Chapter 10 – Criticizing a Book Fairly (part 2 of 2)


The second general maxim of critical reading is as obvious as the first, but it needs explicit statement, nevertheless, and for the same reason. It is RULE 10, and it can be expressed thus: WHEN YOU DISAGREE, DO SO REASONABLY, AND NOT DISPUTATIOUSLY OR CONTENTIOUSLY. There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong.

He who regards conversation as a battle can win only by being an antagonist, only be disagreeing successfully, whether his is right or wrong. The reader who approaches a book in this spirt reads it only to finds something he disagrees with.

If all he wants is the empty satisfaction of seeming to show the author up, the reader can get it readily. … But if he realizes that the only profit in conversation, with living or dead teachers, is what one can learn from them, if he realizes that you win only by gaining knowledge, not by knocking the other fellow down, he may see the futility of mere contentiousness. We are not saying that a reader should not ultimately disagree and try to show where the author is wrong. We are saying only that he should be as prepared to agree as to disagree.


The third maxim is closely related to the second. It states another condition prior to the undertaking of criticism. It recommends that you regard disagreements as capable of being resolved. Where the second maxim urged you not to disagree disputatiously, this on warns you against disagreeing hopelessly. One is hopeless about the fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can agree. Note that we said “can agree.” We did not say all rational men do agree. Even when they do not agree, they can. The point we are trying to make is that disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolution of an issue.

These two facts, that people do disagree and can agree, arise from the complexity of human nature.  Men are rational animals. Their rationality is the source of their power to agree. Their animality, and the imperfections of their reason that it entails, is the cause of most of the disagreements that occur. … The sort of disagreement that is only apparent, the sort that results from misunderstanding, is certainly curable.

There is, of course, another sort of disagreement, which is owing merely to inequalities of knowledge. … Disagreement of this sort can also be corrected. Inequality of knowledge is always curable by instruction.

What we have just said applies to the great majority of disagreements. They can be resolved by the removal of misunderstanding or of ignorance. Both cures are usually possible, though often difficult. Hence the person who, at any stage of a conversation, disagrees, should at least hope to reach agreement in the end. He should be as much prepared to have his own mind changed as seek to change the mind of another. … No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.

The trouble is that many people regard disagreement as unrelated to either teaching or being taught. They think that everything is just a matter of opinion. I have mine, and you have yours; and our right to our opinions is as inviolable as our right to private property. On such a view, communication cannot be profitable if the profit to be gained is an increase in knowledge.

We would not – an could not – write this book if we held this view. Instead, we hold that knowledge can be communicated and that discussion can result in learning. If genuine knowledge, not mere personal opinion, isa at stake, then, for the most part, either disagreements are apparent only – to be removed by coming to terms and a meeting of minds; or they are real, and the genuine issues can be resolved – in the long run, of course – by appeals to fact and reason.

How does this third maxim apply to the conversation between reader and writer? How can it be stated as a rule of reading? … This maxim requires him to distinguish between genuine knowledge and mere opinion, and to regard an issue where knowledge is concerned as one that can be resolved.

If an author does not give reasons for his propositions, they can be treated only as expressions of personal opinions on his part. … Thus the reader must do more than make judgements of agreement or disagreement. He must give reasons for them. In the former case, of course, it suffices if he actively shares the author’s reasons for this point on which they agree. But when he disagrees, he must give his own grounds for doing so.


Knowledge, if you please, consists in those opinions that can be defended, opinions for which there is evidence of one kind or another. … Opinion, in the sense in which we have been employing the word, is unsupported judgement.

Let us now summarize the three general maxims we have discussed in this chapter. The three together state the conditions of a critical reading and the manner in which the reader should proceed to “talk back” to the author.

The first requires the reader to complete the task of understanding before rushing in. The second adjures him not to view disagreement about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable. This rule goes further: It also commands him to give reasons for his disagreements so that issues are not merely stated by also defined. In that lies all hope for resolution.