How to Think

by Alan Jacobs

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, author Alan Jacobs argues that people have thoughts affected by their surroundings and explains how people can remove some of the problems resulting from a lack of individual critical thought. He focuses on recent American trends, paying particular attention to how people fall for the prevailing notions of their fellows. In Jacobs's view, most humans behave emotionally instead of thinking.

Jacobs argues that thinking has gone out of fashion. Attributing this to the desire to fit in with social groups, he sees modern people as akin to herd animals. Technology such as the internet has increased this problem, as social media users jump on board trending bandwagons. Rather than improving thinking, the flood of information can worsen it.

Jacob also explains the many merits of critical thinking. For example, social and economic developments such as democracy and technology derive from careful thought. As such, Jacobs argues that people should think more, as he writes that previous generations did.

For Jacobs, thinking requires objectivity. This contrasts with the subjectivity that runs rampant in popular discourse. Many modern people feel such attachment to their social groups that they pay more attention to the feelings that arise from such belonging than to any objective facts. By separating oneself from one's affiliates, one can see a more accurate picture.

Jacobs attributes political divisions in the United States and elsewhere to this lack of thought. If people thought more honestly, they would see each other's opinions for what they are. Instead of fighting, people would make progress together, and assessment of facts would replace mere arguing. In How to Think, Jacobs writes that people often do not think as well as they should.

Such matters strike me as both interesting and important: given the questions that constantly confront us as persons and societies, about health and illness, justice and injustice, sexuality and religion, wouldn't we all benefit from a better understanding of what it means to think well?

For Jacobs, the act of thinking can be a useful way to prevent or improve social problems. In addition, it can offer its own emotional rewards. Thinking can also pose dangers if done poorly, however. Therefore, it is important for people to develop methods for arriving at appropriate conclusions.

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