The Syntopicon as an Instrument of Liberal Education – B

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The Syntopicon serves the end of liberal education to the extent that it facilitates the reading of the great books and, beyond that, the study and teaching of them. To make the nature of this educational contribution clear, it is necessary to distinguish between the integral and the syntopical reading of great books.

Integral reading consists simply in reading a whole book through. But syntopical reading does not consist simply in reading parts of a book rather than the whole. It involves the reading of one book in relation to others, all of them relevant to the consideration of the same topic.

In some cases, as the References show, whole works are cited along with passages from other works, which may be as short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter or a series of chapters. For the most part, a syntopical reading consists in reading passages of varying length rather than whole works; but the point remains that the essence of syntopical reading lies in the juxtaposition of many authors under the same topic and, in consequence, the reading together of their works, in whole or part.

Neither of these two types of reading can ever be a substitute for the other, nor can either be taken as sufficient in itself. On the contrary, each is incomplete without the other. Those who begin by reading in the great books and reading them syntopically must eventually read at least some of them integrally. Those who have already read some of the great books through must read them syntopically to discover what an integral reading of the great books seldom reveals, except, perhaps, to the most mature student or conscientious scholar. For each of these two sorts of persons — the beginning reader and the more advanced student or scholar — the Syntopicon functions differently and the syntopical reading of the great books serves a different purpose.

For The Beginning Reader — in the extreme case, a person who has read none of the great books — a syntopical reading, done in accordance with the references under even a few topics, works in three ways: initiatively, suggestively, and instructively.

It works initiatively by overcoming the initial difficulty that anyone faces when confronted by a collection of books as vast and, in a sense, as overpowering as Great Books of the Western World. The problem is where to begin and in what order to proceed. There are many solutions to this problem, usually in the form of courses of reading based on different principles of selection; but these usually require the reading of whole books or, at least, the integral reading of large parts of them.

It is a matter of general experience that this kind of solution seldom achieves the intended result. A syntopical reading of the great books provides a radically different sort of solution, which promises to be more effective. It initiates the reading of the great books by enabling persons to read in them on the subjects in which they are interested; and on those subjects, to read relatively short passages from a large number of authors. It assumes only that every educable mind has some interest in one or more of the themes, problems, or ideas on which the great books touch.

A syntopical reading may also work suggestively. Starting from a reader’s existing interest in a particular topic, it may arouse or create an interest in other topics related to those which initiated his reading in the great books. The syntopical reading of a collection of authors under a particular topic may also impel the reader to look beyond the passages cited. Except when they cite whole works, the references cite passages which necessarily exist in a context, ultimately the context of the whole book. Few of these passages are absolutely self-contained. For few of them can it be said that it will be finally satisfactory to read them without looking further into the author’s thought. Hence, proceeding along the natural lines of his own interests, the reader may be led from reading small parts of certain books to reading larger parts and, eventually, to reading whole books. If this process is repeated, each syntopical reading may occasion and stimulate a more and more extensive integral reading of the great books.

Working initiatively and suggestively, syntopical reading opens the great books at the pages of maximum interest to the individual and, by the force of the passages read and their dependence on context, carries him from reading parts to reading whole works. Syntopical reading works instructively when it guides the mind in interpreting and understanding the passages or works being read. It does this in three ways.

First, the topic in connection with which the passage is being read serves to give direction to the reader in interpreting the passage. But it does not tell him what the passage means, since the passage cited may be relevant to the topic in any one of a number of ways. Hence the reader is called upon to discover precisely what relevance the passage has to the topic. To learn to do this is to acquire a major skill in the art of reading.

Second, the collection of a number of passages on the same topic, but from different works and different authors, serves to sharpen the reader’s interpretation of each passage read. Sometimes, when passages from the same book or author are read in sequence and in the context of one an other, each becomes clearer. Sometimes the meaning of each of a series of contrasting or conflicting passages from different books or authors is accentuated when they are read against one another. And sometimes the passages from one author, by amplifying or commenting on the passages cited from another, materially help the reader’s understanding of the second author.

Third, if the individual does a syntopical reading of the great books under a-number of distinct topics, the fact that the same passage will often be found cited under two or more topics will have its instructive effect. As relevant to distinct topics, the passage must have an amplitude of meaning which the reader will come to perceive when he interprets it somewhat differently in relation to different topics. Such multiple interpretation not only is a basic exercise in the art of reading, but also tends to make the mind habitually alert to the many strains of meaning which any rich or complex passage can contain.

