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.

Chapter 9 – Determining an Authors Message (part 2 of 3)

FINDING THE KEY SENTENCES

How does one locate the most important sentences in a book? How, then, does one interpret these sentences to discover the one or more propositions they contain?

From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his whole argument rests. … He may indult in all sorts of supporting and surrounding discussion. But the heart of his communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for so doing.

Some authors help you do this. They underline the sentences for you. They either tell you that this is an important point when they make it, or they use one or another typographical device to make their leading sentences stand out.

Apart from books whose style or format calls attention to what most needs interpretation by the reader, the spotting of the important sentences is a job the reader must perform for himself. … If he is sensitive to the difference between passages he can understand readily and those he cannot, he will probably be able to locate the sentences that carry the main burden of meaning. Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.

Another clue to the important sentences is found in the words that compose them. If you have already marked the important words, they should lead you to the sentences that deserve further attention. Thus the first step in interpretive reading prepares fo the second. But the reverse may also be the case. It maybe that you will mark certain words only after you have become puzzled by the meaning of a sentence. The fact that we have stated these rules in fixed order does not mean that you have to follow them in that order. Terms constitute propositions. Propositions contain terms. If you know the terms the words express, you have caught the proposition in the sentence. If you understand the proposition conveyed by a sentence, you have arrived the terms also.

This suggests one further clue to the location of the principal propositions. They must belong to the main argument of the book. They must be either premises or conclusions. Hence, if you can detect those sentences that seem to form a sequence, a sequence in which there is a beginning and an end, you probably have put your finger on the sentences that are important.

Many persons believe that they know how to read because they read at different speeds. But they pause and go slow over the wrong sentences. They pause over the sentences that interest them rather than the ones that puzzle them. Indeed, this is one of the greatest obstacles to reading a book that is not completely contemporary. Any old book contains facts that are somewhat surprising because they are different from what we know. But when you are reading for understanding it is not that kind of novelty that you are seeking. Your interest in the author himself, or in his language, or in the world in which he wrote, is one thing; your concern to understand his ideas is quite another. It is tis concern that the rules we are discussing here can help you to satisfy, not your curiosity about other matters.

FINDING THE PROPOSITIONS

Let us suppose that you have located the leading sentences. Another step is required by Rule 6. You must discover the proposition or propositions that each of these sentences contains. This is just another way of saying that you must know what the sentence means. You discover terms by discovering what a word means in a given usage. You discover propositions similarly by interpreting all the words that make up the sentence, and especially its principal words.

There are only two differences between finding the terms that words express and the propositions that sentences express. One is that you employ a larger context in the latter case. You bring all the surrounding sentences to bear on the sentence in question, just as you used the surrounding words to interpret a particular word. In both cases, you proceed from what you do understand to the gradual elucidation of what is at first relatively unintelligible.

The other difference lies in the fact that complicated sentences usually express more than one proposition. You have not completed your interpretation of an important sentence until you have separated out of it all the different, though perhaps related, propositions. Skill in doing this comes with practice. Take some of the complicated sentences in this book and try to state in your own words each of the things that is being asserted. Number them and relate them.

“State in your own words!” That suggest the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can, of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.

These remarks have a bearing on syntopical reading – the reading of several books about the same subject matter. Different authors frequently say the same thing in different words, or different things using almost the same words. The reader who cannot see through the language to the terms and propositions will never be able to compare such related works.

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read. Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant? … If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.