Review: Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Profile Books, 2017).
By Neil Dhingra
Alan Jacobs’s engaging and erudite How to Think does not really tell the reader how to think, which is prudent, because, as Jacobs writes, “Relatively few people want to think,” so thinking can’t simply be a “matter of technique.” A checklist is provided only with obvious reluctance. This raises the question of why so very few people want to think. Jacobs, as he realizes, must provide a diagnosis, and this disorder is sociological: we do not want to risk social disapproval. However, Jacobs’s How to Think doesn’t recommend an iconoclastic reflectiveness in the spirit of John Dewey’s How We Think. (“Because Columbus did not accept unhesitatingly the current traditional theory, because he doubted and inquired, he arrived at his thought,” Dewey writes.)
In fact, Jacobs’s book may have a much better claim to be called How We Think than Dewey’s. For Jacobs, we cannot separate our thinking from our interactions with a community because thought isn’t merely analytical problem-solving: whenever we think, we have certain visions of excellence in mind, and they generally involve “relational goods.” When a Kansan, who may or may not have something the matter with her, minimizes financial interests in deciding how to vote for president, she is likely fascinated by a picture of “communal solidarity” that justifies her balancing.
So, what sort of communities help us think and what sort of communities prevent serious thought? While communal solidarity may be a good thing, Jacobs is well aware that the Westboro Baptist Church is in Kansas. So, how to think is bound up with questions of “belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation,” questions with which Covenant has wrestled. Jacobs, a biographer of C.S. Lewis, draws upon Lewis’s idea of an “Inner Ring” to suggest that we can be drawn into informal, unwritten social groups and, fearful of being left out in the “cold outer world,” gradually fall into corruption and avoid all uncomfortable questions. The bad community takes the form of an Inner Ring, which, in extremis, can resemble a doomsday cult.
Here, though, Jacobs, a careful reader of social psychology and of blogs like Slate Star Codex, not to mention an attentive observer of Twitter’s venom, supplements Lewis in a very interesting way. In his biography of Lewis, Jacobs associated the allure of the Inner Ring with power, a hidden purpose, and the knowledge that the serpent in the Garden offered to Adam and Eve. In How to Think, Jacobs emphasizes that we stay in the Inner Ring because we believe in “the nastiness of those who are Outside.” We are repulsed by members of the “outgroup.” We “maintain the Repugnant Cultural Otherness of those with erroneous beliefs” who only deserve mockery. We cultivate “argument-as-war” metaphors on social media and elsewhere.
Therefore, Jacobs reasonably suggests that thinking must involve being able to “switch codes” to “inquire into someone else’s dialect.” One must “risk impurity,” even when fellow members of an Inner Ring say things like, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap.”
Jacobs helpfully draws on his experience as a member of multiple communities, academia and the church, and perhaps also reflects a strength of his Anglicanism. While the book discusses online Anglican toxicity, Jacobs has elsewhere said, “I have picked up from Anglicanism that kind of mediating and conciliating temperament and seeing if there is a way for people to live together in relative harmony even in significant disagreement.”
This would seem to be very good advice, and I think that I agree with approximately 97 percent of How to Think. I do wonder, however, if Jacobs, in focusing on the outgroup, inevitably neglects what Lewis sees as the attraction of the Inner Ring: power, hidden purpose, and knowledge. Lewis mentions snobbery, to be sure, but the lure of the Inner Ring is the “lure of the esoteric” — to know “how things are run” when the curtains are pulled back. (Yes, this criticism is probably unfair; it’s a short book.)
Of course, others, most prominently Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have already discussed the damaging effects of a “culture of secrecy” on thinking: “that which is not secret is easily disregarded or dismissed,” so the truth becomes either the exclusive possession of an Inner Ring that can read classified material or the result of the unmasking of what had once been locked away in file cabinets. Foreign policy becomes the stuff of dire CIA pronouncements about weapons of mass destruction that nobody can critique or conspiracy theories; there is no space for deliberation.
Presently, as Rowan Williams has suggested, politics more generally may seem to be marked by our disenfranchisement by unseen machinations. “[W]hat goes on in public political debate” seems to only represent the voices of the “privileged and self-interested,” behind the scenes, amid the 21st-century equivalent of cigar smoke. As such, in place of political thinking, we are attracted to antipolitical politicians who promise us magical access to “how things are run” or those who speak of the knowledge that might, when finally brought out into the open by investigators, change politics instantly and decisively. There is no point, then, of political deliberation.
Of course, Jacobs’s focus on repulsion toward an outgroup is not irreconcilable with this focus on “the lure of the esoteric” as a debilitating influence on thought. There may be a different theological feel, though, to the two focal points. Jacobs helpfully reminds us that truth is not the tightly held possession of an Inner Ring. Thinking, then, requires the theological virtue of hope and is even eschatological. Thinking does not have a visible destination. Thinking means, rather, recognizing that we must always be oriented toward “understanding more, being more than we currently are.” Appearances and conventions are not everything, so that thought cannot be merely guarding against contamination from outsiders.
On the other hand, Williams, against those who emphasize and exploit the unreality and inaccessibility of the political world, suggests that thinking may have to be rooted in a stable world of “food co-ops, microcredit institutions, and voluntary street pastors” that enables “genuine debate and decision-making” conducted by ordinary people. Theologically, then, as Williams has written elsewhere, thinking must resist the Gnostic impulse to “systematize” the gulf between appearances and reality, between conventions and wisdom. Tellingly, Lewis, in arguing against Inner Circles and the lure of the esoteric, suggests simply being a good craftsman. “You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.” That’s far more ordinary and far less glittering than being part of an Inner Ring, but there may be a graced reality to it — and, maybe, a well-crafted speech at a school board meeting—that no esoteric Inner Ring has.
So, the world must be inexhaustible but it still deserves respect as more than just smoke and mirrors. At least, that may have to be the case if we want to be one of the relatively few people who want to think.