In this description of the ways in which a syntopical reading instructs in the art of reading the great books, we have emphasized only the influence of the topic under which the reading is done and the effect of reading one passage in relation to another or in relation to several distinct topics. But to assure or reinforce its instructive effect, two other factors may operate in the background of a syntopical reading. One is the whole Outline of Topics, which places a particular topic in the context of other topics under the same idea. The other is the Introduction to that idea, which may help the reader to interpret the particular topic, thereby increasing the effectiveness of that topic as a guide to the interpretation of the works or passages referred to under it.

If we turn now from the beginning reader to the more mature student or scholar — in the extreme case, a person who has read through many, if not all, of the great books — we shall see that a syntopical reading works in a different way. It no longer need function initiatively or suggestively; nor, for the competent reader, need it serve instructively, to develop skill in the art of reading. But it does provide the occasion and the materials for a more intensive and critical reading of passages already read; and it supplements the reading of whole works independently of one another by requiring an examination of these works, or passages from them, in mutual relation, as relevant to the same topic.

It is the general experience of highly competent readers that a great book can be read through many times without the attainment of such complete mastery that the reader knows the relevance of every passage in it to every theme it touches. On the contrary, the integral reading of a great book, even when done more than once, seldom reveals even a large part of its meaning. Only the most intensive scholarly study of a particular book or author ever arrives at such mastery.

Short of that, reading a great book through one or more times will inevitably leave unnoticed or only partly recognized many passages of critical significance to a particular theme or problem. Only when the book is read with that particular subject in mind will these passages, hitherto unobserved, be found.

The truth of this can be verified by accomplished readers of the great books if they will examine, under particular topics, passages from books they have already read or even studied to some extent. Unless their previous reading of the books was done in the light of the particular intellectual interest represented by this topic, they are likely to find some passages that they never saw before, or at least never fully recognized as having the significance they take on when read syntopically — in the light of this topic and in relation to other works and passages relevant to the same theme.

The Syntopicon can thus serve those who have already done, to a greater or less extent, an integral reading of the great books. The method of syntopical reading not only provides a different and rewarding way of reading them, but also carries the study of them to deeper and deeper levels of understanding. It overcomes the defects of the ordinary integral reading in several ways. It involves reading the great books in relation to one another rather than in isolation. It supplements the knowledge of whole works by concentration on the significance of parts. Taking each of 3000 topics as the occasion for a purposeful reading in all the great books, it makes possible the close study of each work in relation to all the problems or issues on which it bears.

There is still another way in which the method of syntopical reading can advance the study of the great books, or rather a studious use of them. Here the aim is not to study the books themselves, but to consider a problem or an issue to the solution or clarification of which they contribute.

The particular problem may involve many topics in one or more chapters. It may involve a number of great ideas and many subordinate terms. The organization of the Syntopicon enables the student of such a problem to discover the range of the terms and topics traditionally involved in its consideration. The References enable him to examine systematically, in their chronological order or in any order he wishes, the record of western thought concerning this problem, so far as it is contained in the great books. The Additional Readings supplement these materials by citing other books which bear upon the problem more or less directly.

It does not seem an exaggeration to say that a person who has done all the syntopical reading suggested by the References and the Additional Readings on a particular problem, will have a fairly adequate knowledge of that problem and its proposed solutions in the development of Western thought. The Syntopicon should be able to save the person who is beginning his inquiry into a certain problem much of the preliminary labor of research, and advance him rapidly to the point where he can begin to think independently about it, because he knows what thinking has been done. For the scholar, already advanced in his research on a given problem, it may still be possible for the Syntopicon to serve some good purpose as a reminder or a check; it may even uncover a neglected passage, or throw new light upon one by placing it in the context of other passages.

What has just been said about the studious or scholarly use of the Syntopicon suggests how it may serve as an instrument in teaching the great books, or in using them as teaching materials. For the most part, the great books enter the curricula of schools and colleges engaged in liberal education only by way of courses in which some of these books, or most of them, are read integrally. Even when they are read in selections rather than as wholes, they are, for the most part, used as materials in a general course of study rather than as applicable to the study of particular subject matters.

Without detracting from or competing with the unquestionable value of such procedures, the Syntopicon offers another pedagogical use of the great books. The method of syntopical reading makes them available in the teaching of courses concerned with particular subject matters, or in the conduct of seminars devoted to the study of particular problems. In certain cases, it may encourage the reading of the great texts in place of textbooks.

For a particular problem or subject matter, whose name is either one of the great ideas or a major term in the Inventory of Terms, the Syntopicon suggests some, if not all, of the topics which deserve to be studied, and some, if not all, of the works which deserve to be read in whole or part. It thus provides a set of materials organized so as to be adaptable to the method and interest of the individual teacher. For example, at one extreme, the teacher can use the Syntopicon merely as a guide to supplementary reading; at the other extreme, he can use it to construct his own set of textual materials, selected from the References and the Additional Readings and organized in the framework of a sequence of topics.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

Your comments