Four Smart Guys Sit Down to Talk about “How to Think”

Written by: Justin Taylor

how to think alan jacobs

Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, has just published a book entitled How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

This morning the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt adapted from the book, asking “Can Evangelicals and Academic Talk to Each Other?”

The American Enterprise Institute recently sponsored an event where Jacobs gave a brief overview of the book, followed by a panel discussion about the book.

Jacobs is joined by two thoughtful public intellectuals—Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution and Pete Wehner of the Ethics & Public Policy Center—and the discussion is moderated by the ever-thoughtful Yuval Levin of National Affairs.

After 10 minutes of introductory remarks by Jacobs, the panel chats for 35 minutes or so, followed by questions and answers from the audience.

In his TGC review of the book, Andrew Wilson reproduces some of the takeaways:

  • Think slowly.
  • When reading or listening to something you disagree with, give it five minutes before responding.
  • Give up trying to “think for yourself”; it’s impossible. Instead, belong to multiple communities so that your natural desire to have all your opinions validated by others is gently challenged.
  • Don’t underestimate, let alone try to eliminate, the emotional and relational components of thinking; they’re more important than we realize.
  • Recognize how your tendency to express solidarity with your “in-group” can close down critical reflection altogether.
  • Distinguish carefully between means and ends.
  • Act with the awareness that people who agree with you won’t always be in charge.
  • Choose your metaphors carefully; if you use military imagery for disagreement (won, lost, shot down, demolished, indefensible) or machine imagery for human brains, the metaphors will control your language and eventually your thought.
  • Avoid bad-faith habits like “in other wordsing” and “the false we.”
  • Before you critique another person’s argument, make sure you can express their argument to their satisfaction.
  • Spend more time with books, and less time online.
  • If you want to develop your thinking, develop your character.

If you are curious for what Jacobs thinks is “the number-one impediment to thinking,” here’s what he told Emma Green:

In a pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with difference. One of the ways in which we typically deal with difference is by drawing really clear lines of belonging and not-belonging. To be able to signal “who is with me” and “who is not with me”—in-groups and out-groups—is extremely significant for human beings.

(For more on the in-group, out-group, and far-group, see this post by Scott Alexander.)


Several years ago, John Frame wrote up some guidelines for his students on how to write a theological paper.

Here are a few that stand out and are worth emulating in the quest to become better writers, thinkers, and theologians.

Understand your sources.

Scripture texts ought to be fully exegeted. With other sources, I generally write out complete outlines of the ones that are most important. If I am reviewing a book (at some length, at least) I usually outline the entire volume, seeking to understand precisely the structure of the arguments, what is being said and how it is being said. Those sources which are less important, that is, those which will be referred to only in passing or of which only small portions are of interest, can be treated with proportionately less intensity; but the theologian is responsible to make correct use even of incidental sources.

Ask questions about your sources.

What is the author’s purpose?

What questions is he trying to answer, and how does he answer them? Try to paraphrase his position as best you can.

Is his position clear? Analyze any ambiguities.

What is he saying on the best possible interpretation? On the worst? On the most likely? . . .

Formulate a critical perspective on your sources.

How do you evaluate them? . . . There must always be some evaluation, positive or negative; if you don’t know what is good or bad about the source, you cannot make any responsible use of it. With a scriptural text as a source, of course, the evaluation should always be positive. With other texts, there will generally be some element of negative evaluation . . .

Ask, then, What do I want to tell my audience on the basis of my research?

Determine one or more points that you think your readers, hearers, viewers (etc.) ought to know. The structure of your presentation should be fully determined by that purpose. Omit anything extraneous. You do not need to tell your audience everything you have learned. Here are some things you might choose to do at this point.

(a) Ask questions. Sometimes a well-formulated question can be edifying, even if the theologian has no answer. It is good for us to learn what is mysterious, what is beyond our comprehension.

(b) Analyze a theological text or group of them. Analysis is not “exposition” (above) but “explanation.” It describes why the text is organized or phrased in a certain way—its historical background, its relations to other texts, and so forth.

(c) Compare or contrast two or more positions. Show their similarities and differences. (d) Develop implications and applications of the texts.

(e) Supplement the texts in some way. Add something to their teaching that you think is important.

(f) Offer criticism—positive or negative evaluation.

(g) Present some combination of the above. The point, of course, is to be clear on just what you are doing.

Be self-critical.

Before and during your writing, anticipate objections. If you are criticizing Barth, imagine Barth looking over your shoulder, reading your manuscript, giving his reactions. This point is crucial. A truly self-critical attitude can save you from unclarity and unsound arguments. It will also keep you from arrogance and unwarranted dogmatism—faults common to all theology (liberal as well as conservative). Don’t hesitate to say “probably” or even “I don’t know” when the circumstances warrant. Self-criticism will also make you more “profound.” For often—perhaps usually—it is objections that force us to rethink our positions, to get beyond our superficial ideas, to wrestle with the really deep theological issues. As you anticipate objections to your replies to objections to your replies, and so forth, you will find yourself being pushed irresistibly into the realm of the “difficult questions,” the theological profundities.

In self-criticism the creative use of the theological imagination is tremendously important. Keep asking such questions as these.

(a) Can I take my source’s idea in a more favorable sense? A less favorable one?

(b) Does my idea provide the only escape from the difficulty, or are there others?

(c) In trying to escape from one bad extreme, am I in danger of falling into a different evil on the other side?

(d) Can I think of some counter-examples to my generalizations?

(e) Must I clarify my concepts, lest they be misunderstood?

(f) Will my conclusion be controversial and thus require more argument than I had planned?



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