White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“How To Think” by Alan Jacobs

Published Tuesday, October 2, 2018 By Andrew DeLoach

When NARAL Pro-Choice America decided to target pro-life pregnancy care centers at the center of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, it gave them the pejorative label of “fake women’s health centers” and created the social-media hashtag: #endthelies. I do not know what makes women “fake” or what need fake women have of a health center; nor do I know what makes a health center “fake” any more than a steak dinner is “fake.” Never mind the missing hyphen and the missing logic in the label. NARAL apparently hadn’t thought about the perfect opportunity its hashtag presented for a pro-life riposte: “I think you meant #endthelives.” “Hey @NARAL, fixed your typo: #endthelives.”

Whether or not NARAL put much thought into the implications of its hashtag, the motive of its campaign was quite clear: to denounce “the Other” and rally the members of its own in-group. Perhaps more significantly, in reducing a reasonable but disputable social argument to the anti-rhetoric of a hashtag, NARAL signaled its determination to avoid rational argument. As Alan Jacobs describes it, the use of this “keyword”—certainly not a practice restricted to one wing of the political spectrum—demonstrates an investment “for the moment anyway, in not thinking.” And it is a not-thinking that completely undermines its own goal: rather than ending any lies about health centers, public attention has been focused instead on NARAL’s own project to end the lives of the unwanted unborn. It is an example of the retreat of reason that calls to mind Chesterton’s lament: “Many people seem to be wondering what will become of the human soul in another world. I am wondering what has become of the human mind in this world. I am especially wondering what has become of the human power of reason in this age.”

Thinking today seems more endangered than ever.  Deep and contemplative reflection is in recession. Language itself has, with the prevalence of new technologies and social media, become what George Steiner called “a vulgarization, a mendacity of words and syntax.” If language is indeed a defining attribute of what is human, our current use of it to stigmatize and categorize can only, in the end, dehumanize. We are bad at thinking, bad at thinking about thinking—and our thinking is bad for us. This is what Jacobs sets out to remedy in How To Think.

He begins by writing that the problem is that we do not want to think. But as he slowly reveals, the problem much of our society faces is that we do not want to think differently, and we are hard pressed on every side by forces that both prevent our thinking and ease our escape from it. Against such resistance, Jacobs is admirably cheerful and confident that we can do better.

How? By learning to think well. One of the most invaluable suggestions in his book is a strategy for dealing with the immediate temptation to stop listening and shut down when we hear something we disagree with: “Give it five minutes.” Simply pausing, before responding, improves thinking. Here, as with much of the book, Jacobs is prepared with support from the sciences. What may be a pleasant surprise to readers—and is certainly a credit to Jacobs—is that the support never seems to be necessary. Responding to a disagreeable point by giving it five minutes seems so simple, so intuitive, and though it undoubtedly demands our continued effort, it does not seem out of reach.

We can also do better by learning how not to think. Jacobs spends the bulk of his little book identifying the habits, behaviors and subtle social forces that shape our thinking for the worse, carefully describing the pull of belonging and the need to be part of the in-group; the Inner Ring. While that desire does not come as much of a surprise, he helpfully distinguishes this false belonging from the “true membership” in a fellowship of like-hearted people.

Jacobs likewise presents the terrible impetus to “lump” political adversaries (often by using keywords to signal our affiliations) into categories of opposition. The targets of this detached animus are often interchangeable; the “Other” is anyone whose thinking we find repugnant and unworthy of our attention.  His description of the degradation (both of the lumper and the lumped) in incisive, painfully-accurate terms, creating (to borrow Chesterton’s words again) “an uncomfortable impression of wild men who have merely grown weary of the complexity that we call civilization.”  We are savage, not civil—we have become inveterate lumpers because we are unwilling thinkers. Yet he responds with optimism and encourages us toward “disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work.”

Missing from How To Think is any explicit encouragement to study good thinkers; there is no list of thinkers one must read (or avoid). Ultimately this is no real fault, and it is not Jacobs’s purpose; anyone who follows his advice here will perhaps actively seek out those thinkers. And perhaps there is a hint of despair in asking people today, whose reading is largely limited to what can be squeezed into 140 characters, to thinkers like Augustine, Lewis, Homer, and Shakespeare. “Wait five minutes” is a big ask these days, when five minutes is what it takes most of us to consume the news, reading on our phones between tasks. Jacobs has already given us The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and while this book isn’t The Pleasures of Thinking, it does feel like a fitting companion to that earlier work. How To Think is more serious, but in the end as hopeful—it may be slightly less pleasurable (in part because it is so convicting), but it is no less vital.

Jacobs guides us through the forces that act on us, the forms that bad thinking takes, and the habits that can help us think well, analyzing the units of our discourse with perceptive and charitable observation in order to stimulate and nurture respect, truth, and personal and civic virtue. His intentionally circuitous reflections lead us through an exploration not of the science of thinking itself, but of the messy and meaningful details behind that thinking.  The antidote to our current intellectual malaise, he suggests, is a measured yet resolute self-examination of our own thinking and communication, and a profligate generosity toward the thinking of our neighbors.  Thinking really is about charity and humility; our neighbor must become greater, we must become less.  How To Think is really about how to be more human, how to more fully be.  “The whole must be engaged…in order for real thinking to take place.”



Andrew DeLoach is an attorney in Los Angeles, California, as well as an adjunct professor at Trinity Law School and Concordia University Irvine. 

  • Andrew DeLoach