Books Reviews

Review: How to Think by Alan Jacobs

This short book (156 pages) is a tonic for those of us overwhelmed by political opinions on social media. Its subtitle, “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds”, is wholly accurate. In our increasingly divided world, social media has widened the gaps as friends and family members discover more than they needed to know about each other’s political opinions and people have become more deeply entrenched in those opinions as a part of their identities. This book came at a time when I am giving up on social media because of those divisions.  On Twitter it seems like each new take has to snarkily put down the last take, or shame anyone who agrees with X, or set off a new wild flurry of agreement/disagreement. It is exhausting, and was giving me constant headaches. I have had to quit Twitter altogether (though I’m still holding on to my username) and sign off of Facebook. At least there is the comfort of Instagram!

Jacobs’s experience has been as a Christian and an academic, each a tribe that scorns the other. He draws from a wide range of sources– this book may be short but I’ve marked a number of his sources as continued reading.  He draws from philosophy, neuroscience, and even taxonomy (one thing I understand!). An abbreviation he uses throughout the book is RCO for repugnant cultural other, drawn from a 1991 essay by anthropologist Susan Friend Harding on fundamentalism. The book is all about how to deal with the RCO in life.

This is a profoundly unhealthy situation. It’s unhealthy because it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors–even when they are quite literally our neighbors…. The cold divisive logic of the RCO impoverishes us, all of us, and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man.”

I mean, don’t you feel like every person is at war with every person right now? Friends and relatives have revealed opinions that are repugnant (RCO!) to me on social media and it’s hard for me to be around them, knowing that they embrace a political candidate or opinion that I strongly disagree with. But normally I would never have known this about them! Like maybe we only ever talked about our shared interests, like rescue dogs or books or our kids or something, and now I can’t see this person without thinking of this horrible opinion they have. It’s destructive. So, turning to the book, here’s a damn long review.

Chapter 1 Beginning to Think: Why it wouldn’t be a good idea to think for yourself, even if you could mostly discusses the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a member of that really actually 100% Repugnant Cultural Other (I think we can all agree on this one, ok?) the Westboro Baptist Church. She was on Twitter spewing Westboro’s awful messages, when another Twitter user discussed her beliefs with her and asked questions that opened up a new way of thought for her. This conversion is quite rare, and an excellent example for how your mind can change. Some Kant and John Stuart Mill come up in this chapter as well.

Chapter 2 Attractions: How good people can be led to do bad things centers on C.S. Lewis’s idea of “The Inner Ring” on humans’ need to be a member of a group with status.

Chapter 3 Repulsions: Why you’re probably not as tolerant of others as you think has more C.S. Lewis, this time on Bulverism, or the ad hominem attack, i.e. a person has a certain belief and is therefore a monster. This is where social media really thrives, because you’re not talking to the actual person. You’re 1,000 miles away and they are just some words on a screen. And apparently this was even true just with the printing press causing “disinhibition generated by a new set of technologies”, because Jacobs’s example of Thomas More and Martin Luther is STUNNING.

Thomas More’s attacks on Martin Luther and his followers, and Luther’s attacks on Catholicism (and especially the papacy), make most of today’s online insult fests seem tame. More wrote to Luther about “your shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up”….. Luther…referred to the “dear little ass-pope” who licks the Devil’s anus….

Thomas More, “your shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit”

I mean. Whoa.

This chapter also discusses the fallacy that #Rationalia, as named by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a place where any of us want to live. As a scientist this is a fallacy that I will fall straight into, so I am taking heed. Jacobs actually uses science to discredit this idea (ouch!) to emphasize that “we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve the cognitive load.” Biases make decisions easier. Actually, this is one of the great reasons to read fiction. We learn so much about ourselves this way. Being rational is smart, but we need that emotional experience to guide us.

Chapter 4 The Money of Fools: The danger of too much trust in and reliance on words talks about the words and metaphors we use, and the word #cuckservative is in this book lord help us. Robin Sloan’s description of debates in the Long Now Foundation is something to think about– in these debates, the person arguing against another’s argument must summarize that argument to the other person’s satisfaction, in other words to learn the other person’s viewpoint and state it back, as Sloan says,

“To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry.”*

Chapter 5 The Age of Lumping: Investigating the categories into which we lump people and ideas uses the metaphor of biological taxonomy to discuss our social opinions. This is something I understand, as a biologist. The addition to my TBR pile from this chapter is Dorothy Sayers’s Are Women Human? — Jacobs quotes her essay rebuking a university for questioning the admission of women:

“What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle….I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him.”

Chapter 6 Open and Shut Why you can’t have an open mind, and why it wouldn’t be good if you could is about the idea of having an open mind. We can’t have an open mind on everything all the time. It would be exhausting. We have to have solid ideas. But not too solid? Somewhere in the middle.

Chapter 7 A Person, Thinking: What English usage and the Democratic Spirit have in common discusses only one essay, a David Foster Wallace review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage called “Authority and American Usage.” The upshot here is FORBEARANCE, in other words that you have to be willing to look through someone else’s perspective. Jacobs also makes the counterpoint here to Wallace’s call for self-examination, that forbearance should also apply to yourself. Be gentle with yourself.

The conclusion is a 12-point checklist that is really the heart of the matter. (This is available in Amazon preview so I feel okay reproducing it here.) I love the checklist, and I highly recommend this book. I plan to read more of his sources and think about thinking some more.

The Thinking Person’s Checklist

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.
  2. Value learning over debating. Don’t “talk for victory.”
  3. As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose status in your community, then you should realize it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting; notice what your “terministic screens” are directing your attention to–and what they’re directing your attention away from; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth.
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in-other-wordsing.
  12. Be brave.


How to Think by Alan Jacobs

Five out of five stars!

More Info
Author Bio

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Penguin Random House for providing this book to me. My opinions are my own.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. An advance copy of this book was provided to me by Netgalley and Workman Publishing Company. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Leave a Reply