How Do We Think? (A Book Review)

We’re always being told what to think, but not how to think- enter Alan Jacobs.

how to think coverPolarization is the mark of our current social, political, and religious environments. I don’t know if there’s another time where so many people are on opposite extremes of so many different issues- from healthcare, to gun control, to climate change, to foreign policy, and many more. It is into this extreme environment that Alan Jacobs speaks a word of calmness, clarity and, yes, even grace through his newest book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

Jacob’s book is, both, timely and important because he does what the title of the book says- he advises the reader on how to think, not what to think. Through a book that is both well researched, and in a style that is deep and engaging, Jacobs invites the reader to examine the influences and prejudices inherent in our thinking.

My main takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, is the realization that we believe that the things we think, and the positions we take are true, or else we would not be holding those ideas. And because we believe them to be true, we naturally listen to others who confirm what we hold to be true. Even if we are truly not sure what we think about an issue, we will gravitate toward others who are unsure and hold those with a defined position as suspicious. What Jacobs rightly notes is that when we are faced with another idea, although we may find that idea repulsive, instead of labeling only the idea repulsive, we label the one who holds the idea as repulsive- or what Jacobs borrows from Susan Harding and calls the “repugnant cultural other.” Jacobs’ main goal in the book is to show that the “RCO” is indeed a human being and realize that we might, under different circumstances, hold the same view that we find repulsive.

Second, there is a deceptive argument that promotes eliminating emotions, both positive and negative, collectively called biases and, instead, use pure reason. Jacobs notes, however, that reason alone is an “insufficient guide” because our biases actually help us navigate through life because without them “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us” (86). Feelings and biases actually help us make quick decisions when we cannot stop and rationally assess every situation or decision on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. He warns, however, that we want our biases to be the right biases and that begins by “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst” (87).

These are my top two takeaways but there are many other things that I could note that are interesting. Overall Jacobs writes a fascinating book and it may be one that I routinely give away to graduating seniors and college students. My most telling endorsement is that when I finished the book, I was glad I read it.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

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