Every so often I threaten to nestle a trash can close beside our mailbox so that most of what arrives there (courtesy of Rural Free Delivery) can hit the recycling bin at the Warren Transfer Station without ever having to come up the hill into our house. Then, there are days when it feels as if the main purpose of e-mail is the exercise of deleting most of it. Throw in social media messages, the podcasts I listen to, and the books on my nightstand, and, like you, I am standing in the drenching spray of what Alan Jacobs refers to as an “informational fire hose.” No wonder we sometimes struggle to think clearly and well.
In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Jacobs initiates a conversation about what it means to think well, and he begins with an astute definition:
“Thinking is . . . what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.” (14)
With the fire hose always on, our minds cope by engaging in snap judgments, often without conscious reflection. Jacobs diagnoses the prevailing orientation as “a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (21) Almost a century ago, T.S. Eliot concluded that “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotion for thoughts.”
If you are looking for step-by-step instructions on how to be a better thinker (as the title might imply), this is not that book. Thinking is an art, but while art may be resistant to strict rules, there are good practices to follow and harmful habits to be avoided. Alan Jacobs offers surprising insights for getting our minds back again:
Don’t Think for Yourself
While we tend to attribute great thinking to independence, the truth is more likely that people with whom we agree and whose thinking we admire are thinking with other people who also think well. We recognize this more readily with those who reject our views, citing bad influences. Since thinking is such a social activity, it’s important that our interactions with other human beings lead us toward what is ultimately true and good.
How to Think draws on C.S. Lewis’s observations about “The Inner Ring” to differentiate between good and healthy memberships that lead to excellent thinking and collectives that may “make a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” (56) In fact, “The Inner Ring” (an unhealthy membership) discourages thinking and excludes those who question the group-think. Lewis cites the camaraderie among characters in The Wind in the Willows as an example of healthy interaction that leads to good thinking: “Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad . . . are all so different from one another, made of such dramatically varying stuff, yet taken together they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Each requires the others to be complete. . . Each is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group.” (61)
Thinking Is Not Strictly Rational
We’re not called upon to suppress all feeling in order to think well. English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that pure analysis is insufficient without joining both thought and feeling, particularly if the thinker is responding out of a healthy place that perceives the world as it truly is. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio concluded that individuals with inadequate emotional responses to a situation were also likely to be “seriously compromised” in their ability to make decisions. (84)
Practice Wisdom in Your Repugnance
It’s common to assign labels to people who hold views that repel us: Monster! Hater! Liberal! Raging Fundamentalist! This is not a helpful practice, and tends to shut down our thinking. Jacobs’s counsel when faced with repugnant ideas is to “seek out the best–the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded–representatives of the positions you disagree with. If your first thought on reading that sentence is that smart, sensible, and fair-minded people are extremely rare among your opponents, I would ask you to reflect on whether you think they are any more common among those who agree with you.”
It turns out that James’ biblical admission that we all “stumble in many ways” is a helpful mindset in dealing with disagreements. Being wrong is not a pathological condition.
Clear thinking is the best way to avoid harmful prejudices.
English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances . . .” (86) His point is that we can’t analyze rationally every single act or thought. Therefore, it is crucial that we “distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.” (87) Of course, this only underscores the importance of learning to think with the best people and to avoid adopting the thoughts of unhealthy thinkers.
Beware the Overly Open Mind
After numerous arguments with H.G. Wells (and others), G.K. Chesterton quipped that the object of opening the mind is not simply to open the mind, but is rather like opening the mouth: the object “is to shut it again on something solid.” (126) It’s far better to remain unsettled on an issue than to snap the mind shut on a conviction that is convenient and popular–but false.
It’s easy to get lazy in dealing with the information fire hose. Jacob’s admits, to my great relief: “Thinking is hard.” (128) But thinking is also hopeful, and the alternative to conscientious mental effort is to be “blown about” as Paul described it, subject to whatever wind of thought passes through. Making the commitment to cognitive courage may be hard work, but the choice to persevere in becoming a better thinker is an act of hope that, in the long run as well as in the process, will produce a better disciple.
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