Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 4 of 4)

ON MAKING UP YOUR OWN MIND

A good theoretical work in philosophy is as free from oratory and propaganda as a good scientific treatise. … There is utility, however, in reading the works of other great philosophers who have dealt with the same problems as your author. The philosophers have carried on a long conversation with each other in the history of thought. You had better listen in on it before you make up your mind about what any of them says.

The fact that philosophers disagree should not trouble you, for two reasons. First, the fact of disagreement, if it is persistent, may point to a great unsolved and, perhaps, insoluble problem. … Second, the disagreements of others are relatively unimportant. Your responsibility is only to make up your own mind.

It is, indeed, the most distinctive mark of philosophical questions that everyone must answer them for himself. … And your answers must be solidly grounded, with arguments to back them up.

A NOTE ON THEOLOGY

There are two kinds of theology, natural theology and dogmatic theology. Natural theology is a branch of philosophy; it is the last chapter, as it were, in metaphysics. If you ask, for example, wither causation is an endless process, whether everything is caused, you may find yourself, if you answer in the affirmative, involved in an infinite regress. Therefore you may have to posit some originating cause that is not itself caused. … you would have arrived at the conception by the unaided effort – the natural working – of your mind.

Dogmatic theology differs from philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. … If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician.

Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of the two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. Asa result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning that they support and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way.

HOW TO READ “CANONICAL” BOOKS

There is one very interesting kind of book, on kind of reading, that has not yet been discussed. We use the term “canonical” to refer to such books; in an older tradition we might have called them “sacred” or “holy,” but those words no longer apply to all such works, though they still apply to some of them.

A prime example is the Holy Bible, when it is read not as literature but instead as the reveled Word of God. For orthodox Marxists, however, the works of Marx must be read in much the same way as the Bible must be read by orthodox Jews or Christians. And Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book has an equally canonical character for a “faithful” Chinese Communist.

The notion of a canonical book can be extended beyond these obvious examples. Consider any institution – a church, a political party, a society – that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to tach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. The do not – even cannot – question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the “sacred” text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there.

The characteristics of this kind of reading are perhaps summed up in the word “orthodox,” which is almost always applicable. The word comes from two Greek roots, meaning “right opinion.” These are books for which there is one and only one right reading; any other reading or interpretation is fraught with peril, from the loss of an “A” to the damnation of one’s soul. This characteristic carries with it an obligation. The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of “true.” If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or a rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books.

Here, in fact, we must stop. The problem of reading the Holy Book – if you have faith that it is the Word of God – is the most difficult problem in the whole field of reading. There have been more books written about how to read Scripture than about all other aspects of the art of reading together. The Word of God is obviously the most difficult writing men can read; but it is also, if you believe it is the Word of God, the most important to read. The effort of the faithful has been duly proportionate to the difficulty of the task. It would be true to say that, in the European tradition at least, the Bible is the book in more senses than one. It has been not only the most widely read, but also the most carefully read, book of all.

Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 3 of 4)

HINTS FOR READING PHILOSOPHY

It is perhaps clear from the discussion so far that the most important thing to discover in reading any philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer. The questions may be stated explicitly, or they may be implicit to a certain extent. In either case, you must try to find out what they are.

How the author answers these questions will be deeply affected by his controlling principles. These may be stated, too, but that is not always the case. … the importance of discovering the hidden and unstated assumptions of an author … applies to works in philosophy with particular force.

It is difficult to give examples of such controlling principles. Any that we might proffer would probably be disputed by philosophers, and we do not here have space to defend our choices. Nevertheless, we could mention the controlling idea of Plato that conversation about philosophical subjects is perhaps the most important of all human activities. Now this idea is seldom explicitly stated in the dialogues, although Socrates may be saying it when, in the Apology, he asserts that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Plato mentions it in the Seventh Letter. The point is that Plato expresses this view in a number of other places, though not in so many words – for example, in the Protagoras, where the audience is shown as disapproving of Protagoras’ unwillingness to continue talking to Socrates. Another example is that of Cephalus, in Book I of the Republic, who happens to have other business to attend to and so departs. Plato seems to be saying here, though not explicitly, that it is a betrayal of man’s deepest nature to refuse to join, for whatever reason, in the search for truth. But, as we have noted, this is not ordinarily cited as one of Plato’s “ideas,” because it is seldom explicitly discussed in his works.

This is all we can say about finding the controlling principles in a philosophical book, because we are not sure that we can tell you how to discover them. Sometimes it takes years to do this, and many readings and rereadings. Nevertheless, it is the ideal goal of a good and thorough reading, and you should keep in mind that it is ultimately what you must try to do if you are to understand your author. Despite the difficulty of discovering these principles, however, we do not recommend that you take the shortcut of reading books about the philosophers, their lives and opinions. The discovery you come to on your own will be much more valuable than someone else’s ideas.

Once you have found an author’s controlling principles, you will want to decide whether he adheres to them throughout his work. … If a philosopher is inconsistent, you have to decide which of two sets of propositions he really means – the first principles, as he states them; or the conclusions, which do not in fact follow from the principles stated. Or you may decide to that neither is valid.

The philosophical problem is to explain, not to describe, as science does, the nature of things. Philosophy asks about more than the connections of phenomena. It seeks to penetrate to the ultimate causes and conditions that underlie them. Such problems are satisfactorily explored only when the answers to them are supported by clear arguments and analysis.

The major effort of the reader, therefore, must be with respect to the terms and initial propositions. Although the philosopher, like the scientist, has a technical terminology, the words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense.

The basic terms of philosophical discussions are, of course, abstract. But so are those of science. No general knowledge is expressible except in abstract terms.

