Nature and Purpose of Academic Thought

  This paper was originally delivered at Hólar at a conference celebrating the 900th anni­versary of the School of Hólar on the 29th of April 2006.

This paper deals with the question why universities have become so important in our societies. In answering this question, the author discusses the cosmopolitan nature of universities and describes their activity as the exercise of theoretical thinking. He distinguishes such thinking from political, religious and commercial modes of thinking,

Nature and Purpose of Academic Thought


The world has been calling upon universities to play an ever-greater role in shaping our daily lives and our social orders. One obvious explanation for this is the increasing importance of sophisticated knowledge to the progress of life. This makes it necessary for people to acquire education that will enable them to gain and apply knowledge of various sorts for a myriad of different reasons. In the light of this, we need to develop a clear conception of the nature and purpose of the sort of thinking that is required for the development of knowledge and hence the task faced by our universities. The aim of this paper is to present some thoughts that may be helpful for understanding theoretical thinking and the academic institutions that foster it.

Let us start by looking at two matters that concern universities as academic institutions. The first is that they are the most universal institutions that can be found in the contemporary world. The second is that the activity which dominates the universities is that of theoretical thinking. These two affirmations about universities are closely related. The university is a cosmo­politan institution, and individual universities therefore share a common structure and ethos, whatever their social, historical, national, or international situations may happen to be. This fact creates a brother- and sisterhood of very different people who, in a deep sense, share the same way of thinking even though they may disagree on many particular matters. When an aca­demic  visits a university far away from his home country, he always has the experience of encountering the same kind of thinking that he is familiar with at home, thinking which is by its very nature universal and cosmo­politan. In order to understand the cosmopolitan dimension of universities, one has to have a clear idea about the kind of thinking that characterises universities.

How can this kind of thinking be described? Let us first remark what it is not. It is not a political mode of thinking, where different visions of what matters most in society are debated. It is not a religious type of thinking, where convictions concerning the ultimate source of meaning are at stake. And it is not a commercial way of thinking, where economic advantage is the criterion of success. Political, religious, and commercial thinking are all very important, but they are unlike the theoretical types of thinking which universities are all about. Theoretical or academic thinking has only one basic interest, namely to be able to understand and explain whatever it may encounter. It is by nature neutral regarding all other interests, be they pol­itical, religious, or commercial. And that is why theoretical thinking is norm­ally out of place in our daily lives, where we have constantly to make decisions on political, religious, or commercial grounds.

It is a fact, nevertheless, that in our daily life with its particular problems and projects, we have become increasingly dependent on the results of theoretical thinking. Why is that? Here it is useful to make a distinction betweenproblems of life andproblems of reflection (see Kekes, 1980). A problem of life is a problem that has to be solved if our lives are not to be damaged or even destroyed. A problem of reflection is a problem that arises when we try to find the best solution to a problem of life. To take an example, imagine that you are sick and this creates a problem for you. If you are not too sick, you will immediately start to reflect upon the best way to deal with the problem: Go to bed? Take a walk? Seek a doctor? Discuss the problem with a friend? To choose among these options is a problem of reflection. In order to solve this problem of reflection you can set up in your mind different solutions and test them theoretically, that is to say without carrying them out in reality.

Thus, in finding the best solutions to many of the important problems of life, we need to try out, theoretically, a series of solutions in order to be able to decide which is the best one to carry out. And in consequence, when we carry out what we take to be the best solution to a problem of life, we are prepared for all sorts of eventualities that we have foreseen in our prior reflections. This explains how we have become increasingly dependent upon  theoretical thinking in sustaining our everyday ways of thinking.

Of course, in everyday life we face all kinds of practical problems that have to be answered immediately, leaving little or no room for reflection or for the application of theoretical thought. But then it is very important that we have received the sort of education that prepares us for making good decisions.

Such an education has two components, a technical component and an ethical one. The technical aspect of education consists in knowing how to do something; the ethical aspect consists in knowing for what purpose one does this or that, and why this matters. We can thus speak of specific competences in doing something, and of special virtues that are required to make our actions good. This distinction is important in order to understand how we apply theoretical thinking in our ordinary lives. Quite often we know theoretically how to do something in a technical manner, but that does not mean that we know whether the circumstances are appropriate for applying this knowledge in order to accomplish something good: that is, to solve a problem of life. What is required is wisdom, that is to say knowledge of how to further the values that are at stake in a given human situation. Wisdom is the virtue that is most needed in human relationships, but it is not something that can be learned merely through the application of theoretical thinking. It depends mostly on the way we cultivate our thinking in everyday life when dealing with problems of life. So let us look more closely at the kinds problems we humans actually face from day to day.

