Chapter 9 – Determining an Authors Message (part 3 of 3)

FINDING THE ARGUMENTS

Let us now turn to the seventh rule of analytical reading, which requires the reader to deal with collections of sentences. We said before that there was a reason for not formulating this rule of interpretation by saying that the reader should find the most important paragraphs. The reason is that there are no settled conventions among writers about how to construct paragraphs.

The logical unit to which the seventh rule directs our reading is the argument – a sequence of propositions, some of which give reasons for another. This logical unit is not uniquely related to any recognizable unit of writing, as terms are related to words and phrases, and propositions to sentences. An argument may be expressed in a single completed sentence. Or it may be expressed in a number of sentences that are only part of the one paragraph. Sometimes an argument may coincide with a paragraph, but it may also happen that an argument runs through several or many paragraphs.

There is one further difficulty. There are many paragraphs in any book that do not express an argument at all – perhaps not even part of one. They may consist of collects of sentences that detail evidence or report how the evidence has been gathered. As there are sentences that are of secondary importance, because they are merely digressions or side remarks, so also can there be paragraphs of this sort. It hardly needs to be said that they should be read rather quickly.

Because of all this, we suggest another formulation of RULE 7, as follows: FIND IF YOU CAN THE PARAGRAPHS IN A BOOK THAT STATE ITS IMPRTANT ARGUMENTS; BUT IF THE ARGUMENTS ARE NOT THUS EXPRESSED, YOUR TASK IS TO CONSTRUCT THEM, BY TAKING A SENTENCE FROM THE PARAGRAPH, AND ONE FROM THAT, UNTIL YOU HAVE GATHERED TOGETHER THE SEQUENCE OF SENTENCES THAT STATE THE PROPOSITIONS THAT COMPOSE THE ARGUMENT.

After you have discovered the leading sentences, the construction of paragraphs should be relatively easy. There are various ways of doing this. You can do it by actually writing out on a piece of paper the propositions that together form an argument. But usually a better way, as we have already suggested, is to put numbers in the margin, together with other marks, to indicate the places where the sentences occur that should be tied together in a sequence.

Authors are more or less helpful to their readers in this matter of making the arguments plain. … Some books make you search in vain, and some do not even encourage the search.

A good book usually summarizes itself as its arguments develop. If the author summarizes his arguments for you at the end of a chapter, or at the end of an elaborate section, you should be able to look back over the preceded pages and find the materials he has brought together in the summary.

Incidentally, if you have inspected the book well before beginning to read it analytically, you will know whether the summary passages exist and if they do, where they are. You can then make the best possible use of them when interpreting the book.

Another sign of a bad or loosely constructed book is the omission of steps in an argument. Sometimes they can be omitted without damage or inconvenience, because the propositions left out can be generally supplied from the common knowledge of readers. But sometimes their omission is misleading and may even be intended to mislead. One of the most familiar tricks of the orator or propagandist is to leave certain things unsaid, things that are highly relevant to the argument, but that might be challenged if they were made explicit. While we do not expect such devices in an honest author whose aim is to instruct us, it is nevertheless a sound maxim of careful reading to make every step in an argument explicit.

Whatever kind of book it is, your obligation as a reader remains the same. If the book contains arguments, you must know what they are, and be able to put them into a nutshell.

The nature of the human mind is such that if it works at all during the process of reading, if it comes to terms with the author and reaches his propositions, it will see his arguments as well.

There are, however, a few things we can say that may be helpful to you in carrying out this rule of reading. In the first place, remember that every argument must involve a number of statements. Of these, some give the reasons why you should accept a conclusion the author is proposing. If you find the conclusion first, then look for the reasons. If you find the reasons first, see where they lead.

In the second place, discriminate between the kind of argument that points to one or more particular facts as evidence for some generalization and the kind that offers a series of general statements to prove some further generalizations. The former kind of reasoning is usually referred to as inductive, the latter as deductive; but the names are not what is important. What is important is the ability to discriminate between the two.

In the third place, observe what things the author says he must assume, what he says can be proved or otherwise evidenced, and what need not be proved because it is self-evident. He may honestly try to tell you what all his assumptions are, or he may just as honestly leave you to find them out for yourself. Obviously, not everything can be proved, just as not everything can be defined. If every proposition had to be proved, there would be no beginning to any proof. Such things as axioms and assumptions or postulates are needed for the proof of other propositions. If these other propositions are proved, they ca of course be used as premises in further proofs.

Every line of argument, in other words, must start somewhere. Basically, there are two ways or places in which it can start: with assumptions agreed on between writer and reader, or with what are called self-evident propositions, which neither the writer nor reader can deny.

FINDING THE SOLUTIONS

These three rules of analytical reading – about terms, propositions, and arguments – can be brought to a head in an eighth rule, which governs the last step in the interpretation of a book’s content. More than that, it ties together the first stage of analytical reading (outlining the structure) and the second stage (interpreting the contents).

This final step in interpretive reading is covered by RULE 8. FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHOR’S SOLUTIONS ARE. When you have applied this rule, and the three that preceded it in interpretive reading, you can feel reasonably sure that you have managed to understand the book. If you started with a book that was over your head – one, therefore, that was able to teach you something – you have come a long way. … Up to this point, you have been following the author. From this point on, you are going to have a chance to argue with the author and express yourself.

THE SECOND STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING, or RULES FOR FINDING WHAT A BOOK SAYS (INTERPRETING ITS CONTENTS)

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his hey words.
  2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.