Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Thinking Clearly With Alan Jacobs

An interview with the author of How To Think

Alan Jacobs teaches literature at Baylor University, and is the author of How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds.  It’s a book whose slimness and conversational elegance makes it not only a pleasure to read, but also something slyly, even disarmingly, profound. How To Think is very much a book of the moment, for the moment, and beautifully expresses the spirit of its author. I can say that because Alan has been a friend for years. He’s such a clear and generous thinker that when I disagree with him on an issue — and I do — my first impulse is to assume that I’m wrong, and then interrogate my premises and my logic.

Alan agreed to answer a few questions about the book via e-mail. Below, the transcript of our interview:

 I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

In a passage about “forbidden knowledge,” you discuss a popular myth in our society: the idea that the bold explorer who risks the security of his community in search of the truth arrives at a happier, more satisfactory place at the end of his journey. In fact, as you say, we can’t be sure at all where the quest for truth will take us. It is possible, like Dante’s Ulysses, that our unbounded search for truth will lead us to disaster. Are there things that a thinker can do that will keep him on a responsible track — that is, neither too fearful, nor overcome by hubris? 

As Jack Nicholson says to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” — but even if we could handle it, we may overrate our capacity to find it. We have to acknowledge the dangers of hubris at every stage of the journey. Edmund Burke spoke for all wise persons when he wrote, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” And let me add to that something that W. H. Auden once wrote:

In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.

This idea of “applying a categorial imperative to knowing” is vital — and scandalous, to many of us. More on this in later answers.

You point out that “thinking independently, solitarily, ‘for ourselves,’ is not an option.” What role do tradition and community play in the way we think, both clearly and unclearly? 

Consider this answer an extension of the Burke quote above. One of my best moments in writing the book came when I realized that two lectures by C. S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring” and “Membership,” need to be considered as a pair, and are fundamentally about thinking. (The message of each is also presented fictionally in That Hideous Strength.) “The Inner Ring” demonstrates how unhealthy groups manipulate and threaten us into compliance with their core ideas, discouraging us from thinking about the validity of those ideas. “Membership,” by contrast, shows how healthy communities generously offer the kind of belonging that allows us to explore ideas, and to grow in understanding. Such communities are also patient with members who are weak or uncertain. You will also think in the company of others, so what is required of you is discernment about the difference between good company and bad company. And this applies to figures from the past, as we engage them in books for instance, as well as to our contemporaries.

To be willing to be “broken on the floor” is a requirement of the responsible thinker, you write. Explain the meaning of the phrase. Have you ever been broken on the floor? What was that like? 

I got the phrase from Leah Libresco Sargeant, who’s an important figure in my book, and she got it from participating in the Yale Political Union (YPU). It means being forced to admit, in the midst of a debate, that the person you’re debating with is right and you’re wrong, and in the YPU culture it’s really important to be broken on the floor — it shows that you’re debating in good faith, that you really care about what’s right and what’s wrong, and that you’re not just (to borrow a phrase from Samuel Johnson) “talking for victory.”

About fifteen years ago I was attending a philosophy conference during which one philosopher gave a paper, and another responded to it — quite critically. Then the first philosopher got up and said, “You’ve shown some real problems with my argument; I need to go back and think this over again, with your criticisms in mind. So thank you.” I don’t think I had ever heard an academic so freely admit to being wrong — it was amazing! I decided then and there that I wanted to be that person, and on several occasions since I have had cause to say something similar. It’s tremendously liberating to be freed from the obligation to defend your every statement as though it’s a matter of life and death. And being open to criticism is, as those philosophers say, “truth-conducive”: you stand a better chance of getting things right if you’re willing to go back and rethink the weaker parts of your positions. This is why, as I say repeatedly in the book, and for reasons that are rooted in my commitment to an Augustinian account of human nature, good thinking begins with an orientation of the will. 

“The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.” I love that phrase. What do you mean by it? 

I suppose we’ve all had the experience of being around people who line up pretty closely with our own beliefs, but hold those beliefs in such a way — arrogantly, perhaps, or with contempt for others — that make them a pain to be around. Conversely, we’ve spent time among people who don’t agree with us about all that many core beliefs, but are warm and generous and enjoyable company. My belief is that the former kind of group is likely to be, or to turn into, an Inner Ring, while the latter kind has the chance to offer genuine membership. There’s little doubt in my mind that the second kind of group is better for thinking and better for the health of my soul.