These problems can be classified in various ways. John Kekes, an American philosopher, makes a clear and useful classification. He proposes to distinguish between three problem-of-life areas: The first concerns “problems of life having to do with the satisfaction of various physiological needs, health, shelter, and protection; the problem is to safeguard one’s physical security and well-being” (Kekes, 1980, p. 34). Science and technology generate the theoretical problems that help us find the best solutions to this type of problem. The second problem-area concerns our relations to other people and society. “The typical problems of life in this context have to do with one’s attitude to family, strangers, friends, sex authority, violence, and other social phenomena” (Kekes, 1980, p. 34). And here the problems of reflection are the theoretical problems of politics, morality, and the law. The third and last problem-area “has to do with people’s attitude to themselves. … it concerns the pursuit of a rich and interesting internal life, self-knowledge and self-acceptance.” Problems of life in this area have to do with our “attitude to . . . death, pain, suffering, to [our] physical and psychological limi­tations and capacities” (Kekes, 1980, p. 34). The problems of reflection “arise out of the need to imaginatively expand one’s horizons so that new options may be discovered” and for that purpose humanities, art, and literature are likely to be helpful.

These three problem-areas show the great variety of problems of life that we have to solve by applying reflection and theoretical thinking. And uni­versities have been the sanctuaries of theoretical thinking. Their role has always been the discovery, transmission and preservation of the knowledge required to deal with all possible problems and questions. That is why people in a university are expected to be interested in all kinds of questions and problems and ready to discuss whatever subject may happen to be raised. The common interest of university folk is: How can we understand the world and how can we, through our understanding, change it for the better? There is of course no simple answer to this last question. It rather indicates a never-ending effort to develop, discover, and explain ideas that may help us to better organize our thoughts and lives. Theoretical thinking has thus to be applied very carefully. Prudence or caution is perhaps the central virtue that we need in order to acquire wisdom.

But there are also other ways of applying human thought which are quite different from theoretical thinking.  One is nihilistic thinking and another is ideological thinking. These two modes of thinking are based upon two differ­ent principles that share a common, systematic opposition to the principles of theoretical thinking. The main principle of nihilistic thinking is to tell people that there is nothing they can rely upon as ultimate grounds for their beliefs, thoughts or convictions: that they are doomed to make these up if they want to have them. On the other hand, the main principle of ideological think­ing is to tell people that there is something they ought to believe and to respect as a sacred truth if their lives are not to be a misery or a disaster. The main principle of theoretical thinking lies somewhere between these two: It consists of being sceptical of all ideas or beliefs under consideration but trying at the same time to discover truth and to discover good reasons for believing something to be the truth.

Quite often these two modes of thinking, the nihilistic and the ideo­logical, join hands against theoretical thinking. They do so by making use of rhetorical techniques in order to charm people, to show them something they have not seen, to convince them of something they have not believed so far, and perhaps to express some kind of unconscious desire. To think theo­retically involves resisting both nihilistic and ideological thinking. Nihilism and ideology are wild ways of thinking and dangerous for humankind if they are cut off from theoretical thinking. But fortunately they are in most cases, not totally alien to rationality and are, in fact, tempered and controlled by a degree of theoretical reasoning that refers to fact, truth, and objectivity.

Accordingly, one of the most important tasks of the universities is to edu­cate people in developing theoretical thinking and in learning how to use ideas in order to find good solutions to the various problems of life. This is precisely what the universities in the Middle Ages set out to do, and they succeeded so well that we still can learn from them today. In fact, ever since the Middle Ages, universities have been doing in one way or another exactly what the first universities started to do, namely, educating people to become thinking beings: that is, to saybeings who relate to reality through ideas, beliefs, and theories in order to develop their own lives, both as individuals and as members of society.

