Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 3 of 4)


The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. … But it is easier to take no sides than to look at all sides. In this latter respect, the syntopical reader will undoubtedly fail. All possible sides of an issue cannot be exhaustively enumerated. Nevertheless, he must try.

Taking no sides is easier than look at all sides, we say, but it remains difficult even so. The syntopical reader must resist certain temptations and know his own mind. … Partiality can intrude in a variety of subtle ways – by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various different answers to key questions are presented.

In order to avoid some of these dangers, the conscientious syntopical reader may resort to one obvious device and use as much as possible. That is, he must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language. Although it may appear to do so, this does not contradict what we said earlier about the necessity of finding a neutral terminology, in which to analyze the problem. That necessity remains, and when summaries of an author’s argument are presented, they must be presented in that language and not the author’s. But the author’s own words, carefully quoted so as not to wrench them out of context, must accompany the summary, so that the reader can judge for himself whether the interpretation of the author is correct.


An example may be helpful to explain how syntopical reading works. Let us consider the idea of progress.

The investigation of this important historical and philosophical idea occupied several years. The first task was to produce a list of works to be examined for relevant passages – to amass a bibliography (it finally ran to more than 450 items). This task was accomplished by a series of inspection readings of several times that many books, articles, and other pieces. … There were obvious places to start; many recent books contain the word “progress” in their titles. But other do not, and most of the older books, although relevant to the subject, do not even employ the term.

A few fictional and poetical works were read, but on the whole it was decided to concentrate on expository works. … Generally speaking, an intensive effort of synthetic interpretation is required before a fictional work can be placed on one side or another of an issue. The effort is so great, and the results essentially so dubious, that usually it is prudent to abstain.

The discussion of progress in the many works that remained to be examined was, as is usually the case, apparently chaotic. Faced with this fact, the task was, as we have indicated, to develop a neutral terminology. This was a complex undertaking, but one example may help to explain what was done.

The word “progress” itself is used by authors in a number of different ways. Most of these different ways reflect no more than shades of meaning, and they can be handled in the analysis. But the word is use by some authors to denote a certain kind of movement forward in history that is not an improvement. Since most of the authors use the word to denote historical change in the human condition that is for the better, and since betterment is the essence of the conception, the same word could not be applied to both views. In this case, the majority gained the day, and the minority faction had to be referred to as authors who assert “non-meliorative advance” in history. The point is that when discussing the views of the minority faction, we could not employ the word “progress,” even though the authors involved had used it themselves.

The third step in sytopical reading is, as we have noted, getting the questions clear. … The first question to ask, the question to which authors can be interpreted as giving various answers, is, Does progress occur in history? Is it a fact that the general course of historical change is the direction of improvement in man’ condition? Basically, there are three different answers to this question put forth in the literature of the subject: (1) Yes, (2) No, and (3) We cannot know.

The multifarious and the interrelated answers to this primary question constitute what we decided to call the general controversy about progress. It is general in the sense that every author we studied who has anything significant to say about the subject takes sides on the various issues that can be identified within it. But there is also a special controversy about progress, which is made up of issues that are joined only be progress authors – authors who assert that progress occurs. These issues have to do with the nature of properties of the progress that they all, being progress authors, assert is a fact of history. There are only three issues here, although the discussion of each of them is complex. They can be stated as questions: (1) Is progress necessary, or is it contingent on other occurrences? (2) Will progress continue indefinitely, or will it eventually come to an end or “plateau out”? (3) Is there progress in human nature as well as in human institutions – in the human animal itself, or merely in the external conditions of human life?

Finally, there is a set of subordinate issues, as we called them, again only among progress authors, about the respects in which progress occurs. We identified six areas in which progress is said by some authors to occur, although other writers deny its occurrence in one or more of these areas – although never in all (since they are by definition authors who assert the occurrence of some kind of progress). The six are: (1) progress in knowledge, (2) technological progress, (3) economic progress, (4) political progress, (5) moral progress, and (6) progress in the fine arts. The discussion of the last point raises special problems, since in our opinion no author genuinely asserts that such aesthetic progress occurs in this respect.

The structure of the analysis of progress just described exemplifies our effort to define the issues within the discussion of this subject and to analyze the discussion itself – in other words, to take the fourth and fifth steps in syntopical reading. And something like this must always be done by a syntopical reader, although of course he does not always have to write a long book reporting his researches.