It’s Worse than You Suspect: We Can’t Think our Way Out of Decline

Given our splintered, irresolute wills, Alan Jacobs’s concept of thinking that “we can do better,” even if “we ought to,” is not enough. It’s going to take more than hope and a checklist.

If memory serves, my middle school offered instruction in “The Problem Solving Method.” I was unimpressed, concluding it was simultaneously obvious and useless. Everyone knows one needs to select and implement a solution; the issue is figuring out what that solution is, and the method provides no assistance in discerning it. Either the method simply articulated the way intelligence worked, and thus was an unnecessary codification of what we naturally do, or the method should somehow provide help once intelligence failed, but since the method can’t circumvent the need for intelligence it is both obvious and useless.

Thirty years later, I remain skeptical that such methodologies offer much. For instance, during my career I have worked at several organizations that required their employees to complete courses on discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace. While the problems are serious, the courses alternate between the insultingly obvious and the useless. For a person of good will and prudence, the guidance “Do Not Discriminate” or “Avoid Improper Contact and Conversation” is hardly eye-opening. The very same guidance is completely ineffectual for the person of ill will or bad character; respect for persons does not suddenly emerge because PowerPoint commands it.

I found myself similarly unpersuaded by Alan Jacobs’s recent book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. In fact, because I admire Jacobs and generally find his work insightful, I avoided writing the review I had promised some months ago. I didn’t want to write a negative review, especially one sputtering out disgruntled comments of “obvious” or “useless” or quoting Dr. Johnson’s supposed remark that the “manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” I had no interest in taking shots at a thinker from whom I generally learn something valuable, so I just set it aside.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, however, an acquaintance suggested that Jacobs’s text should be required reading, and I discovered that the book had received wide praise from many luminaries: David Brooks highly praised the book, as did Rod Dreher, The American Interest, and The Atlantic. So I reread it in hopes that I would see what they had, but to no avail.

I’m not trying to be mean-spirited in using the terms “obvious” and “useless.” Instead, I’m trying to make a larger point about reason in our society, a point Jacobs makes himself before skating past its implications.

Let me explain.

Thinking Socially

Borrowing from the work of Daniel Kahneman, Jacobs distinguishes between “fast” and “slow” thinking. Fast thinking is intuitive, the snap judgments we make multiple times a day, rooted in past experience and predisposition. Life and action would be almost impossible to navigate without fast thinking, for we would be trapped in an endless pattern of reflection and second-guessing if we stopped to think about everything. Fast thinking is how we operate, or at least until things fall apart and we reconsider or correct our usual approach, which we do through thinking “slow.” Jacobs is mainly interested in “slow” thinking, the means by which we go about challenging, augmenting, correcting, or even fundamentally revising our intuitions and habitual ways of approaching the world.

In explaining this, Jacobs suggests (rightly) that the main issue is not simply “overcoming bias.” Many seem to have a naïve view of thinking in which objectivity is tantamount to evacuating our subjectivity. However, removing our anticipations would mean a collapse of “slow” thinking and essentially would freeze our ability to think at all, let alone to correct our thought. Further, thinking is less conceptual, less clear, and not composed of discrete individualized thoughts as many suppose. Thinking would be impossible if thought were not a tangled web of anticipations, affects, images, heuristics, clusters of thought, socially inherited meanings (memes), and “grooves” or patterns of intelligibility. While overcoming bias sounds promising, it misunderstands how thinking actually happens and would result more in paralysis than in free thinking.

In fact, much of the book argues that thought looks very little like defined terms in clearly phrased and discrete premises leading to a conclusion. Instead, we generally don’t think for ourselves but think socially, through encountering others, especially unexpected others or others presumed to be repugnant who surprise us with their attractive point of view. Jacobs suggests our groups shape how we think and feel. Thus, learning to think well is about learning to socialize well, or at least better, by avoiding the sorts of people who “fan flames,” while gravitating to people “who can handle disagreement with equanimity.” Further, thought is affective, often initiated and sustained by what attracts or repulses. Nothing would be as illogical (or as inhuman) as a purely logical system of thought. This is especially so since words are not as pristine as the content-free “s,” “p,” or “q” of our logic textbooks; words have texture, they reveal group identity, they signal virtue, they contain symbolic or existential weight, and even act as mythical frameworks providing meaning for other actions and words.

