Lehner offers practical tips for improving life with philosophy

Ulrich Lehner, William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, sat down with the Rover for a conversation about his new book Think Better: Unlocking the Power of Reason. 

The conversation covered a wide swath of topics ranging from the emotivism that drives political division in the modern U.S. to daily habits for maintaining order and sanity. Lehner’s book, which was published in November 2021, offers to “help readers understand what reason is and how to use it well.”

In both the introduction to the book and in the interview, Lehner immediately established the personal nature of his project. He told the Rover that after an ADHD diagnosis, he began to reflect, asking how he was able to succeed as an academic despite being, according to his doctor, a worse listener than 95% of peers. The answer, he discovered, is philosophy.

Lehner told the Rover: “It was predominantly philosophy that taught me to be intellectually disciplined, rigorous, and curious. And after realizing that, I thought, ‘I’m sure I’m not the only person with this problem. Why don’t I write something about why philosophy saved me?’”

This personal realization, Lehner realized, was also relevant to society at the time, as deep division and malaise manifested during the 2020 election: “People yelled at each other instead of trying to reason and look at each other’s arguments,” he recalled.

Lehner wrote the book for a wide audience. He told the Rover that, wanting to avoid writing something that was either “fluffy” or  “super specialized,” he intended to write the book as a “guide for self-discovery.”

He said: “My intention was to take the reader by the hand, point to some things, and raise questions the reader might not have seen—perhaps perspectives he or she might not have had—and then let him or her make that discovery [him or her]self. So, [it became] a kind of a meditative philosophical introduction.”

Reviewers lauded the book for its easy-to-read style. Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote, “This book is perfect for the introductory college classroom and the lay reader looking to, well, think better.”

Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, praised the book as a “highly accessible text.” In an email exchange with the Rover, Smith said, “The crucial importance of clear thinking in pursuit of our best possible understanding of the truth has increasingly been pushed aside in recent years by many groups’ desire for power and money at the expense of the common good. The levels of blatant lying, gaslighting, personal attacks, fake news, and power grabs have been advancing us to shocking new levels of post-truth culture.”

Smith continued, “It is supremely important at this moment for a resistance to stand up and insist upon the possibility of shared accountability to truth based on argument, evidence, sound reasoning, and persuasion. Those are necessary elements of any decent civilization, which is now under real threat by both the extreme right and left. Ulrich’s book is a valuable contribution to that kind of cultural intervention.”

When asked how one might shift from the current polarized atmosphere of discourse to a more gracious way of dialogue, Lehner noted society’s “eroded concept of friendship,” stating, “We are very proud of inclusivity and integration and dialogue, but ultimately, most of us are in echo chambers.”

He continued, “We just have to be brutally honest and say, ‘We live in bubbles,’ and not pat ourselves on the shoulder for how engaging we are with others if we really are not [having dialogue].”

Lehner suggested that places like Notre Dame, where people share deep Catholic commitments and have different political views, can be a catalyst for “disagreement in friendship.” Lehner indicated that this friendship should be formed in the classroom.

In his graduate class, “Discourses on Modernity,” rather than one student giving a presentation and answering questions, two students argue a point and then offer rebuttals, Lehner explained. “This works best if you are taking the side of the author that you don’t agree with … because then you actually have to go into that person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective … [This] requires humility, though: it requires the idea that you might not be God’s gift to the world,” he said.

When asked about the connection between the need to think through one’s principles instead of just feeling them and the need for empathy in discourse, Lehner emphasized that “empathy is not a feeling.” He discusses this topic in chapter 15 of the book, “Empathy Is Achieved by Hard Thinking,” where he brings Edith Stein’s study on empathy to bear on questions of leadership and virtue. He quoted Stein as saying, “If you’re trying to feel what the other person feels, you’ll make yourself the center.” Ultimately, Lehner said, “[Empathy is] actually a lot more brain work than emotional work.”

He applied this turn away from emotivism—which asserts that ethical statements are nothing more than expressions of emotion—to his philosophy of decision-making, as well, saying, “I can’t argue with feelings. They’re just a statement about what’s going on on your hormonal level, on your psychological level. I can’t engage with that. If [people] reasoned, they would develop arguments; they would have standards that people can share … and not individual little universes that are incompatible.”

In keeping with the down-to-earth approach of the book, the Rover’s conversation with Lehner concluded with a discussion of practical tips drawn from the book to help incorporate the power of reason in daily life.

Lehner proposed three items. “First, be attentive. Ask yourself: what was I attentive to today? What was different? What looked like a difference that I’ve perceived today that was profound?”

In chapter 10 of the book, titled “Thinking Happens in a Soul, Not a Computer,” Lehner argues that attentiveness reminds us that the human brain is not a computer, and that first-person experience is unrepeatable. Lehner added that “the adventure of discovery, of encounter,” will involve small moments of beauty like the experience of a sunrise or a snow crystal. These deeply personal experiences of beauty are reminders of personhood.

Second, Lehner addressed practical goals, which he connects to humility in chapter two of the book. He said: “Have small, achievable goals, and be imaginative, be colorful, because we are animals that work with very direct impressions. So if you make a goal, make it as concrete as possible.”

Lastly, Lehner enjoined, “Work on both patience and discipline. Be content with the small steps you make better every day and be content that your discipline grows. It doesn’t come overnight. But little things can help you to achieve a lot.”

He continued, “Have rituals that help put you in a certain mindset. So for example, you will see me every day on campus with a tie. Even when we had a pandemic and we were all working from a home office, I put on my white shirt and my tie and my cufflinks and sat like that in my home office every day. Why? Because it gives you a certain structure. The moment you put on your tie, you are put in a certain mindset. The priest, when he puts on his stole, prepares himself for a holy ritual. So have rituals that help you structure your day. If you’re religious, have prayer structure your day. So the few really important habits are attention, patience and discipline, and rituals.”

As Lehner suggested, incorporation of reason, order, empathy, and discipline ought to occur in all areas of life; such a place as Notre Dame, where spiritual, intellectual, physical, and other pursuits are brought together to form an integrated whole, could provide fertile ground for this formation. In Christian Smith’s words: “Individual people, churches, society, and the world will be much better off if this book has the impact that it deserves.”

Luke Dardis is a freshman from Louisiana majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. He is in the market for more interesting details to put in his bio. Suggestions can be made at ldardis@nd.edu.

Josh Gilchrist is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a supplementary major in theology. When he’s not in the library or the PLS lounge, you can find him running around the lakes, mixing drinks, or enjoying a good conversation over a cigar. You can reach him at jgilchri@nd.edu.

Photo credit: University of Notre Dame, Department of Theology