Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds builds on G. K. Chesterton’s observation that closing your mind is a little like closing your mouth: it is meant to close on something solid.
In other words, it’s not only silly but also impossible to try to keep your mind endlessly open. Thinking requires basic commitments to fundamental principles. Without building on some truth you have “closed your mind” about, you will find it impossible to engage in rational argument. Generally speaking, to open your mind is not a virtue, and to close your mind is not a vice.
But what are the right and wrong ways to be closed-minded? Here are some suggestions I jotted down after reading Jacobs’ book.
1. Close your mind once you’ve done the work of thinking, not in order to avoid thinking.
When should you close your mind? When you’ve arrived at a conclusion or come to accept a foundational truth. This kind of closed mind doesn’t stifle further thought; it’s the prerequisite for deeper thinking.
The wrong way to close your mind is when you try to avoid the work of careful thinking. You close your mind toward other perspectives because you don’t want to put forth the effort to rethink or defend your position. Jacobs writes:
“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.” (17)
It’s good to close your mind after arriving at a conclusion, once you’ve demonstrated diligence of thought and are ready to exhibit the courage of conviction. It’s bad to close your mind in order to avoid the hard work of thinking, when you give in to intellectual laziness and give way to fear that a different conclusion may demand something of you.
2. Close your mind with other people, not toward other people.
No thinker is truly independent. “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social,” Jacobs writes (37).
The question is not will you think with others, but who will you think with? Thinking is a communal project, which is why we are more likely to find a community attractive before we find its thinking persuasive.
“We respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive.” (57)
To think together with others does not hinder the closing of the mind; it enables the mind to close in ways similar to others who have thought and continue to think alongside us. The right way to close your mind is in community, and not just any community, but one that remains “open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill” (59).
The wrong way to close your mind in community is when you do so as a way of proving your membership in one group as opposed to another. Unhealthy communities discourage, mock, or exclude people who ask too many questions, even if the questions are asked in good faith. Why? Because the closed-minded nature of the group leads to the prioritizing of group cohesion over rational argumentation.
The right way to close your mind is with other people, and this means that you will sometimes need to be sharpened by people who do not share your convictions and who have closed their minds around different conclusions than yours.
Jacobs advises us to look for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded (62). The goal is pursuing truth, not uniformity of thought. Thinking requires engagement within a healthy community that shares your convictions as well as interaction with like-hearted people who don’t.
3. Close your mind around ends, not means.
The right way to close your mind is to arrive at a settled conviction regarding a vision or outcome you promote and pursue. You may be closed-minded about your end goal, but you are open-minded when you engage in debate with others who share the same goal yet have different views of the best way to arrive at that destination.
The wrong way to close your mind is to assume that someone who differs with or questions the steps you take toward a goal doesn’t share the same ultimate desire. Jacobs writes:
“A questioning of your preferred means can look like indifference toward your most treasured ends… The distinction between the two is absolutely vital, and must always be kept in the forefront of our minds in any public debate.” (69)
This problem comes up again and again in public life. Two groups may share the same end goal or desire, but have radically different ideas about how to achieve that vision. The difference leads one side to assume the worst of the other.
The result is personal disgust and the eventual relegation of one’s opponent to the category of “Repugnant Cultural Other,” as Jacobs writes. Add in the dehumanizing rhetoric of debate (“attacking” or “destroying” or “obliterating” an opponent), and thinking is diminished. Buzzwords and catchphrases lose their original meanings and serve as “passwords” to prove we are part of the right community.
On the right and the left, inside the church and outside, unhealthy patterns of closed-mindedness keep us from the right kind of closed-mindedness.
As you’ve read this post, have you nodded in agreement, thinking the whole time about people on the other side of the political aisle or in a different theological camp? If so, I encourage you to go back and read it once more, but this time, look for the places where you have experienced the wrong kind of closed-mindedness within your own party or group. All of us can do better in this regard.
Thinking carefully and charitably will go a long way in creating an environment where civility can flourish.