20 Quotes from ‘How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds’

The following quotes caught my attention as I read Alan Jacobs’s timely book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency, 2017) [review | podcast interview].


“[Our] fundamental problem . . . 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?” (17)

“Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world. For most of us the question is whether we have even the slightest reluctance to drift along with the flow. 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. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” (23)

“If I’m consumed by this belief that the person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books, though not for precisely the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness. All of which is to say that I may all too easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience.” (27)

“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.” (36)

“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. Thinking independently, solitarily, ‘for ourselves,’ is not an option.” (39)

“[This] is, or ought to be, terrifying: had we encountered a group of equally attractive and interesting people who held very different views, then we too would hold very different views.” (57)

“The pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity. The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.” (62)

“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.” (73)

“By reading, a man already having some wisdom can gain far more; but it is equally true that reading can make a man already inclined toward foolishness far, far more foolish.” (89)

“We lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by demonizing our 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.” (98)

“[We cannot replace] a fictitious polarity with an equally fictitious unity. Blessed are the peacemakers, to be sure; but peacemaking is long, hard labor, not a mere declaration.” (100–01)

“We use these heuristics, these strategies of simplification, all the time; we just don’t like them used on us. We don’t want our lives summarized with an acronym, or our deaths with a bitterly ironic joke. We’re funny that way. We don’t like our distinctiveness, our me-ness, compromised or ignored.” (115)

“I think we need to make a vital distinction: between those who held what we now believe to be a profoundly mistaken view, or tolerated such a view, simply because it was common in their time, and those who were the architects of and advocates for such a view.” (120)

“Sadly . . . 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.” (126)

“Tommy Lasorda, the onetime Los Angeles Dodgers manager, used to say that managing players was like holding a bird in your hands: grip it too firmly and you crush it, too loosely and it escapes and flies away. In the life of thought, holding a position is like that: there’s a proper firmness of belief that lies between the extremes of rigidity and flaccidity.” (127)

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup.” (138)

“We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves. . . . But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others.” (147)

“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 greatest adventures.” (150)

“Thinking does not have a destination, a stopping point, a ‘Well, we’re finally here.’ 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.’ What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.” (151)

“As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.” (155)


Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:

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