How To Think A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs


Alan Jacobs acknowledges that thinking is hard (p. 128), which explains why “relatively few people want to think” (p. 17) at all.   Thinking, as defined by Jacobs, is not the decisions we make but the process we take (p. 14): “Thinking is a power to be finely aware and richly responsible” (p. 49).  It is not a mere science, which adheres to a set of rules, but primarily an art which is “notoriously resistant to strict rules” (p. 29).  Given such fluidity in understanding thinking, and our natural avoidance of it, is important to grasp the obstacles that must be navigated if we are to learn to think.

Jacobs mentions several:

  • Social acceptability (p. 21). To think risks losing our place in a particular social subset to which we have become attached.  We have an instinct for consensus (p. 22) and thinking will jeopardize our identity with our “in group” and possibly incur disgust. (pp. 23-24).
  • Emotions substituted for thinking (p. 22).
  • Not actually understanding, nor taking the time to understand, the people and arguments with which we disagree (p. 25).
  • Dehumanizing those opposed to our way of thinking, and stigmatizing them and their ideas as “repugnant cultural other” (pp. 26-27). When people cease to be people and become to us “merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate” we seek victory rather than comprehension (p. 98).
  • Reducing people and opposing views to derogatory keywords. Declaring that someone is a racist or stupid, for example, is an attempt to eliminate opposing views (p. 95).  In this same realm is “in-other-wordsing” which simplifies another’s views to the point of absurdity; it is creation of straw-people that do not actually exist (pp. 106-108).
  • Allowing metaphors (p. 97) and myths (pp. 103-105) to control our thinking.
  • Being so invested in a position that to change is too costly. The author calls this “sunk costs” (p. 129).
  • Believing even the ridiculous to the point that no facts can change our minds (pp. 132-138).

If we are to improve our ability to think we must become aware of a number of things:

  • That the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away our feelings (pp. 40-44).
  • That our thinking is not independent of the thinking and influence of others (p. 48).
  • Buying into a “moral matrix” that becomes the narrative by which everything and everyone else is judged (p. 55).
  • Having the passion to be part of an “Inner Ring” which, “is most skillful in making a man who is not yet very bad do very bad things” (pp. 56-63)
  • Yet being a genuine member of some Inner Ring is necessary for thinking (p. 62).
  • This is because the human brain is not capable of processing every danger, situation or issue continuously. We need biases but we just want them to be right ones (pp. 85-87).  Therefore it is important to think with the best people (p. 87).
  • While we need to recognize the danger of “lumping” and “splitting” people into stagnant groupings, and thus misunderstanding what they believe (pp. 116-118), we must be aware that being completely open-minded or close-minded is nonsensical and misleading (p. 125).

Given all the above, what does Jacobs offer as help in developing the ability to think?  The author does not want to reduce his book to a number of steps or techniques, still he has some helpful suggestions:

  • Seek the best representatives of the position you disagree with (p. 75). Too often in thinking through issues we interact with those who have the weakest arguments, or attack straw men.   By examining the best support for opposing views we learn to go beyond the surface and think more deeply.
  • Assume your opponent is wrong and then explain his error – what C.S. Lewis called Bulverism (pp. 78-79). Bulverism coupled with the next suggestion leads to fuller understanding.
  • Summarize an opposing argument to the satisfaction of the opponent (p. 108). When we can do so we will not only truly understand what others believe, but we will also be able to interact with the real issues at hand.
  • Develop checklists that free your brain from distractions and reduce cognitive load (pp. 153-156). With checklists “you know what you need to do in advance, so quit trying to remember it all and put it on a list, so you can attend to other matters that require your attention” (p. 154). The author then supplies a most helpful “thinking person’s checklists” (pp. 155-156).

Jacobs sums up his own purpose for the book in three sentences:

A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.  As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about.  Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – 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. (p. 143)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading How To Think and trust it sharpened my own ability to do so.

How To Think A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2017) 157pp., Hard $23.00.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel