The Thinking Virtues: a book review

As a Christian, I care about growing in character, but beyond character formation, it is also imperative that we give space for our intellectual formation. Philip Dow, author of the new book from IVP academic, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation, argues that. “Our intellectual character influences our lives just as moral character does,  and with at least as much force. The only difference is that intellectual character is concerned not with  our actions as much as the thinking habits we are developing as we seek to use knowledge (22).”

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation by Philip Dow

In this thought-provoking book, Dow explores the habits which contribute to our mental formation, discusses the fruits of  good thinking habits and offers suggestions for how we can become people of intellectual character. In the appendices Dow shares how intellectual virtue is taught in an educational context (especially at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya where Dow is superintendent). The intended audience for this book is educators and parents, but I think it has significant things to say to all of us.  As a parent I want to teach my kids to think well, but I also want to think well myself!  Dow’s advice will help us as parents and teachers pass on good thinking habits and it will help the rest of us attend to our own mental formation.

In part one of Virtuous Minds, Dow describes the seven habits of the virtuous mind. These include:

  • Intellectual Courage– honest thinking which is willing to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of truth. 
  • Intellectual Carefulness coming to judicious conclusion, attending to details and not taking short cuts.
  • Intellectual Tenacity-a commitment to stretching yourself mentally in striving through mental difficulties.
  • Intellectual Fair-Mindedness- a willingness to give a fair-hearing to other views and competing hypotheses.
  • Intellectual Curiosity- A commitment to lifelong-learning in the service of noble aims (i.e. some curiosity will kill cats, but curiosity which is not motivated out of self-interest can lead to important discoveries and new insights).
  • Intellectual Honesty- Committing to the truth both as an end and as a means (not cutting corners, cheating, engaging in falsehoods).
  • Intellectual Humility- Taking on the status of ‘lifelong-learner’ rather than ‘expert’  and being humble enough to receive correction in your thinking.

Part two explores the fruits of intellectual character formation.  Good thinking habits help you know more and think better. But lest we relegate the benefits of intellectual formation to the cognitive sphere,  learning to think carefully and well about God, the world, your neighbor, current events, social issues, etc., actually enables us to love God and others better. Of course the ‘benefits’ are not the thing itself, and intellectual formation is simply a dogged quest for ‘the truth.’ The benefits come from our commitment to learning and knowing truth.

In part three Dow has an eye for what this looks like in practice. In one chapter he gives suggestions of how we can grow in our intellectual character. In the next, he gives suggestions for parents and educators on how to pass on formational thinking habits.  His personal suggestions come in the form of ‘steps’ toward forming an action plan to develop a virtuous mind. His suggestions for educators and parents come in the form of guiding principles which will aid in passing this information on to others (especially youth and children).

Dow never makes intellectual formation an all-inclusive pursuit. Of course we want to attend to people’s spiritual health, moral formation, social skills, etc. But our intellectual habits will impact these  other areas as well. Dow demonstrates that our intellectual formation (or malformation) does impact other spheres as well.  I found myself underlining a lot in this book.

I especially liked how Dow uses the concept of virtue. In moral philosophy, virtue and character formation happens through habitual practice.  We become virtuous by consistently and habitually engaging in virtuous acts. In this book, Dow names the habits which make us into good thinkers. When I consider each of his seven habits of  ‘intellectually formed thinkers,’ I can see examples of where I think well. I also see where I can grow as a thinker.

The appendices do a phenomenal job of exploring and demonstrating the concept of intellectual character formation within an educational setting. However  part three of the book seems rather basic and I wished it was filled in a little more. I found myself wishing for a more indepth treatment of how this looks (or may look) in practice.  I do not

. I think that that teachers, educators, and Christian Education directors will make good use of this book. Parents will also find this helpful.  I found this book personally edifying and instructive and give it four stars.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me copy of this book in exchange for this review.

4 thoughts on “The Thinking Virtues: a book review

    • Adam,

      I haven’t read Imagining the Kingdom yet, but I read Smith’s first book in this series, Desiring the Kingdom. I think there is a broad coherence between the two authors though they never reference one another or look to the same sources. Smith is more focused on formative practices in general whereas Dow has a much narrower focus on the life of the mind. Smith is self-consciously building on virtue ethics and liturgical theology. Dow tends to shore up the ‘theology’ of his work with reference to people like C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, J.P. Moreland, Jason Baehr, etc. It is his peculiar focus on mental formation that drives his book.

      So they come at it from different angles but they end up saying something similar in terms of formative practices and habits. I need to get on to reading Smith’s book. He’s one of my favorite authors!

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