formation—how one assesses evidence and so on. I mean to be speaking more about the kinds of virtue that thoughts in themselves can have, as opposed to the virtues attaching to investigation or enquiry. In any case, we are moving in the realm of value—praise and blame, norms, assessment, and evaluation. Just as bodily actions can fall into the realm of value, so can mental actions—but this cognitive value is not ordinary moral value. The value at issue is peculiar to acts of thinking, and reflects the nature of such acts (that they are propositional, in particular). To think well is to think in such a way as to attract positive evaluation—quathinker (not as a moral agent in the usual sense). To be a good thinker is to manifest the traits listed, since these constitute the value that thoughts per sepossess. For a thought to be, say, clear, original, and brilliant is for it to have high intrinsic value, these being value-making characteristics. This is what I mean by “cognitive virtues”.

There is another aspect of thought and its value worth mentioning, though I won’t explore it here: namely, that thought connects us to things that in themselves have been regarded as having positive value. Thus Plato famously held that thought connects us to universals and universals possess a special kind of value, being eternal, timeless, unchanging, perfect, etc. In thought we are in direct contact with this higher world, according to Plato—the intellect is our route to a superior mode of existence. In particular, the form of the Good is accessible by means of our intellectual faculties, and apprehension of the Good elevates us correspondingly. Similar ideas have attached themselves to generality and modality: human thought acquaints us with generality and necessity, with universal law and how things must be. Since these concepts take us beyond the ordinary empirical world of particulars, they are deemed “transcendent” in some way—an ontological cut above. Thought, it is felt, takes us beyond the senses and into a deeper reality—where this deeper reality confers value on the thoughts that achieve that feat. As Russell would say, we become acquaintedwith what is fine and noble in itself—mathematics being the favored example. These inchoate ideas may or may not be philosophically defensible, but they do seem to exert a hold on those who see in thought a route to something higher. Thought takes us to the superlunary, where things are purer and more perfect.


I have said that our highest good consists in thinking well, but I have not yet said anything about happiness. Can we say that happiness is thinking well? That sounds a bit off as stated—how can you be made happy simply by having objectively valuable thoughts? What if we had such thoughts but didn’t know it? I think we need to add another ingredient to the picture: knowing thatwe are thinking well. Then we can say, more plausibly, that happiness—or at least one type of happiness—comes from knowing that one is thinking well—being self-aware in this kind of way. When your thinking is going well andyou know it, then you are happy (with respect to your thinking). If your thinking were good and you didn’t know it, even doubting it, then happiness would not be yours. But if your thinking is both excellent and known by you to be so, then happiness will be the outcome. You happily think: “I am having good thoughts today!” Thus happiness (or one type of it) results from recognitionof one’s intellectual or cognitive excellence; we might say it is enjoyment ofone’s good thoughts. It is a kind of self-congratulation, if I may put it so. This is something over and above just havingexcellent thoughts; it is self-knowledge with respect to the quality of the thoughts one has. You won’t be a happy thinker unless you perceive your thoughts in this way; you might even be quite miserable (“My thoughts are terrible today!”). Intellectual happiness thus requires not just first-order intellectual excellence but second-order awareness ofone’s intellectual excellence. And knowledge of one’s intellectual excellence will naturally give rise to a type of pride, which is a source of happiness. It is self-attribution that links cognitive excellence to happiness—you are happy thatyou are thinking well. When the ancients spoke of a “love of wisdom” they presupposed that wisdom was recognizable, in oneself and others. Since in general we love wisdom (understanding, knowledge, insight), we love it in ourselves, as well as in others; but we need to be able to recognize it in ourselves if we are to experience the love in question. Recognizing wisdom in oneself will naturally produce self-love—and self-love is part of what happiness involves (someone with self-hatred is not happy). A being that had wisdom but could not recognize it would not be happy in the way we are. (Recognizing stupidity and ineptitude in oneself will correspondingly produce self-loathing and unhappiness: the intellectual life is not always and ipso factothe happy life.) The happily wise person thinks well andknows that she thinks well; and since she loves wisdom, she loves herself for being wise. Thus she is made happy by her knowledge of the wisdom in herself that she loves generally. She is proud that she instantiates a quality that she loves (esteems, admires) in others.

