How to Think, by Alan Jacobs, is a quick read with an interesting take on how we can improve our thinking. Jacobs argues that what divides us on political, social, religious, and other big issues, is not so much philosophical disagreements as it is laziness. Thinking is hard, so many of us don’t want to think through complex issues. We choose our views based on what is familiar to us and consistent with what our friends think.
Unlike many authors of books on thinking, Jacobs does not believe the primary issue is overcoming biases. He believes the fundamental problem is that we lack the will to think. He notes that when we do not know enough about an issue, we substitute emotions for thoughts.
He describes thinking as the process that leads to a decision, not the decision itself. It is considering, assessing, and testing the available information before reaching a conclusion. It is listening to opposing views and asking ourselves how we know that our views are right. It is not simply seeking information that will confirm what we already think. In some instances, we need to hold off on taking any position until we learn more.
One myth that Jacobs humorously debunks is that we should always be open-minded. He says that, “No one wants to hear anyone say that, while there is certainly general social disapproval of kidnapping, we should keep an open mind on the subject.” That said, he does suggest that we should have the mental flexibility and honesty to change our minds when the facts change, rather than stubbornly clinging to our beliefs even in light of overwhelming evidence that our beliefs are wrong.
Another interesting observation he makes is that thinking is social, so no one is really an independent thinker. In fact, he notes that when people praise someone for thinking for themselves they usually mean, “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”
Jacobs notes that thinking requires more than analytical thinking. It also requires being more aware and acting more responsibly toward others. He recommends we cultivate a degree of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others.
He concludes with a discussion about the pleasures and dangers of thinking. One pleasure of thinking is that working toward the truth is one of life’s greatest adventures. A danger is that if you begin to genuinely think, you will sometimes change your mind – and that can mean losing some of your friends.
Finally, he notes that “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.”
BONUS: In the Afterword, he includes a 12-point Thinking Person’s Checklist.
If you are interested in purchasing How to Think or in reading the official book description and reviews, please visit the author’s Amazon Page.