Jacobs is moving in the right directions here; in fact, I find the book so disappointing because he avoids the implications of his best insights. As he notes, thinking well is rather less about thinking than about willing: “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.” We think poorly because we do not want to think well. Not only do we not put our minds to it (a kind of laziness), but we often do not want the truth. Humans love darkness rather than light, especially when that darkness is comforting. In addition to plain old error, our minds can be darkened because our wills are disordered.

As Jacobs suggests, the many books cataloguing how the mind errs are “really depressing to read” in their “astonishingly detailed and wide-ranging litany of the ways that thinking goes astray—the infinitely varied paths we can take toward the seemingly inevitable dead end of Getting It Wrong.” Especially if we remember social dynamics, such as the desire to belong to the Inner Ring, to avoid the “Repugnant Cultural Other,” to or punish the Outgroup, it seems we won’t get to the truth and don’t want to anyway.

Simply Thinking—or Hoping—is not Enough

When faced with a recalcitrant or disordered will, the imperative is generally ineffective. Think, for instance, of the commands-to-self you might use to get yourself out of bed in the pre-dawn chill, or to hit the gym, or to avoid ice cream, or to refuse to give in to temptation. “Get up!” you say—but while this imperative is obvious, it remains quite useless absent an act of will. “Stop being petty and envious, learn to celebrate the success of your competitor!” you demand—but while this may state a truth or moral or manner, your good will is hardly guaranteed. We don’t really command our will until and unless our will is already predisposed to be commanded. Consequently, I find Jacobs’s “Thinking Person’s Checklist” utterly sensible, even wise, but non-responsive to the very problem he hopes to address—the will. For instance: “value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory’ . . . Be brave . . . 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.” Yes, of course, my grandmother told me this. These suggestions are so obviously sound that most thoughtful people agree and suppose that they already do these things. Coming up with the list is easy.

Despite his best attempts and his explicit rejection of the error, Jacobs capitulates to a kind of rationalism, the notion that there is some technique to solving the human—oh, so human—things. It’s not accidental that the usual suspects pop up in the book—Kahneman and Gladwell—just about where one would expect a difficult human predicament to be glossed over with a technique, one that is probably true but generally ineffective at dealing with the stubborn matter that is man.

Jacobs might object that his whole point was to reject rationalism’s undue optimism, especially its sense of the individual mind exerting a sovereign dominance over itself without sociality and formation. After all, Jacobs insists that overcoming biases does not guarantee thinking well. That’s true, which is why the book is an exercise in self-contradiction, for Jacobs rightly grasps and explains the will’s distortion of reason and our plans for improvement, but in the end his proposal is captive to the very rationalism he rejects.

Bravery is a virtue. Honesty is a virtue. Fairness and truthfulness are virtues. The desire for truth rather than victory requires virtue. The seeking of good friends requires virtue. Attainment of such virtue requires moral conversions, not checklists. While it is completely obvious that such conversion is necessary in order to think and act well, mere acknowledgment of that fact does not bring it about. The rationalist mind, so prevalent in our political discourse and endemic in our political elites, continues to judge that if you identify a problem, and if that problem ought to be solved, then it is resolvable in principle; we just need the right solution. In part, this is behind the insipid Progressivism infecting so much of the electorate, as well as the simmering frustration and rage of the body politic. Stage One: there is a problem, we ought to fix it, that we ought to fix it implies that we can fix it, all we need to do is get busy fixing it—ergo, hope for change. Stage Two: the problem has not been fixed, but it ought to have been fixed, our hopes are dashed, but this is clearly someone’s fault because it could have been fixed if they simply got busy fixing it—ergo, simmering frustration and resentment at whoever should have fixed it but didn’t.

Jacobs admits that the long catalogue of ways thinking can go wrong is “depressing,” especially once we admit these are not simply computing errors but also defects of will. Yet, mere pages after setting out the besetting problem of the will, he asserts, “we can do better; we should do better,” and, “it won’t be easy; that’s part of the point. But we can do this.”

That’s bumper sticker optimism. As is the concluding sentiment—and sentiment it is—of the final chapter: “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.” But hope is either shabby sentiment or metaphysical reality, and Jacobs gives in to sentiment, to really “want something to happen or be true,” as when someone hopes to win the lottery. In its more robust meaning, however, hope requires us “to have at our disposal the means of securing” the object of our hope.

For those of us who’ve read Augustine, and thus are inoculated against progressive sentimentalism, there is little hope of fundamentally altering the human will as would be needed for us to think and live as we ought. Given our splintered, irresolute wills, I have much less confidence than Jacobs that “we can do better,” even if “we ought to.” It’s going to take more than hope and a checklist.

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