Natan Mladin reviews ‘How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Alan Jacobs.
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I’m not the type of person who reaches for the ‘how to’ books in the library. I generally find their enthusiastic trust in method and technique rather depressing. But then a really good ‘how–to’–book comes along and I am faced with my own vain assumptions. I re–examine. I recant. Such a book is How to Think (2017) by Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Baylor University. It’s refreshingly short and packed with much needed practical wisdom for thinking well “in a world at odds.”
The myth that we are rational beings capable of dispassionately processing information is by now, thankfully, in tatters. Books such as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow have shown us, depressingly, the many ways our thinking goes astray. We are chock full of biases, at the mercy of many influences, and prone to myriad cognitive screw–ups. How to Think continues Haidt’s and Kahneman’s rather bleak diagnoses, but adds helpful nuance and greater anthropological depth. More importantly, it provides some excellent advice and probing questions to nudge us along the path of thinking well. In this sense, it’s a more hopeful contribution to the ‘thinking’ genre.
Expect to find in it winsome accounts of the role feelings play in thinking, of genuine communities (as opposed to mere Inner Rings), of the ‘ick factor’, of the power of unacknowledged metaphors and myths, and many other ingredients but also traps in the way of thinking well. Woven through are little stories of various thinking people who, in different ways, illustrate something of the art and complexity of thinking well. John Stuart Mill, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Eric Hoffer all make appearances.
Despite the title, however, How to Think doesn’t really offer a method, let alone a list of rules to follow – although the ‘Thinking Persons’ Checklist’ at the end of the book is worth its weight in gold.1 Instead of a manual, Jacobs paints a tantalising picture of what a thinking person looks like. Indeed, the book’s most valuable assumption is that thinking well is more about character than competence, being rather than behaviour. Patience, trust, generosity, honesty – these are some of the prerequisites of thinking well. As he puts it, to think well you need to become “a certain kind of person that cares more about journeying towards truth than about one’s current social status”. And what is thinking anyway? “The power to be finely aware and richly responsible”.
How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed by Alan Jacobs is published by Currency (2017) and Profile Books.
1 Print this and post it next to your computer. It will change your (social media) life.