CHAPTER9. DETERMININGANAUTHOR’SMESSAGE
90
what he e says s can be e proved d or r otherwise e evidenced, and d what t need d not be
provedbecauseit is self-evident. . Hemayhonestlytrytotellyouwhatallhis
assumptions are, or he e may just t as s honestly leave youto o 6nd them out for
yourself. Obviously,noteverythingcanbeproved,justasnot t everythingcan
bedefined.Ifeverypropositionhadtobeproved,therewouldbenobeginning
toanyproof. Suchthingsasaxiomsandassumptionsorpostulatesareneeded
fortheproofofotherpropositions. Iftheseotherpropositionsareproved,they
can,ofcourse,beusedaspremisesinfurtherproofs.
Every line of argument,inother words,must start somewhere. . Basically,
there aretwoways or places inwhichit canstart: : with h assumptions agreed
onbetweenwriterandreader,orwithwhatarecalledself-evidentpropositions,
whichneitherthewriternorreadercandeny. Inthefirstcase,theassumptions
canbe anything,solongas agreementexists. . Thesecondcaserequires s some
furthercommenthere.
Inrecenttimes,ithasbecomecommonplacetorefertoself-evidentproposi-
tionsas“tautologies”;thefeelingbehindthetermissometimesoneofcontempt
forthetrivial,orasuspicionoflegerdemain. Rabbitsarebeingpulledoutofa
hat.Youputthetruthinbydefiningyourwords,andthenpullitoutasifyou
weresurprisedtofinditthere.That,however,isnotalwaysthecase.
For example,thereisaconsiderabledifferencebetweenapropositionsuch
as“afatherofafatherisagrandfather,”andapropositionsuchas“thewhole
isgreaterthanitsparts.”Theformerstatementisatautology;theproposition
is containedinthe definitionof the words;it onlythinly conceals theverbal
stipulation,“Letuscalltheparentofaparenta‘grandparent.”’Butthatisfar
frombeingthecasewiththesecondproposition.Letustrytoseewhy.
Thestatement,“Thewholeisgreaterthanitsparts,”expressesourunder-
standingofthingsas they areandof their relationships,whichwouldbethe
samenomatterwhatwordsweusedorhowwesetupourlinguisticconventions.
Finitequantitativewholesexistandtheyhavedefinitefiniteparts;forexample,
thispagecanbecutinhalforinquarters.Now,asweunderstandafinitewhole
(thatis,anyfinitewhole)andasweunderstandadefinitepartofafinitewhole,
weunderstandthewholetobegreaterthanthepart,ortheparttobelessthan
thewhole. Sofaristhisfrombeingamereverbalmatterthatwecannotdefine
themeaningofthewords“whole”and“part”;thesewordsexpressprimitiveor
indefinablenotions. Asweareunabletodefinethemseparately,allwecando
isexpressour understandingofwholeandpartbyastatementofhowwholes
andpartsarerelated.
Thestatementis axiomaticorself-evidentinthesensethatitsoppositeis
immediatelyseentobefalse. Wecanusetheword“part” ” forthispage,and
theword“whole”forahalfofthispageaftercuttingitintwo,butwecannot
thinkthatthepagebeforeitiscutislessthanthehalfofitthatwehaveinour
handafterwehavecutit. Howeverweuselanguage,ourunderstandingoffinite
wholesand their r definite parts is suchthat we arecompelledtosay thatwe
knowthatthewholeisgreaterthanthepart,andwhatweknowistherelation
betweenexistentwholesandtheirparts,notsomethingabouttheuseofwords
ortheirmeanings.
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CHAPTER9. DETERMININGANAUTHOR’SMESSAGE
91
Suchself-evidentpropositions,then,havethestatusofindemonstrablebut
alsoundeniabletruths. They y arebasedoncommonexperiencealoneandare
partofcommon-senseknowledge,fortheybelongtonoorganizedbodyofknowl-
edge; they do not belong tophilosophy or r mathematics any more thanthey
belongtoscienceorhistory.Thatiswhy,incidentally,Euclidcalledthem“com-
monnotions.”Theyarealsoinstructive,despitethefactthatLocke,forexample,
didnotthinktheywere.Hecouldseenodifferencebetweenapropositionthat
reallydoesnotinstruct,suchastheoneaboutthegrandparent,andonethat
does—onethatteachesussomethingwewouldnototherwiseknow—suchasthe
oneaboutpartsandwholes. Andthosemodernswhorefertoallsuchproposi-
tionsastautologiesmakethesamemistake. Theydonotseethatsomeofthe
propositionsthey call“tautologies”reallyaddtoourknowledge,whileothers,
ofcourse,donot.
FindingtheSolutions
Thesethreerulesofanalyticalreading—aboutterms,propositions,andargu-
ments—canbebroughttoaheadinaneighthrule,whichgovernsthelaststep
intheinterpretationofabook’s content. . Morethanthat,ittiestogetherthe
firststageofanalyticalreading(outliningthestructure)andthesecondstage
(interpretingthecontents).
The last step p in your r attempt to o discover r what abook is s about t was the
discoveryofthemajorproblemsthattheauthortriedtosolveinthecourseof
hisbook.(Asyouwillrecall,thiswascoveredbyRule4.) Now,afteryouhave
cometotermswithhimandgraspedhispropositionsandarguments,youshould
checkwhat youhavefoundbyaddressingyourself tosomefurther questions.
Whichoftheproblemsthattheauthortriedtosolvedidhesucceedinsolving?
Inthecourseofsolvingthese,didheraiseanynewones? Oftheproblemsthat
hefailedtosolve,oldornew,whichdidtheauthorhimselfknowhehadfailed
on? A A goodwriter, likea goodreader,shouldknow whether aproblemhas
beensolvedornot,althoughofcourseitislikelytocostthereaderlesspainto
acknowledgethesituation.
This finalstep p in interpretive e readingis coveredby y Rule 8. . Find d out
whattheauthor’ssolutions are. . Whenyouhaveappliedthisrule,and
thethreethat precedeitininterpretivereading,youcanfeelreasonablysure
thatyouhavemanagedtounderstandthebook.Ifyoustartedwithabookthat
wasoveryourhead—one,therefore,thatwasabletoteachyousomething—you
havecome along way. . More e thanthat, youare nowable tocomplete your
analytical reading of the book. . The e third d andlast t stage of the job b will be
relativelyeasy.Youhavebeenkeepingyoureyesandyourmindopenandyour
mouthshut. Uptothispoint,youhavebeenfollowingtheauthor. Fromthis
pointon,youaregoingtohaveachancetoarguewiththeauthorandexpress
yourself.
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CHAPTER9. DETERMININGANAUTHOR’SMESSAGE
92
TheSecondStageofAnalyticalReading
Wehavenowdescribedthesecondstageofanalyticalreading.Anotherwayto
saythis isthat wehavenowset forththematerials for answeringthesecond
basic questionthatyoumustask about abook,or indeedanythingthat you
read. YouwillrecallthatthatsecondquestionisWhatisbeingsaidindetail,
andhow? ApplyingRules5through8clearlyhelpsyoutoanswerthisquestion.
Whenyouhavecometotermswiththeauthor,foundhiskeypropositionsand
arguments,andidentifiedhissolutionsoftheproblemsthathefaced,youwill
knowwhatheissayinginhisbook,andyouarethuspreparedtogoontoask
thefinaltwobasicquestionsaboutit.
Sincewehavenowcompletedanotherstageintheanalyticalreadingprocess,
letus,asbefore,pauseamomenttowriteouttherulesofthisstageforreview.
TheSecondStageofAnalyticalReading,orRulesforFind-
ingWhataBookSays(InterpretingItsContents)
5.
Cometotermswiththeauthorbyinterpretinghiskeywords.
6.
Graspthe author’s leading propositions s by y dealing with h his s most
importantsentences.
7.
Knowtheauthor’s arguments, , byfindingthem in, or r constructing
themoutof,sequencesofsentences.
8.
Determinewhichofhisproblemstheauthorhassolved,andwhichhe
hasnot;andas tothelatter,decidewhichtheauthorknewhehad
failedtosolve.
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Chapter10
CriticizingaBookFairly
Wesaidattheendofthelastchapterthatwehadcomealongway. Wehave
learnedhowtooutlineabook. Wehavelearnedthefourrulesforinterpreting
abook’scontents. Wearenowreadyfor r thelaststageofanalyticalreading.
Hereyouwillreaptherewardofallyourpreviousefforts.
Readingabookisakindofconversation.Youmaythinkitisnotconversa-
tionatall,becausetheauthordoesallthetalkingandyouhavenothingtosay.
Ifyouthinkthat,youdonotrealizeyourfullobligationasareader—andyou
arenotgraspingyouropportunities.
Asamatteroffact,thereaderistheonewhohasthelastword. Theauthor
has hadhis say,andthenitisthereader’sturn. . Theconversationbetweena
bookandits readerwouldappeartobeanorderlyone,eachpartytalkingin
turn,nointerruptions,andsoforth.If,however,thereaderisundisciplinedand
impolite,itmaybeanythingbutorderly.Thepoorauthorcannotdefendhim-
self. Hecannotsay,“Here,waittillI’vefinished,beforeyoustartdisagreeing.”
Hecannotprotestthatthereaderhasmisunderstoodhim,hasmissedhispoint.
Ordinaryconversationsbetweenpersons whoconfronteachotheraregood
onlywhentheyarecarriedoncivilly. Wearenotthinkingmerelyofthecivilities
accordingtoconventions ofsocialpoliteness. . Suchconventionsarenotreally
important. What t isimportantisthatthereis anintellectual l etiquette e tobe
observed.Withoutit,conversationisbickeringratherthanprofitablecommuni-
cation.Weareassuminghere,ofcourse,thattheconversationisaboutaserious
matter onwhichmencanagreeordisagree. . Thenitbecomes s importantthat
theyconductthemselves well. . Otherwise,thereisnoprofitintheenterprise.
Theprofitingoodconversationissomethinglearned.
Whatistrueofordinaryconversationisevenmoretrueoftheratherspecial
situationinwhichabookhastalkedtoareaderandthereadertalksback.That
theauthoriswelldisciplined,wewilltakeforgrantedtemporarily.Thathehas
conductedhispartoftheconversationwellcanbeassumedinthecaseofgood
books. Whatcan n thereaderdotoreciprocate? ? Whatmust t hedotoholdup
hisendwell?
Thereaderhasanobligationas wellas anopportunitytotalkback. . The
93
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CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
94
opportunity is clear. . Nothingcanstopareader r frompronouncingjudgment.
The roots of theobligation, however, lie alittledeeper in n the e nature of the
relationbetweenbooksandreaders.
Ifthebookisofthesortthat conveysknowledge,theauthor’saimwasto
instruct.Hehastriedtoteach.Hehastriedtoconvinceorpersuadehisreader
aboutsomething. Hiseffortis s crownedwithsuccess only if thereaderfinally
says, “I am taught. . Youhave e convinced d me e that suchand d such is true, , or
persuadedme thatitis probable.”But evenif the readerisnot convincedor
persuaded,theauthor’sintentionandeffortshouldberespected. Thereader
oweshimaconsideredjudgment. Ifhecannotsay,“Iagree,”heshouldatleast
havegroundsfordisagreeingorevenforsuspendingjudgmentonthequestion.
Wearereallysayingnomorethanwhatwehavealreadysaidmanytimes.
Agoodbookdeservesanactivereading. Theactivityofreadingdoesnotstop
withtheworkofunderstandingwhatabooksays. Itmustbecompletedbythe
workofcriticism,theworkofjudging. Theundemandingreaderfailstosatisfy
this requirement, , probably even morethanhefails s toanalyzeandinterpret.
Henotonlymakesnoefforttounderstand;healsodismissesabooksimplyby
puttingitasideandforgettingit. Worsethanfaintlypraisingit, , hedamns s it
bygivingitnocriticalconsiderationwhatever.
TeachabilityasaVirtue
Whatwemeanbytalkingbackisnotsomethingapartfromreading. Itisthe
thirdstageintheanalyticalreadingof abook;andthereareruleshereas in
the case of the first twostages. . Some e of these rules are general maxims of
intellectualetiquette. Wewilldealwiththeminthischapter. Othersaremore
specificcriteriafordefiningpointsofcriticism. Theywillbediscussedinthe
nextchapter.
Thereisatendencytothinkthatagoodbookisabovethecriticismofthe
averagereader.Thereaderandtheauthorarenotpeers.Theauthor,according
tothisview,shouldbesubjectedtoatrialonlybyajuryofhispeers.Remember
Bacon’srecommendationtothereader: “Readnot t tocontradictandconfute;
nortobelieveandtakeforgranted;nortofindtalkanddiscourse;buttoweigh
andconsider.”SirWalterScottcastsevenmoredireaspersionsonthose“who
readtodoubtorreadtoscorn.”