Whenever you talk generally about anything, you are using abstractions. What you perceive through your sense is always concrete and particular. What you think with your mind is always abstract and general. To understand an “abstract word” is to have the idea it expresses. “Having an idea” is just another way of saying that you understand some general aspect of the things you experience concretely. You cannot see or touch or even imagine the general aspect thus referred to. If you could, there would be no difference between the senses and the mind.

Just as inductive arguments should be the reader’s main focus in the case of scientific books, so here, in the case of philosophy, you must pay closest attention to the philosopher’s principles. They may be either things he asks you to assume with him, or matters that he calls self-evident. There is no trouble about assumptions. Make them to see what follows, even if you yourself have contrary presuppositions. It is a good mental exercise to pretend that you believe something you really do not believe. And the clearer you are about your won prejudgments, the more likely you will be not to misjudge those made by others.

The thing to remember is that the experience from which they are drawn, as we have noted more than once, is, unlike the scientist’s special experience, the common experience of mankind. The philosopher does no work in laboratories, no research in the field. Hence to understand and test a philosopher’s leading principles you do not need the extrinsic aid of special experience, obtained by methodical investigation. He refers you to your own common sense and daily observation of the world in which you live.

In other words, the method according to which you should read a philosophical book is very similar to the method according to which it is written. A philosopher, faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it – which means, as we know, thinking about it. There are no other aids except the mind itself.

Thus you can see why we say that the rules of reading, as we have stated and explained them, apply more directly to the reading of philosophical books than to the reading of any other kind.

 

Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 2 of 4)

MODERN PHILOSOPHY AND THE GREAT TRADITION

For the sake of brevity in what follows, let us call questions about what is and happens in the world, or about what men ought to do or seek, “first-order questions.” We should recognize, then, that there are also “second-order questions” that can be asked: questions about our first-order knowledge, questions about the content of our thinking when we try to answer first-order questions, questions about the ways in which we express such thoughts in language.

The majority of professional philosophers at the present day no longer believe that first-order questions can be answered by philosophers. Most professional philosophers today devote their attention exclusively to second-order questions, very often to questions having to do with the language in which thought is expressed.

This makes modern philosophy very hard to read for non-philosophers – as difficult, indeed, as science for non-scientists. … However, there are philosophical books that you can read, and that we believe you should read. These books ask the kinds of questions that we have called first-order ones. It is not accidental that they were also written primarily for a lay audience rather than exclusively for other philosophers.

All of the great classical works in philosophy, from Plato onward, were written from this point of view. These books are accessible to the lay reader; you can succeed in reading them if you wish to. Everything that we have to say in this chapter is intended to help you do that.

ON PHILOSOPHICAL METHOD

It is important to understand what philosophical method consists in – at least insofar as philosophy is conceived as asking and trying to answer first-order questions. Suppose that you are a philosopher who is troubled by one of the childishly simple questions we have mentioned – the question, for instance, about the properties of everything that exists, … How do you proceed?

If your question were scientific, you would know that to answer it you would have to perform some kind of special research. … If your question were historical, you would know that you would also have to perform research, although a different kind. But there is no experiment that will tell you what all existing things have in common, precisely in respect to have existence. … all you can do is reflect upon the question. There is, in short, nothing to do but think.

You are not thinking in a total vacuum, of course. Philosophy, when it is good, is not “pure” speculation. … Ideas cannot be put together just anyway. There are stringent testes of the validity of answers to philosophical questions. But such tests are based on common experience alone – on the experience that you already have because you are a human being, not a philosopher. … What distinguishes [the greatest philosophers] is that they thought about it extremely well: they formulated the most penetrating questions that could be asked about it, and they undertook to develop carefully and clearly worked-out answers. By what means? Not by investigation. Not by having or trying to get more experience than the rest of us have. Rather, by thinking more profoundly about the experience than the rest of us have.

ON PHILOSOPHICAL STYLES

Although there is only one philosophical method, there are at least five styles of exposition that have been employed by the great philosophers of the Western tradition. The student or reader of philosophy should be able to distinguish between them and know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  1. THE PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUE: The first philosophical style of exposition, first in time if not in effectiveness, is the one adopted by Plato in his Dialogues. The style is conversational, even colloquial; a number of men discuss a subject with Socrates (or, in the later dialogues, with a speaker known as The Athenian Stranger); often, after a certain amount of fumbling, Socrates embarks on a series of questions and comments that help to elucidate the subject. In the hands of a master, like Plato, this style is heuristic, that is, it allows the reader, indeed leads him, to discover things for himself. When the style is enriched by the high drama – some would say the high comedy – of the story of Socrates, it becomes enormously powerful.
  2. THE PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE OR ESSAY: Aristotle was Plato’s best pupil; he studied under him for twenty years. … The subjects covered by Aristotle in his treatises, and the various styles adopted by him in presenting his findings, also helped to establish the branches and approaches of philosophy in the succeeding centuries. … Finally, there are the major treatises, some of which, like the Physics and Metaphysics, or the Ethics, Politics, and Poetics, are purely philosophical works, theoretical or normative; some of which, like the book On the Soul, are mixtures of philosophical theory and early scientific investigation; and some of which, like the biological treatises, are mainly scientific works in the field of natural history.