You might object as follows: “That all sounds very fancy and high-minded, but isn’t it rather elitist? Can only philosophers be happy? That seems unfair, and also not true. What about the happy practical man and the joyful doer of good deeds?” But, I reply, there is practical wisdom too, and there is a cognitive dimension to right action. The view I am defending does not privilege theoretical reason over practical reason: good thoughts are available in all domains of thinking. The carpenter can think well (or badly) as well as the philosopher. In fact, since everyone loves wisdom, whether practical or theoretical, everyone counts as a “philosopher” in the original meaning of the term. So everyone is able, in principle, to achieve “philosophical excellence”. The doctrine I call “intellectualism” does not advocate the life of the “intellectual” above all others; it simply celebrates the virtues of reason, in all of its many forms. So the view is not elitist in the sense that it elevates some kinds of cognitive activity over other kinds. To do that would be to make a further claim, right or wrong. But it is elitist in the sense that it recognizes that some people are better thinkers than others, whether they are carpenters or epistemologists. Some people have more cognitive virtue than others, whether innately or by training or by strength of will. Whether some areas of thought are more valuable than others is a question I won’t go into, though there is room for more elitism here too (physics versus economics, say). Maybe thinking well about thinking well has the highest value of all… But the idea is not that the “intellectual life” is higher or better or more worthwhile than the “practical life”. It is just that whenever we are thinking—and we always are—we should strive for excellence in our thinking. No matter what we are thinking about, our thinking should always be excellent, according to the criteria cited earlier. Stupid, lazy, fuzzy thinking–about any subject matter–is nevergood.


We are condemned to think. We wake up in the morning and start thinking immediately, and we go on thinking till we fall asleep at night (and then the dreaming starts and thinking returns). You can’t stop yourself from thinking or take a ten-minute break from it—not if you are conscious and awake. You can close your eyes or block your ears if you want to stop seeing or hearing, but you can’t block your thinking organ (while remaining conscious)—it just keeps ticking away, relentlessly. The existentialists declared that we were condemned to freedom, as an inevitable part of the human condition; that may or may not be so, but we are certainly condemned to cognition—to being ceaselessly bombarded with thoughts at every waking moment. We can, to some extent, choose what to think about, but we cannot choose whether to think at all. To be human is to be constantly thinking, reflecting, and fretting. And we think a great many thoughts in the average day—I would estimate more thoughts than there are seconds. Not for nothing did Descartes announce that our essence is to be a thinking thing, a “res cogitans”. Whatever may be said about dreamless sleep, our conscious lives are replete with thinking, and we would not be what we are without it. Thus we could enunciate, in Cartesian spirit, the “inverted Cogito”: “I am, therefore I think”. If a conscious human self exists, it is necessarily a thinking being. Remove my capacity to think and you remove my essence—what it is to be me. I could go blind and deaf and still be myself, thinking my thoughts; I could even lose all bodily awareness and tactual sensation and persist as myself. I might conceivably even exist in a totally disembodied form yet still exist as a thinking thing. But if my ability to think is destroyed, then I become a mere “vegetable” and I no longer exist as a self or person. As things stand, I am also an acting thing and a feeling thing, but these attributes do not form my core in the way my thinking does. Moreover, I experience myself asa thinking thing—I am aware of myself as a thinker. I know thatI think. It is my nature to think thoughts thinkingly, if I can put it so.

