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PART FOUR: The Ultimate Goals of Reading
20 - THE FOURTH LEVEL OF READING : SYNTOPICAL READING So far we have not said anything specific about how to read two or more books on the same subject. We have tried to suggest that when certain subjects are discussed, more than one book is relevant, and we have also from time to time mentioned, in a very informal way, certain related books and authors in various fields. Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement. The second requirement is a great deal harder to satisfy than the first.
The difficulty becomes evident as soon as we examine the phrase “two or more books on the same subject.” What do we mean by “same subject”? Perhaps this is clear enough when the subject is a single historical period or event, but in hardly any other sphere is there much clarity to be found. Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are both novels about a great war-but there, for the most part, the resemblance stops. Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is “about” the same conflict that is, the Napoleonic Wars-that Tolstoy’s novel is “about.”
But of course neither is about the war, or indeed about war in general, as such. War provides the context or background of both stories-as it does for much of human life-but it is the stories on which the authors rivet our attention. We may learn something about the war-in fact, Tolstoy once said that he had learned much of what he knew about battles from Stendhal’s account of the Battle of Waterloo-but we do not go to these novels or any others if our primary intention is to study war.
You could have anticipated that this situation would obtain in the case of fiction. It is inherent in the fact that the novelist does not communicate in the same way that an expository writer does. But the situation obtains in the case of expository works, as well.
Suppose, for example, that you are interested in reading about the idea of love. Since the literature of love is vast, you would have relatively little difficulty in creating a bibliography of books to read. Suppose that you have done that, by asking advisors, by searching through the card catalogue of a good library, and by examining the bibliography in a good scholarly treatise on the subject. And suppose in addition that you have confined yourself to expository works, despite the undoubted interest of novelists and poets in the subject. (We will explain why it would be advisable to do this later.) You now begin to examine the books in your bibliography. What do you find?
Even a cursory perusal reveals a very great range of reference. There is hardly a single human action that has not been called-in one way or another-an act of love. Nor is the range confined to the human sphere. If you proceed far enough in your reading, you will find that love has been attributed to almost everything in the universe; that is, everything that exists has been said by someone either to love or to be loved-or both.
Stones are said to love the center of the earth. The upward motion of fire is called a function of its love. The attraction of iron filings to a magnet is described as an effect of love. Tracts have been written on the love life of amoebae, paramecia, snails, and ants, to say nothing of most of the so-called higher animals, who are said to love their masters as well as one another. When we come to human beings, we discover that authors speak and write of their love for men, women, a woman, a man, children, themselves, mankind, money, art, domesticity, principles, a cause, an occupation or profession, adventure, security, ideas, a country life, loving itself, a beefsteak, or wine. In certain learned treatises, the motions of the heavenly bodies are said to be inspired by love; in others, angels and devils are differentiated by the quality of their love. And of course God is said to be Love.
Confronted with this enormous range of reference, how are we to state what the subject is that we are investigating?
Can we even be sure that there is a single subject? When one person says “I love cheese,” and another says “I love football,”
and a third says “I love mankind,” are they all three using the word in any sense that is common? After all, one eats cheese but not football or mankind, one plays football but not cheese or mankind, and whatever “I love mankind” means, that meaning does not seem to be applicable to cheese or football. And yet all three do use the same word. Is there in fact some deep reason for that, some reason that is not immediately apparent on the surface? Difficult as that question is, can we say that we have identified the “same subject” until we have answered it?
Faced with this chaotic situation, you may decide to limit the enquiry to human love-to love between human beings, of the same sex or different sexes, of the same age or different ages, and so forth. That would rule out the three statements we have just discussed. But you would still find, even if you read only a small portion of the available books about the subject, a very great range of reference. You would find, for instance, that love is said by some writers to consist wholly in acquisitive desire, usually sexual desire; that is, love is merely a name for the attraction that almost all animals feel toward members of the opposite sex. But you would also find other authors who maintain that love, properly speaking, contains no acquisitive desire whatever, and consists in pure benevolence. Do acquisitive desire and benevolence have anything in common, considering that acquisitive desire always implies wanting some good for oneself, while benevolence implies wanting a good for someone else?
At least acquisitive desire and benevolence share· a common note of tendency, of desire in some very abstract sense of the term. But your investigation of the literature of the subject would soon uncover writers who conceive of the essence of love as being cognitive rather than appetitive. Love, these writers maintain, is an intellectual act, not an emotional one. In other words, knowing that another person is admirable always preceeds desiring him or her, in either of the two senses of desire.
Such authors do not deny that desire enters into the picture, but they do deny that desire should be called love.
