The Difficulty of Thinking

For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

So says Alan Jacobs early in his engaging and helpful book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Ah yes, I thought, this seems like a good place to start. Very wise. Thinking is hard, and we don’t want to do it, preferring instead to wallow in comfortable error. And by “we,” I really mean “they” – those others who don’t share my convictions and need to read this book but probably won’t (Jacobs discusses using the “false we” in a later chapter). You know, those people, the ones who really need to learn “how to think.”

Jacobs’ book is a slightly uncomfortable experience in this way. Reading the passage above I had an immediate image of the sorts of people who “suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” and the first person who came to mind was not, in fact, me. Part of the point of Jacobs’ book is that it probably should be (at least some of the time). To praise the arguments of How to Think and accept its diagnosis is to admit that I am sometimes wrong. And not wrong only about trivial, minor things, but wrong about big, consequential things, things worth arguing about.

It is not really a blinding lightning bolt of insight that I sometimes get things wrong. But, while it’s obvious, it’s really hard for me to admit, especially when what is being challenged is something important to me. Jacobs’ book is an attempt at “making an accurate diagnosis” of “the forces that act on us to prevent genuine reflection.” Yet, while reading I frequently found my initial response to the good doctor’s notes regarding what ails us was to try and diagnose others, rather than myself. Which, I guess, means that I have some work to do (and I’m not alone in this, I suspect).

Jacobs makes it easier to recognize my own failings by the way in which he models his commitments in the writing of the book (to state the rhetorical problem Jacobs faces: how do you advise people “how to think” without sounding like a pompous jerk?). At one point in the book, Jacobs discusses “in-other-wordsing” (basically, restating a person’s argument in a way that misrepresents the person’s actual position). Discussing this particular issue he starts into a personal example connected to various debates surrounding sexuality that have occurred in the Anglican church. I don’t have access to Jacobs’ inbox, but if you’re familiar at all with his comments online regarding some of these debates, I am sure that he could have selected any number of examples where an angry correspondent or Twitter follower has “in-other-wordsed” his own views on sexuality and faith, and I thought I knew where this anecdote was going. But, the example Jacobs uses is one where he was the person hammering out an angry blog comment and had to pause “because my hands were shaking so violently I couldn’t type accurately.” This is a small moment of vulnerability, easy to overlook in some ways, but one of the main takeaways from the book is that humility is fundamental to genuine thinking and this sort of example enriches that argument. Jacobs’ personal examples most often reveal his mistakes and shortcomings – his own failures to think – rather than describing his various victories over (or victimization at the hands of) an unthinking other. It would have been tempting, for me at least, to use at least a few of the illustrations in the book as a chance to point out the failings of my opponents and accusers (names changed to protect identities, of course). This might have been illustrative in a technical/formal way, but less powerful in contributing to Jacobs’ overall argument that to become good at thinking one must become a “certain kind of person” rather than simply master certain rules or techniques.

It is a good book, and has been widely reviewed and discussed, and I can only hope that is widely read, and taken to heart. The challenge is that it is much more difficult to become a particular kind of person than master a set of techniques. Thinking is difficult, and since it is difficult: “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are. And I think we’ve seen, in the course of this book, the benefits that come to people who have the courage and determination to do the hard work of thinking. We have good cause for hope.”

Some random notes:

  • Jacobs comments on the ways his years teaching undergraduates and his participation in multiple (often conflicting) communities have contributed towards his “thinking about thinking.” I wish that he commented more on the relation between writing and thinking. Jacobs is a skilled writer, able to switch comfortably among different audiences (this book being an exemplary example of a lifelong academic writing for a general audience, and writing well). He’s mentioned “writing to think” in a blog post, but I thought there might have been some more room in the book for him to explore this connection (and I think he’d be an interesting guide).
  • I think I’m more pessimistic than Jacobs about the possibility of genuine “membership” (as described by C.S. Lewis) via social media (and to be clear, it’s not like Jacobs is a big booster of social media in this book). Regardless of a user’s intent, I think the architecture of most platforms actively works against it (part of the point of the architecture is to reduce the users to standardized bits of data that can be harvested for advertisers etc.). Jacobs describes how he has gotten some sense of genuine membership/community out of a private Twitter account, but I wonder if the key is that he “confine[d] the group almost completely to people I’ve met in person.”
  • While the book is not about mastering techniques, Jacobs does include a helpful “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the back. Final item: “Be brave.”
  • I thought this was the best review of the book I’ve seen so far