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How to Think by Alan Jacobs: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs. New York: Currency, 2017, 157 pages, $23.00.

No, this is not a book about logic, although without the subtitle one might legitimately think that. Jacobs begins with the common question: What were you thinking? “It’s a question we ask when we find someone’s behavior inexplicable, when we can’t imagine what chain of reasoning could possibly lead to what they just said or did” (11). He relies heavily on Princeton professor of psychology Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (12).[1] Jacobs analyzes the ways in which our prejudices drive our decision-making and our arguments in controversy. Jacobs builds on a fundamental distinction made by Kahneman between slow and fast thinking. As Jacobs wittily titles one section of the first chapter: “Speed Kills.” Kahneman labels fast thinking, “System 1”; it is based on things we have already decided for whatever reason, hence prejudice. “System 2” is slow because it takes time to think carefully about anything, especially complex topics and ideas. Because this takes a great deal of effort we tend to live rather thoughtlessly in System 1 mode. Only when System 1 raises a problem do we stop to think with System 2 (16).

Jacob unpacks the problem by referring to Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Puritans and Prigs,”[2] in which she observes that our pejorative use of the term Puritan “is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved” (20–21). As American philosopher and psychologist (1842–1910), William James opined: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Even in academia ideas are often studied by professors and students alike to shore up prejudices, rather than engage in true inquiry, especially those that are required for club membership (24). Jacobs is especially fascinated by Megan Phelps-Roper a member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, infamous for its rabid antigay rhetoric and protests. Her Stage 1 thinking was challenged when, through Twitter, where she was promoting the Westboro message, she encountered friendliness among the gay opposition. This slowed her down, and she began to think (31–34).

Jacobs raises the issue of the place of feelings in thinking: Do feelings undermine rational thought? (39–44). Although Jacobs doesn’t use the word affections his plea for the place of feelings would have been better served had he done so. Feelings or emotion often seem so subjective as to interfere with healthy thinking; but when connected with deep seated loyalties and commitments, which I believe is Jacobs’s point, they become an essential ingredient in proper thinking. Jacobs uses poetry to bolster his point. Poetry appeals to sensibilities that combine reason with emotion or feeling, all of which play a part in the decisions and assessments we make. The biblical concept of the heart involves both loyalty and rational thought. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). The heart senses the value of ultimate loyalties through thought and affection. These relational decisions cannot be reduced to reason alone. Jacobs puts it this way: “[A]n account of rational thinking, and a resulting set of judgments about irrational thinking, that can’t account for the power and the value of relational goods is a deeply impoverished model of rationality” (48). By “relational goods” Jacobs means the commitments and loyalties we value as good, either for good or ill.

Chapter 2 deals with attractions. “This suggests that the problem of belonging and not belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think” (54). Thus to be accepted in a group to which we are attracted requires knowledge of the “moral matrix” which governs judgment of the members of the group. This does not necessarily require the rejection of conformity, but rather taking into account the effect this loyalty has on our thinking. Jacobs closes this chapter with a proverb, “The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (Prov. 14:18). He explains:

Prudence doesn’t mean being uncertain about what’s right; it means being scrupulous about finding the best means to get there, and it leads us to seek allies, however imperfect, in preference to making enemies. And all this matters if we want to think well. (70)

In “Repulsions” (Chapter 3) Jacobs addresses our basic desire to be rid of adversaries, whereas the best way to face adversaries is to take the best of them and carefully consider their position. One of the classic ways to recognize and overcome the power of animus “is to seek the best—the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded—representatives of the positions you disagree with” (75).

Here, Jacobs introduces the role technology plays in inflating unthoughtful opposition and the logical fallacy of ad hominem (79–83). In place of face-to-face interaction, the printing press—and the underestimated European postal system—and now social media, move our judgments from the neighbor to the more distant other (82). But for all the bias that this System 1 way of thinking accommodates, Jacobs reminds us that it also has a place, because it “reduces the decision-making load on our conscious brains” (86). As English essayist William Hazlitt observed: “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, nor what to feel in any relation of life” (86).

At this point Jacobs rejoins the discussion of the place of feeling in right thinking, encouraging us to consider dispositions along with beliefs (87). At this point G. K. Chesterton deserves to be quoted in full:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind works all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the one who has lost everything except his reason. (88)[3]

In Chapter 4, “The Money of Fools,” Jacobs makes a case that the intellectual currency of words may incline a person either to wisdom or foolishness. The keywords in our vocabularies may cultivate and reinforce our prejudices (89–91). While keywords have a place, as they sum up areas of meaning, they also “have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought” (95). When it comes to differing with others “we lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by dehumanizing our interlocutors” (98). By dichotomizing arguments we distance ourselves from our opponents and dismiss complexities and nuances.

“The Age of Lumping” (Chapter 5) suggests that the modern world is especially prone to classify people and ideas into facile categories. Such simplification relieves the “cognitive load” (114). Jacobs reminds us that: “All are prone to these forces of consolidation and dissolution, assembly and disassembly, because, unlike biological taxonomies, they are all temporary and contingent—and are often created by opposition” (117). While we should be more charitable to those who inherit their taxonomies, we should be less so of those, like Margaret Sanger, who seek to impose their categories on their culture by force of law (121).

Chapter 6, “Open and Shut,” puts the lie to the conventional wisdom that open-mindedness is a virtue and closed-mindedness is a vice. Again G. K. Chesterton comes to our aid: “Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid”[4] (126). Of course, we all have positions that are unsettled when they should be settled and settled when they should be unsettled. And the more we have invested in our positions the more reluctant we will be to consider evidence against them (129). In the case of Megan Phelps-Roper “social media gave her a way out of her echo chamber” (137). “You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup” (138). At this point it would have been helpful to point out that orthodox Christianity at its most consistent has never been afraid to take on the tough questions and has always sought to understand its opponents fairly before critiquing them. 

The final chapter, “A Person Thinking,” considers a David Foster Wallace essay, “Authority and American Usage.”[5] His point is that the democratic spirit “is best manifested in the ability to persuade without dictating” (142). The failure to do so is

the failure to recognize other dialects, other contexts, other people, as having value that needs to be respected—especially, it’s tempting to say, if you want those people to respect your dialects and contexts and friends and family members, but perhaps what really matters is the damage this inability to code switch does to the social fabric. It rends it. (144)

This requires willingness “to inquire into someone else’s dialect . . .” (145). Jacobs concludes:

I just want to emphasize, here at the end, that you won’t profit from this book if you treat it as offering only a set of techniques. You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person, who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position. (150)

My only quarrel with this excellent book is that Jacobs doesn’t refer enough to Scripture. This is perhaps because his audience is broader than the church. Currency is an imprint of a division of Penguin Random House. That being said, demonstrating that Christians have an epistemological and motivational foundation in the grace of God found in the wisdom of the Bible to think the way he recommends, has tremendous value in the public square. Christianity is the profound source of the model of thinking that Jacobs so eloquently articulates.


[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[2] Marilynne Robinson, “Puritans and Prigs,” in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999), 150–73.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1908), 32.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936), 228–29.

[5] David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (Boston: Little, Brown, 2006).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant.

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