How to Think by Alan Jacobs

I know what you are thinking (pun intended): a 150 page book on “How to Think” ought to be pretty straightforward.  Do this, don’t do that, avoid this, do more of that, etc.  Just like a million other self-help books.  A few anecdotes, a nice dash of pop-science and evolutionary biology and Boom! best seller and TED talks galore.

Alas, How to Think by Alan Jacobs offers a different approach. First off, Jacobs starts with something of a buzz kill: most of us don’t really want to think and for good reasons. Thinking is hard, it can be stressful, uncomfortable and result in conflict with friends and relatives.

What our brains really crave is socially approved consensus.  We like to pick a group and stay comfortably within their perspective.  Every time we toe the line we get a jolt of pleasure. Every time we stray we get angry feedback.

Not sure about what to say or think?  Don’t know or don’t know enough? Stick with the group!

Ah, I can hear you saying.  The trick is to be independent.  “Think for yourself.” Have an open mind.

No so fast, again Jacobs punctures these cliches by outlining how thinking is inescapably social and that there is not a clear connection between ‘independence” and being correct.  Having an open mind only gets you so far if it doesn’t eventually close around something.

So this is all a set-up for a three step process to proper thinking, right?  This is where Jacobs reveals his heretofore undiscovered key (which happens to be available as an online course for a low, low price for readers).

Nope. In fact, Jacobs says that you can’t get to good thinking through a set of invariable rules.  Thinking is an art not a science.  Some self-help guru!

Instead, what Jacobs (who, to be fair, is a cultural critic and teacher) does is poke and prod and circle and ruminate on things like virtue, character, and prudence; and the experiences of thinkers and writers, and yes, sometimes even scholars.  People like C.S. Lewis, John Stuart Mill and Henry James (plus, a contrarian discussion of Wilt Chamberlain).

But here’s the thing.  If you are a literate and humane person, you soon begin to enjoy Jacobs’ admittedly oblique, discursive and conversational approach.  You give up the need for a overly simplified 12-step program with handy lists and catchy acronyms. You appreciate the style of an engaging conversation with a smart friend at a comfortable coffee shop instead of the lecture slash informercial.

And what Jacobs tells you is that there are traps and hurdles in the way to better thinking.  Group thinking is a real temptation.  It is easy to act as if everyone not comfortably in your group is the Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO).  On the flip side, it is easy to pretend that science is the solution (or that better thinking is nearly impossible) and that getting rid of your emotion, your bias and your stereotypes will set you free.

But, contra some, Jacobs thinks real progress is possible.  To do so, one must first seek to develop a certain kind of character; to be a certain kind of person.  Logic and analysis, yes, but also emotion and social commitments.  A whole, healthy person thinks best.

Self-awareness plays a role as well.  Recognize when you are placing someone in the role of an RCO. Recognize when you are in a group that brooks no dissent, that punishes free debate and opinion from people of goodwill.  Seek membership in a community  of like-hearted people not necessarily those that think alike.

And there are tactics and processes that can help.  Look for the best of those you disagree with; the best arguments, the most attractive messengers, the most sensible perspectives, etc.  Look to accurately and fairly describe their arguments before offering your own.  Try out their language and perspective as a way to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes. Like a method actor, understand how if you were in their shoes you might see the world the same way.  Plus, if you get rilled up and want to launch into refutation mode before the person has even finished speaking, wait five minutes. Don’t comment angry.

Recognize that the world we build out of keywords, metaphors and myths are necessary in many ways.  A world without these building blocks, shortcuts or mental furniture is a exhausting and maddening one.

But they can be dangerous, so develop a healthy skepticism and sense of humility about your worldview and opinions.  Don’t allow the narratives and mythology of your community to so fade into the background as to be invisible and never questioned.  Think about the blindspots of your patterns and habits.

And this brings us full circle. Thinking is hard.  Finding the balance between “intractably stubborn” and “pusillanimous and vacillating” takes time and effort.  You can’t be paralyzed by indecision or constantly be reinventing your mindset, but you also don’t wan’t to be so rigid that you can’t learn, change or adapt.  It is again, more art than science.

What in many ways lies at the bottom of How to Think is risk.  Are you willing to risk being wrong?  Are you willing to risk the ostracization of your group?  Are you willing to risk learning that the heretofore labeled RCO is closer to you than you would like to admit?

The penultimate chapter ends with what strikes me as a fundamental step in this journey/process: cultivating a healthy skepticism about our own motives and generosity towards the motives of others.

Oh, and for those of you that just have to have one. In the Afterword, Jacobs offers The Thinking Person’s Checklist with … yep, 12 steps.

But he didn’t say they were easy.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. I believe these matters are related to the doctrine of the Incarnation — the flesh is not bad and the spirit good, or vice versa. The truth is something partaking of both, which Christ embodied.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.