Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 2 of 4)


We are now prepared to explain how to read syntopically. … There are five steps in syntopical reading. … We will discuss them roughly in the order in which they occur, although in a sense all of them have to take place for any of them to.

STEP 1 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: FINDING THE RELEVANT PASSAGES. In syntopical reading, it is your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.

Hence the first step at this level of reading is another inspection of the whole works that you have identified as relevant. Your aim is to find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs. … you should read the book quickly. You do not want to lose sight of the fact that you are reading it for an ulterior purpose – namely, for the light it may throw on your own problem – not for its own sake.

It might seem that this step could be taken concurrently with the previously described inspection of a book, … In many cases, that is so. But it is unwise to consider that this is always possible. … Therefore, to try to identify the relevant passages at the same time that you identify the relevant books is often perilous. Unless you are very skillful, or already quite familiar with your subject, you had better treat the two steps as separate.

What is important here is to recognize the difference between the first books that you read in the course of syntopical reading, and those that you come to after you have read many others on the subject. In the case of the later books, you probably already have a fairly clear idea of your problem, and in that case the two steps can coalesce. But at the beginning, they should be kept rigorously separated.

Above all, remember that you task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may be very far from the author’s own purpose in writing it. That does not matter at this stage of the proceedings. The author can help you to solve your own problem without having intended to.

Because this is so, you must go about the business of coming to terms with your authors in a somewhat different way than before.

STEP 2 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: BRINGING THE AUTHORS TO TERMS. In interpretive reading (the second stage of analytical reading) the first rule requires you to come to terms with the author, which means identifying his key words and discovering how he uses them. But now you are faced with a number of different authors, and it is unlikely that they will have all used the same words, or even the same terms. Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.

This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really comes down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his. All of our normal reading habits are opposed to this.

Not only must we resolutely refuse to accept the terminology of any one author; we must also be willing to face the possibility that no author’s terminology will be useful to us. In other words, we must accept the fact that coincidence of terminology between us and any of the authors on our list is merely accidental.

Syntopical reading, in short, is to a large extent an exercise in translation. … We impose a common terminology on a number of authors who, whatever natural language they many have shared in common, may not have been specifically concerned with the problem we are trying to solve, and therefore may not have created the ideal terminology for dealing with it.

This means that as we proceed on our project of syntopical reading we must begin to build up a set of terms that first, helps us to understand all of our authors, not just one or a few of them, and second, helps us to solve our problem. That insight leads to the third step.

STEP 3 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: GETTING THE QUESTIONS CLEAR. The second rule of interpretive reading requires us to find the authors key sentences, and from them to develop an understanding of his propositions. Propositions are made up of terms, and of course we must do a similar job on the works we are reading syntopically. But since we ourselves are establishing the terminology in this case, we are faced with the task of establishing a set of neutral propositions as well. The best way to do this is to frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors gives answers.

This, too, is difficult. The questions must be stated in such a way and in such an order that they help us to solve the problem we started with, but they also must be framed in such a way that all or most of our authors can be interpreted as giving answers to them.

Sometimes, indeed, we have to accept the fact that an author gives no answer to one or more of our questions. In that case, we must record him as silent or indeterminate on the question. … we also cannot depend entirely on their explicit statements about the problem. If we could depend on any one of them in that way, we probably would have no problem to solve.

We have said that the questions must be put in an order that is helpful to us in our investigation. The order depends on the subject, of course, but some general direction can be suggested. The first questions usually have to do with the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating. If an author says that the phenomenon exists or that the idea has a certain character, then we may ask further questions of his book. These may have to do with how the phenomenon is known or how the idea manifests itself. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers to the previous questions.

We should not expect that all of our authors will answer our questions in the same way. If they did, we would once again have no problem to solve; it would have been solved by consensus. Since the authors will differ, we are faced with having to take the next step in syntopical reading.

STEP 4 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: DEFINING THE ISSUES. If a question is clear, and if we can be reasonably certain that authors answer it in different ways – perhaps pro and con – then an issue has been defined. It is the issue between the authors who answer the question in one way, and those who answer it in one or another opposing way. … The opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views.

An issue is truly joined when two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in the contrary or contradictory ways. But this does not happen as often as one might wish. Usually, differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject. The task of the syntopical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be. Sometimes this forces him to frame the question in a way that is not explicitly employed by any author.

There may be many issues involved in the discussion of the problem we are dealing with, but it is likely that they will fall into groups. Questions about the character of the idea under considerations, for example, may generate a number of issues that are connected. A number of issues revolving around a closely connected set of questions may be termed the controversy about that aspect of the subject. Such a controversy may be very complicated, and it is the task of the syntopical reader to sort it out and arrange it in an orderly and perspicuous fashion, even if no author has managed to do that. This sorting and arranging of the controversies, as well as of the constituent issues, brings us to the final step in syntopical reading.

STEP 5 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: ANALYZING THE DISCUSSION. So far we have found the relevant passages in the works examined, created a neutral terminology that applies to all or most of the authors examined, framed and ordered a set of questions that most of them can be interpreted as answering, and defined and arranged the issues produced by differing answers to the questions. What then remains to be done?

The first four steps correspond to the first two groups of rules for analytical reading. Those rules, when followed and applied to any book, allowed us to answer the questions, What does it say? And How does it say it? In our syntopical reading project, we are similarly able at this point to answer the same questions about the discussion concerning our problem. In the case of the analytical reading of a single work, two further questions remained to be answered, namely, Is it true? And What of it? In the case of syntopical reading, we are now prepared to address ourselves to similar questions about the discussion.

We would probably be presumptuous to expect that the truth could be found in any one set of answers to the questions. Rather, it is to be found, if at all, in the conflict of opposing answers, many if not all of which may have persuasive evidence and convincing reasons to support them.

The truth, then, insofar as it can be found – the solution to the problem, insofar as that is available to us – consists rather in the ordered discussion itself than in any set of propositions or assertions about it. Thus, in order to present this truth to our minds – and to the minds of others – we have to do more than merely ask and answer the questions. We have to ask them in a certain order, and be able to defend that order; we must show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why; and we must be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers. Only when we have done all of this can we claim to have analyzed the discussion of our problem. And only then can we claim to have understood it.