Okay, so, I read this book at the beginning of the year, but for reasons I cannot recall, I didn't review it immediately after finishing it. Which meant I should either not review it, or, you know, reread it. I recalled the book took me about two hours to read it the first time. Given the title, and my general inclination to liking thinking, I figured I'd read it again. Unsure how to count this in my book total for the year, I'll probably count it twice.
I so enjoyed this book. All of about a tenth into it, I recalled how much I enjoyed the book the first time. Unlike The Art of Thinking Clearly, which is a list of all the various biases and quirks people have in thinking, this book is a journey about how one should approach thinking. We, in general, don't want to think. It's hard, effort is required. We have to go against much of the social conditioning we've been in for the thousands of years of evolution we've needed to survive to this point. And thoughts are the result of reactions to others' thoughts. All of this is explored in Jacobs' writing.
The book hops down various paths related to thinking, and circles back around in a wonderful way. I enjoyed this book the first reading, and the second reading 11 months later. Recommended and worth a read.
This is what thinking is : not the decision itself but what goes into the decision , the consideration , the assessment . It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence ; it’s grasping , as best you can and with all available and relevant senses , what is , and it’s also speculating , as carefully and responsibly as you can , about what might be . And it’s knowing when not to go it alone , and whom you should ask for help .
For me , the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will : we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking . Relatively few people want to think . Thinking troubles us ; thinking tires us . Thinking can force us out of familiar , comforting habits ; thinking can complicate our lives ; thinking can set us at odds ,
or at least complicate our relationships , with those we admire or love or follow . Who needs thinking ?
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 .
It could be coincidence , or synchronicity , or fate ; but sometimes there’s a blessed convergence between what you read and what you need . A
In a 1994 essay called “ Puritans and Prigs , ” Robinson challenges the contemptuous attitudes many people have toward the Puritans — the very word is no more than an insult now — and gives a more generous and accurate account of what they thought and why they thought it .
Puritanism . ” That is , the kinds of traits we label “ puritan ” — rigidity , narrowness of mind , judgmentalism — are precisely the ones people display whenever they talk about the Puritans . *
“ Very simply , ” Robinson writes , “ it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged , when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved . ”
The word doesn’t have any meaning as such , certainly not any historical validity ; it’s more like the password to get into the clubhouse .
Robinson further comments that this kind of usage “ demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry , ”
The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group , the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against — well , against any kind of standard .
They are invested , for the moment anyway , in not thinking .
T . S . Eliot wrote almost a century ago about a phenomenon that he believed to be the product of the nineteenth century : “ When there is so much to be known , when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings , when everyone knows a little about a great many things , it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not . ”
People invested in not knowing , not thinking about , certain things in order to have “ the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved ” will be ecstatic when their instinct for consensus is gratified — and wrathful when it is thwarted .
( Social bonding is cemented by shared emotion , shared emotion generates social bonding . It’s a feedback loop from which reflection is excluded . )
Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world .
The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures , confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup .
It’s very rewarding to show them not necessarily that their beliefs are wrong , but that they haven’t defended them very well , haven’t understood their underlying logic , haven’t grasped the best ways to commend
their views to skeptical Others . *
Harding’s essay is “ Representing Fundamentalism : The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other , ”
The cold divisive logic of the RCO impoverishes us , all of us , and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “ the war of every man against every man . ”
simply knowing the forces that act on us to prevent genuine reflection , making an accurate diagnosis of our condition , is the first course of treatment .
Eno and Schmidt called the card deck Oblique Strategies because they knew that when an artist is blocked , direct approaches meant to fix the problem invariably make it worse . In a similar way , sometimes you can get better at thinking only by turning your attention to matters other than thinking .
We’re probably all subject to what the literary critic Gary Saul Morson calls “ backshadowing ” — “ foreshadowing after the fact , ” that is , the temptation to believe that we can look into the past and discern some point at which the present became inevitable .