Immanuel Kant, although he was probably more influenced by Plato in a philosophical sense, adopted Aristotle’s style of exposition. His treatises are finished works of art, unlike Aristotle’s in this respect. They state the main problem first, go through the subject matter in a thorough and businesslike way, and treat special problems by the way or at the last. The clarity of both Kant and Aristotle may be said to consist in the order that they impose on the subject. We see a philosophical beginning, middle, and end. We also, particularly in the case of Aristotle, are provided with accounts of the views and objections of others, both philosophers and ordinary men. Thus, in one sense the style of the treatise is similar to the style of the dialogue. But the element of drama is missing from the Kantian or Aristotelean treatise; a philosophical view is developed through straightforward exposition rather than through the conflict of positions and opinions, as in Plato.

  1. THE MEETING OF OBJECTIONS: The philosophical style developed in the Middle Ages and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has likenesses to both of those already discussed. Plato, we have pointed out, raises most of the persistent philosophical problems; and Socrates, as we might have observed, asks in the course of the dialogues the kind of simple but profound questions that children ask. And Aristotle, as we have also pointed out, recognizes the objections of other philosophers and replies to them.

Aquinas’ style is a combination of question-raising and objection-meeting. The Summa is divided into parts, treatises, questions, and articles. The form of all the articles is the same. A question is posed; the opposite (wrong) answer to it is given; arguments are educed in support of that wrong answer; these are countered first by an authoritative text (often a quotation from Scripture); and finally, Aquinas introduces his own answer or solution with the words “I answer that.” Having given his own view of the matter, he then replies to each of the arguments for the wrong answer. 

The neatness and order of this style are appealing to men with orderly minds, but that is not the most important feature of the Thomistic way of philosophizing. Rather, it is Aquinas’ explicit recognition of conflicts, his reporting of different views, and his attempt to meet all possible objections to his own solutions.  … the civilization of the Middle Ages was essentially oral, partly because books were few and hard to come by. A proposition was not accepted as true unless it could meet the test of open discussion’ the philosopher was not a solitary thinker, but instead faced his opponents in the intellectual market place (as Socrates might have said). Thus, the Summa Theologica is imbued with the spirit of debate and discussion.

  1. THE SYSTEMIZATION OF PHILOSOPHY: In the seventeenth century, a fourth style of philosophical exposition was developed by two notable philosophers, Descartes and Spinoza. Fascinated by the promised success of mathematics in organizing man’s knowledge of nature, they attempted to organize philosophy itself in a way akin to the organization of mathematics.

Probably there are no absolute rules of rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether it is possible to write a satisfactory philosophical work in mathematical form, as Spinoza tried to do, or a satisfactory scientific work in dialogue form, as Galileo tried to do. The fact is that both of these men failed to some extent to communicate what they wished to communicate, and it seems likely that the form they chose was a major reason for the failure.

  1. THE APHORISTIC STYLE: There is one other style of philosophical exposition that deserves mention, although it is probably not as important as the other four. This is the aphoristic style adopted by Nietzsche in such works as Thus Spake Zarathustra and by certain modern French philosophers.

The great advantage of the aphoristic form in philosophy is that it is heuristic; the reader has the impression that more is being said than is actually said, for he does much f the work of thinking – of making connections between statements and of constructing arguments for positions – himself. At the same time, however, this is the great disadvantage of the style, which is really not expositional at all. The author is like a hit-and-run driver; he touches on a subject, he suggests a truth or insight about it, and then runs off to another subject without properly defending what he has said. Thus, although the aphoristic style is enjoyable for those who are poetically included, it is irritating for serious philosophers who would rather try to follow and criticize an author’s line of thought.

As far as we know, there is no other important style of philosophical exposition that has been employed in our Western tradition. … This means that all of the great philosophers have employed one or the other of these five styles. … The treatise or essay is probably the most common form, both in the past and the present. … Dialogues are notoriously hard to write, and the geometrical style is enormously difficult both to write and to read. The aphoristic style is highly unsatisfactory from a philosophical point of view. The Thomistic style has not been used very much in recent times. Perhaps it would not be acceptable to modern readers, but that seems a shame, considering all its advantages.

Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 1 of 4)

  1. HOW TO READ PHILOSOPHY

Children ask magnificent questions. … The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. … Somewhere along the line, adults must fail somehow to sustain the infant’s curiosity at its original depth.

We have no solution for this problem; we are certainly not so brash as to think we can tell you how to answer the profound and wondrous questions that children put. But we do want you to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask. The ability to retain the child’s view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare – and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.

The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions – simple once they are stated, vastly difficult before. If we are to follow them we too must be childishly simple in our questions – and maturely wise in our replies.

THE QUESTIONS PHILOSOPHERS ASK

What are these “childishly simple” questions that philosophers ask? When we write them down, they do not seem simple, because to answer them is so difficult. Nevertheless, they are initially simple in the sense of being basic or fundamental.

Take the following questions about being or existence, for example: What is the difference between existing and not existing? What is common to all the things that do exist, and what are the properties of everything that does exist? Are there different ways in which things can exist – different modes of being or existence? Do some things exist only in the mind or for the mind, whereas others exist outside the mind, and whether or not they are known to us, or even knowable by us? Does everything that exists exist physically, or are there some things that exist apart from material embodiment? Do all things change, or is there anything that is immutable? Does anything exist necessarily, or must we say that everything that does exist might not have existed? Is the realm of possible existence larger than the realm of what actually does exist?

These are typically the kind of questions that a philosopher asks when he is concerned to explore the nature of being itself and the realms of being. As questions, they are not difficult to state or understand, but they are enormously difficult to answer – so difficult, in fact, that there are philosophers, especially in recent times, who have held that they cannot be answered in any satisfactory manner.

