In the previous post, I discussed the main propositions of How to Read a Book, a guide from educators and writers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren on how to read well rather than be well-read. Reading skill moves through four levels: elementary, which one should attain by 9th grade; inspectional and analytical, which one should attain by the end of high school; and synoptical, which one should attain by the end of college.
Unfortunately, many starting college students have not even fulfilled the elementary level, whereby you gain the skills to read almost any book.
Through How to Read a Book, Adler and van Doren focus primarily on teaching readers how to reach an analytical level of reading. They emphasize that the good reader aspires to do more than accumulate information; the good reader wants, through the reading of good books, to expand his understanding. The tips, reading “rules”, and examples in How to Read a Book demonstrate to readers how to read actively so that they better understand a text.
Once a reader fully understands the propositions and arguments that the author posits – to such a degree that he can express them in his own words – he is prepared to agree or disagree with the author.
That first phrase – “once the reader fully understands” – is important. Adler and van Doren note that while many a conversationalist might think that understanding is a precedent for agreement, it is actually only with understanding that one can disagree. After all, how can you disagree with a position that you do not understand? To do so would be to oppose another’s argument based on emotion and prejudice, rather than logic.
Disagreement without understanding is irrelevant.
If you have read a good book, wherein good means that the text increases your understanding and lends itself to proper analytical reading, you can be sure that the author has done his part in presenting objective evidence to support his claim or to answer the question at hand. As the lucky reader of his work, meeting the author’s argument with an equal degree of objectivity and logic is the least you can do.
Good debate offers you but four reasons to disagree with an author: 1) You believe that his argument is uninformed, 2) you believe that his argument is misinformed, 3) you believe that his argument is illogical, and/or 4) you believe that his argument is incomplete.
In order to disagree with an author, you should present one of these claims about his argument and provide substantive evidence to support the accusation. If you fail to disagree well, you have no option but to agree.
How often have you engaged in a debate or observed one yourself that placed emotional response over logical argument? How often has your or another’s response to a controversial opinion been based on feeling or prejudice rather than constructive objections? Take an example: Say someone is pro-life, against abortion. He reads an article by a pro-choicer and responds with a ferocious exclamation about how ridiculous that person’s views are.
In this situation, consider two questions: 1) Has he taken the time to understand the writer’s view?, and 2) has he provided evidence and reasons against the writer?
To disagree well, you must understand the author, then realize where his case is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete.
What do these four reasons mean?
To say an author’s argument is uninformed, you must identify what piece of knowledge that he is missing and be able to explain yourself what that informed is. (It is not enough to just state, “You don’t know.” Perhaps he does not, but do you?)
To say an author’s argument is misinformed, you must identify what piece of knowledge he has incorrectly presented. He has called truth or probable what is false or not probable. Once you have found this misinformation, you should make a case for the alternative position.
To say an author’s argument is illogical, you must identify where his reasoning is flawed. The most common fallacies are non sequitur, whereby the conclusion does not cogently follow from the reasons, and inconsistency, whereby two propositions are incompatible.
The last reason for disagreement is special because you cannot disagree with an author based solely on incompleteness of the argument. When you take this stand, you neither agree nor disagree; you suspend judgment. If you find no reason to disagree with the author on any point, you can stall agreement if you perceive that the author’s position is made incomplete, whether by omission of a conclusive solution, lack of materials, or neglect of certain points.
Perceived incompleteness of argument may be a fault of the writer or a consequence of the reader’s beliefs. For example, Adler and van Doren mention Aristotle’s Politics, which is incomplete because of “the limitations of his time and his erroneous acceptance of slavery” (How to Read a Book 159).
Ultimately, all disagreement should begin with the goal of seeking the truth and achieving agreement. More often than not, it seems, opposing sides engage in debate not to find a solution, but rather to have a contest of who has the loudest arguments. The two are concerned with winning the argument, when argument should not be a win-lose situation.
As understanding is a precedent for agreement or disagreement, so disagreement is a precedent for resolution.
Where many arguments fail is lack of resolution. The parties depart with animosity toward one another’s views and the thought, “Fine, he can think what he thinks and I can think what I think. To each his own opinion.” As Adler and van Doren explain, “On such a view… [c]onversation is hardly better than a ping-pong game of opposed opinions” (How to Read a Book 147).
In short, in order to disagree you must be able to explain the logical basis for your disagreement. When you disagree, you should engage in the argument only if you believe that resolution exists. You should guide the conversation between yourself and the reader to reach this resolution. In the case of reading, you don’t have a physical co-communicator; you must discuss the matter with the author as he exists in the book and imagine that, if he was there with you, you might convince him to your view of it.
At the end of all this, you may rightly declare that you had a read a book well.