This ending deprives us of the easy comforts that Sapere aude stories tend to offer — the reassurance that , though life in the bigger world may be hard at times , may even be miserable , it is nonetheless the right trade to make because the security of community is not really the most vital thing in the long run . Le Guin’s swerve from the more familiar form of the trope says : We don’t know that . To think , to dig into the foundations of our beliefs , is a risk , and perhaps a tragic risk . There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction .
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 . ”
This is a point worth dwelling on . How often do we say “ she really thinks for herself ” when someone rejects views that we hold ? No : when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences . She’s fallen under the spell of so - and - so . She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z . Similarly , people in my line of work always say that we want to promote “ critical thinking ” — but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned
at home and in church , not about what they learn from us . *
When we believe something to be true , we tend also to see the very process of arriving at it as clear and objective , and therefore the kind of thing we can achieve on our own ; when we hold that a given notion is false , we ascribe belief in it to some unfortunate wrong turning , usually taken because an inquirer was led astray ,
all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons , and false things for good reasons , and that whatever we think we know , whether we’re right or wrong , arises from our interactions with other human beings .
Gladwell assumes that if Wilt had been thinking rationally , the only thing he would have
been concerned about was success in his job . But that’s because Gladwell , like many of us , seems to have unwittingly internalized the idea that when professional athletes do the thing they’re paid to do , they’re not acting according to the workaday necessity ( like the rest of us ) but rather are expressing with grace and energy their inmost competitive instincts , and doing so in a way that gives them delight . We need to believe that because much of our delight in watching them derives from our belief in their delight .
Many professional athletes have confessed that , while they do sometimes find great satisfaction and even , yes , delight in their work , they never forget that it is indeed work .
In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind , Jonathan Haidt tries to understand why we disagree with one another — especially , but not only , about politics and religion — and , more important , why it is so hard for people to see those who disagree with them as equally intelligent , equally decent human beings .
Central to his argument is this point : “ Intuitions come first , strategic reasoning second . Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously , long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started , and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning . ” Our “ moral arguments ” are therefore “ mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly , crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives . ”
Such networks of affiliation are complicated , and discerning their presence requires what the ancients called “ prudence , ” a virtue that , like many virtues , is cultivated largely by avoiding certain vices : the kind of optimism that Scruton calls “ unscrupulous ” and its accompanying rushes to judgment , its reluctance to question its preferred means .
Roger Scruton , The Uses of Pessimism ( Oxford University Press , 2010 ) , p . 17 .
3 That is , many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe . And — this is perhaps the most telling and troubling finding of all — their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup .
Here we might recall the “ unscrupulousness , ” the headlong rush forward , of the optimists Roger Scruton critiques . When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed , once and for all , then people who don’t share your optimism , or who do share it but invest it in a different system , are adversaries of Utopia . ( An “ adversary ” is literally one who has turned against you , one who blocks your path . ) Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable — indeed , it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries .
is , I believe that it is reasonable and wise , in a democratic social order , to make a commitment to what political philosophers call proceduralism : an agreement that political adversaries ought to abide by the same rules , because this is how we maintain a peaceable social order .
That belief is on its way to being comprehensively rejected by the American people . And I have seen this in both academic and ecclesial settings as well : using the existing rules against your opponents , or formulating new ones with the explicit purpose of marginalizing them , without pausing to ask whether such methods are fair , or even whether they might be turned against you someday , when the political winds are blowing in a different direction . Such is the power of sheer animus : it disables our ethical and our practical judgment .
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 also of practices . These best people will provide for you models of how to treat those who disagree with
interlocutors . When people cease to be people because they are , to us , merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate ,
then we , in our zeal to win , have sacrificed empathy : we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires , principles , fears . And that is a great price to pay for supposed “ victory ” in debate .
The myths we choose , or more likely simply inherit , do a tremendous amount of intellectual heavy lifting for us . Even more than the empty words and phrases of Orwell’s “ tired hack on the platform , ” these myths do our thinking for us . We can’t do without them ; the making of analogies is intrinsic to thinking , and we always and inevitably strive to understand one thing in relation to another thing that we already know .