Unfortunately, we do not have space to go into the whole range of question more deeply. We can only list some other questions that philosophers ask and try to answer. There are questions not only about being and becoming, but also about necessity and contingency; about the material and the immaterial; about the physical and the non-physical; about freedom and indeterminacy; about the powers of the human mind; about the nature and extent of human knowledge; about the freedom of the will.

All these questions are speculative or theoretical in the sense of those terms that we have employed in distinguishing between the theoretical and practical realms. But philosophy, as you know, is not restricted to theoretical questions only.

Take good and evil, for instance. Children are much concerned with the difference between good and bad; their behinds are likely to suffer if they make mistakes about it. But we do not stop wondering about the difference when we grow up. Is there a universally valid distinction between good and evil? Are there certain things that are always good, others that are always bad, whatever the circumstances? Or was Hamlet right when, echoing Montaigne, he said: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Good and evil, of course, are not the same as right and wrong; the two pairs of terms seem to refer to different classes of things. In particular, even if we feel that whatever is right is good, we probably do not feel that whatever is wrong is evil. But how do we make this distinction precise?

Again, we do not have space to go more extensively into these questions. We can only list some other questions in the practical realm. There are question not only about good and evil, right and wrong, and the order of goods, but also about duties and obligations; about virtues and vices; about happiness, life’s purpose or goal; about justice and rights in the sphere of human relations and social interaction; about the state and its relation to the individual; about the good society, the just polity, and the just economy; about war and peace.

The two groups of questions that we have discussed determine or identify two main divisions of philosophy. The questions in the first group, the questions about being and becoming, have to do with what is or happens in the world. Such questions belong to the division of philosophy that is called theoretical or speculative. The questions in the second group, the questions concerning good and evil, right and wrong, have to do with what ought to be done or sought, and they belong got the division of philosophy that is sometimes called practical, and is more accurately called normative. Books that tell you how to make something, such as a cook book, or how to do something, such as a driver’s manual, need not try to argue that you ought to become a good cook, or learn to drive a car well; they can assume that you want to make or do something and merely tell you how to succeed in your efforts. In contrast, books of normative philosophy concern themselves primarily with the goals all men ought to seek – goals such as leading a good life or instituting a good society – and, unlike cookbooks and driving manuals, they go no further than prescribing in the most universal terms the means that ought to be employed in order to achieve these goals.

The questions that philosophers ask also serve to distinguish subordinate branches of the two main divisions of philosophy. A work of speculative or theoretical philosophy is metaphysical if it is mainly concerned with the questions about being or existence. It is a work in the philosophy of nature if it is concerned with becoming – with the nature and kinds of changes, their conditions and causes. If its primary concern is with knowledge – with questions about what is involved in our knowing anything, with the causes, extent, and limits of human knowledge, and with its certainties and uncertainties – then it is a work in epistemology, which is just another name for theory of knowledge. Turning from theoretical to normative philosophy, the main distinction is between questions about the good life and what is right or wrong in the conduct of the individual, all of which fall within the sphere of ethics, and questions about the good society and the conduct of the individual in relation to the community – the sphere of politics or political philosophy.

Chapter 17 – How to Read Science and Mathematics (part 2 of 2)

FACING THE PROBLEM OF MATHEMATICS

Many people are frightened of mathematics and think they cannot read it at all. … The problem is partly this. WE are not told, or not told early enough so that it sinks in, that mathematics is a language, and that we can learn it like any other, including our own. We have to learn our own language twice, first when we learn to speak it, second when we learn to read it. Fortunately, mathematics has to be learned only once, since it is almost wholly a written language.

Since mathematics is a language, it has its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax, and these have to be learned by the beginning reader. Certain symbols and relationships between symbols have to be memorized. The problem is different, because the language is different, but it is no more difficult, theoretically, than learning to read English or French or German. At the elementary level, in fact, it may even be easier. … There are no emotional connotations of mathematical terms, propositions, and equations when these are properly used.

HANDLING THE MATHEMATICS IN SCIENTIFIC BOOKS

We were observing that the presence of mathematics in scientific books is one of the main obstacles to reading them. There are a couple of things to say about that.

First, you can probably read at least elementary mathematics better than you think. We have already suggested that you should begin with Euclid, and we are confident that if you spent several evenings with the Elements you would overcome much of your fear of the subject.

That leads to the second point we want to make. If your intention is to read a mathematical book in and for itself, you must read it, of course, from beginning to end – and with a pencil in your hand, for writing in the margins and even on a scratch pad is more necessary here than in the case of any other kinds of books. But your intention may not be that, but instead to read a scientific work that has mathematics in it. In this case, skipping is often the better part of valor.

Take Newton’s Principia for example. The book contains many propositions, both construction problems and theorems, but it is not necessary to read all of them in detail, especially the first time through. Read the statement of the proposition, and glance down the proof to get an idea of how it is done; read the statements of the so-called lemmas and corollaries; and read the so-called scholiums, which are essentially discussions of the relations between propositions and of their relations to the work as a whole. You will begin to see that whole if you do this, and so to discover how the system that Newton is constructing is built – what comes first and what second, and how the parts fit together. Go through the whole work in this way, avoiding the diagrams if they trouble you (as they do many readers), merely glancing at much of the interstitial matter, but being sure to find and read the passages where Newton is making his main points. One of these comes at the very end of the work, at the close of Book III, which is titled “The System of the World.” This General Scholium, as Newton called it, not only sums up what has gone before but also states the great problem of almost all subsequent physics.

Keep in mind that your primary obligation is not to become competent in the subject matter but instead to understand the problem.

