Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
In Alan Jacobs’ How to Think, Jacobs offers a (self-consciously) unpopular account of thinking for a world inundated by thinkpieces and hot takes. In a digital age, what passes as thoughtful is largely reactive, rather than charitable or incisive. Thinking, he argues, is not an act done in isolation, but in communities with others. The difficulty with this, however, is that we are all prone to in-group thinking, associating with those with whom we agree and repelling those with whom we disagree. This group-think is reinforced by hashtags, quick referential language, and lumping of people into categories, but the solution, Jacobs says, is not to jettison all of our assumptions or all of the intellectual furniture which comprises our mental worlds; the antidote for shallow thinking is not skepticism so much as charitable forbearance: that is, tarrying in hope with those with whom we disagree.
Jacobs’ book is necessary reading, not only because of its counter-intuitive proposals for slow-thinking, charitable engagement with those with whom we have little in common, and diagnosis of the mechanisms of bad thinking. It is necessary because the venue for thinking—the digital world—pushes us so often in precisely the wrong direction of good thought. If we are to engage that venue well, Jacobs thinks, we should not swear it off, but consider what we are doing when we engage with one another in digital formats. It is truly—both in what it proposes concerning good thinking, and in its attention to our current context—a book for our time.
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For now, I’d like to kick off our roundtable on Alan Jacobs’ provocative How to Think with a brief question: what are the material dimensions of thought?
As one who spends much of his day thinking and encouraging my students to learn to think, Jacobs runs against the grain of contemporary wisdom. In the place of “keeping up to date,” he proposes slowing down; instead of persistent attachment to social media with ready-formed opinions, he proposes detachment and cultivation of small groups of persons with whom one can disagree over the long haul. Having been off of social media for the last month, I’m more drawn to his arguments than ever before, if only because having the space to think deeply and slowly has been cultivating better thinking in me.
That being said, I notice the following things which are out of sync with Jacobs’ proposals. First, though I have detached myself from much social media, my connections and relationships are largely the same. Jacobs proposes that thought, as a social enterprise, occurs in the company of difference, engaging with those whose words and dispositions are not ours. This, I think, is not due to a desire to think differently, but largely due to the ways life (and perhaps our world) is organized: we seek out people in our stage of life, or with our own tastes, or with our backgrounds. As C.S. Lewis once put it, friendship has to be “about” something, and these commonalities are often the basis for how friendship, and thus, thought, are formed.
And so, the desire to think differently is a good start. But Jacobs’ proposal is less about intent, and more, I take it, about the structures which enable thought, as a social enterprise, to occur. In a different way, it reminds me of how in Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, the production of communities of virtue within which arguments can occur is nested within MacIntyre’s latent Marxism: the cultivation of certain goods requires certain material conditions for their production. To think, as Jacobs proposes, is not about intent, but about conversion of our material conditions in a very real sense.
This brings me back to my initial question, then: what are the material conditions of thought? Can thought occur in a world which pushes us into affinity groups? Can thought—the social, careful engagement with difference—occur within friendship?