How to Think

A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

[Amazon Link]

I think I put this book on my to-get pile via recommendation from Arnold Kling's blog. Thanks to the University Near Here's diligent ILL workers, who snagged me a copy from—egads—Ball State University, out in Muncie, Indiana. It's a short book (156 pages), but it's full of insight, wit, and wisdom. The author, Alan Jacobs, is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University. But don't hold that against him.

It starts by noting that a lot of books about thinking have a trait in common: "they're really depressing to read." (True, but I would add: if you're in a certain frame of mind, they can be pretty funny too.) But Jacobs' point is that they concentrate on all the many, many, many ways our thoughts can lead us astray, by falling into one or more of they myriad traps: all sorts of biases, fallacies, illusions, and innumeracies. Jacobs observes: "What a chronicle of ineptitude, arrogance, sheer dumbassery."

Jacobs doesn't shy away describing such pitfalls, but he has a number of good ideas about how to avoid them. We can, and should, do better, and here's how.

It would be weird if some of Jacobs' examples didn't come from the world of politics. He handles them artfully and (to my mind, even though I am a sensitive snowflake about such things) inoffensively. I came away with no particular idea about what Jacobs' political positions are. As it should be, I suppose.

I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of the authors Jacobs quotes and draws upon are some of the ones I've learned from too: Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, David Foster Wallace, … But also some I probably should go back and study: C. S. Lewis, Eric Hoffer, …

Spoiler alert: the book's Afterword contains the "Thinking Person's Checklist", and some brave soul has Twitterized it:

In short: highly recommended to anyone honestly concerned with the quality of their thinking. I should probably buy the damn thing and re-read it every couple months.

Last Modified 2022-09-30 9:28 AM EDT