Book Review: How to Think

December 12, 2017

Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?



When I was a kid, I used to try and try to stop thinking. I would stare off in the distance and strain to summon up a set of mental brakes that could turn off my brain for even a fraction of a second. It never worked. From the moment I woke up in the morning, my head was full of thoughts until the moment I fell asleep again. So when I saw the title of Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think, I had to laugh. I was more interested in a book called How NOT to Think.


Of course, what Jacobs means is How to Think Better. Subtitled A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, his book addresses our polarized nation to help us learn to talk to each other instead of at each other, to accept nuance and complexity rather than reducing issues to simplistic black and white talking points, to approach debate as a partnership in learning rather than a war to be won.


This is a critical message for our culture, but let’s talk about its weaknesses first. The author’s writing style isn’t always easy to follow. It’s like he set out to write a book that would force readers to practice its title. Although there are plenty of interesting and even entertaining, sections, you’ve got to do some hard thinking to grasp Jacobs’s points and remember them past the end of the chapter.


Also, for someone whose eyes aren’t as young as they used to be, the typeface is a smidgen too faint.


That said, there are more than enough insightful thoughts on this vital topic to make this book worth your time and effort. Here are just a few of the aspects of thinking on which Jacobs offers some shrewd words:


On the sneaky power of peer pressure to shape our opinions without our being aware of it:


Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”?


And how this sneaky power shuts down actual thinking:


People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.


On the other hand, on thinking for yourself:


Megan Phelps-Roper [a member of Westboro Baptist who eventually left the church] didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. 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… When people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”


On the inescapability of bias in our thinking:


We simply would not be able to navigate through life without these biases, these prejudices—the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us.


On ideological and partisan animosity:


Many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe. And—this is perhaps the most telling and troubling finding of all—their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup.


On the importance of feeling as an aspect of thinking:


“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”(quoting G. K. Chesterton)


On the pitfalls of resolving conflict by saying both/and:


The real story will be far more complicated, and not to be grasped by replacing a fictitious polarity with an equally fictitious unity. Blessed are the peacemakers, to be sure; but peacemaking is long, hard labor, not a mere declaration.


On the dangers of open-mindedness:


The primary problem is that, of course, we really don’t want to be or want anyone else to be permanently and universally open-minded. No one wants to hear anyone say that, while there is certainly general social disapproval of kidnapping, we should keep an open mind on the subject. No one wants an advocate for the poor to pause in her work and spend some months reflecting on whether the alleviation of poverty is really a good idea. About some things—about many things!—we believe that people should not have open minds but settled convictions. We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs.


And on the dangers of becoming too settled:


You become resistant to acknowledging that the facts have changed; you become entrenched. You’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to establishing your ground, protecting it from assault. To change now would be, it seems to you, to admit that all that work was for nothing.


And yet:


You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world, any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its roots every morning to see how it’s doing.


Two more virtue of this important little book? Firstly, it concludes with a checklist (since by now you can't remember what he said in chapter one). And secondly... it’s very short!



Verdict: Recommend (mostly)

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