Humility and Perspective-Taking: A Review of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think

In Alan Jacobs’s important new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, he locates thought within our social context and all of the complexities that situation involves: our desire to fit into our current group or an aspirational in-group, our repulsion from other groups, our use of a communal (but often invisibly problematic) shorthand language, our necessarily limited interactions and sensory inputs. With reference to recent works in psychology, he also lays bare our strong inclination to bias and confusion.

However, Jacobs is not by trade a social scientist, and having obsessed about many of the same works as him (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow looms large for both of us), it’s a relief to see a humanist address the infirmity of the mind, with many more examples from literature, philosophy, and religion, and with a plainspoken synthesis of academic research, popular culture, and politics.

How to Think is much more fun than a book with that title has the right to be. Having written myself about the Victorian crisis of faith, I am deeply envious of Jacobs’s ability to follow a story about John Stuart Mill’s depression with one about Wilt Chamberlain’s manic sex life. You will enjoy the read.

But the approachability of this book masks only slightly the serious burden it places on its readers. This is a book that seeks to put us into uncomfortable positions. In fact, it asks us to assume a position from which we might change our positions. Because individual thinking is inextricably related to social groups, this can lead to exceedingly unpleasant outcomes, including the loss of friends or being ostracized from a community. Taking on such risk is very difficult for human beings, the most social of animals. In our age of Twitter, the risk is compounded by our greater number of human interactions, interactions that are exposed online for others to gaze upon and judge.

So what Jacobs asks of us is not at all easy. (Some of the best passages in How to Think are of Jacobs struggling with his own predisposition to fire off hot takes.) It can also seem like an absurd and unwise approach when the other side shows no willingness to put themselves in your shoes. Our current levels of polarization push against much in this book, and the structure and incentives of social media are clearly not helping.

Like any challenge that is hard and risky, overcoming it requires a concerted effort over time. Simple mental tricks will not do. Jacobs thus advocates for, in two alliterative phrases that came to mind while reading his book, habits of humility and practices of perspective-taking. To be part of a healthy social fabric—and to add threads to that fabric rather than rend it—one must constantly remind oneself of the predisposition to error, and one must repeatedly try to pause and consider, if only briefly, the source of other views you are repulsed by. (An alternative title for this book could have been How to Listen.)

Jacobs anticipates some obvious objections. He understands that facile calls for “civility,” which some may incorrectly interpret as Jacobs’ project, is often just repression in disguise. Jacobs also notes that you can still hold strong views, or agree with your group much of the time, in his framing. It’s just that you need to have a modicum of flexibility and ability to see past oneself and one’s group. Disagreements can then be worked out procedurally rather than through demonization.

Indeed, those who accept Jacobs’s call may not actually change their minds that often. What they will have achieved instead, in Jacobs’s most memorable phrase, is “a like-hearted, rather than like-minded,” state that allows them to be more neighborly with those around them and beyond their group. Enlarging the all-too-small circle of such like-hearted people is ultimately what How to Think seeks.

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