HOW TO THINK: INTERVIEW WITH ALAN JACOBS

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University.  His terrific new book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, frames our conversation.

 

Moore: I regularly say that I had to write my books. And this continues to be true with the two book projects I am currently working on. Gathering from the tenor of your latest book’s content, it seems like you felt a high degree of compulsion to write How to Think. Is that true?

Jacobs: Yes, and true for this one more than for any other. When the Presidential election campaign and the Brexit debate really started heating up, I became more and more concerned by what was passing for debate on the issues and personalities involved. There was (there still is) a lot of shouting, and, above all, many people seemed absolutely determined to mischaracterize their political opponents’ views. It was as though not thinking had become a virtue. The more I reflected on how such an environment might have come to pass, the more clear it became to me that I needed to write this book.

Moore: In David McCullough’s fine biography of John Adams he mentions how the second president believed his son, John Quincy, must go overseas to get a complete education. How critical is it for our own education to interact with people from diverse backgrounds?

Jacobs: In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill stated the case in a way that, in my view, cannot be bettered. I would be foolish to use my own words when his superior ones are available:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.

Moore: To what degree, if any, is careful thinking made more difficult by the ubiquity of social media?

Jacobs: It is very difficult to overstate how inimical social media are. All the major social networks want to keep us engaged with their site, and that means we need to be emotionally manipulated: to feel delight, triumph, rage, contempt, and to register those feelings instantaneously. And as long as we’re doing all that, we cannot think.

Moore: Does the unity and diversity of the trinity help us better think about important and complex matters?

Jacobs: If so, I’m not sure how! But I think the relational character of the very Godhead itself, the continual interplay-in-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should remind us that we, made in the image of that God, cannot be monads. In their lesser and limited ways, all healthy human communities, and especially the community called the Church, imitate the endlessly relational unity of the Triune God. This is why I argue in my book that you cannot “think for yourself” and shouldn’t even if you could: thinking is something we always do in response to other people.

Moore: You address the area of emotions and their importance to thinking. Many would not make that kind of connection. Why did you?

Jacobs: There’s a great deal of evidence now — the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has done a lot of it — that demonstrates that people who are unable to have proper and healthy emotional responses to the world make bad decisions. But wise persons have always known this. As C. S. Lewis comments in The Abolition of Man, the importance of training the feelings is central to much ancient thought, pagan and Christian alike: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”

Moore: You’ve written a well-regarded book on C.S. Lewis’s imagination. Other than his native brilliance, what are a few things Lewis did that made him a great thinker?

Jacobs: That passage I just cited gives one indication! (His awareness of the need to touch people’s dispositions as well as their rational faculties explains his writing of fiction as well as apologetics.) But I believe the really key thing is this: Lewis, though raised in a Christian home, if not an especially devout one, became an atheist as a teenager and indeed for some years was quite assertive in his atheism, always feeling free to mock the simple beliefs of his friend Arthur Greeves. So when, at around the age of 30, he became a Christian, he was able to do so only after unstitching a garment of conviction that he had stitched up quite determinedly over a period of fifteen years. As a result, he came to know both atheism and Christianity from the inside. He was always in the position that John Stuart Mill, in the passage I quoted above, says that the genuinely thoughtful person must be in: knowing the strongest arguments of all sides in a dispute, and knowing them as though from the inside.

Moore: If you could wave a wand, what three books would you have every American read to equip them to be better thinkers?

Jacobs: I’m reluctant to make a list, in large part because, as I explain at length in my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I’m a big believer in reading at whim. But also, what you need to read depends on what you need to understand. So here’s a suggestion: Consider the people whose views you find especially appalling, but also appallingly popular. Find out what they read. Find out what books they believe are the most compelling accounts of their position, the ones about which they say, “This is it. This is what I stand for.” Now, go read all that. At the very least, you’ll sharpen your own thinking by having to articulate your own response to arguments you detest.

But beware: you just might end up changing your mind.

 

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