These are remarks about the metaphysics of the human self—about what kind of being it is. What consequences do they have for the good life for humans? Well, if I am essentially a thinking thing, then the highest good for me will depend upon the proper form of excellence for such an entity. If it is my natureto think, then what is good for me will depend upon that nature flourishing (as Aristotle would say). For what is good for mewill depend on the form of excellence appropriate to my essential nature. The form of excellence for thought is simply thinking well, as defined earlier: so my nature achieves its highest good when I am thinking well. I am also a digesting thing, inter alia, but the form of excellence appropriate to digestion—“digesting well”—is not part of my very nature as a conscious self (similarly for seeing, hearing, etc). In the case of thinking, though, the appropriate excellence does concern my essential nature, since I am necessarily a thinking thing. Thus, if we combine a Cartesian metaphysics of the self with a broadly Aristotelian conception of human good, then we reach the thesis that our highest and most central good consists in thinking well. The good of an essentially thinking thing is precisely the good attaching to thought itself. There are no doubt other goods appropriate to us because we are also animals that perceive, feel, digest, act, and so on; but the good proper to thinking is the good that most centrally concerns us in our core being. The good of an insect or a reptile, by contrast, will not include cognitive excellence, since these creatures are not to be defined as thinking things. But human beings are equipped with rational thought, and so their good concerns the proper functioning of that faculty. If I am thinking well, then Iam well—quathinking thing. We might interpret this conclusion as supplying the missing Cartesian ethics: Descartes focused on metaphysics, but his metaphysical conception of the self leads naturally to the intellectualist account of human wellbeing. A good state of affairs, for a committed Cartesian, is precisely one in which thinking beings think well. That is what we have a moral duty to bring about. Cartesian happiness is accordingly knowledge that one is thinking well. We may also be happy that we are feeling good or performing good actions (hedonism and moralism), but these are contingent and extrinsic forms of human happiness. Core happiness concerns our core, and our core is to be a thinking thing. In a slogan: the happy man is the man blessed with a happy intellect. Or again, the good of the human self consists in the good of her thoughts. There is also, to be sure, affective good and moral good; but cognitive good is what concerns us most centrally and intimately.


Perhaps I can clarify the position defended here by considering the meaning of life in a utopian world. By a utopian world I mean one in which all material and basic needs are met—no one wants for anything. It is a world in which scarcity has been abolished. In particular, any pleasure can be obtained with a snap of the fingers, and no one needs any help. We are to understand, then, that in utopia any hedonic or moral striving is redundant. Altruistic action is pointless and one’s own desires can be satisfied without effort or expertise. So is there nothing left to strive for—no good that has still to be attained? Has life become perfect? In utopia, as so defined, has man reached his highest good, fully and completely? Well, suppose that in utopia people have become stupid, muddle-headed, intellectually lazy, prone to numbing non-sequiturs, easily duped, mentally dull, incapable of rational thought, and generally shabby in the cognitive department. They may have all their basic desires satisfied and be always brimming with pleasure, and no one can call them immoral, but they can’t think straight for two minutes at a time and never have a creative idea. I suggest that they are lacking an essential ingredient of the good life: thinking well. There is surely something shameful about their condition; they are not living a good human life, everything considered. We might even say that they are failing to live a good life in a deep and fundamental way–their seeming contentment and blamelessness is hollow, mindless, and undignified. What is the point of bliss without intelligence? And is it really bliss if their thinking is that debased? These are not fully admirable people (if they are admirable at all).

The obvious thing to say is that the denizens of utopia have a lot of work to do if they are to live a really good life. They have much to rectify and improve. They are lacking a basic human good. They must, that is, strive for excellence of the intellect. Notice that their thoughts do not lack in instrumental value, since in utopia thoughts don’t have to be inherently excellent in order to conduce to the satisfaction of desire. What they lack is the kind of value intrinsic to thoughts—clarity, creativity, truth, and so on. The good life is therefore not all about desire satisfaction; there are other distinct kinds of good that must exist too. A fool with satisfied desires is still lacking an essential type of good—good of the intellect. In fact, we all instinctively recognize this source of value, because we tend to despise “happy” people who don’t have an intelligent thought in their head; and we are embarrassed when our own thinking fails to measure up. No one will ever tell you they are remarkably stupid and be perfectly happy about it. People wish to be intelligent. Why? Because they valueintelligence (whether it’s intelligence in philosophy or carpentry)—they see goodnessin it. Hence intelligence must be cultivated and celebrated. From a Cartesian perspective, the mindless utopians are failing to realize the good appropriate to their very nature: they are thinking things that do not care to instantiate the good proper to thinking things. They instantiate other goods, such as pleasure, but they don’t instantiate the good that pertains to their essence. And if they are aware that they fail to instantiate this central good, then they cannot be completely happy, because they realize that they are lacking in a crucial type of value. In order to achieve the highest good available to them, they must clean up their thinking: they must discover the joys of beautiful well-formed thoughts, of healthy cognition, of a well-oiled rational faculty. They will be better off once they acquire the capacity for clear intelligent thought, and be the happier for it. They have been neglecting a key component of the life well lived.