I’m helping my eighth grader study fallacies for his logic class. When we got to the fallacy of “Bulverism,” I had no shortage of contemporary examples to point out. What is Bulverism, and why does it dog us today? 

Bulverism is term coined by C. S. Lewis: it means simply assuming that people who disagree with you are wrong, and then speculating about why they are wrong (usually because they’re evil). I wrote a longish post about Bulverism here. Social media are the most fertile ground ever created for Bulverism.

When is prejudice defensible, even necessary for clear thinking? How can we tell the difference between good prejudice and bad prejudice? 

As many philosophers never tire of saying, all of us live minute-by-minute by prejudices, pre-judgments. You could even say that all inductive reasoning is a kind of prejudice or bias: I assume that when I drive across a bridge it won’t collapse under me. I assume it with a prejudice so deep-seated that I don’t even think about it. When I pick up a book, my experience is governed by all sorts of prejudices: that the book will be written more-or-less coherently, that it’s a certain kind of book (fiction or nonfiction, say), and so on. I wouldn’t even know how to read it if I didn’t have some prejudices to guide me! This is why people who believe that thinking better is largely a matter of overcoming bias are mistaken: the real problem, as Hans-Georg Gadamer says, is distinguishing the true prejudices that help us to understand from the false ones that prevent us from understanding.

How do we make such distinctions? That question leads us back to almost everything we’ve been talking about here: becoming aware of the orientation of our will, noting the dangers of Inner Rings and the blessings of true membership, resisting the temptation to “talk for victory,” and so on. Follow those practices and you’ll gradually acquire a clearer understanding of which prejudices are reliable guides and which are impediments to thinking well.

Years ago, when I was working as a journalist in New York, I started appearing on cable news shows as a conservative pundit. Naively I thought that I was there to actually discuss the issues. A producer set me straight, saying that he wanted me there to present “the conservative point of view,” and to argue punchily with the designated liberal. This was how I learned from direct experience that argument in our culture is not about testing our views with an aim towards reaching clarity and truth, but nothing more than trying to use the force of rhetoric to clobber one’s opponent. How does the framing of argument by popular culture make it harder for us to discover the truth of things? 

Last week I got a phone call from a fairly well-known journalist who wanted to talk with me about the book, and her first question was about those TV news debate shows — the Crossfire or McLaughlin Group genre (I don’t even know what their successors are). She had been watching a lot of them lately, and I suspect has been on a few, and she wanted to know what strategies of Good Thinking could be employed by someone participating in such a show. I was a bit taken aback by the question, because I knew exactly what you say above: that those shows are not for actual debate — nobody, and I bet literally nobody, has even been “broken on the floor” on a news debate show, and if that ever happened, you can be sure that the person so broken would never be invited back. In such an environment, thinking is effectively forbidden.

And I believe that Twitter, in part because it is so thoroughly colonized by journalists, has taken on the format of those debate shows. Rebecca West once said that most people don’t have conversations, they have intersecting monologues. That’s what debate shows and social media are for: intersecting monologues. You wait until the other person is finished talking — or maybe you don’t wait, maybe you interrupt them — and then you make your Great Announcement of the Truth. What the value of this exercise might be beats me; but it has nothing to do with thinking. Thinking is the enemy of the culture of intersecting monologues, and vice versa.

In your conclusion, you say, “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.” For me, as a longtime reader of your essays, this beautifully encapsulates the spirit of your work. Would you elaborate briefly on your meaning here, and talk about how this sensibility has informed your writing over the years? 

I often say that I am not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who writes — teaching is more fundamental to my identity than writing — but my teaching grows out of a lifelong passion for reading and wanting to talk about what I read. Reading, and reading widely, is for me the great means of expanding my being. It is in reading that I have learned all I know about thinking.

Machiavelli is not, generally speaking, the best role model in the world, but there’s a wonderful passage in one of his letters that I think about a lot. When he was in exile from Florence and forced to live in the countryside, he would find himself getting caught up in silly verbal spats with the local rednecks (sort of like a guy who spends too much time on social media). It was embarrassing. But then he would make his way to his study:

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.

I love that image. In a patient, loving encounter with the best of the minds who have gone before us, we know more, understand more, become more than we currently are. I have tried throughout my career, as best I can in my limited way, to read in that spirit, and to carry what I have learned to my students and my readers.

Here’s the website for How To Think — and here’s a link to its Amazon.com page (though I’d love it if you would instead order it through Eighth Day Books).