There is a certain n truth here, of f course, but there is s also agooddeal of
nonsenseabouttheauraofimpeccabilitywithwhichbooksarethussurrounded,
andthefalsepietyitproduces.Readersmaybelikechildren,inthesensethat
greatauthorscanteachthem,butthatdoesnotmeantheymustnotbeheard
from. Cervantesmayor r nothavebeenright insaying,“Thereisnobook so
badbutsomethinggoodmaybefoundinit.”Itismorecertainthatthereisno
booksogoodthatnofaultcanbefoundwithit.
It is truethat a a book that t canenlighten n its s readers, , andis s inthis sense
superior to o them, should notbe criticizedby them until they understandit.
Whentheydo,theyhaveelevatedthemselvesalmosttoequalitywiththeauthor.
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CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
95
Nowtheyarefittoexercisetherightsandprivilegesoftheirnewposition.Unless
theyexercisetheircriticalfacultiesnow,theyaredoingtheauthoraninjustice.
Hehasdonewhathecouldtomakethemhisequal. Hedeservesthattheyact
likehispeers,thattheyengageinconversationwithhim,thattheytalkback.
Weare discussingherethe virtue ofteachability—avirtuethat is almost
always misunderstood. . Teachability y is s often confused withsubservience. . A
personiswronglythoughttobeteachableifheispassiveandpliable. Onthe
contrary,teachabilityisanextremelyactivevirtue. Nooneisreallyteachable
who does s not freely exercisehis power of independent judgment. . Hecanbe
trained,perhaps,butnottaught. Themostteachable e readeris, therefore,the
mostcritical. Heisthereaderwhofinallyrespondstoabookbythegreatest
efforttomakeuphisownmindonthematterstheauthorhasdiscussed.
Wesay“finally”becauseteachabilityrequiresthatateacherbefullyheard
and,morethanthat,understoodbeforeheisjudged. Weshouldaddalsothat
sheeramountofeffortisnot anadequatecriterionofteachability. . Thereader
must know w how w tojudgea a book, just t as he must knowhowto o arriveat t an
understandingofitscontents. Thisthirdgroupofrules s forreading,then,isa
guidetothelaststageinthedisciplinedexerciseofteachability.
TheRoleofRhetoric
We have everywhere found d acertainreciprocity y betweenthe art t of f teaching
andthe artofbeing taught,betweenthe skilloftheauthorthatmakes him
aconsideratewriterandtheskillofthereaderthatmakeshimhandleabook
withconsideration.Wehaveseenhowthesameprinciplesofgrammarandlogic
underlierulesofgoodwritingas wellasrules ofgoodreading. . The e ruleswe
havesofardiscussedconcerntheachievementofintelligibilityonthepartofthe
writerandtheachievementofunderstandingonthepartofthereader. This
lastsetofrulesgoesbeyondunderstandingtocriticaljudgment. Hereiswhere
rhetoriccomesin.
Thereare,ofcourse,manyusesofrhetoric. Weusuallythinkofitinconnec-
tionwiththeoratororthepropagandist. Butinitsmostgeneralsignificance,
rhetoricisinvolvedineverysituationinwhichcommunicationtakesplaceamong
humanbeings. Ifwe e arethe talkers,wewishnotonly tobeunderstoodbut
alsotobeagreedwithinsomesense. Ifourpurposeintryingtocommunicate
isserious,wewishtoconvinceorpersuade—moreprecisely,toconvinceabout
theoreticalmattersandtopersuadeaboutmattersthatultimatelyaffectaction
orfeeling.
Tobeequallyseriousinreceivingsuchcommunication,onemustbenotonly
aresponsive but alsoaresponsible listener. . Youare e responsive totheextent
thatyoufollowwhathasbeensaidandnotetheintentionthatpromptsit. But
youalsohavethe responsibilityof takinga position. . Whenyoutakeit,it t is
yours,not the author’s. . To o regardanyone except t yourselfas responsible for
your judgment isto o be aslave,not t afree man. . It t is fromthis factthatthe
liberalartsacquiretheirname.
CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
96
Onthe part of the speaker or writer, , rhetorical l skill is knowing how to
convinceorpersuade.Sincethisistheultimateendinview,alltheotheraspects
ofcommunicationmustserveit.Grammaticalandlogicalskillinwritingclearly
andintelligiblyhasmeritinitself,butitisalsoameanstoanend.Reciprocally,
onthepartofthereaderorlistener,rhetoricalskillisknowinghowtoreactto
anyonewhotriestoconvinceorpersuadeus.Here,too,grammaticalandlogical
skill,whichenablesustounderstandwhatisbeingsaid,preparesthewayfora
criticalreaction.
TheImportanceofSuspendingJudgment
Thus youseehowthethreearts of grammar,logic,andrhetoriccooperatein
regulatingtheelaborateprocessesofwritingandreading. Skillinthefirsttwo
stagesofanalyticalreadingcomesfromamasteryofgrammarandlogic. Skill
in the e third d stage e depends s on the e remaining art. . The e rules of this stage of
readingrestontheprinciplesofrhetoric,conceivedinthebroadestsense. We
willconsiderthemasacodeofetiquettetomakethereadernotonlypolite,but
alsoeffective,intalkingback.(Althoughitisnotgenerallyrecognized,etiquette
alwaysservesthesetwopurposes,notjusttheformer.)
Youprobably alsosee what t the e ninth h rule of readingis going to be. . It
hasbeenintimatedseveraltimesalready. Donotbegintotalkbackuntilyou
havelistenedcarefullyandaresureyouunderstand. Notuntilyouarehonestly
satisfiedthatyouhaveaccomplishedthefirsttwostagesofreadingshouldyou
feelfreetoexpressyourself.Whenyouhave,younotonlyhaveearnedtheright
totumcritic;youalsohavethedutytodoso.
This means,in n effect, that the e thirdstageof analytical readingmust al-
ways followthe other two o intime. . The e first t twostages s interpenetrate each
other.Eventhebeginningreadercancombinethemsomewhat,andtheexpert
combinesthemalmost completely. . Hecandiscoverthecontentsofabookby
breakingdownthewholeintoitspartsandatthesametimeconstructingthe
wholeoutofitselementsofthoughtandknowledge,itsterms,propositions,and
arguments. Furthermore,evenfor r thebeginner,acertainamountofthework
requiredatthosetwostagescanbeperformedduringagoodinspectionalread-
ing. Buttheexpertnolessthanthebeginnermustwaituntilheunderstands
beforehestartstocriticize.
Letusrestatethisninthruleofreadinginthefollowingform: Rule9. . You
mustbeabletosay,withreasonablecertainty,“Iunderstand,”be-
foreyoucansayanyoneofthefollowingthings: “Iagree,” ” or“I
disagree,” or“Isuspend d judgment.” Thesethreeremarksexhaustallthe
criticalpositionsyoucantake. Wehopeyouhavenotmadetheerrorofsup-
posingthattocriticizeisalwaystodisagree. Thatisapopularmisconception.
Toagreeisjustasmuchanexerciseofcriticaljudgmentonyourpartastodis-
agree.Youcanbejustaswronginagreeingasindisagreeing.Toagreewithout
understandingisinane.Todisagreewithoutunderstandingisimpudent.
Thoughit maynotbesoobviousatfirst, suspendingjudgment is alsoan
CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
97
actofcriticism. Itis s takingthepositionthatsomethinghasnotbeenshown.
Youaresayingthatyouarenotconvincedorpersuadedonewayortheother.
Theruleseemstobesuchobviouscommonsensethatyoumaywonderwhy
wehavebotheredtostateitsoexplicitly. Therearetworeasons. . Inthefirst
place,manypeoplemaketht>erroralreadymentionedofidentifyingcriticism
with disagreement. . (Even n “constructive” ” criticism m is s disagreement.) ) In n the
secondplace,thoughthisruleseemsobviouslysound,ourexperiencehasbeen
thatfewpeopleobserveitinpractice. Likethegoldenrule,itelicitsmorelip
servicethanintelligentobedience.
Everyauthorhashadtheexperienceofsufferingbookreviewsbycriticswho
didnotfeelobligedtodotheworkofthefirsttwostagesfirst. Thecritictoo
oftenthinkshedoesnothavetobeareaderaswellasajudge. Everylecturer
has also hadthe e experienceof havingcriticalquestions askedthat werenot
basedonanyunderstandingofwhathehadsaid. Youyourselfmayremember
anoccasionwheresomeonesaidtoaspeaker,inonebreathoratmosttwo,“I
don’tknowwhatyoumean,butIthinkyou’rewrong.”