A NOTE ON POPULAR SCIENCE

In a sense, there is little more to say about reading scientific popularizations. By definition, these are words – either books or articles – written for a wide audience, not just for specialists. … they generally skirt or ovoid the two many problems that confront the reader of an original contribution in science. First, they contain relatively few descriptions of experiments (instead, they merely report the results of the experiments). Second, they contain relatively little mathematics (unless they are popular books about mathematics itself.)

Of course, these publications, no matter how good they are or how carefully and responsibly edited, pose the problem that was discussed at the end of the last chapter. In reading them, we are at the mercy of reporters who filter the information for us. If they are good reporters, we are fortunate. If they are not, we have almost no recourse.   

Scientific popularizations are never easy reading in the sense that a story is or seems to be. … You cannot read it for understanding without keeping your mind awake. Thus, the requirement that you read actively is more important here than almost anywhere else. Identify the subject matter.  Discover the relation between the whole and its parts.  Come to terms and plot the propositions and arguments.  Work at achieving understanding before you begin to criticize or to assess significance. These rules, by now, are all familiar. But they apply here with particular force.

Chapter 17 – How to Read Science and Mathematics (part 1 of 2)

  1. HOW TO READ SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS

The title of this chapter may be misleading. We do not propose to give you advice about how to read every kind of science and mathematics. We will confine ourselves to discussing only two kinds: the great scientific and mathematical classics of our tradition, on the one hand, and modern scientific popularizations, on the other hand. What we say will often be applicable to the reading of specialized monographs on abstruse and limited subjects, but we cannot help you to read those. There are two reasons for this. One is, simply, that we are not qualified to do it.

The other is this. … Most modern scientists do not care what lay readers think, and so they do not even try to reach them.

Today, science tends to be written by experts for experts. A serous communication on a scientific subject assumes so much specialized knowledge on the part of the reader that it usually cannot be read at all by anyone not learned in the field.

What does the general do in these circumstances? He cannot become expert in all fields. He must fall back, therefore, on scientific popularizations.

UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENTIFIC ENTERPRISE

Scientists are more concerned than ever before about the nature of the scientific enterprise itself. … Thus we have no hesitation in recommending that you try to read at least some of the great scientific classics of our tradition. In fact, there is really no excuse for not trying to read them.

The most helpful advice we can give you is this. You are required by one of the rules for reading expository works to state, as clearly as you can, the problem that the author has tried to solve. This rule of analytical reading is relevant to all expository works, but it is particularly relevant to works in the fields of science and mathematics.

As a layman, you do not read the classical scientific books to become knowledgeable in their subject matters in a contemporary sense. Instead, you read them to understand the history and philosophy of science. … To follow the strands of scientific development, to trace the ways in which facts, assumptions, principles, and proofs are interrelated, is to engage in the activity of the human reason where it has probably operated with the most success.

SUGGESTIONS FOR READING CLASSICAL SCIENTIFIC BOOKS

By a scientific book, we mean the report of findings or conclusions in some field of research, whether carried on experimentally in a laboratory or by observations of nature in the raw. The scientific problem is always to describe the phenomena as accurately as possible, and to trace the interconnections between different kinds of phenomena.

In the great works of science, there is no oratory or propaganda, though there may be bias in the sense of initial presuppositions. You detect this, and take account of it, by distinguishing what the author assumes from what he establishes through argument. The more “objective” a scientific author is, the more he will explicitly ask you to take this or that for granted. Scientific objectivity is not the absence of initial bias. It is attainted by frank confession of it.  

The leading terms in a scientific work are usually expressed by uncommon or technical words. They are relatively easy to spot, and through them you can readily grasp the propositions. The main propositions are always general ones. Science thus is not chronotopic. Just the opposite; a scientist, unlike a historian, tries to get away from locality in time and place. He tries to say how things are generally, how things generally behave.

There are likely to be two main difficulties in reading a scientific book. One is with respect to the arguments. Science is primarily inductive; that is, its primary arguments are those that establish a general proposition by reference to observable evidence – a single case created by an experiment, or a vast array of cases collected by patient investigation.

This first difficulty arises because, in order to understand the inductive arguments in a scientific book, you must be able to follow the evidence that the scientist reports as their basis. Unfortunately, this is not always possible with nothing but the book in hand. If the book itself fails to enlighten him, the reader has only one recourse, which is to get the necessary special experience for himself at first hand.

Anyone who desires to acquire an understanding of the history of science must not only read the classical texts, but must also become acquainted, through direct experience, with the crucial experiments in that history.

This does not mean that you cannot make a start without going through all the steps described. Take a book like Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry, for instance. Published in 1789, the work is no longer considered to be useful as a textbook in chemistry, … Nevertheless, its method was revolutionary at the time, and its conception of a chemical element is still, on the whole, the one that we have in modern times.

He improved chemistry by improving its language, just as Newton, a century before, had improved physics by systematizing and ordering its language – in the process, as you may recall, developing the differential and integral calculus.

Mention of the calculus leads us to consider the second main difficulty in reading scientific books. And that is the problem of mathematics.

 

Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 3 of 3)

HOW TO READ ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS

We have said that our exposition of the art of analytical reading applies to everything you have to read, not just to books. Now we want to qualify that statement a little. Analytical reading is not always necessary. There are many things that we read that o not require the kind of effort and skill that is called for at this third level of reading ability. Nevertheless, although the rules of reading do not all always have to be applied the four questions must always be asked of anything you read. That means, of course, that they must be asked when you are faced with the kind of things to which most of us devote much of our reading time: newspapers, magazines, books about current events, and the like.

The problem comes down to knowing what is actually happening now. We have chosen the word “actually” in the last sentence intentionally. … How do we get the new, and how do we know what we get is true?