One of the nice things about having good thoughts is communicating them to other people. There is a social or interpersonal dimension to all that solitary inner cogitation. Here one might be tempted by a couple of mistaken ideas. One idea is that the value of thinking well reduces to personal desire satisfaction or moral action after all. For, it may be said, when I recognize that I have just had a good thought, especially a creative one, I see the benefits that will accrue to me by communicating that thought to others: I will be rewarded or admired for having the thought in question. So the value of the thought depends upon what it will bring to me in the way of desire satisfaction. Or again, I might reflect, altruistically, that by sharing my thought with others I can improve their thinking and hence the quality of their life—that is, I see the possible moral benefits of my thought. But both these ideas are off the mark: my thought has value independently of its communicative payoff, whether prudential or altruistic. It has value in itself, quainner thought; its value does not derive from its potential relation to other people. And this point puts paid to a second tempting idea: that we need other people for thought to have value, either as sources of reward for the thinker or as targets of cognitive altruism. The truth is rather that the basic value of thinking is essentially solitary: my thoughts have value just by occurring in me, whether I share them with others or not (in this respect they resemble pleasure). This is because they have the value-making traits earlier enumerated quite independently of the existence of other people. We therefore do not need other people in order to enjoy the goodness of good thoughts. Good thoughts maybe communicated, of course, with rewards received and lives enhanced, but the goodness of the good thought does not consistin such consequences. The value would still be there in a totally solipsistic world. Thus the good life, in its highest form, does not require other people; it can be enjoyed in complete solitude. This may strike us as a comforting reflection, what with the vagaries of other people and all that. I can quietly appreciate the merits of my excellent thinking in perfect solitude, without having to take into account the impact my thoughts might have on other people—and so, of course, can you. I can therefore be happy alone (at least quathinking thing). There could be value in my thoughts, and hence in my life, even if I were the last human being alive. This contrasts with the moralist view of human good, which requires other people to exist to be recipients of my good deeds; I cannot live a good life in complete solitude for the moralist. In its most austerely pure form, the intellectualist view of the good life allows that a human life might be good and happy in the complete and lifelong absence of other people–as on a desert island that is conducive to excellent thinking. We do not, in principle, need others in order to be happy, i.e. to experience our core happiness. Our highest good is not a social good. Even if others are taken from us, Cartesian happiness is still possible, though other kinds of happiness are not. Thinking well is something you can do on your own, and indeed is usually best done in solitude.


I will now spell out some practical consequences of the conception of human good defended here. I will be brief, since the consequences are fairly obvious. The first concerns education. Although we are born with an ability to think, good thinking is not a developmental given. Bad thinking is rife and apparently quite “natural”. It takes work and discipline to acquire good thinking. I would recommend telling all children that they innately possess a wonderful thinking faculty—something to celebrate and take pride in—but I would also insist that special attention be paid to that innate faculty in order for it to develop its full potential. I would focus education precisely on cultivating the thinking faculty, with emphasis placed on its value-making role in human life. The ultimate aim of a general education should be to maximize the good thinking of the student, as adumbrated earlier. Thinking should not be regarded as merely instrumentally valuable, as in securing a “good job” (i.e. one that pays well); nor should it be taken to be a skill with purely practical benefits. It has value in and of itself. Since it is not a given that people’s thinking will achieve excellence, it is necessary to educate people systematically in how to think well. Teaching them logic would be an essential part of this, formal and informal. The quality of the student’s thinking should be the focus, not how much he or she has memorized or even his or her knowledge of a particular subject (knowledge without intelligence is sometimes worse than ignorance). That is, good thinking must be the explicit object of educational effort. Students should be tested in it too (the ETT—the Excellent Thinking Test).

