Let Us Think Together

In 1637, René Descartes recounted a “fable” of how he came to think well. From his youth, he had read the books of the ancients, exercised his rhetorical skills, and observed the debates of philosophers and theologians. But in all this learning he found no rest or certainty, only endless disputes and puffed-up opinions. “Nothing solid,” he concluded, “could have been built on such unfirm foundations.” Once he escaped the control of his schoolteachers, he abandoned the “study of letters” and resolved to seek no knowledge other than what he could find in “the great book of the world”—collecting experiences and testing himself “in the encounters that fortune offered me.”

A century and a half later, Immanuel Kant promoted a similar intellectual self-reliance. It is easy to let others think for me, he wrote in 1784, “if I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who judges my diet for me.” But such indolence, he warned, was not true thinking. It was immaturity. When it comes to real, trustworthy knowledge, it’s best to rely on one’s own rational capacities––not those of books or professionals or the church.

For these two giants of European philosophy, thinking was not only a matter of well-wrought arguments but also of a well-developed character. Thinking well required autonomy and resolution. The motto of enlightenment, as Kant formulated it, was an imperative to be brave and dare to reason on your own: “Sapere aude. Have courage to use your own understanding!”

Both Descartes and Kant married philosophical argument with ethical formation: To think well requires becoming a different person, developing certain characteristics and habits, and adopting certain ends. Thinking well isn’t just a matter of the beliefs one holds but also of the desires one cultivates. Descartes and Kant wanted readers to change their lives by thinking differently. In this sense, they are part of what Alan Jacobs in his engrossing and hopeful new book calls a “humanistic tradition” of thinking about thinking.

In How to Think, Jacobs, a professor in the honors program at Baylor University, offers a straightforward but powerful argument. Knowledge, he suggests, is best understood not as right or justified belief but as a good created by people who think well because of the kind of people they have become.

In Jacobs’s account, the authority and trustworthiness of knowledge is grounded in the very character of those who create, share, and safeguard it. To believe some claim is also to trust some person. It is, ideally at least, to trust that he or she has thought well about the matter at hand—so Jacobs writes not about trustworthy knowledge but rather about the activity of thinking well. Like playing chess or basketball well, you have to practice it. Jacobs devotes a series of short chapters to elements of mental exercise, describing the energy, patience, discipline, and repetition required to better understand yourself and the world and to avoid being duped. Before replying to that Facebook post or tweet, count to 10, think about what you’re doing, and put down the phone. This is hard work, and it takes practice.

* *

When Kant reflected on the limits of reason at the end of the 18th century, he and his contemporaries were worried about the proliferation of print. Jacobs’s reflections are motivated by a similar technological concern—but whereas Kant suspected that books had begun to think for us, Jacobs worries that the prevalence of social media exacerbates our already bad intellectual habits.

In contrast to Descartes and Kant and other boosters of self-reliant rationalism, Jacobs contends that the pursuit of excellence in thinking requires exemplars. If you are to have courage and think for yourself, it can help to have a community that supports and honors thoughtful practices. Jacobs rightly distinguishes between communities of shared beliefs and communities of shared practices. Spend more time, he advises, with the latter—those who share a disposition or set of characteristics conducive to good thinking—than with those who simply espouse the same opinions. People who exemplify the traits and characteristics of good thinking might have more to teach us than those who happen to profess the same beliefs we hold. When I want to think hard about an issue, I don’t call up the folks I go canvassing with in November. I call my friend Matt, who disagrees with me on most things but knows how to think.

Jacobs’s more fundamental point is that in evaluating the trustworthiness of knowledge, we should focus not only on the properties of a particular claim or belief but also on the characteristics of the person making it. Echoing social psychologist Daniel Kahneman and German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacobs calls these characteristics biases––prejudices, customs, or emotional predispositions. Although we’re taught from a very early age to be wary of harmful biases, it is impossible to avoid biases entirely: They orient us in the world and help us manage the constant flow of information. Without biases, “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us.” One of the crucial tasks of reflection, then, is to distinguish the prejudices that help us to find truth from those that block us from it.

Thinking well also requires motivation. We think, Jacobs writes, because we hope to become “more than we currently are.” And herein lies both the promise and peril of thinking well: We only rarely know at the outset the goods that thinking well might provide. The ends of an education in thinking are often difficult to discern let alone articulate. Thinking well will always surprise and, as Jacobs notes, whoever attempts it may begin with only a vague sense of who they might become.

For Jacobs, then, thinking well is a matter of character: the character of the thinker and the character of those whose claims and arguments are being assessed. Learning to think well, he writes (channeling John Stuart Mill), is to become “alive in all your parts and therefore ready to perceive the world as it is.”

And it is this last suggestion––that thinking well should lead us to “perceive the world as it is”––that raises an important question about Jacobs’s character-based model of thinking. What is its ultimate purpose? To find truth (“what the world is really like”)? Or to cultivate plural and sometimes distinct ideals and virtues for thinking well? At times, Jacobs seems committed to the former, the view that thinking well has an external measure—truth—and his concern for thinking well is primarily a concern for the types of virtues that will most reliably lead to truth. At other times, though, Jacobs seems committed to the latter, which assumes that the ideal of an “adequate” response to the world might vary across time and space, and so thinking well in one time and place might be very different from thinking well in another. Which is it?

The notion that there are multiple ways of knowing should not be dismissed as a naïve or lazy relativism, a banal call for “open-mindedness.” It rests, rather, on the premise that no account, no vision of knowledge can ever be fully “adequate to what the world is really like,” because the world is so wondrously ordered that no single vision, however internally coherent, could ever subsume it. Call it an ethics of knowledge for a post-Newtonian world.

The compelling beauty of Jacobs’s account of a life lived well and thoughtfully shines through best in his descriptions of the ideal thinker as generous, imaginative, and caring. Unlike the virtues of intellectual self-reliance celebrated by Descartes and Kant, the virtues Jacobs extols are well suited to a world that is beautiful precisely because no one account or model or theory is ever fully adequate to it. Our vision of the intellectual habits, practices, and virtues needs to be capacious and plural. Jacobs quotes the Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” We are more fully human in our differences and constant struggle to understand them.

Such an account of thinking well would allow us to approach what the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, drawing on Gerard Manley Hopkinscalls the “dappled world” with the care, discipline, love, and humility that permeate How to Think and Jacobs’s writing generally. Our particular accounts of the world may well be true—and yet also never fully adequate to the world as it is. To acknowledge that is not a failure of thought; it is the mark of a well-thinking person. The ways we think emerge from who we are always becoming. And this is surely more adequate to a dappled world.

This review appeared October 30th, 2017 in The Weekly Standard.


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