Magazine | December 31, 2017, Issue

Habits of Mind

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs (Currency, 160 pp., $23)

I made it only to the third item on Alan Jacobs’s “Thinking Person’s Checklist” before throwing up my hands in defeat. That rule reads, in its entirety, “As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.” I’m an editor at a Washington, D.C., political magazine, and I make regular appearances on cable news discussing the hottest-button issues of the moment — I wouldn’t be able to leave my apartment, let alone pursue my career, if I took that advice. I’d already paused at the first of his dozen rules, also troublesome for those in my profession: “When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables.”

I’m being playful, of course, but not facetious. These points go to the very heart of Jacobs’s project. Jacobs, a professor in the honors program at Baylor University and the author of such previous books as The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, offers the checklist at the end of his latest volume. As he wrote recently on his blog, “the chief impetus of this book was the ever-increasing hostility and (often malicious) misunderstanding of one another that became one of the chief themes of the 2016 presidential election here in the U.S. and of the debate over the Brexit referendum in the U.K.” Who, in such a time, would profit more from a book called “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds” — or at least from a discussion with someone who’s read it — than “the people who fan flames”?

Alas, books about deliberating better are usually ignored by the people who need them most: those who don’t deliberate much at all. But there seems to be a fine line between Jacobs’s target audience and the people he advises that audience to avoid. Never mind Twitter trolls. Think of your untactful uncle whose political pronouncements make Thanksgiving dinner uncomfortable for most of the table; an impassioned pundit trying to turn a complicated argument into a point-scoring soundbite; the piqued politician remaking policy in response to needling slights.

No matter his target, Alan Jacobs is nothing if not ambitious. How to Think is just 160 pages long, and its author doesn’t take his task lightly. He runs down the myriad steps one goes through, for instance, when thinking about purchasing a vehicle — and notes that such a decision is much less painful to make than those involving political and social questions. “If everything we have to think about were as easy as buying a car, then I’d need only to write a blog post or a few tweets to set us all on the right path. Instead, I’ve had to write this book,” he says. Why him? “I believe, thanks in part to my years of negotiating mutually hostile communities, I can help.” He’s an academic and a Christian, a member of two groups that regularly clash in the culture wars, and therefore more aware than most people are of the false assumptions and lazy thinking that too often characterize how we come to view our opponents.

Jacobs doesn’t argue, however, that we must detach ourselves from our associations to think and think well. His central contention is that it’s actually as members of groups, primarily, that human beings engage in the process of thinking. “Think for yourself” might be the mantra of the sage, but Jacobs proclaims it both foolish and futile. “To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social,” he writes. He even goes so far as to say that “whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings.” Descartes, for one, would disagree: If a man thinks in a forest and no one is around to communicate with him, he still knows that he exists. But Jacobs is certainly correct to declare that discussion and debate are invaluable to reasoning and the search for knowledge. It’s surprising that with so many references to thinkers past and present, he mentions Karl Popper only briefly in a footnote; that philosopher demonstrated this insight better than anyone, and used it to build powerful approaches to science and politics.

Man is a social animal, and the exchange of ideas within society can lead to better ideas. But it’s a stretch to go from this to declaring, as Jacobs does, that “for people of all ages, some form of genuine membership is absolutely necessary for thinking.” He seems to think that membership in a “good” group is the only insurance policy against falling into the clutches of a “bad” group.

Thinking is an art, not a science, Jacobs insists, but “science is our friend.” He summarizes some of the conclusions of two of the best-known psychologists of thinking, Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), with an aim of developing a practical art out of their analytical findings. The bottom line: Thinking is a lot of work, and so in most instances we don’t do it: “The cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us.” We tend to believe that if we want to think better, we should shed our prejudices and try to be more “rational,” but Jacobs says the science doesn’t support this: “We need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”

On this “key task,” though, Jacobs gives us little guidance. He recommends becoming “the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.” The worst groups encourage, explicitly or not, their members to value the latter over the former. One can best become the right kind of person, Jacobs says, by surrounding oneself with the right kind of people. “These best people will provide for you models of how to treat those who disagree with them,” he writes; they’ll be “temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening.”

That might be good advice. But of what we hear from “people of goodwill,” how do we decide what to accept (at least provisionally, as we remain “disposed to openness”)? This is the crux of the problem of how to think, and Jacobs doesn’t offer any serious suggestions toward solving it. “We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves,” he says finally. “But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others.” Take the ninth item on his “checklist”: “Sometimes the ‘ick factor’ is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.” But how can we tell when our “repulsions,” as Jacobs calls them, are helpful and when they are harmful? Skepticism is only a first step in the search for truth. About the next steps, Jacobs is silent.

It turns out that How to Think might better be called “How Not to Think.” Worse, it might even be called “How to Not Think.” Jacobs puts too much emphasis on the work involved in thinking and not enough on its rewards. Near the book’s end, he quotes extensively the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace. The passage is an inspiring discussion of “the Democratic Spirit” and offers a shining example of, as Jacobs’s chapter title puts it, “A Person, Thinking.” But Jacobs ultimately rejects what the reader thought he was celebrating: “Wallace was wrong to say that ‘you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.’ You really can’t do that, which, I believe, he discovered: His ceaseless self-examination caused him ceaseless misery and contributed in a major way to his early death.” Wallace killed himself nine years ago, aged 46, after almost a lifetime of battling depression. No one, especially those who weren’t his intimates, can claim to know exactly why. And it’s hard to imagine that the man who declared that “fiction’s about what it is to be a human being” would have been content with a life less examined.

We shouldn’t necessarily settle for one either. Jacobs doesn’t, in the end, tell us “how to think.” But he does astutely identify some of the roadblocks to doing so. “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear,” he maintains, and he’s right. We believe that our age is a particularly difficult one in which to think — recall that recent events spurred Jacobs to write this book — but we’ve always stumbled on our search for truth, especially when we’ve been unsure even how to go about finding it.

Jacobs quotes T. S. Eliot encapsulating the legacy of the 19th century: “When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.” That’s as good a summary of our own time as it is of Eliot’s, as Jacobs points out. Every politician and pundit would agree with the poet, if ever they all sat down and really thought about it.

– Kelly Jane Torrance is the deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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