Alan Jacobs’s wonderful new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds never mentions the concept of black magic. But it offers a lively antidote to magical thinking nonetheless.

As any wizard knows, to practice magic is to marshal the powers of the universe into a concentrated point. Spirits, forces of nature, and other humans are subjected to the magician’s wishes. If I practice magic, I am trying to bend reality to my will. Aleister Crowley, the magician dubbed the “wickedest man in the world,” famously summed up the occultist philosophy: “Do what thou will is the whole of the law.”

This might sound like the stuff of medieval fantasy, but a quick glance at our culture confirms that habits of magical thinking are stubbornly persistent. Wherever one finds groups and individuals intent on ramming an agenda through the system—perhaps by manipulating boardroom membership, stacking organizations with the “right” people, or enacting ideologically driven purges—one finds shades of black magic. We don’t call political lobbying the “dark arts” for nothing.

Petitions, protests, and popular rallies reveal our deeply ingrained belief that voices shouting loudly in unison can shape reality. In today’s climate, many of us crave clear battle lines between good and evil and abhor anyone who dares admit that complex problems don’t have simple answers. And heaven help any poor public figures foolish enough to sincerely change their minds.

Repugnant Cultural Others

All these trends have hampered our ability to think carefully, judiciously, and generously. As a professor and public intellectual, Jacobs is well aware of the difficulties posed not so much by a lack of thinking, but instead by the way we think. “For me,” he writes, “the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will.”

We’re alarmingly content to retreat into cultural bunkers, adopting a scorched-earth, winner-take-all mentality and a violent attitude toward argument and disagreement. Debate becomes warfare, thinking becomes a weapon, and people with opposing ideas become enemies who must be dehumanized before they can be defeated. In such an atmosphere, changing one’s mind is an act of betrayal, and friendship with the opponent is treason. Jacobs thinks this is detrimental to society because “it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors, even when they are quite literally our neighbors. . . . We can do better; we should do better.”

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An important category for Jacobs is the repugnant cultural other (RCO). “Everyone today seems to have an RCO, and everyone’s RCO is on social media somewhere.” Every cultural subgroup can identify some other subgroup as beyond the pale. The tribal instinct is deep: We are naturally drawn to those in the in-group, and we feel disgust at those in the out-group. “Anyone,” Jacobs argues, “who claims not to be shaped by such forces is almost certainly self-deceived. Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world.” Yet, like other universal human traits such as rage, panic, or lust, we should resist the lure of hating the RCO, as it inhibits real thinking. If you want to think well, says Jacobs, you “will have to practice patience and master fear.”

For Jacobs, thinking rightly involves loving rightly. People with different ideas are not repugnant monsters. They are persons who, given a slight tweak in circumstances, could be you. Not incidentally, they are also your neighbors; if you are a Christian, you are commanded to love them as yourself. Thus, thinking involves self-awareness and empathy.

Throughout the book, Jacobs builds an argument that feeling—especially empathy and fellowship—is crucial for thinking. Drawing from the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Jacobs writes, “When people have limited or non-existent emotional responses to situations . . . their decision making is seriously compromised. They use reason alone—and, it turns out, reason alone is an insufficient guide to action. . . . We need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones.”

The trick is not to detach our thinking from all feelings of fellowship with other humans, as culture-warrior logic would seem to demand. Instead, we need to learn “to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst.” Thinking rightly is about character formation. And character is, at least in part, a function of the people with whom we spend our time.

A related theme in How to Think is the importance of cultivating a willingness to change one’s mind. For Jacobs, this is no mere matter of acquiring new data. It is about the character of the thinker. “Indeed, this . . . is what it means to have character: to be fully alive in all your parts and therefore to be ready to perceive the world as it is—and to act responsibly toward it.” People who have acquired this disposition can be “broken on the floor”—that is, they’ve learned to be comfortable with changing their mind during a debate. Not only do such people show a refreshing openness to facts and contrary evidence, they also offer “a testimony to the belief that the people you’re debating are decent people who don’t want to harm or manipulate you—whereas if you don’t trust people you’re unlikely to allow them anything like a ‘victory’ over you. This suggests that the problem of belonging and non-belonging, affiliation and separations, is central to the task of learning how to think.”

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Jacobs warns against dangerous and deeply embedded metaphors in our common discourse—namely, “argument as a form of warfare.” Examples abound: Claims are indefensible; we attack weak points; we defend strong points; criticisms are right on target; we demolish counter arguments; our ideas getshot down, and so on. “The identification of argument with war is so complete,” Jacobs writes, “that if you try to suggest some alternative way of thinking about what argument is—It’s an attempt to achieve mutual understanding; It’s a means of clarifying your views—you’re almost certainly going to be denounced as a wishy-washy, namby-pamby, sissy-britches.”

As Jacobs points out, losing an argument can be embarrassing, but it can also indicate that we’ve sided with the wrong people. And if the argument is the functional equivalent of a war against an unambiguously vile enemy, then we’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid that outcome. “There are many situations,” Jacobs writes, “in which we lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate.” Dehumanizing people, reducing them to mere mouthpieces of ideas we hate, “is a great price to pay for supposed ‘victory.’”

For Jacobs, failing to recognize the value of other people and perspectives is an ethical failure. But we resist this truth because it unsettles the tribal instinct we all share. As Jacobs observes, “The potential costs of learning your opponent’s moral dialect are so high.” When you humanize them, they no longer qualify as an RCO. This will undoubtedly upset your tribe, but perhaps you’ll discover, along the way, that your in-group is not the sole repository of truth after all.

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Empathy, Wisdom, and Grace

How to Think is chock-full of examples and advice for how to cultivate the character of the thinking person. There is even a handy checklist at the back. Highlights include: “Give it five minutes” before firing off a stinging rejoinder on social media; value learning over debating; avoid those who fan the flames (especially those on your side); and seek out the best and fairest versions of ideas with which you disagree.

Throughout the book, Jacobs is persuasive and sensible, and his writing is fluid, clear, and winsome. Longtime readers know his talent for sitting patiently with deep ideas. But for the most part, How to Think takes somewhat of a scattershot approach, with several authors fleetingly referenced and then passed over. For instance, as the author of a biography on Søren Kierkegaard, I would have appreciated a deeper engagement with the Danish theologian’s insights about the dangers of group-think and the fundamentally inhuman nature of tribal love, which demands that one exclude more and more people from one’s circle of affection.

At the risk of enlisting another violent metaphor, I found myself wishing that Jacobs did not pull his punches quite so often. This is an important book that handles its arguments with a light touch. Perhaps too light. Jacobs paints a broad picture and expects the reader to fill in the details. Alas, I suspect that people so embedded in the dehumanizing practices he describes will be unlikely, unwilling, or simply unable to see themselves in his prose. After all, it’s those who automatically dismiss unfavorable reports against their chosen political team as “fake news” or rely exclusively on information from “trusted” websites and cable news shows who most need to read this book. But I’m pessimistic as to whether they will.

Indeed, Jacobs recognizes this problem. More than once, he acknowledges doubts about reaching people who fear out-groups, tilt at straw men, and shine the worst possible light on arguments and opponents they detest. Instead, he seems to be writing for people who already sense that the scorched-earth method of culture-warring has ravaged our ability to think—and to love. In other words, he is preaching to a choir already primed to want something better. Fortunately, those in the choir will find the empathy, wisdom, and grace they seek. The rest of the tribe will have to settle for black magic.

Stephen Backhouseis the lecturer in social and political theology at St. Mellitus College in London. He is the author of several books, including Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan).

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How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Release Date
October 17, 2017
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