This is perhaps the most interesting and complicated aspect of human life, namely that human beings are knowers: that they are born, live, and die in developing a knowledge of themselves, of the world, and of everything in it. Knowledge-seeking is precisely the way in which a thinking being relates to itself and everything else. So which competences and virtues are needed to develop this kind of relationship to oneself, to others, to reality, to the whole world, and to God?

The first universities sought to answer this question in a practical manner, and their descendents have been trying to answer it ever since. And know­ingly or not, many contemporary universities are in fact imitating the first uni­versities, so let us have a brief look at the system of education of those early universities and its significance for us today.

The universities in the Middle Ages had two basic educational aims. They provided a general education, that is, education that was relevant for every­one. And they gave professional education in special fields. Both in the general and in the professional studies, they educated their students in theo­retical thinking.

Seven liberal arts formed the two cycles of university that provided general education before the students were allowed to enter professional studies, the latter being, at that time, theology, medicine and law. The first cycle, called the trivium, included three disciplines, grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, which aimed at training the students to master ideas and thoughts in a language (grammar), to articulate ideas and thoughts in their logical order (dialectic), and to express these ideas in an appropriate manner for others to follow and understand (rhetoric). After having pursued these studies for two or three years, the student could embark on the second cycle, the quadrivium, which aimed at the mastery of ideas and thoughts about the world through geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.

It is important to grasp the logic of these two cycles. The first was intended to make communication of ideas and thoughts better and more effective in one’s own mind and among people generally. The second cycle was intended to teach people the disciplines needed to understand reality as a cosmic order, where harmony, measure, and rhythm are the keys to under­standing. Music (which included literature and history), arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy all contributed to this aim. Having completed these two types of studies, the students were considered fit to start their professional education and to eventually become priests, lawyers or medical doctors.

There are several interesting aspects of this way of organising “studium generalis” or general education; five of them at least are worth noticing:

1.      The first emphasis is on competence, not on content.

2.      These basic competences all concern speech and communication of ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.

3.      The content consists of the theoretical ideas and methods of certain basic disciplines (music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy) which concern fundamental aspects of reality (harmony, measure, form, heavenly relations).

4.      The curriculum is organized so that there is a progression from what stands near to ourselves to abstract, invisible, or heavenly things.

5.      This education is meant to be good for everyone, whatever his or her main occupation or professional domain is intended to be.


How does this conception of general education relate to the classification I made earlier of areas of problems of life?

1.      It starts with the problem one has in relation to oneself: one has to master language, thinking, and expression in order to stand on one’s own feet as a thinking being.

2.      It makes it possible to build up intelligible and rational relationships to other people in human society.

3.      It grounds our understanding of the real world: its wonders, its dangers, and the possibilities it offers.


In this educational scheme, humanities and the natural sciences go hand in hand. They share a common mode of thinking—the same sort of intelli­gence that is to be found in understanding oneself, understanding human society, and understanding natural reality. Moreover, it is taken for granted that we are all, as thinking beings, of the same nature, that the ways in which people relate to one another are basically the same, and that the world, the cosmos, is intelligible to us all in the same way. In short, this is a cosmopolitan education that is the proper mission of a cosmopolitan institution like the university.

Now what it is important to emphasize—even if it appears obvious—is that this cosmopolitan institution is not located in heaven but on earth. And it is interesting to note that people have, from the outset, had a special way of naming the universities, that is by naming them for the place in which they were located. To my knowledge universities and hospitals are the only institutions in the world that were almost exclusively named after the town or the place where they are situated. Business enterprises have generally not been named in this way, for example. This means that universities and hospitals are so intimately related to the community that fosters them that it does not make sense to separate them in name from community in which they are located. One cannot dislocate universities from the place where they were “born” or established. One cannot move Oxford University to California, China or Australia (although one can of course create something like an affiliate). But already in the Middle Ages, scholars and students left certain universities if they were not able to study there in the way that they liked. And this still happens a lot today. During the Middle Ages, towns went to great lengths to attract scholars and students because of the importance for the community to have such people around. So one very important task of universities, and the communities that foster them, is to maintain close working relationships and this involves to define the interests that are at stake both for the university and for the community.

One aspect of this task is to sustain a continuous dialogue concerning the problems of life and the problems of reflection that are of particular interest and concern to the locality. To develop such a conversation, we need a frame­work of ideas that helps us to clarify the issues which we agree are im­portant. We also need, of course,  suitable social and political frameworks within which to organize the conversation and ensure that it continues. And both of these frameworks need to be reformulated regularly—although not too often, because in order to get results one needs stability and a time span that allows for things to get done. What is most needed is the enthusiasm, the imaginative power, and the drive of the participants in the conversational process.

