A Meeting of Minds

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The first thing a reader can say is that he understands the book or that he does not. In fact, he must say he understands, in order to say more. If he does not understand, he should keep his peace and go back to work on reading the book.

There is one exception to the harshness of the second alternative. “I don’t understand” may be itself a critical remark. To make it so, the reader must be able to support it. If the fault is with the book rather than himself, the reader must locate the sources of trouble. He should be able to show that the structure of the book is disorderly, that its parts do not hang together, that some of it lack relevance. Or, perhaps, the author equivocates in the use of important words, with a whole train of consequent confusions. To the extent that a reader can support his charge that the book is unintelligible, he has no further critical obligations.

Let us suppose, however, that you are reading a good book. That means it is a relatively intelligible one. And let us suppose that you are finally able to say, “I understand.” If in addition to understanding the book, you agree thoroughly with what the author says, the work is over. The reading is completely done. You have been enlightened, and convinced or persuaded. It is clear that we have additional steps to consider only in the case of disagreement or suspended judgment. The former is the more usual case.

To the extent that authors argue with their readers — and expect their readers to argue back — the good reader must be acquainted with the principles of argument. He must be able to carry on polite, as well as intelligent, controversy. That is why there is need for a chapter of this sort in our program on reading. Not simply by following an author’s arguments, but only by meeting them as well, can the reader ultimately reach significant agreement or disagreement with his author.

The meaning of agreement and disagreement deserves a moment’s further consideration. The reader who comes to terms with an author, and grasps his propositions and reasoning, is en rapport with the author’s mind. In fact, the whole process of interpretation is directed toward a meeting of minds through the medium of language. Understanding a book can be described as a kind of agreement between writer and reader. They agree about the use of language to express ideas. Because of that agreement, the reader is able to see through the author’s language to the ideas he is trying to express.

If the reader understands a book, then how can he disagree with it? Critical reading demands that he make up his own mind. But his mind and the author’s have become as one through his success in understanding the book. What mind has he left to make up independently?

There are some people who make the error which causes this apparent difficulty. They fail to distinguish between two senses of “agreement.” In consequence, they wrongly suppose that where there is understanding between men, disagreement is impossible. They say that all disagreement is simply due to misunderstanding.

The error is corrected as soon as we remember that the author is making judgments about the world in which we live. He claims to be giving us theoretic knowledge about the way things exist and behave, or practical knowledge about what should be done. Obviously, he can be either right or wrong. His claim is justified only to the extent that he speaks truly, or says what is probable in the light of evidence. Otherwise, his claim is unfounded.

If you say, for instance, that “all men are equal,” I may take you to mean that all men are equally endowed at birth with intelligence, strength, and other abilities. In the light of the facts as I know them, I disagree with you. I think you are wrong. But suppose I have misunderstood you. Suppose you meant by these words that all men should have equal political rights. Because I misapprehended your meaning, my disagreement was irrelevant. Now suppose the mistake corrected. Two alternatives still remain. I can agree or disagree, but now if I disagree, there is a real issue between us. I understand your political position but hold a contrary one.

Issues about matters of fact or policy — issues about the way things are or should be — are real only when they are based on a common understanding of what is being said. Agreement about the use of words is the absolutely indispensable condition for genuine agreement or disagreement about the facts being discussed. It is because of, not in spite of, your meeting the author’s mind through a sound interpretation of his book that you are able to make up your own mind as concurring in or dissenting from the position he has taken.

2

Now let us consider the situation in which, having said you understand, you proceed to disagree. If you disagree because you think the author can be shown to be wrong on some point. You are not simply voicing your prejudice or expressing your emotions.

Many years ago, I wrote a book called Dialectic. It was my first book, and wrong in many ways, but at least it was not as pretentious as its title. It was about the art of intelligent conversation, the etiquette of controversy.

My chief error was in thinking that there are two sides to every question, that is, two sides both of which could be equally right. I did not know then how to distinguish between knowledge and opinion. Despite this error, I think I rightly suggested three conditions which must be satisfied in order for controversy to be well conducted.

Since men are animals as well as rational, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions you bring to a dispute, or those which arise in the course of it. Otherwise you are likely to be giving vent to feelings, not stating reasons. You may even think you have reasons, when all you have are strong feelings.

Furthermore, you must make your own assumptions explicit. You must know what your prejudices — that is, your prejudgments — are. Otherwise you are not likely to admit that your opponent may be equally entitled to different assumptions. Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions. If an author, for example, explicitly asks you to take something for granted, the fact that the opposite can also be taken for granted should not prevent you from honoring his request. If your prejudices lie on the opposite side, and if you do not acknowledge them to be prejudices, you cannot give the author’s case a fair hearing.

Finally, I suggested that an attempt at impartiality is a good antidote for the blindness that is inevitable in partisanship. Controversy without partisanship is, of course, impossible. But to be sure that there is more light in it, and less heat, each of the disputants should at least try to take the other fellow’s point of view. If you have not been able to read a book sympathetically, your disagreement with it is probably more contentious than judicial.

