Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Edited by Craig Calhoun, Oxford University Press
Refers (especially following Max Weber) to action conceived as a means to a separate and distinct end, as opposed to action conceived as an end in itself. The difference between instrumental and noninstrumental action has been a recurring subject of philosophical interest and debate since Aristotle, who recognized it as fundamental to considerations of human action. It has consequently been defined and redefined in a number of ways, and enlisted in a variety of competing and sometimes incompatible contexts. In the twentieth century, the term itself is strongly associated with the pragmatism of John Dewey, who argued that ideas should be judged not on the basis of truth and falsehood, but rather in terms of the ends they serve. Even where Dewey is concerned, however, certain kinds of ideas escape instrumental reasoning—quintessentially art, the noninstrumental object par excellence of the Western philosophical tradition since Immanuel Kant. Certain activities straddle the instrumental–noninstrumental divide; Hannah Arendt's defense of the intrinsic value of democratic action over the various specific ends that it serves is a prominent example.
As an approach to science, instrumentalism contrasts with theories of knowledge that regard objects as possessing a true or intrinsic nature that science can qualify and categorize. Other users of the term, however, strongly associate it with the scientific and technical mastery of the world rooted in subject–object relations. Instrumentalism, in this context, is deeply embedded in the Western idea of self. The dominance of instrumental reason has consequently been a subject of profound concern for the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school and other critics of Western modernity, such as Martin Heidegger. Here, instrumental reason appears not as a liberatory alternative to static or metaphysical conceptions of truth, but as a pervasive logic of existence, linked to capitalism, the marketplace, and technology, which destroys other sources and forms of value.
A Dictionary of Human Geography, Noel Castree, Rob Kitchin, and Alisdair Rogers, Oxford University Press
An approach to any relationship, practice, or object that prioritizes ends over means. Instrumentalists will use whatever methods or resources are expedient in order to realize their goals. At best, they are pragmatists able to adapt to the opportunities and constraints of a situation. At worst, however, they can act immorally or with impunity to achieve their ends—hence the critics’ motto ‘The ends can never justify the means’. In human geography and many other social sciences, for example, modern capitalist society has been criticized for using nature as a mere means to the end of amassing more wealth and improving standards of living. The result has been both a failure to treat the non-human world as an end in itself and to respect its needs or rights.