Book Review: "How to Think" by Alan Jacobs
A guide for keeping your sanity in an obnoxious world
A few years ago I made the mistake of getting into an argument on Facebook. Though my interlocutor knew that I’m a conservative, the point that I was making was not one (presumably) he had heard many other conservatives make. Exasperated with our conversation, my friend finally got to what was for him the heart of the matter. “You sound like one of them,” he told me, “them” meaning progressives and social liberals.
This comment angered me at first, but before I was able to retort, I realized that there was now no effective reply possible. If he had determined that I was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that I was making my point not out of an interest in objective truth but out of a disguised agenda, then everything I would say from now on—except a retraction—would be taken as proof of his indictment. “You sound like one of them” was not actually a point of argument. It was a referee’s whistle, a signal that the match was over and that the rest was commentary.
Even though social media has never exactly been The Eagle & Child for stimulating discussions, many people I know feel that in the aftermath of the 2016 election, it’s gotten worse. Tribalism and in-group signaling seem to be the basic currency of discourse. Snark is the new smart. Nuance, like the kind I was attempting on my Facebook friend, is seen as capitulation. Fairness is labeled moral equivalency, and—perhaps worst of all—slow and deliberate thinking is castigated as apathy, or worse. We seem to be living in a time in which good thinking is an obstacle to be hurdled rather than an ideal to be strived toward, a trend the journalism industry can surely bear witness to. In all this intellectual flotsam, many seem to have forgotten how to think, and perhaps lost the motivation to remember.
That’s why Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Crown Publishing) is the right idea at the right time. Jacobs is a good thinker, as any with knowledge of his previous books, many essays, and invaluable blog posts will know. How to Think is vintage Jacobs–an incisive, consistently thoughtful work that hits a post-truth, “alternative facts,” right-side-of-history American culture right between the eyes. The worst thing that can be said of it is that it doesn’t say quite enough.
Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.
Jacobs cites NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain as a case study. Chamberlain dominated all phases of basketball, except in his free throw shooting. Though his percentage improved for a time when he threw the ball underhanded, Chamberlain didn’t persist in this habit and his poor shooting resumed quickly. Contra writer Malcolm Gladwell, Jacobs doesn’t see Chamberlain’s stated motivation in not shooting the ball underhanded—he didn’t want to “look like a sissy”—as irrational.
Chamberlain didn’t want look like a sissy because he wanted women, by the hundreds, to sleep with him. He wanted sex more than he wanted a better free-throw percentage. Thus Jacobs concludes: “You could say, then, that he gave up little in his workplace in order to create potentially more interesting opportunities for himself in a arena that meant more to him. This kind of decision making may be ethically dubious, but it’s anything but irrational.” (45-47)
The point Jacobs is making is that thinking well is fundamentally an issue of desire as least as much as it is an issue of having the right facts or properly functioning cognition. We fail to think correctly, fairly, and helpfully because doing so may interfere with what we want—especially if, as Jacobs writes, what we want is to be fully accepted into a group that will keep out those we dislike. Here Jacobs spends a good portion of the book, arguing, convincingly, that in-group solidarity is one of the most effective and most difficult to overcome motivations for bad thinking.
Perhaps one critique of How to Think is that it really should be called How to Argue. Jacobs is overwhelmingly concerned with thinking as it relates to how we form opinions and then exchange ideas. True, that’s only a part of thinking, not the whole. But I think what Jacobs is trying to do is immediately redress a particular kind of crisis in public life, a crisis that is indeed about how and why we think. It’s a crisis that comes with serious social and political consequences, as Kurt Anderson’s September cover essay for The Atlantic, “How America Lost Its Mind,” makes plain. And it’s a crisis that our major formative institutions seem either unable or unwilling to help.
Higher education, for example, is frayed and insular, and too many churches still replicate the divisions of American politics in the pews. My episode with a Facebook friend was certainly frustrating, but it did not feel abnormal. Non-thinking, especially non-thinking that is in the shape of political tribalism, is practically what we expect nowadays.
This is true in part because non-thinking often feels something better than smart: it often feels righteous. Poor thinking is powerful because it can reinforce our sense of moral superiority and help us keep delineating between good people (who agree with us, of course) and bad people (who don’t, because they’re bad). For example, Jacobs observers that many people seem unable to distinguish between goals and methods. You might say you agree with me about the fact that a particular issue or problem needs to be fixed, but unless you also agree to my prescription for fixing it, I can—and should!—question your honesty, integrity, and motivations.