I still think that these three conditions are the sine qua non of intelligent and profitable conversation. They are obviously applicable to reading, in so far as that is a kind of conversation between reader and author. Each of them contains sound advice for readers who are willing to respect the decencies of disagreement.

But I have grown older since I wrote Dialectic. And I am a little less optimistic about what can be expected of human beings. I am sorry to say that most of my disillusionment arises from a knowledge of my own defects. I have so frequently violated all of my own rules about good intellectual manners in controversy. I have so often caught myself attacking a book rather than criticizing it, knocking straw men over, denouncing where I could not support denials, proclaiming my prejudices, as if mine were any better than the author’s.

3

I am still naive enough, however, to think that conversation and critical reading can be well disciplined. Only now, many years later, I am going to substitute for the rules of Dialectic a set of prescriptions which may be easier to follow. They indicate the four ways in which a book can be adversely criticized. My hope is that if you confine yourself to making these points, you will be less likely to indulge in expressions of emotion or prejudice.

The four points can be briefly summarized by conceiving yourself as conversing with the author, as talking back. After you have said, “I understand but I disagree,” you can make the following remarks: (1) “You are uninformed”; (2) “You are misinformed”; (3) “You are illogical, your reasoning is not cogent”; (4) “Your analysis is incomplete.”

These may not be exhaustive, though I think they are. In any case, they are certainly the principal points a reader who disagrees can make. They are somewhat independent. Making one of these remarks does not prevent you from making another. Each and all can be made, because the defects they refer to are not mutually exclusive.

But, I should add, you cannot make any of these remarks without being definite and precise about the respect in which the author is uninformed or misinformed or illogical. A book cannot be uninformed or misinformed about everything. It cannot be totally illogical. Furthermore, the reader who makes any of these remarks must not only make it definitely, by specifying the respect, but he must always support his point. He must give reasons for saying what he does.

The first three remarks are somewhat different from the fourth, as you will presently see. Let us consider each of them briefly, and then turn to the fourth.

(1) To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge which is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. Notice here that unless the knowledge, if possessed by the author, would have been relevant, there is no point in making this remark. To support the remark, you must be able yourself to state the knowledge which the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions.

A few illustrations here must suffice. Darwin lacked the knowledge of genetics which the work of Mendel and later experimentalists now provides. His ignorance of the mechanism of inheritance is one of the major defects in The Origin of Species. Gibbon lacked certain facts which later historical research has shown to have a bearing on the fall of Rome. Usually, in science and history, the lack of information is discovered by later researches. Improved techniques of observation and prolonged investigation make this the way things happen for the most part. But in philosophy, it may happen otherwise. There is just as likely to be loss as gain with the passage of time. The ancients, for example, clearly distinguished between what men can sense and imagine and what they can understand. Yet, in the eighteenth century, David Hume revealed his ignorance of this distinction between images and ideas, even though it had been so well established by the work of earlier philosophers.

(2) To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case. His error here may be due to lack of knowledge, but the error is more than that. What ever its cause, it consists of assertions contrary to fact. The author is proposing as true or more probable what is in fact false or less probable. He is claiming to have knowledge he does not possess. This kind of defect should be pointed out, of course, only if it is relevant to the author’s conclusions. And to support the remark you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s.

For example, in a political treatise, Spinoza appears to say that democracy is a more primitive type of government than monarchy. This is contrary to well-ascertained facts of political history. Spinoza’s error in this respect has a bearing on his argument. Aristotle was misinformed about the role which the male factor played in animal reproduction, and consequently came to unsupportable conclusions about the processes of procreation. Thomas Aquinas erroneously supposed that the heavenly bodies changed only in position, that they were otherwise unalterable. Modem astrophysics corrects this error and thereby improves on ancient and medieval astronomy. But here is an error which has limited relevance. Making it does not affect St. Thomas’s metaphysical account of the nature of all sensible things as composed of matter and form.

These first two points of criticism are somewhat related. Lack of information, as we have seen, may be the cause of erroneous assertions. Further, whenever a man is misinformed, he is also uninformed of the truth. But it makes a difference whether the defect be simply negative or positive as well. Lack of relevant knowledge makes it impossible to solve certain problems or support certain conclusions. Erroneous suppositions, however, lead to wrong conclusions and untenable solutions. Taken together, these two points charge an author with defects in his premises. He needs more knowledge than he possesses. His evidences and reasons are not good enough in quantity or quality.

(3) To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning. In general, fallacies are of two sorts. There is the non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. And there is the occurrence of inconsistency, which means that two things the author has tried to say are incompatible. To make either of these criticisms, the reader must be able to show the precise respect in which the author’s argument lacks cogency. One is concerned with this defect only to the extent that the major conclusions are affected by it. A book may lack cogency in irrelevant respects.

It is more difficult to illustrate this third point, because few great books make obvious slips in reasoning. When they do occur, they are usually elaborately concealed, and it requires a very penetrating reader to discover them. But I can show you a patent fallacy which I found in a recent reading of Machiavelli’s Prince:

The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old, are good laws. As there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.

Now it simply does not follow from the fact that good laws depend on an adequate police force, that where the police force is adequate, the laws will necessarily be good. I am ignoring the highly questionable character of the first fact. I am only interested in the non sequitur here. It is truer to say that happiness depends on health (than that good laws depend on an effective police force), but it does not follow that all who are healthy are happy.

In his Elements of Law, Hobbes argues in one place that all bodies are nothing but quantities of matter in motion. The world of bodies, he says, has no qualities whatsoever. Then, in another place, he argues that man is himself nothing but a body, or a collection of atomic bodies in motion. Yet, admitting the existence of sensory qualities — colors, odors, tastes, and so forth — he concludes that they are nothing but the motions of atoms in the brain. This conclusion is inconsistent with the position first taken, namely, that the world of bodies in motion is without qualities. What is said of all bodies in motion must apply to any particular group of them, including the atoms of the brain.

This third point of criticism is related to the other two. An author may, of course, fail to draw the conclusions which his evidences or principles imply. Then his reasoning is incomplete. But we are here concerned primarily with the case in which he reasons poorly from good grounds. It is interesting, but less important, to discover lack of cogency in reasoning from premises that are themselves untrue, or from evidences that are inadequate.

A person who from sound premises reaches a conclusion invalidly is, in a sense, misinformed. But it is worth while to distinguish the kind of erroneous statement which is due to bad reasoning from the kind previously discussed, due to other defects, especially insufficient knowledge of relevant details.

4

The first three points of criticism, which we have just considered, deal with the soundness of the author’s statements and reasoning. Let us turn now to the fourth adverse remark a reader can make. It deals with the completeness of the author’s execution of his plan — the adequacy with which he discharges the task he has chosen.

Before we proceed to this fourth remark, one thing should be observed. Since you have said you understand, your failure to support any of these first three remarks obligates you to agree with the author as far as he has gone. You have no freedom of will about this. It is not your sacred privilege to decide whether you are going to agree or disagree.

Since you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.” All you can possibly mean by saying something like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions or prejudices. If you have been convinced, you should admit it. (If, despite your failure to support one or more of these three critical points, you still honestly feel unconvinced, perhaps you should not have said you understood in the first place.)

The first three remarks are related to the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments. These are the elements he used to solve the problems which initiated his efforts. The fourth remark — that the book is incomplete — bears on the structure of the whole.

(4) To say that an author’s analysis is incomplete is to say that he has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or that he has failed to make distinctions which are relevant to his undertaking. It is not enough to say that a book is incomplete. Anyone can say that of any book. Men are finite, and so are their works, every last one. There is no point in making this remark, therefore, unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely, either by his own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books.

Let me illustrate this point briefly. The analysis of types of government in Aristotle’s Politics is incomplete. Because of the limitations of his time and his erroneous acceptance of slavery, Aristotle fails to consider, or for that matter even to conceive, the truly democratic constitution which is based on universal suffrage; nor can he imagine either representative government or the modem kind of federated state. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry is an incomplete account because he failed to consider other postulates about the relation of parallel lines. Modern geometrical works, making these other assumptions, supply the deficiencies. Dewey’s How We Think is an incomplete analysis of thinking because it fails to treat the sort of thinking which occurs in reading or learning by instruction in addition to the sort which occurs in investigation and discovery.

This fourth point is strictly not a basis for disagreement. It is critically adverse only to the extent that it marks the limitations of the author’s achievement. A reader who agrees with a book in part — because he finds no reason to make any of the other points of adverse criticism — may, nevertheless, suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of this fourth point about the book’s incompleteness. Suspended judgment on the reader’s part responds to an author’s failure to solve his problems perfectly.

Related books in the same field can be critically compared by reference to these four criteria. One is better than another in proportion as it speaks more truth and makes fewer errors. If we are reading for knowledge, that book is best, obviously, which most adequately treats a given subject matter. One author may lack information which another possesses; one may make erroneous suppositions from which another is free; one may be less cogent than another in reasoning from similar grounds. But the profoundest comparison is made with respect to the completeness of the analysis which each presents. The measure of such completeness is to be found in the number of valid and significant distinctions which the accounts being compared contain. You may see now how useful it is to have a grasp of the author’s terms. The number of distinct terms is correlative with the number of distinctions.

5

When you have read a book according to these rules, you have done something, I need not tell you. You will feel that way about it yourself. But perhaps I should remind you that these rules describe an ideal performance. Few people have ever read any book in this ideal manner, and those who have, probably read very few books this way. The ideal remains, however, the measure of achievement. You are a good reader in the degree to which you approximate it.

When we speak of someone as “well read,” we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, I fear, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised, for so much effort has been misguided and profitless.

The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books which, in their day, were listed as the great and indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in some of our better colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to become authorities in their own right. In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good reader becomes an author.

My intention here is not to lead you from reading to writing. It is rather to remind you that one approaches the ideal of good reading by applying the rules I have described in the reading of a single book, and not by trying to become superficially acquainted with a large number. There are, of course, many books worth reading well. There is a much larger number which should be only skimmed. To become well read, in every sense of the word, one must know how to use whatever skill one possesses with discrimination — by reading every book according to its merits.

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