Hi. This is the blog for my forthcoming book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, which will be published in the U.S. by Convergent Books in October of 2017. There won’t be much to see here until then, but once the book is out I’ll be posting links to books and articles that have shaped my approach to the subject, and exploring in further detail some of the book’s ideas.
Why did I write this book?
Over the past few years I have become increasingly saddened by the condition of the public sphere — especially (though not only) here in America. It has become a morass of bile, invective, deliberate and accidental misunderstanding, mistrust of neighbors, and comprehensive misunderstanding (or non-understanding) of the issues in dispute. All this has grieved me, especially since I know and love people on all sides of the current culture wars. I am a Southerner and a Christian, but I am also an academic who spends a good deal of time interacting with people who don’t understand Southerners or Christians very well. And then the assumptions many of my fellow Christians make about academics….
I’ve thought a great deal, as our ability to get along with one another has lessened, about what our major afflictions are — the major causes of our discontent and mutual suspicion. And I’ve wondered whether there might be some contribution I could make to the healing of these wounds, given that I’m neither a politician nor a pundit.
Eventually two important points occurred to me. The first is that many of our fiercest disputes occur because the people involved simply aren’t thinking: they’re reacting or emoting or virtue-signaling or ingroup-identifying. The second is that I have spent my entire career thinking and trying to teach others to think.
When those points became clear in my mind I understood what I needed to do. I further realized that if I can communicate something of what I’ve learned about thinking, then perhaps that will not only address the present moment in America, but will have something to offer other and later audiences too. And that’s why the book, though relevant to Now, won’t be as purely topical one. I want to write something of lasting value. That’s the dream, anyway.
I have learned a great deal from work by recent cognitive scientists — Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is obviously a central text for anyone who cares about this subject — but I also believe that we don’t pay enough attention nowadays to some wonderful insights from literature and philosophy, and I hope to remedy that deficiency in my account. Some of my key themes:
- the dangers of thinking against others
- the need to find the best people to think with
- the error of believing that we can think for ourselves
- how thinking can be in conflict with belonging
- the dangers of words that do our thinking for us
- when to be a lumper and when to be a splitter (explanation)
- David Foster Wallace, English usage, and the Democratic Spirit
More than one publisher was interested in this project, but when I spoke to the editorial team at Convergent I knew that they absolutely got what I am trying to do — and that’s enormously reassuring to a writer. I am grateful to them, and to the person who made this relationship happen, my agent Christy Fletcher — the best agent imaginable, and infinitely better than I deserve.
So with all that support, I am already deeply into this project and loving every minute of it. I hope you’ll find the result worthwhile. Thinking is hard, really hard, and there are a thousand forces at work preventing us from doing it. But we can all think better. And if we learn to think together, then maybe we can learn to live together too.