To get the conversions going we can proceed in two different ways: We may either start with very specific problems and then go on to find theo­retical methods for dealing with them, or we may begin with a theo­retical perspective and proceed to applying it to our specific problems. In fact we need to go in both directions. People coming from the larger community will typically be inclined to start with specific local problems, while academic people will typically begin with a theoretical perspective.

I will here illustrate my point by mentioning three problems of life that are of great importance to us all, and that we need urgently to deal with, and then engage in a brief theoretical reflection on our understanding of our­selves and our universities.

One real problem of life consists in securing our physiological needs, and for that people have to live in a healthy environment and be able to take part in the productive activity of their communities. Science and technology have become the most important instruments for creating these conditions, which are basic to economic reality. And their instrumental power stems from the theoretical reflections they make possible on the natural and technological environments in which we live. The emphasis on technological innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, which is now fashionable, is in harmony with the increased importance of theoretical thought for the development of the economic infrastructure of the society.

The second problem I would like to mention is much more specific; it is that we have not been able in Western societies to create decent living conditions for elderly people. One part of this problem is that we have a tendency to not even recognize its existence, as it is a shameful aspect of our society. This tendency concerns our lack of reflection on the moral, legal and political aspects of our various communities. I mention the problem of elderly people, but the fact is that the conditions of life of many young people, of the mentally ill, and of prisoners are generally very bad in Western societies. Here theoretical reflections on morality, politics, and law are called for, and all responsible people need to take part in those reflections.

The third problem I would like to mention concerns our ways of under­standing ourselves. I believe that one of the characteristics of our times is individualism—the fact that we have a tendency to be preoccupied with ourselves in many different ways. There are several reasons for this indi­vidualism, which are somewhat negative: disintegration of traditional commun­ity, lack of social cohesion, and rootlessness. And the problems we face in our communities may be created partly by the fact that we are so concen­trated on our own personal problems that we do not care about other people or about our communities themselves. One reaction to this problem today is what might be called a “negative communitarianism” where people identify so strongly with their local or national community that they start to hate those whom they see as outsiders. This is a serious problem in Western societies and stems from a flawed attitude that one has toward oneself.

The positive side of contemporary individualism is, on the other hand, the widespread effort of people to educate themselves and to enjoy life as independent thinking beings. I want to stress this point. I believe it is of utmost importance that we think first and foremost of ourselves as thinking beings. Of course we are physical bodies, that is, individuals with natural needs and desires related to our bodily condition. We are also social beings in the sense that we are always performing within one or another social role: as parents or grandparents, as teachers, farmers, sailors, artists, politicians, husbands, wives, and so on. We have a strong tendency to identify with these various social roles, because they give a special, and typically very important, meaning to our lives. But it is wrong, and may be dangerous for our self-understanding, to give too much weight to this identification of ourselves with our social roles. The meaning of our lives should not ultimately depend on this identification because the “ego”, the “self”, the “soul” that I carry with me, that I take care of in my way of being myself, is not, and cannot be, a “social role”. I don’t know what it really is, but I know what it is not!

As a thinking being I exist in the world of ideas, beliefs, theories, con­victions, feelings, and wonders which I share with other thinking beings. And this world of knowledge is our way of connecting up with natural and social reality and perhaps ultimately with the mysteries of the creation. As I see it, universities were invented to cultivate and care for this complicated and interesting aspect of our lives. And this aspect is becoming ever more im­portant as we increasingly realize ourselves necessarily engaged in applying theoretical thinking to each and every domain of reality.

How may we succeed in developing our universities and making them better able to fulfill their mission of gaining, preserving and transmitting knowledge, and promoting academic thinking? This is still an open question. What I have tried to do here is only to clarify the central mission of uni­versities and the importance for our lives of their existing and performing this mission.[1]


Kekes, J. (1980). The Nature of Philosophy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


[1]     This paper was originally delivered at Hólar at a conference celebrating the 900th anni­versary of the School of Hólar on the 29th of April 2006. I want to thank Mikael Karls­son for having made editorial improvements in the text.


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