How to Think in a Post-Truth World

If you want to develop your thinking, develop your character

We frequently live in self-reinforcing bubbles; we erect strawmen; we Bulverise; we divide the world into heroes and villains, “defenders of the faith” and “repugnant cultural others”; we find it easy to react and hard to listen; we valorize and demonize; we put ourselves on the side of the angels and find it hard to see good in our out-group.

 

The day before I received my copy of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, I saw a tweet that made me chuckle. Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote, somewhat wistfully, “In school, rarely do we learn how data become facts, how facts become knowledge, and how knowledge becomes wisdom.” To which someone replied: “Hi Neil, That’s literally what we teach. Thanks for the shoutout! Sincerely, The Humanities.”

A silly exchange, but one that illustrates why Jacobs’s book is both timely and encouraging. Timely, because we’re currently swimming in a sea of punditry, post-truth, partisanship, and perpetual news, which seems to be making engaged thoughtfulness harder and harder. Encouraging, because in spite of all this, Jacobs is optimistic about the possibility of thinking:

I truly believe that there are some insufficiently explored ways to understand and ameliorate the problems we have in thinking. We have thought too much in recent years about the science of thinking, and not enough about the art. There are certain humanistic traditions, some of them quite ancient, that can come to our aid when we’re trying to think about thinking, and to get better at it.

Popularizing scientists, take note.

Thinking for Ordinary People

Jacobs is a distinguished professor of the humanities at Baylor, so you might think he wrote this book for intellectuals or academics. He didn’t. In fact, he argues that “academic life doesn’t do much to help one think” since you become an academic by getting good grades, and you only get those if you say what somebody else wants to hear. Rather, he wrote the book for ordinary people who want to learn how to think, which comes through in its length (160 pages), in its style (though most of us want to write like C. S. Lewis, Jacobs pretty much does), layout (spacious pages, clear subsections, and few footnotes), and most of all, in its helpful content.

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