5 Quotes from Alan Jacobs’s How to Think


This is probably my favorite read this year so far. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at OddsThe author, Alan Jacobs, teaches at Baylor University.

[Note on the first quote:  Megan Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, former pastor of Westboro Baptist (the “God Hates Fags” church). She later left Westboro Baptist after interacting with critics on Twitter.]


I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to themselves or to others, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.”  But here’s the really interesting and most important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start ‘thinking for herself’—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.” (37)

Jason Fried, the creator of the popular project management software Basecamp, tells a story about attending a conference and listening to a talk. He didn’t like the talk; he didn’t agree with the speaker’s point of view; as the talk went on he grew more agitated. When it was over, he rushed up to the speaker to express his disagreement. The speaker listened, and then said “Give it five minutes.” Fried was taken aback, but then he realized the point  and the point’s value. After the first few moments of the speaker’s lecture, Fried had effectively stopped listening: he had heard something he didn’t agree with and immediately entered Refutation Mode—and in Refutation Mode there is no listening. Moreover, when there is no listening there is no thinking. To enter Refutation Mode is to say, in effect, that you’ve already done all the thinking you need to do, that no further information or reflection is required. (17-18)

Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should. And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas, but of practices. These best people will provide for you models of how treat those who disagree with them. (87)

To be open-minded!–a condition to aspire to. To be closed minded!–a condition to shun and fear…The primary problem is that, of course, we really don’t want to be or want anyone else to be permanently and universally open-minded. No one wants to hear anyone say that, while there is certainly general social disapproval of kidnapping, we should keep an open mind on the subject. No one wants an advocate for the poor to pause in her work and spend some months reflecting on whether the alleviation of poverty is really a good idea. About some things—about many things!—we believe that people should not have open minds but settled convictions. We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs. (125-126)

Take, for example, one of the most common and least appealing defensive strategies I know: what I call “in-other-wordsing.” We see it every day. Someone points at an argument–a blog post say…and someone else replies, “In other words, you’re saying…” And inevitably, the argument, when put in other words, is revealed to be vacuous or wicked.

Now there’s no doubt that writers can use words evasively, to indicate or suggest things that they wouldn’t dare to say straight out…But often—astonishingly often, really—the “other words” people use to summarize an opponent’s argument grossly distort or even invert that argument…

In-other-wordsing is a bad, bad habit, but anyone who wants to resist it can do so. (Again, as we have had cause to remember throughout this exploration, many people don’t want to avoid it, they want to use it to win political or social or religious battles. And again: this book is not for such people.) (106-107)


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