Review: Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency. 157 pp. $23)
Review by John C. Bauerschmidt
Alan Jacobs has written a short book on a large topic, a good book whose subtitle provides the focus for his essay. He is not really addressing thought in the abstract, or the mechanics of how one thinks, though he touches on these. Jacobs has in view the difficulty of thinking in a time of contestation, in a polarized world in which people have difficulty thinking together. Survival is not too strong a word for a context like ours, as the alternatives to thinking together too often bring us (as Jacobs points out) to what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man” (p. 27).
In his introduction Jacobs points to some initial convictions about thought, excellently and cogently summarized. Thinking is not the decision but what goes into the decision, the assessment of the issue or the situation. It’s an attempt to grasp what is and what might be. It also requires knowing when to look for help from others. Because the future is involved (“what might be”) there will be uncertainties, and thinking will remain an art rather than a science.
Thinking takes time, and speed is the enemy of thought. Here Jacobs has in mind the instantaneous riposte represented by an email, tweet, or blog comment, sent in haste and regretted at leisure. To get out of “Refutation Mode” (p. 18) and to listen and understand what has been said takes time. Thinking is also difficult because of our predilection for consensus. It is emotionally rewarding to feel oneself sharing the opinions of a group, while those who break this consensus are likely to be punished. “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear” (p. 23).
Jacobs also points to the difficulties for thought represented by the “repugnant cultural other” (p. 27). Part of us doesn’t really want to understand the opinions and thoughts of others. Even as communities are prone to misunderstand and caricature each other, Jacobs is aware as both an evangelical Christian and an academic of the value of stating the position of the other, revealing the logic that underlies it, and even improving upon the arguments of the other. This is basic to his method as a teacher, and a basic tool to thinking clearly.
The book adopts a self-conscious method of “Oblique Strategies” (p. 27), an indirect approach that in later chapters points to obstacles to thought so that we can be conscious of them, and to good practices that encourage thought. Jacobs believes that thinking is dangerous, since we don’t really know where it will take us once we begin. It’s also difficult work. He also believes that thinking for yourself is not really desirable or even possible. We always think with others. Jacobs draws on John Stuart Mill to argue that thinking is more than a matter of thought but involves the cultivation of the feelings as well. “Only something that complete — relational, engaged, honest — truly deserves to be called thinking” (p. 48).
Because we think with others, the problem of belonging and not belonging is central to the task of learning to think. Once we belong to a group that has attracted us, our thinking can degenerate into rationalizations that reinforce our identity. There is value in belonging, however. It is key to our ability to resist coercion. A healthy group identity will not discourage questions or dismiss other perspectives that come from people of good will. “The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted” (p. 62).
Having touched upon the “repugnant cultural other” earlier, and recognized the difficulty a repulsion for others represents to our thinking clearly, Jacobs points out the value of our biases. Some of our repulsions are well-founded while others are not. Bias may be emotional but no less valuable for that. Without our biases we would not be able to function, since we rely upon our experience and that of others in responding to events. Failing to do so leads to paralysis. Jacobs quotes with approval the 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt:
Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still. (p. 87)
Being open minded suffers from the same problems as a lack of biases. It is a condition universally commended (who wants to be closed minded?) but in reality found nowhere. Being really open minded could be quite dangerous. “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” (p. 126). Fanaticism is not defined by settled convictions but rather by an unwillingness to listen to alternatives.
Jacobs also identifies our tendency to rely upon certain keywords (think here hashtag) in identifying our group, as well as in expressing ourselves. Again, keywords are necessary, but when they replace thinking the dangers are self-evident. Some of the language we use may make discussion difficult, creating polarities that do not really exist, and concealing complexity. We are prone to rephrasing another’s statement of belief in a way that distorts it, or at least makes it say something not in fact said. The ability to understand the other’s position in its own terms, and being able to restate the other’s argument and make it stronger, is actually necessary for thinking.
The phenomenon of lumping is related to the use of keywords. We consign people to categories, which allows us to express solidarity with others but also divides us from other people in insidious ways. Solidarity created in this way can be illusory, subject to dissolution. Lumping may be a necessary form of intellectual triage, distinguishing one thing from another; a form of strategic simplification, but that doesn’t mean we like it when it is applied to us.
On occasion, Jacobs lets us know that his book has a wider applicability, related to the subtitle. He is alarmed that the difficulties of “willful incomprehension, toxic suspicion” (p. 27) have infected the political order. A recommendation collected among many others at the end of the book also is suggestive. “Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness” (p. 155). It’s not too hard to see how his reasonable championing of genuine thought stands against the over-politicization of our society and the rampant overreach of passionate advocacy.
Alan Jacobs’ book on thinking is an admirable addition to a long Anglican tradition that has (at least since Hooker) emphasized the mediating and comprehensive role of reason in society and church. I would say that Jacobs is an advocate for thinking reasonably. Thinking should bring us together and not divide us. Sir Thomas Brown wrote in a tumultuous and divided 17th-century Britain about “wiser believers, who know that a good cause needs not to be patroned by a passion, but can sustain itself upon a temperate dispute” (Religio Medici). We need more thoughtful advocates like Jacobs.