How To Think by Alan Jacobs

Book Cover - How to ThinkFair warning, this is not a book for those looking to sharpen their thinking skills just to win more arguments. On the contrary, this book helps one recognize that losing may be just as valuable. That thinking well is not a joyful or direct path. Or, that what we believe to be the attributes of an “open mind” is more likely to be just a different form of a “closed mind” validated by a different group. Thinking is all about learning to do the uncomfortable, and if one can understand how thinking works, one may become a better thinker over all. To posit those theories, and many others like it, Alan Jacobs deals with optimism, community, solidarity, truth, social affiliation, kindness and vice by asking how they blend or contradict one another.

I especially love the fact that the book is current, and cites examples from events familiar to global state of consciousness. It helps that the author is as unbiased as a person could be, while still able to make sharp and concise points, and because of that, no other book is as important for any affiliation or creeds to benefit. In our polarized, highly emotional world, it’s refreshing, and necessary. As current as he is, he is no stranger to the history of thinking. From Luther, to T.S. Elliot, to Kannanman his references aren’t always made to simply validate, but to argue against, assert, or deconstruct the art and science around thinking.

It’s easy to assume the social conscience of the world is more worse for ware now than ever before, and the new phenomena of the internet and social media is mostly to blame. Instead of leaning into that assumption, Alan offers some perspective look back to early writers, like a quite T.S. Elliot who said, “The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. 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. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” That is surely something as appropriate today as it was 100 years ago.

There are quite a few gems sprinkled throughout the book that can get the wheels churning. Like how Alan challenges his readers to separate a single thought from all the context and emotion laid around it. For example, “A madman is not one has lost reason … a madman is one that has lost everything but reason.“ Indeed, the separation of fact, from emotion, or affiliation, let’s facts get tangled up into a single, lump of subjective “truth”. That affiliation and process of lumping makes it easier for us to turn every “neighbor” into what Alan Jacob’s called the “Repugnant Cultural Other” AKA  “RCO”. When more and more people are classified as an RCO based on a discrete piece of truth we decide to focus on, then we fail to allow ourselves to learn, or accept, anything else form them. As Alan puts it, “If that person over there is both ‘other’ and ‘repugnant’, I may never discover that that person and I like the same television program, or like the same books (even if not for the same reasons), or that we both know what it’s like to nurse someone through a long illness. All of which is to say, that I may forget that political, social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience.” That posit is very much a reality with the current collective human psyche. It does in fact feel as though more and more of us are at odds with our neighbors, and we are so with less and less information to guide it.

Of course separation via classifying others as an RCO goes well beyond politics and social media. As both an academic and a christian, Alan adds religion to the ring by noting, “When I hear academica talk about christians I think, ‘that’s not quite right. I don’t think you understand the people you think your disagreeing with’, and when I listen to christians talk about academics I have the precisely the same thought.”

Why do we decide to stick to a bandwagon, against all evidence to steer us away, or care to even search for a deeper truth? Alan quotes Robinson to underline this part of the human condition at play. “It is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” Alan continues, “Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved? If you want to think, then you have to shrink that hypertrophic need for consensus.”

Where academia is concerned, Alan pulls a quote from Jeff Schmidt’s to assert that education is not necessarily an avenue e toward greater thinking either. In “Disciplined Minds” Schmidt says, “Academia and high-racking professions are good at maintaining “ideological discipline”… people who do well … tend to have “assignable curiosity”, which is to say, they are obediently interested in the things they are told to be interested in.”

Though, there are some academic environments that are created to nurture true thinking. Alan tells an anecdote from the Yale Political Union debate club. As he observed at Yale, you are scored not just by wins, but by the number of times you flip your beliefs mid-debate. love how that metric aligns with not the speaker ability to power their will on others, but in the power and flexibility of being a good, open minded, listener.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and a great supplement to the best selling books Thinking Fast and Slow and Blink. It is well worth the time so, after each chapter, sit back, and push embrace “How to Think” better.

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