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20 Thinking Quotes From “How to Think” by Alan Jacobs

For the past decade, Ms.Dora has been sharing poetry, creative writing, positive quotes, and reflections online. Her aim is life enrichment.


Generally, when people share our opinions we credit them with good thinking. When they disagree with us, we find someone or something to blame for leading their thinking astray. We can do better. In How to Think, Alan Jacobs promises that those of us who are willing can receive help to diagnose the forces that prevent genuine thinking and learn how to improve in this life-giving skill.

The quotes below are the some of the bones inside the meat of his presentation, composed of anecdotes from the lives of people we know or heard about, and illustrations and research presented by several psychologists and other authors on the subject. Family members, politicians, debaters and anyone else interested in good thinking may receive clues from these quotes and develop an appetite for more teaching on the topic. Healthy thinking improves relationships.

Thinking is fundamentally an art.

Thinking is fundamentally an art.

General Principles of Thinking

1. This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment.

2. The whole person must be engaged, all the faculties present and accounted for, in order for real thinking to take place.

3. Thinking is fundamentally an art, and art is notoriously resistant to strict rules.

4. The fundamental problem we have may be best described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.

5. Thinking does not have a destination, a stopping point, a “Well, we’re finally here” … What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.

Good Principles

6. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.

7. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

8. Reason alone is an insufficient guide to action. . . We need the biases, the emotional predispositions … Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.

9. We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves. But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others...This disposition is the royal road that carries us to the shining portal called Learning to Think.

10. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

Not-Good Principles

11. One of the chief ways you prove yourself worth of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear … Academic life doesn’t do much to help one think.

12. You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you … have the “wrong” website open in your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap” - generally, not a good sign.

Thinking Complications

13. Relatively, few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives... Who needs thinking?

14. Those who believe that they are impeccably thoughtful turn out to be some of the worst offenders against good sense.

15. To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.

16. The most dangerous metaphors for us are the ones that cease to be recognizable metaphors. For many people the analogy between brain and computer has reached that point: the brain isn’t like a computer, they think it is a computer.

Dismissal of Independent Thinking

17. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is … social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.

18. By reading, a man already having some wisdom can gain far more; but it is equally true that reading can make a man already inclined toward foolishness far, far more foolish.

19. Some form of membership is absolutely necessary for thinking… The only remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.

20. There can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition that among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.

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© 2017 Dora Weithers

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