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How To Think

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 .
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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 ,
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or at least complicate our relationships , with those we admire or love or follow . Who needs thinking ?
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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 .
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It could be coincidence , or synchronicity , or fate ; but sometimes there’s a blessed convergence between what you read and what you need . A
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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 .
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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 . *
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“ 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 . ”
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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 .
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Robinson further comments that this kind of usage “ demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry , ”
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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 .
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They are invested , for the moment anyway , in not thinking .
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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 . ”
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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 .
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( Social bonding is cemented by shared emotion , shared emotion generates social bonding . It’s a feedback loop from which reflection is excluded . )
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Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world .
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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 .
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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
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their views to skeptical Others . *
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Harding’s essay is “ Representing Fundamentalism : The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other , ”
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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 . ”
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 . ”
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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
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at home and in church , not about what they learn from us . *
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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 ,
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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 .
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Gladwell assumes that if Wilt had been thinking rationally , the only thing he would have
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 . ”
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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 .
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Roger Scruton , The Uses of Pessimism ( Oxford University Press , 2010 ) , p . 17 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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
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them :
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interlocutors . When people cease to be people because they are , to us , merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate ,
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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Fundamentally , for Hoffer , mass movements are a psychological phenomenon — however many roots they may have in
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particular cultural and political circumstances . He called the book in which he explores this psychology The True Believer ( 1951 ) .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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( Which is more or less what this book is all about . I could take those three sentences as my epigraph . )
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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 .
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Remember : Humani nihil a me alienum puto . Human beings , like you , who happen through
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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 ) .
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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 . ” *
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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 .
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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
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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 .
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