Thus the most important thing to know, when reading any report of current happenings, is who is writing the report. What is involved here is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter-reporters fall into groups. To understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind is, we must ask a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about any material dealing with current events. The questions are these:

  1. What does the author want to prove?
  2. Whom does he want to convince?
  3. What special knowledge does he assume?
  4. What special language does he use?
  5. Does he really know what he is talking about?

For the most part it is safe to assume that all current events books want to prove something. Often it is easy enough to discover what this is. The blurb often sates the main contention or thesis of such books. If it does not appear there, it may be stated by the author in a preface.

Having asked what the book is trying to prove, you should next ask whom the author is trying to convince. Is the book intended for those “in the know” – and are you in that category? Is it for that small group of persons who can do something, and quickly, about the situation the author describes? Or is it for everyone? If you do not belong to the audience for which the book is intended, you may not want to read it.

You must next discover what special knowledge the author assumes that you have. The word “knowledge” is intended here to cover a lot of ground. “Opinion” or “prejudice” might have been a better choice. Many authors write only for readers who agree with them. If you disagree sharply with a reporter’s assumptions, you may only be irritated if you try to read his book.

Next, you must ask if there is a special language that the author uses. This is particularly important in reading magazines and newspapers, but it also applies to all books about current history. Certain words provoke from other readers a century hence. An example of such a word is “Communism” or “Communist.” We should try to control these responses, or at least know when they occur.

Finally, you must consider the last of the five questions, which is probably the hardest to answer. Does the reporter whose work you are reading himself know the facts? Is he privy to the perhaps secret thoughts and decisions of the persons about whom he is writing? Does he know all that he should know in order to give a fair and balanced account of the situation?

With the best good will in the world, with every intention of providing us with the truth of the matter, a reporter may still be “uninformed” with regard to secret actions, treaties, ans so forth. He himself may be aware of this, or he may not. In the latter case, of course, the situation is especially perilous for his reader.

You will not that these five questions are really only variations on the questions we have said you must ask of any expository book. Knowing an author’s special language, for example, is nothing more than coming to terms with him. But because current books and other material about the contemporary world pose special problems for us as readers, we have stated the questions in a different way.

Perhaps it is most useful to sum up the difference in a warning rather than a set of rules for reading books of this kind. The warning is this: Caveat Lector – “Let the reader beware.” … The author of any contemporary book may have – though he does not necessarily have – an interest in your understanding it in a certain way. Or if he does not, the sources of his information may have such an interest. You should know that interest, and take it into account in whatever you read.

            A NOTE ON DIGESTS

There is another consequence of our basic distinction – the distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding – that underlies everything we have said about reading. And this is that sometimes we have to read for information about understanding – to find out how others have interpreted the facts. Let us try to explain what this means.

The news magazines, for instance, such as Time and Newsweek, perform an invaluable function for most of us by reading the news and reducing it to its essential elements of information. The men who write these magazines are primarily readers. They have developed the art of reading for information to a point far beyond the average reader’s competence.

The skill that produces Reader’s Digest and the scores of similar periodicals is, first of all, a skill in reading, and only then one of writing simply and clearly. It does for us what few of us have the technique – even if we had the time – to do for ourselves. It cuts the core of solid information out of pages and pages of less substantial stuff.

But, after all, we still have to read the periodicals that accomplish these digests of current news and information. If we wish to be informed, we cannot avoid the task of reading, no matter how good the digests are. And the task of reading them is, in the last analysis, the same task as that which is performed by the editors of these magazines on the original material that they make available in more compact form. They have saved us labor, so far as the extent of our reading is concerned, but they have not saved us and cannot entirely save us the trouble of reading. In a sense, the function they perform profits us only if we can read their digests of information as well as they have done the prior reading in order to give us the digests.

And that involves reading for understanding as well as information. … the question of what has been left out becomes critical. Hence the greater the condensation, the more important it is that we know something of the character of the condenser; the same caveat we mentioned before applies here with even greater force. Ultimately, perhaps, this comes down to reading between the lines of an expert condensation. You cannot refer to the original to found out what was left out; you must somehow infer this from the condensation itself. Reading digests, therefore, is sometimes the most demanding and difficult reading that you can do.

Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 2 of 3)

QUESTIONS TO ASK OF A HISTORICAL BOOK

Despite the fact that most histories are closer to fiction than to science, they can be read as expository works, and therefore they should be. Hence, we must ask the same questions of a historical book that we ask of any expository book. Because of the special nature of history, we must ask those questions a little differently and must expect to receive slightly different kinds of answers.

As far as the first question is concerned, every history has a particular and limited subject. … A history of the Civil War is not a history of the world in the nineteenth century. … Hence, if we are to read a history well, it is necessary to know precisely what it is about and what it is not about. Certainly, if we are to criticize it, we must know the latter. An author cannot be blamed for not doing what he did not try to do.

With regard to the second question, the historian tells a story, and that story, of course, occurred in time. Its general outlines are thus determined, and we do not have to search for them. But there is more than one way to tell a story, and we must know how the historian has chosen to tell his. Does he divide his work into chapters that correspond to years or decades or generations? … Does he discuss, in one chapter, the economic history of his period, and cover its wars and religious movements and literary productions in others? Which of these is most important to him? If we discover that, if we can say which aspect of the story he is telling seems to him most fundamental, we can understand him better.

Criticism of history takes two forms. We can judge – but only, as always, after we understand what is being said – that a historian’s work lacks verisimilitude. People just do not act that way, we may feel. … On the other hand, we may think, especially if we have some special knowledge of the subject, that the historian has misused his sources. … In that case, he cannot have written a good history of it. We expect a historian to be informed.

