iAt Book Club: “How to Think” Round Table

February 15, 2018
Last week iAt began a book club series featuring the book, “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds,” by Alan Jacobs. Return to iAt throughout this week and the next as various voices are added to the series, interact with one another and respond to the book. Series contributors are Myles Werntz, Justin Bailey, Erin Olson, and Mary Nickel. Today we hear more from Myles Werntz.


Title: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Paperback: 160pages
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0451499608

Erin’s pointing us to the phenomenon of “lumping and splitting,” combined with Mary’s reading along the axis of forbearance, brings up a question about the virtues necessary to pursue Jacobs’ preferred way of thinking:

In addition to the material conditions of enacting thought, we’ve touched lightly on the virtues necessary to enact thought as Jacobs describes it. This is not an exercise in cultivating interior dispositions, as I understand Jacobs, but a matter of intentionally putting ourselves in the presence (digital or physical) of those with whose disagreements we tarry. The kinds of virtues which enable this are the traditional theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, but Jacobs interestingly doesn’t point to these. He points to more social virtues, such as acting “in good faith” (53) with one’s interlocutors. To act in good faith is to consider the best of one’s intellectual other, to assume in charity that they are seeking the good as they see it—i.e., acting in good faith is a judgment made of the motives of another, though one has no evidence of it.

This strikes me as a fairly optimistic way to proceed, but one which seems unlikely to occur apart from some overarching assumption about human nature. One could make a calculated risk apart from any assumptions of human nature—that it is more likely that your interlocutor is in this for the pursuit of the good than not—but to say that also assumes that a person is capable of knowing the good such that their pursuit of it coheres to that good, and that their pursuit is intelligible to an intellectual other. This puts an extraordinary amount of weight on our actions being morally self-evident to one another, that through your actions, I can see your moral pursuit of the good, or something like this.

For Jacobs, thought is not an internal exercise, but a social engagement, and so, the virtues necessary for thinking are social and not internal ones. But in order to engage charitably in this process, I have to make certain assumptions about a person which are not ones about her actions, but about her dispositions. It seems to me that this begs some further explication. After all, his program for thought is a social one which proposes to operate in a practical way, acting in good faith, but this method of thinking also implicitly assumes internal virtues of charitable pursuit of the good, humble desire for the true, appreciation for the beauty in those with whom one disagrees. But these virtues (which I’m calling “internal” for lack of a better term—perhaps “invisible” would be better?) are undiscussed. It’s the lack of discussion about what precedes these public acts of good faith which makes me skeptical that, when we engage in thought as a social act, we’re not just reaching out to those whom we assume to already have the same internal engine as ourselves. It’s easy to enact forbearance when we assume a commonality of internal formation, but quite another thing when this is not the case.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.