How to Think

Alan Jacobs

This is a small volume by a professor at Baylor University. Jacobs is the author of my favorite biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian. Moreover, the book received favorable reviews when it was published. For both of these reasons I decided to read it. Unfortunately, I found it a bit underwhelming.

Though Jacobs is certainly both intelligent and erudite, the book was not that helpful. Perhaps my expectations were too high. In some ways, the book focuses on how to think while engaging in a polemical discussion.

Despite all that, there were some nuggets here, and I include several of them here:

* This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help. (p. 14)

* I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to others or to themselves, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper 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. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And 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.” (p. 36-37)

* Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option. (p. 39)

* The Thinking Person’s Checklist

1) 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. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.

2) Value learning over debating. Don’t “talk for victory.”

3) As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.

4) Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.

5) If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.

6) Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7) Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

8) Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing. (p. 155-156)