This perspective should give us a new appreciation for some traditional modes of education—reading, writing, and (I would add) conversation. Reading, especially of good writing, stimulates and encourages thought; it trains thought. Reading is really an interaction between thought and text, not merely a taking in of information (at least the right kind of reading). Writing is the careful expression of thought, its embodiment; and it also disciplines thought. Mastery of written language (including punctuation!) is essential to good thinking—as to both clarity and creativity. Proverbially, those who write poorly are apt to think poorly. Conversation is also important in cultivating excellent thinking, because it tests clarity and comprehension. Students should be taught how to have an intelligent conversation—how to listen, absorb, and respond. Bad conversational habits should be discouraged. Speaking well to others is part of thinking well, because it requires quality in the underlying thought. In each of these areas, the emphasis should not be on external performance but on the inner process of thought that lies behind performance. For instance, ask the students what they thought about as they read a certain passage, not merely what the passage contained. Make sure the student’s writing is expressing his or her thoughts properly, not merely meeting standards of spelling and grammar (though these are important). Don’t have a behavioristview of education but a mentalistview—what matters is what is going on inside the student’s head, the quality of the hidden thought. Try to find out if a conversation improved a student’s thoughts about a particular subject. Did it clarify anything? Did it lead to any new thoughts on the part of the student? The concern should not be with what “response” can be “elicited” from the student by a given “stimulus” but rather with the virtues manifest in the student’s inner cognitive process. Given that the student is essentially a thinking thing, education should address itself to the nature of the student’s essence. This will produce true human excellence, and with it happiness (if our earlier suggestions are along the right lines). In sum, the central point of a general education is to enable the student think well, and education should be conceived as such: cogitation not recitation.

With respect to politics, the practical upshot is equally obvious. Societies should be arranged so that the populace achieves the best chance to develop their cognitive abilities. An “open society” with genuine freedom of speech is critical to achieving this, as is the absence of propaganda and devices of conformity. Technology is valuable if, but only if, it furthers the ultimate goal of improved thinking; if it interferes with that goal it should be deplored. The aim of government should be to provide the conditions under which the cognitive wellbeing of all can be maximized (the provision of the right kind of education is thus a crucial duty of government). Distributive justice requires that the means of cognitive enhancement should be freely available and not concentrated in the hands of a few. We should judge political systems by their record in improving the intellectual wellbeing of the population (remember that this will naturally lead to success in more practical areas, such as manufacture and trade). Political turmoil, financial crashes, fanaticism, prejudice, and so on, are often the result of shoddy thinking. No doubt other sources of political difficulty exist, but better thinking can often work to block some of the worst results of dangerous forces. To put it bluntly, political evil is often enabled by human stupidity, i.e. less than optimal rational thought. Bad judgment is more often the culprit than an inherently evil will. Politicians should therefore be thinkers of the highest caliber (so we have a very long way to go).

