Books

Alan Jacobs
How to Think

Alan Jacobs barely mentions the T-word. But How to Think, a short book written in short order after the 2016 United States election, is unmistakeably a response to the Trump ascendancy and, specifically, to the bad thinking habits that helped land us here. “Thinking is hard,” Jacobs concedes. He means conscious thinking, not the intuitive, reactive kind that mostly rules our waking lives. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, addressed the human tendency for automatism over contemplation and admitted that, even after decades of Nobel prize-winning research, his own recourse to intuitive thinking remained pretty much ungovernable.

While acknowledging the insights of cognitive science and psychology, How to Think is chiefly a work of moral philosophy. Jacobs, a US academic and Christian, draws on humanistic traditions. Thinking, he says, is a form of social engagement which, left to intuition, devolves into tribalism. By sharing approved attitudes, we bond with our “ingroup” and demonise the “outgroup”. “It’s a feedback loop,” writes Jacobs, “from which reflection is excluded.” Sound familiar?

Jacobs was an early user of Twitter, but the snark and vitriol got to him. Social media gives solid form to the worst characteristics of our bent (our gift?) for “fast” thinking. Conscious thinking is slow, but even five minutes’ reflection can lead to second thoughts. Jacobs calls on social media platforms “not to be so exploitative of users’ cognitive wiring”, but to impose a delay on the posting of responses – longer, ideally, than the 30 seconds allowed by Gmail for “unsending” an email.

How to Think manages to be of the moment and bracingly old fashioned. As models of good thinking, Jacobs considers Marilynne Robinson, Brian Eno, David Foster Wallace and even Breaking Bad’s Walter White. He extols qualities such as respect and forbearance, and warns against “true believers” and metaphors that equate argument with war. What we should ask of ourselves, he insists, isn’t moral heroism, but “to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity towards the motives of others”. To that end, he provides a 12-point checklist (“8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances”).

Without resorting to flakiness, or God, How to Think makes a case for there being hope amid the hatefulness, if only more of us will “do the hard work of thinking”.  FL

Profile, 192pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "Alan Jacobs, How to Think ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL