Chapter 11 – Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author

  1. AGREEING OR DISAGREEING WITH AN AUTHOR

“I don’t understand” may itself be 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 lacks relevance, or perhaps, that 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 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. … It is clear that we have additional steps to consider only in the case of disagreement or suspended judgement. … 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. 

Agreement about the use of words is the indispensable condition for the genuine agreement or disagreement about the facts being discussed. It is because of, not in spite of, you meeting the author’s mind through a sound interpretation of his book that you are able to make up our own mind as concurring in or dissenting from the position he has taken.

PREJUDICE AND JUDGEMENT

Now let us consider the situation in which, having said you understand, you proceed to disagree. If you have tried to abide by the maxims stated in the previous chapter, 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. Because this is true, then, from an ideal point of view, there are three conditions that must be satisfied if controversy is to be well conducted.

The first is this. Since men are animals as well as rational, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions you bring to a dispute, or those that arise in the course of it. Otherwise you are likely to be giving vent to feelings, not stating reasons.

Second, you must make your own assumptions explicit. Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions.

Third and finally, an attempt at impartiality is good antidote for the blindness that is almost inevitable in partisanship.

We are going to substitute for those three ideal conditions, a set of prescriptions that may be easier to follow. They indicate the four ways in which a book can be adversely criticized.

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

They are somewhat independent. Each and all can be made, because the defects they refer to are not mutually exclusive. But, we should add, the reader cannot make any of these remarks without being definite and precise about the respect in which the author is uninformed or misinformed or illogical. … the reader who makes any of these remarks must not only make it definitely, by specifying the respect, but he must also support his point. He must give reasons for saying what he does.

JUDGING THE AUTHOR’S SOUNDNESS

  1. To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. … To support the remark, you must be able yourself to state the knowledge that the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions.
  2. To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case. … it consists in making assertions contrary to fact. The author is proposing as true or more probable what is in fact false or less probable. … And to support the remark you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s.

These first two points of criticism may be related. Lack of information, as we have seen, may be the cause of erroneous assertions. Further, whenever a man is misinformed in a certain respect, he is also uninformed in the same respect. But it makes a difference whether the defect is 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.

  1. 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. … One is concerned with this defect only to the extent that the major conclusions are affected by it. A book may safely lack cogency in irrelevant respects.

This third point of criticism is related to the other two. … But we are here concerned primarily with the case in which he reasons poorly from good grounds. … It is worthwhile to distinguish the kind of erroneous statement that is owing to bad reasoning from the kind previously discussed, which is owing to other defect, especially insufficient knowledge of relevant details.

JUDGING THE AUTHOR’S COMPLETENESS

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. … If 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.

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

  1. 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 that are relevant to his undertaking. It is not enough to say that a book is incomplete. Anyone can say that of any book. … There is no point in making this remark unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely, either by his own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books.

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 judgement on the whole, in the light of this fourth point about the book’s incompleteness. Suspended judgement 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.