Our social taxonomies are useful , but if we think of them as something more than that , if we employ them to enforce strict separation between one person and another , if we treat them as solid and impermeable barriers that make mutual understanding impossible , they serve us poorly .
The problem , of course , and sadly , is that we all have some convictions that are unsettled when they ought to be settled , and others that are settled when they ought to be unsettled .
one . Economists speak of sunk costs as investments in a particular project that cannot be recovered , and some of them have pointed out that sunk costs have a disproportionate influence on decision making . The more people have invested in a particular project , the more reluctant they are to abandon it , no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause .
Fundamentally , for Hoffer , mass movements are a psychological phenomenon — however many roots they may have in
particular cultural and political circumstances . He called the book in which he explores this psychology The True Believer ( 1951 ) .
You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup . If you quote some unapproved figure , or have the “ wrong ” website open in your browser , and someone turns up his nose and says , “ I can’t believe you’re reading that crap ” — generally , not a good sign . Even if what you’re reading is Mein Kampf , because there are actually good reasons for reading Mein Kampf .
In short , the Usage Wars are a kind of miniature embodiment of Culture Wars in all their endless variety — and therefore a kind of test case for how we deal with disagreement , especially when there’s disagreement on matters we care about very deeply .
If it’s not exactly clear what all this has to do with the Democratic Spirit , perhaps Wallace’s definition of that Spirit will help : A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility , i.e . , passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others . As any American knows , this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain , particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about . Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity — you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe , and to do it more or less continually .
( Which is more or less what this book is all about . I could take those three sentences as my epigraph . )
failure . It is the failure to recognize other dialects , other contexts , other people , as having value that needs to be respected — especially , it’s tempting to say , if you want those people to respect your dialects and contexts and friends and family members , but perhaps what really matters is the damage this inability to code - switch does to the social fabric . It rends it .
Remember : Humani nihil a me alienum puto . Human beings , like you , who happen through
circumstance or temperament to have come to different conclusions than yours . This does not mean that their views are correct , or even as likely to be correct as your own ; you need not admit any such thing , but when they are wrong they’re wrong in the same way that you are , when that happens to you ( as it assuredly does ) .
death . Better to follow the principle articulated by W . H . Auden : “ The same rules apply to self - examination as apply to auricular confession : Be brief , be blunt , be gone . ” *
We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves . Such an expectation is fruitless and in the long run profoundly damaging . But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others .
You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you : the kind of person who , at least some of the time , cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position . And working toward the truth is one of life’s great adventures .
To cease thinking , as Thomas Aquinas explained , is an act either of despair — “ I can’t go any further ” — or of presumption — “ I need not go any further . ” * 2 What is needed for the life of thinking is hope : hope of knowing more , understanding more , being more than we currently are .
The Thinking Person’s Checklist 1 . When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said , give it five minutes . Take a walk , or weed the garden , or chop some vegetables . Get your body involved : your body knows the rhythms to live by , and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm , you’ll have a better chance of thinking . 2 . Value learning over debating . Don’t “ talk for victory . ” 3 . As best you can , online and off , avoid the people who fan flames . 4 . Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right - mindedness .
5 . If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right - mindedness , or else lose your status in your community , then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring . 6 . Gravitate as best you can , in every way you can , toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity . 7 . Seek out the best and fairest - minded of people whose views you disagree with . Listen to them for a time without responding . Whatever they say , think it over . 8 . Patiently , and as honestly as you can , assess your repugnances . 9 . Sometimes the “ ick factor ” is telling ; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters . 10 . Beware of metaphors and myths that do
too much heavy cognitive lifting ; notice what your “ terministic screens ” are directing your attention to — and what they’re directing your attention away from ; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth . 11 . Try to describe others ’ positions in the language that they use , without indulging in in - other - wordsing . 12 . Be brave .