Thereisactuallynopointinansweringcriticsofthissort. Theonlypolite
thingtodoistoaskthemtostateyourpositionforyou,thepositiontheyclaim
tobechallenging.Iftheycannotdoitsatisfactorily,iftheycannotrepeatwhat
youhavesaidintheirownwords,youknowthattheydonotunderstand,and
youareentirelyjustifiedinignoringtheircriticisms.Theyareirrelevant,asall
criticismmustbethatisnotbasedonunderstanding. Whenyoufindtherare
personwhoshowsthatheunderstandswhatyouaresayingaswellasyoudo,
thenyoucandelightinhisagreementorbeseriouslydisturbedbyhisdissent.
Inyears of readingbookswithstudentsofonekindandanother,wehave
foundthisrule morehonoredinthebreachthanintheobservance. . Students
whoplainlydonotknowwhattheauthorissayingseemtohavenohesitation
insettingthemselvesupashisjudges. Theynotonlydisagreewithsomething
they donot understandbut, whatis equally bad, theyalsooftenagreetoa
positiontheycannotexpressintelligiblyintheirownwords. Theirdiscussion,
liketheirreading,isallwords.Whereunderstandingisnotpresent,affirmations
anddenialsareequallymeaninglessandunintelligible.Norisapositionofdoubt
ordetachmentanymoreintelligentinareaderwhodoes notknowwhatheis
suspendingjudgmentabout.
There areseveralfurther points tonote concerningtheobservanceofthis
rule. Ifyouarereadingagoodbook,yououghttohesitatebeforeyousay,“I
understand.” Thepresumptioncertainlyis s that youhave alot of workto o do
beforeyoucanmakethatdeclarationhonestlyandwithassurance. Youmust,
ofcourse,beajudgeofyourselfinthismatter,andthatmakestheresponsibility
evenmoresevere.
Tosay“Idon’tunderstand”is,ofcourse,alsoacriticaljudgment,butonly
afteryouhavetriedyourhardestdoesitreflectonthebookratherthanyourself.
Ifyouhavedoneeverythingthatcanbeexpectedofyouandstilldonotunder-
stand,itmaybebecausethebookisunintelligible.Thepresumption,however,
is infavorofthebook,especiallyifitis agoodone. . Inreadinggoodbooks,
failuretounderstandisusuallythereader’sfault.Henceheisobligatedtostay
CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
98
withthetaskimposedbythefirsttwostagesofanalyticalreadingalongtime
beforeenteringonthethird. Whenyousay“Idon’tunderstand,” ” watchyour
toneofvoice.Besureitconcedesthepossibilitythatitmaynotbetheauthor’s
fault.
Therearetwootherconditionsunder whichtherule requiresspecialcare.
Ifyouarereadingonlypartofabook,itis moredifficult tobesurethatyou
understand,andhenceyoushouldbemorehesitanttocriticize.Andsometimes
abookisrelatedtootherbooksbythesameauthor,anddependsuponthem
foritsfullsignificance.Inthissituation,also,youshouldbemorecircumspect
aboutsaying“Iunderstand,”andslowertoraiseyourcriticallance.
A goodexample of brashness s in this s last respect is furnishedby literary
criticswhohaveagreedordisagreedwithAristotle’sPoeticswithoutrealizing
that the e main principles s in n Aristotle’s analysis s of poetry y depend in part on
points madeinother of his works, , his s treatises onpsychology andlogicand
metaphysics. Theyhaveagreedordisagreedwithoutunderstandingwhatitis
allabout.
Thesameistrueofotherwriters,suchasPlatoandKant,AdamSmithand
KarlMarx,whohavenotbeenabletosayeverythingtheykneworthoughtina
singlework.ThosewhojudgeKant’sCritiqueofPureReasonwithoutreading
his CritiqueofPracticalReason,or AdamSmith’s Wealthof Nations s without
readinghisTheoryoftheMoralSentiments,orTheCommunistManifestowith-
outMarx’sCapital,aremorelikelythannottobeagreeingordisagreeingwith
somethingtheydonotfullyunderstand.