Lastly, some quick comments about art. Our response to art typically involves perception, emotion, and thought. An attractive thesis, prompted by our reflections so far, is that the value of art depends, at least in part, on the quality of the thoughts the artwork occasions in us, especially as these thoughts infuse the emotions evoked. The mere sensory perception of the stimulus is not enough to constitute an aesthetic response, since one can imagine a creature’s senses responding as ours do but which has none of the thoughts or emotions that we have. It might be argued that it is the emotions that are crucial, not the perception as such. But surely the emotions are what they are in virtue of the cognitive response of the onlooker; considered independently of the thoughts, the emotions have no aesthetic value. The artwork makes us thinkin a certain way (the novel is the obvious case); and if this way is itself valuable, then the artwork is. If we had no thoughts at all when experiencing an artwork, just sensory experiences and raw emotions, then it is hard to see what value art could have. But if the artwork clarifies our thoughts, or gives rise to new and interesting thoughts, then it will have value, as a trigger to such valuable thoughts. Or better, perhaps we should say that the artwork unifies perception, emotion, and thought—with the thought ultimately providing the source of value. The thoughts evoked could be of many kinds, but unless they are worthwhile thoughts themselves nothing of value has been gained from the artwork. An artwork that evoked in the audience only confused, inept, false, prejudicial, boring, and trivial thoughts could hardly claim to possess aesthetic value—it would be a failed work of art. If this is on the right lines, then art depends for its existence on thought, and on thought having value. Art may not always improve us ethically, but it might (when it is good) improve us cognitively. Art that made people worse in their thinking would not warrant our esteem. We might say then that art that improves the art of thinking is good art. What seems clear is that the value of art cannot be separated from the value of the thoughts it evokes. This should make Plato more reconciled to art than he was.


My general thesis has been that thought has its own distinctive kind of intrinsic value, not to be assimilated to moral value or to desire satisfaction. This kind of value lies close to our metaphysical essence as thinking things. Thus our duty is to improve our thinking in such a way as to realize our highest good. If we do so, we can achieve a kind of happiness not otherwise achievable. Feeling good and doing good both matter to the life well lived, but good thinking matters most.


Colin McGinn




[1]The tone and style of this paper reflect its origin: it was the text for an annual lecture I gave to students and members of the general public at a small American college–hence its didactic and hortatory quality. I am not meaning to lecture my fellow professional philosophers on the value of thinking well!

7 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    What proves that thinking well is intrinsically valuable? Those attributes of thought you mention plausibly make thought more excellent, just as the following attributes of a hammer make it more excellent: durability, a handle shaped in a way that is comfortable for a human hand to grasp, long enough to generate the right amount of swinging force but not long to the point of unwieldiness and so on. These make for good attributes of a hammer relative to some goal that we assign to it, mainly hammering nails. Similarly it seems plausible that such attributes of thought make it better relative to a goal, mainly understanding, amusing us, giving us aesthetic delight, and so on. I don’t see an argument demonstrating that thinking well is intrinsically valuable. Is this something we grasp through immediate intuition upon reflecting on thinking well? It does seem to me that when I take up good thought as an object of reflection it shines with a luster that does not appear to depend upon its procuring additional goods for me. But other objects like understanding and a large, many-sided personality seem to shine with equal radiance.

  2. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    I am inclined to think that knowledge of what is a proper and natural object of curiosity is intrinsically good.

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I’d agree we are essentially psychological entities. Of course, there is more to psychological well-being than the characteristics of thinking you mention. I assume you are arguing that cultivating one’s thinking capabilities is likely to be the most successful path to maximising one’s full psychological potential and health (know thyself). This sounds right, though I think it is missing one key capability: balance. Cultivating a real-time and subtle sense of when you are out of psychological balance is not quite what I would call thinking, and certainly cultivating the ability to bring yourself back into balance in the moment you are off-balance is a psychological activity that I would not call thinking.

    As JK suggests, there is also the question of acknowledging plurality: for some people the social aspects of their psychological life may be much more valuable than for others. For some that may just involve sharing parts of themselves (humour, patience, understanding, frailty, adventurous spirit), for others it may be the cultivation of compassion.

    What would Cervantes say?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I’m not on board with Maslow-like conceptions of personal realization as the ultimate good. It depends what gets realized. Not sure what is meant by “balance”. What is valuable to a person is not the same as what is valuable tout court.

  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    That is a helpful comment, I was thinking about this purely subjectively. If you believe thinking is the activity that has had the greatest impact on society, and therefore on what it means to be human, then thinking well must be the greatest good.


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