The first criticism is, however, more important. A good historian must combine the talents of the storyteller and the scientist. He must know what is likely to have happened as well as what some witnesses or writers said actually did happen.

With regard to the last question, What of it?, it is possible that no kind of literature has a greater effect on the actions of men than history. … History suggests the possible, for it describes things that have already been done. If they have been done, perhaps they can be done again – or perhaps they can be avoided.

The main answer to the question, What of it? Therefore, lies in the direction of practical, political action. For this reason it is of great importance that history be read well. Unfortunately, leaders have often acted with some knowledge of history but not enough. With the world as small and dangerous as it has become, it would be a good idea for all of us to start reading history better.

HOW TO READ BIOGRAPHY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY

A biography is a narrative account of the life, the history, of a man or woman or of a group of people; thus, a biography poses many of the same problems as a history. The reader must ask the same sort of questions – what is the author’s purpose? What are his criteria of truth? – as well, of course, as asking the questions we must ask of any book.

There are several kinds of biographies. The definitive biography is intended to be the final, exhaustive, scholarly work on the life of someone important enough to deserve a definitive biography. Definitive biographies cannot be written about living persons. They are seldom written until several non-definitive biographies have first appeared, all of them often somewhat inadequate. All sources are gone through, all letters read, and a great deal of contemporary history examined by the author.

A definitive biography is a slice of history – the history of a man and of his times, as seen through his eyes. It should be read as history. An authorized biography is not the same thing at all. Such works are usually commissioned by the heirs or friends of some important person, and they are carefully written so that the errors the person made and the triumphs he achieved are seen in the best light possible. … Instead of reading it simply as history, the reader should understand that it may be biased – that this is the way the reader is expected to think of the book’s subject; this is the way his friends and associates want him to be known to the world.

There remain those biographies that are neither definitive nor authorized. Perhaps we may all them ordinary biographies. In such works, we expect the author to be accurate, to know his facts. We want above all to be given the feeling that we are viewing the life of a real person in another time and place. Human beings are curious, and especially curious about other human beings.

Autobiographies present some different and interesting problems. First of all, it is questionable whether anyone has ever written a true autobiography. If it is difficult to know the life of anyone else, it is even more difficult to know one’s own. And, of course, all autobiographies have to be written about lives that are not yet complete.

The temptation to tell either less or more than the truth (the latter may be more common), when there is no one to contradict you, is almost irresistible. Everybody has some secrets he cannot bear to divulge; everybody also has some illusions about himself, which it is almost impossible for him to regard as illusions.

Are there any additional hints for reading biographies and autobiographies? … Despite the fact that such books, and especially the autobiographies, reveal much about their authors, we should not spend so much time trying to discover a writer’s secrets that we do not find out what his says plainly. … You should remember, of course, that if you wish to know the truth about a person’s life, you should read as many biographies of him as you can find. Including his own account of his life, if he wrote one. Read biography as history and as the cause of history; take all autobiographies with a grain of salt; and never forget that you must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying. As to the question, What of it?, we would only say this: biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring.

 

Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 1 of 3)

  1. HOW TO READ HISTORY

“History,” like “poetry,” is a word of many meanings. In order for this chapter to be useful to you, we must come to terms with you about the word – that is, explain how we will be using it.

First of all, there is the difference between history as fact and history as a written record of the facts. We are obviously, here, employing the term in the latter sense. … The word could be applied, and indeed has been applied, to almost every kind of writing that originated in a time period, or in the context of an event, in which the reader was interested.

The sense in which we use the word “history” in what follows is both narrower and broader than any of those. It is narrower because we want to restrict ourselves to essentially narrative accounts, presented in a more or less formal manner, of a period or event or series of events in the past.

But our meaning is also broader than many of the definitions of the term that are current today. We think … that the essence of history is narration, that the last five letters of the word – “story” – help us to understand the basic meaning. Even a collection of documents, as a collection, tells a story. That story may not be explicit – … but it is implicit in them, whether they are ordered or not. Otherwise, we think, the collection would not be called a history of its time.

THE ELUSIVENESS OF HISTORICAL FACTS

A historian is concerned with events that occurred, most of them, a long time ago. All the witnesses to the events are usually dead. What evidence they give is not given in a courtroom – that is, it is not governed by stringent and careful rules. … They are not cross-examined. And there is no guarantee whatever that they know what they are talking about.

If, then, it is difficult to be sure that one knows about the truth of a relatively simple matter, such as is decided by a jury in a court of law, now much more difficult it is to know what really happened in history. A historical fact, though we may have a feeling of trust and solidity about the word, is one of the most elusive things in the world.

Of course, about some kinds of historical fact we can be pretty certain. America was involved in a Civil War that began with the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and ended with the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. Everyone agrees about those dates.

But how much have we learned if we know exactly when the Civil War start and when it ended? Indeed, those dates have been disputed – not on grounds that the calendars were wrong, but that the war really started with the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 and ended with his assassination five days after Lee’s surrender. Others have claimed that the war started even earlier – as much as five or ten or twenty years before 1861 – and we know that it was still actually being fought in the outlying parts of the United States, to which word had not yet come of the Northern triumph, as late as May, June and July, 1865.

At least we do know, one might say, that whether or not the firing on Fort Sumter started the Civil War, it did occur on April 12, 1861. … But why was Sumter fired on? That is an obvious next question. … If we did not care – and we do not care about many attacks on forts that have doubtless occurred, but about which we know nothing whatever – would the firing on Sumter still be a significant historical fact?

