Chodrow: On the Virtues of Slow Thinking

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

If I haven’t met you before, my name is Phil, a senior philosophy and math major. Among other things, I’m a Writing Associate, math clinician, tour guide, martial artist, and infrequent thespian. On campus, most people know me as “the NinjaGram guy.” When I’m not doing these things, I love baking, brewing tea, meeting people, talking, and listening.

This is, in some broad sense, a “philosophy column.” The point of these columns will not be so much to establish positions as to stoke some conversations, and perhaps to remind both you and me of things that are easy to forget. It is important to me that my thoughts here be tentative explorations, and therefore I invite your thoughts in the comments, or via e-mail.

To begin, President Chopp recently released a draft of the Strategic Planning Initiative, for a roadmap for the direction of Swarthmore College in the coming years.  The period in which this document is open for comment is a time in which to reflect upon the values which guide our interest and commitment to Swarthmore. In this column, I will be attempting to articulate one value of this education which is, I think, easily overlooked in conversations about the liberal arts in this hurried 21st century.

Here is a toy model of a popular and well-reasoned line of argument (not a quote):

Due to evolving social patterns and technological possibilities, the challenges that students face in the 21st century are radically different from those of previous times. These challenges have broken previous knowledge paradigms, making old models of knowledge-accumulation and problem-solving inadequate for our present age. A college education should adjust to these new paradigms and prepare students for the challenges of the future.

Something is surely right about this. Swarthmore would be doing a disservice to its students if we still taught political science as though Facebook had never been invented. I would like to suggest, however, that it is possible to focus too much upon the questions raised by shifting paradigms in problem-solving, at the cost of other, equally important questions.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to see me starting off the discussion with Wittgenstein. In a more-or-less apocryphal line, he writes that “in the philosophy race, the one who runs the slowest wins the prize.” The suggestion seems to be that worthy philosophy demands a slow kind of thinking. If Wittgenstein said this, he would have had in mind a fairly specific picture of “philosophy.” I want to see if we can broaden his insight, in the context of liberal study.

First, you and I must figure out what slow thinking is. It is evidently important that slow thinking happens, well, slowly, Since that is how Wittgenstein distinguishes it from any other kinds of thinking, slow thinking must not just be “regular” thinking played at half speed. The slowness is somehow intrinsic to what that thinking is. So, you can not do slow thinking quickly.

We can get some further handle on slow thinking through some comparison. One promising candidate for initial contrast is the kind of thinking associated with problem-solving. This is the sort of thinking emphasized in the fake quote above. I will call this “instrumental thinking,” since it is thinking about the right means, or “instruments,” for accomplishing goals.

Instrumental thinking is not intrinsically slow. If we have already set our goals, then it is usually good to accomplish them quickly. We would like to solve a math problem, or build an optimal bridge, or devise a plan to improve a lot of the urban underclass, as quickly as reasonably possible. Once we know what we want to do, delays can only hinder our practical purposes.

That last example, “improving the lot of the urban underclass,” however, suggests a point of complementarity as well. This example differs from the other two, in that it is not quite clear what will count as success. We all know what it means to solve a math problem. The bridge case is a bit more fuzzy, but we still know roughly what will count as a well-built bridge: it should be stable, enduring, light, cost-effective, and so on.

But it is much harder to be clear on what will count as success in “improving the lot of the urban underclass.” When we say “improve the lot,” for instance, are we demanding full economic equality? Or do we just want “better” circumstances?” But if that’s what we want, what counts as “better?” Will we have reached our goals if “most” people can rise above poverty levels? Or are we seeking to eradicate all urban poverty? And is all this really about material circumstances, or should we also be seeking to destigmatize the very idea of poverty?

Answering these questions demands that we step outside instrumental thinking: the only “problem” to “solve” now is the problem of finding out what’s important to me and to us, figuring out what commitments we have with respect to the world and others. Unlike instrumental thinking, which is directed toward the circumstances of the world, this task is directed inward, into ourselves.

Now, you and I must ask, “are these the sorts of questions that we can, or should want to, answer quickly?”

There is certainly something to be admired, and perhaps envied, in someone who effortlessly knows the principles she affirms, and can stick by them thick or thin. She would have quick answers for our questions about the urban underclass: we should work toward goals x, y, and z, and do this by means of a, b, and c. Such a person is beyond the need to question herself; reflection is for her strictly optional, and unlikely to reveal much that she didn’t already know. I suppose that it is for people like this that we have the word “dogmatic.” I don’t rule out the possibility that sometimes (often? most of the time?) dogmatism might be just what we need to face the tasks at hand. But I shudder at the thought of letting it constitute our exclusive intellectual diet.

As I see things, we now face two major questions. First: are there other kinds of slow thinking? Second: what role should slow thinking play in our conversations about the value of liberal education? I will be taking on both of these questions in my next column. For now, I invite your questions, thoughts, comments, and, most of all, conversation.



  1. Nice post, Phil.

    We Americans/Westerners/humans in general tend to love “the next big thing” and get very caught up in redesigning our systems to incorporate this. My sense is that Swarthmore as a whole doesn’t get so easily distracted with new fads and tries to keep an even keel with regards to its policies. I hope (realistically, I think) that this far-sightedness will continue as we proceed with Strategic Planning and the subsequent implementation.

  2. Chris and Andrew, thanks to you both for your support!

    Chris, it might be interesting to note that you and I seem to have different sorts of “slow thinking” in mind. Farsightedness is certainly an important part of any good planning process, and is easy to lose track of. It is also, in some reasonable sense, “slow” (i.e. careful). However, farsightedness isn’t quite the same thing as slow thinking, at least as I’ve defined it. The point is just that it’s possible (though not necessarily likely) to be farsighted in thinking that is purely instrumental, the kind of thinking that I try to contrast to slow thinking above. I think it’s fair to say that we will need healthy amounts of both in order to strategically plan in a successful way.

    Thanks for your kindness, Andrew! I actually don’t read The Stone too much, and I haven’t always been pleased with what I have read. It’s great that there are people trying to push philosophy into the mainstream, but maybe a bit less great that many of them seem to be very interested in pushing controversial arguments on us in 1500 words or less (see, for instance, the recent debate between Stanley Fish and Paul Boghossian on whether philosophical conclusions “travel”). My hope here is to be a bit more humble. You can be the judge of how successful I’ve been.

    I appreciate your reading, both of you, and I hope you’ll keep up with the still-nascent column in the future. If you have any suggestions for topics, I’d love to hear them!

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