TheImportanceofAvoidingContentiousness
Thesecondgeneralmaximofcriticalreadingisasobviousasthefirst,but it
needsexplicitstatement,nevertheless,andforthesamereason.ItisRule10,
anditcanbeexpressedthus:Whenyoudisagree,dosoreasonably,and
not disputatiously y or r contentiously. . Thereis s nopointinwinning g an
argumentifyouknoworsuspectyouarewrong. Practically,ofcourse,itmay
getyouaheadintheworldforashorttime.Buthonestyisthebetterpolicyin
theslightlylongerrun.
WelearnedthismaximfirstfromPlatoandAristotle. Inapassageinthe
Symposium,thisinterchangeoccurs:
Icannotrefuteyou,Socrates,saidAgathon:Letusassumethat
whatyousayistrue.
Sayrather,Agathon,thatyoucannotrefutethetruth;forSocrates
iseasilyrefuted.
The passageis echoedinaremarkofAristotle’sinthe Ethics. . “It t wouldbe
thoughttobebetter,”hesays,
indeedtobeourduty,forthesakeofmaintainingthetrutheven
todestroywhattouchesusclosely,especiallyaswearephilosophers
CHAPTER10. CRITICIZINGABOOKFAIRLY
99
or loversof wisdom; ; for,whilebothare dear,piety requiresus s to
honortruthaboveourfriends.
PlatoandAristotleheregiveus advicethat mostpeopleignore. . Mostpeople
thinkthatwinningtheargumentiswhatmatters,notlearningthetruth.
Hewhoregardsconversationasabattlecanwinonlybybeinganantagonist,
onlybydisagreeingsuccessfully,whetherheisrightorwrong. Thereaderwho
approachesabookinthisspiritreadsitonlytofindsomethinghecandisagree
with. Forthedisputatiousandthecontentious,abonecanalwaysbefoundto
pickaquarrelover.Itmakesnodifferencewhethertheboneisreallyachipon
yourownshoulder.
Inaconversationthatareader haswithabook inthe privacyofhisown
study,thereisnothingtopreventthereaderfromseemingtowintheargument.
Hecandominatethesituation. Theauthorisnottheretodefendhimself. Ifall
hewantsistheemptysatisfactionofseemingtoshowtheauthorup,thereader
cangetitreadily.Hescarcelyhastoreadthebookthroughtogetit. Glancing
atthefirstfewpageswillsuffice.
But if herealizesthat theonlyprofit inconversation,withlivingordead
teachers, is what t one e can n learn from m them, , if f he realizes s that t youwin n only
bygainingknowledge,notbyknockingtheotherfellowdown,hemayseethe
futilityof merecontentiousness. . We e arenotsayingthat areadershouldnot
ultimatelydisagreeandtrytoshowwheretheauthoriswrong. Wearesaying
onlythathe shouldbeaspreparedtoagree astodisagree. . Whicheverhedoes
shouldbemotivatedbyoneconsiderationalone—thefacts,thetruthaboutthe
case.
More thanhonesty is requiredhere. . It t goes without sayingthatareader
shouldadmitapointwhenheseesit. But t healsoshouldnotfeelwhipped d by
havingtoagreewithanauthor,insteadofdissenting. Ifhefeels s thatway,he
isinveteratelydisputatious. Inthelightofthissecondmaxim,hisproblemis
seentobeemotionalratherthanintellectual.
OntheResolutionofDisagreements
The thirdmaximis closelyrelatedtothesecond. . It t statesanother condition
priortotheundertakingofcriticism. Itrecommendsthatyouregarddisagree-
mentsascapableofbeingresolved.Wherethesecondmaximurgedyounotto
disagreedisputatiously,thisonewarnsyouagainstdisagreeinghopelessly. One
ishopelessaboutthefruitfulnessofdiscussionifhedoesnotrecognizethatall
rationalmencanagree. Notethatwesaid“canagree.” Wedidnotsayallra-
tionalmendoagree. Evenwhentheydonotagree,theycan.Thepointweare
tryingtomakeis that disagreement is futileagitationunlessitis undertaken
withthehopethatitmayleadtotheresolutionofanissue.
Thesetwofacts,thatpeopledodisagreeandcanagree,arisefromthecom-
plexity of humannature. . Menarerationalanimals. . Their r rationality is the
sourceoftheirpowertoagree. Theiranimality,andtheimpedectionsoftheir
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