THEORIES OF HISTORY

We class history, the story of the past, more often under fiction than under science – if it must be affiliated with one or the other. … This does not mean that a historian makes up his facts, like a poet or a story teller.

A good historian does not, of course, make up the past. He considers himself responsibly bound by some concept or criterion of accuracy or facts. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something. He must either find a general pattern in, or impose one on, events; or he must suppose that he knows why the persons in this story did the things they did. … It is essential to recognize which way the historian you are reading is operating.

Because theories in history differ, and because a historian’s theory affects his accounts of events, it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history. … every narrative history has to be written from some point of view. But to get at the truth, we ought to look at it from more than one viewpoint.

THE UNIVERSAL IN HISTORY

We are not always able to read more than one history of an event. When we are not, we must admit that we do not have much chance of learning the truth of the matter in question – of learning what really happened. However, that is not the only reason to read history. It might be claimed that only the professional historian, the man who is writing a history himself, is required to cross-examine his sources by exhaustively checking one against the other. … We, as lay readers of history, stand somewhere between the professional historian, on the one hand, and the irresponsible amateur, on the other hand, who reads history only for amusement.

Let us take the example of Thucydides. You may be aware that he wrote the only major contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century B.C. In a sense, there is nothing to check his work against. What, then, can we expect to learn from it? … The victories are now meaningless, and the defeats without pain. … Indeed, if we stop to think of it, almost all that remains of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of it.

Yet that account is still important. For Thucydides’ story – we might as well use that word – has had an influence on the subsequent history of man. Leaders in later eras read Thucydides. … The result was that by ever so little, perhaps, but perceptibly, the history of the world was changed by the view held of a small portion of it by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Thus we read Thucydides not because he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after. And we read him, strange as it may seem, to know what is happening now.

If your view of history is limited, if you go to it to discover only what really happened, you will not learn the main thing that Thucydides, or indeed any good historian, has to teach.

History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us – that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago.

Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history. The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act at all times and places, especially now.

           

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 3 of 3)

    HOW TO READ LYRIC POETRY

The simplest definition of poetry (in the somewhat limited sense implied by the title of this section) is that it is what poets write. That seems obvious enough, and yet there are those who would dispute the definition. Poetry, they hold, is a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality, which may be expressed in written words but may also take the form of physical action, or more or less musical sound, or even just feeling. … But although we admit that there is a kernel of truth in this definition, the meaning of the term that we will be employing in what follows is much narrower. Whatever may be the origin of the poetic impulse, poetry, for us, consists of words, and what is more, of words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way.

Other definitions of the term … are too narrow, just as the definition discussed in the last paragraph was too broad (for us). … Between such very broad and such very narrow definitions lies a central core that most people, if they were feeling reasonable about the matter, would admit was poetry.

Many people believe that they cannot read lyric poetry – especially modern poetry. … We would say two things. First, lyric poetry, even modern poetry, does not always demand as much work as you may think if you go about reading it in the right way. Second, it is often worth whatever effort you are willing to spend.

The first rule to follow in reading a lyric is to read it through without stopping, whether you think you understand it or not. This is the same rule that we have suggested for many different kinds of books, but it is more important for a poem than it is for a philosophical or scientific treatise, and even for a novel or play.

In fact, the trouble so many people seem to have in reading poems, especially the difficult modern ones, stems from their unawareness of this first rule of reading them. When faced by a poem of T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or some other “obscure” modern, they plunge in with a will, but are brought up short by the first line or stanza. They do not understand it immediately and in its entirety, and they think they should. They puzzle over the words, try to unwind the complicated skein of the syntax, and soon give up, concluding that, as they suspected, modern poetry is just too difficult for them.

But any good lyric poem has a unity. Unless we read all of it, and all at once, we cannot comprehend its unity. We cannot discover, except possibly by accident, the basic feeling or experience that underlies it. In particular, the essence of a poem is almost never to be found in its first line, or even in its first stanza. It is to be found only in the whole, and not conclusively in any part.

The second rule for reading lyrics is this: Read the poem through again – but read it out loud. We have suggested this before, in the case of poetic dramas like Shakespeare’s. There it was helpful; here it is essential. You will find, as you read the poem out loud, that the very act of speaking the words forces you to understand them better. You cannot glide over a misunderstood phrase or line quite so easily if you are speaking it. Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss. And the rhythm of the poem, and its rhymes, if it has them, will help you to understand by making you place the emphasis where it belongs. Finally, you will be able to open yourself to the poem, and let it work on you, as it should.

In the reading of lyrics, these first two suggestions are more important than anything else. We think that if readers who believe they cannot read poems would obey these rules first, they would have little difficulty afterwards. For once you have apprehended a poem in its unity, even if this apprehension is vague, you can begin to ask it questions. And as with expository works, that is the secret of understanding.

The questions you ask of an expository work are grammatical and logical. The questions you ask of a lyric are usually rhetorical, though they may also be syntactical. You do not come to terms with a poem; but you must discover the key words. You discover them not primarily by an act of grammatical discernment, however, but by an act of rhetorical discernment. Why do certain words pop out of the poem and stare you in the face? Is it because the rhythm marks them? Or the rhyme? Or are the words repeated? Do several stanzas seem to be about the same ideas; if so, do these ideas from any kind of sequence? Anything of this sort that you can discover will help your understanding.

One final piece of advice about reading lyric poems. In general, readers of such words feel that they must know more about the authors and their times than they really have to. We put much faith in commentaries, criticism, biographies – but this may by only because we doubt our own ability to read. Almost everyone can read any poem, if he will go to work on it.