Jacobs recounts one such exchange with a group of friends about racial reparations. After admitting he was skeptical of some practical suggestions made by a popular proponent of reparations, one of his friends responded with shock: “How can you think those people don’t deserve reparations?” Of course, as Jacobs observers, his friend was assuming that the question of deserving justice and the question of how to best mete that justice out were the same question. This sort of bundling up of moral issues and mechanical issues is an exasperatingly common cause of death for good faith. It divides people who really ought to share more than they split, and the sense of moral purity that such division can reinforce—especially when it happens in groupings—makes overcoming it almost impossible.
Jacobs writes, “When you believe the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest it in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia.” (74) Thus, the moral element of our thinking is also eschatological. We are formed not only by the different problems that concern us but on our expectation, our hope, of a final cure. This is why true neighbor-love between people with competing ideas is possible only when we accept that 1) humans are not reducible to their ideas (a truth almost totally inaccessible on social media) and 2) truth, beauty, and goodness are not reducible to whose ideas win.
Contrary to what some might propose, our crisis in charitable thinking is not because individuals desire truth too much. It’s because we sinfully fixate on our own comfort and validation at the expense of a virtuous expectation that all will be made right in the end, and forget that people are worth far more than their thoughts and beliefs. Confidence in the invincibility of goodness and truth disarms the fear that keeps us huddled into ideological cloisters, always using the worst spokespeople and the worst arguments as exemplars of what “the other” really thinks.
When I was growing up, the homeschool curriculum that we used, from an independent Baptist college in Florida, warned students gravely to never answer the door when Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses came knocking. Because these cults possessed a message with demonic power, even talking to or praying with them could weaken our resistance and theologically seduce us. I was older when I discovered that this college had virtually no doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It all suddenly made sense: because none of us could be assured that “He will hold me fast,” to show neighborliness toward those with wrong beliefs was a risk we couldn’t afford to take. Whether the culprit is a shoddy view of God’s sovereignty or a murky, ill-defined desire to be “on the right side of history,” bad thinking feasts on bad hoping.
So what’s to be done? One thing that makes Jacobs’s book particularly helpful is the very concrete way he talks about cultivating better thinking. In the appendix Jacobs includes a provocative “Thinking Person’s Checklist,” a kind of 12 Commandments for implementing the ideals of the book.
We could perhaps summarize the checklist and the book with three simple rules for thinking. 1. Be slow. 2. Be honest. 3. Be teachable. “When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes,” Jacobs writes, and adds: “Value learning over debating.” He also exhorts readers to “seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with,” since building caricatures in our minds is one of the surest ways to hold onto bad thinking habits. If even a portion of the wisdom Jacobs has to share on this topic were practiced widely, we would find our public square transformed for the better overnight.
My only complaint with How to Think is that it left some points on the field. While there are a few biblical references and spiritual analogies, Jacobs clearly wants How to Think to be accessible for fair-minded people of any and no religious persuasion. At times this commitment stops Jacobs short of articulating the moral implications of good and bad thinking. It’s one thing to say that we ought to question our natural “repulsions” and seek out the best version of our opponent’s argument because doing so is reasonable. It certainly is that.
But what do you want to do for a person who doesn’t wish to be reasonable? Jacobs’s counsel is to avoid them. Probably good advice generally, but there has to be a word here for unreasonableness, whether the kind found in cultured despisers of nuns that don’t sell abortafacients or neo-white supremacists. Jacobs helpfully makes a distinction between those who accept the wrong beliefs of their context and those who try to construct and codify such beliefs. But at some point even those of us who aren’t either Margaret Sanger or Jefferson Davis have to accept a moral responsibility for our mind. With How to Think clocking in at only 157 pages, it’s hard to not feel that there was more for Jacobs to say here.
Nonetheless, How to Think is a valuable work that combines an intelligent awareness of the crisis with literary and deeply humane suggestions for addressing it. My advice? Read this book in silence. Consume it in periods of quiet contemplation. Don’t snack on it in between refreshes of the Twitter feed or during a break in your online debating. Steal away to a good library or a quiet field, pen in hand, and learn how to think.
Originally published in 2017.