The Need for Conceptual Thinking

© Martin Wilcox


Today in the United States we are in the midst of a crisis of thinking. The problem is not, as some might assert, that we’re thinking too little; it’s that we’re not thinking conceptually.

Let me describe conceptual thinking and give an example of where its absence is having an adverse effect.

Conceptual thinking generates ideas that explain and organize experience, helping people understand what is happening and thereby take appropriate action in response. It can be disruptive because it challenges the established ideas that have been used to organize experience, but it is absolutely essential because the established ideas that frame our experience become less and less effective over time and must be replaced.

Conceptual thinking is characterized by four essential qualities. It is purposeful—that is, it defines the reason and usefulness of ideas: who they help, why, and how. It is contextual—that is, it acknowledges the environment it operates in, which means it must be anchored in facts. It is generative—that is, it promotes the creation of related ideas. And it synthesizes—that is, it brings together relevant elements into clear systematic relationships.

It is important to note that conceptual thinking occurs at two interactive levels: as a specific individual challenge and as part of a general social activity.

At the individual level, the challenge is for each person to make sense of his or her life. Many of the issues are of course personal (What do I value? What should I do with my life?) but, because we live with other people, most of the issues are social (What motivates the people I interact with? How should I treat them?). Conceptual thinking on the individual level is inevitably social.

On the general level it is social by definition—because it contributes to the knowledge sharing, and thus to the communal understanding and values, that is the basis of culture.

People have a strong sense of the need for conceptual thinking but in attempting it they often take shortcuts, not working things through and paying attention to its essential qualities. They rely on stereotypes or received concepts. They feel that big ideas are required, but what they often come up with are broad ideas that ignore purpose and context, resulting in ideas that are simplistic rather than simple.

Consider education. In the United States, we have been struggling with the need to improve it for decades. The public discussion about how to do this, however, has seldom considered purpose and context.

What is the purpose of education? Is it to train people for jobs, or is it to prepare them to play a productive role in society, with an understanding of values, history, and the power and limits of our shared knowledge? These are not mutually exclusive, but which is the most fundamental? Conceptual thinking would help answer this. Unfortunately, people discussing education at best make occasional references to a purpose, but even then it’s not thought through and certainly never generally accepted.

And what about context? Is the context for education business or society? Business, because it is part of society, can be helped by education but it can’t be the primary focus for it. If the context of education is fundamentally society, then a range of social issues are relevant and must be addressed: poverty, opportunity, responsibility, and health, to name only a few.

Instead of addressing the fundamental issues of purpose and context, the discussion about education has been characterized by a multitude of technical approaches that are put forward as broad solutions—open classrooms, year-round schools, magnet schools, immersion, and, most recently, standardized testing to increase teacher accountability, not to mention privatization. Many of these suggestions would no doubt have a place in a high-quality education system. But without a shared understanding of purpose and context, we spend a lot of energy dealing with questionable ideas. Privatization, for instance, because it would be financially out of reach of many, if not most, students, would not likely be seen as a viable approach; it wouldn’t benefit society in general.

People have been addressing the need for more effective thinking for a long time. There has been a great deal of effort devoted to promoting what is termed critical thinking. And this is worthwhile. But this movement often seemed to make conceptual thinking a mere aspect of critical thinking. I believe the two are distinct. Essentially, the former generates ideas and the latter evaluates them. In addition, critical thinking has tended to have an individual focus, not emphasizing the necessary social aspect of thought.

All the work that has been done notwithstanding, most of the thinking that is being done today in the United States is neither conceptual nor critical. It is enumerative and mercenary, reshuffling existing ideas in the hope that some combination of them will provide a competitive economic value. Such thinking consumes a lot of resources, effort, and intelligence but it is formulaic, which is probably why so many people think computers could do it better.

And things can go wrong in other ways. We can see a different kind of response to the felt need for conceptual thinking in the repeated calls for innovation. This recognizes the necessity for ideas that change the way we do things, but it tends to put conceptualizing into a largely money-making frame.

I believe the lack of conceptual thinking is a major factor contributing to the mediocrity that characterizes so much of American leadership and management—where a great deal of time, intelligence, and money is used up by a focus on a narrowing world, while companies, government, the environment, and society wither. If we don’t start thinking conceptually, the problems we face today will almost certainly overwhelm us.