Let us suppose-in fact, we think it can be done-that you are able to identify some common meaning in these various conceptions of human love. Even then not all of your problems are solved. Consider the ways in which love manifests itself between and among human beings. Is the love that a man and woman have for each other the same when they are courting as when they are married, the same when they are in their twenties as when they are in their seventies? Is the love that a woman has for her husband the same as that she has for her children? Does a mother’s love for her children change as they grow up? Is the love of a brother for his sister the same as his love for his father? Does a child’s love for its parents change as he or she grows? Is the love that a man has for a woman, either his wife or some other, the same as the friendship he feels for another man, and does it make a difference what relationship he has with the man-such as one with whom he goes bowling, one with whom he works, and one whose intellectual company he enjoys? Does the fact that “love” and “friendship” are different words mean that the emotions they name (if that is in fact what they name) differ? Can two men of different ages be friends? Can they be friends if they are markedly different in some other respect, such as possession of wealth or degree of intelligence? Can women be friends at all? Can brothers and sisters be friends, or brother and brother, or sister and sister? Can you retain a friendship with someone you either borrow money from or lend it to? It not, why not? Can a boy love his teacher? Does it make a difference whether the teacher is male or female? If humanoid robots existed, could human beings love them? If we discovered intelligent beings on Mars or some other planet, could we love them? Can we love someone we have never met, like a movie star or the President? If we feel that we hate someone, is that really an expression of love?
These are just a few of the questions that would be raised by your reading of even a part of the standard expository literature of love. There are many other questions that could be asked. However, we think we have made the point. A curious paradox is involved in any project of syntopical reading. Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it. In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works before you could decide what you were reading about. And when you had done that, you might have to conclude that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.
The Role of Inspection in Syntopical Reading We have stated more than once that the levels of reading are cumulative, that a higher level includes all of those that precede or lie below it. It is now time to explain what that means in the case of syntopical reading.
You will recall that in explaining the relationship between inspectional reading and analytical reading, we pointed out that the two steps in inspectional reading-first, skimming; and second, superficial reading-anticipated the first two steps in analytical reading Skimming helps to prepare you for the first step of analytical reading, in the course of which you identify the subject matter of whatever you are reading, state what kind of book it is, and outline its structure. Superficial reading, while it is also helpful in that first step of analytical reading, is primarily a preparation for the second step, when you are called upon to interpret a book’s contents by coming to terms with the author, stating his propositions, and following his arguments.
In a somewhat analogous fashion, both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as anticipations or preparations for syntopical reading. It is here, in fact, that inspectional reading comes into its own as a major tool or instrument for the reader.
Let us suppose once more that you have a bibliography of a hundred or so titles, all of which appear to be on the subject of love. If you read every one of them analytically, you would not only end up with a fairly clear idea of the subject that you were investigating-the “same subject” of the syntopical reading project-but you would also know which, if any, of the books you had read were not on that subject and thus irrelevant to your needs. But to read a hundred books analytically might well take you ten years. If you were able to devote full time to the project, it would still take many months. Some short cut is obviously necessary, in the face of the paradox we have mentioned concerning syntopical reading.
That short cut is provided by your skill in inspectional reading. The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all
of them. Inspectional reading will not acquaint you with all of the intricacies of the subject matter, or with all of the insights that your authors can provide, but it will perform two essential functions. First, it will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. And second, it will allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size.
We can hardly think of any advice that would be more useful for students, especially graduate and research students, than this, if they would only heed it. In our experience, a certain number of students at those advanced levels of schooling have some capability of reading actively and analytically.
There may not be enough of them, and they may be far from perfect readers, but they at least know how to get at the meat of a book, to make reasonably intelligible statements about it, and to fit it into a plot or plan of their subject matter. But their efforts are enormously wasteful because they do not understand how to read some books faster than others. They spend the same amount of time and effort on every book or article they read. As a result, they do not read those books that deserve a really good reading as well as they deserve, and they waste time on works that deserve less attention.
The skill inspectional reader does more than classify a book in his mental card catalogue, and achieve a superficial knowledge of its contents. He also discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says something important about his subject or not. He may not yet know what that something is precisely-that discovery will probably have to wait for another reading. But he has learned one of two things. Either the book is one to which he must return for light, or it is one that, no matter how enjoyable or informative, contains no enlightenment and therefore does not have to be read again.
There is a reason why this advice is often unheeded. In the case of analytical reading, we said that the skillful reader performs concurrently steps that the beginner must treat as separate. By analogy, it might seem that this kind of preparation for syntopical reading-the inspection of all of the books on your list before starting the analytical reading of any of them-could be done concurrently with analytical reading. But we do not believe that can be done by any reader, no matter how skill. And this indeed is the mistake that so many younger researchers make. Thinking they can collapse these two steps into one, they end up reading everything at the same rate, which may be either too fast or too slow for a particular work, but in any event is wrong for most of the books they read.
Once you have identified, by inspection, the books that are relevant to your subject matter, you can then proceed to read them syntopically. Note that in the last sentence we did not say “proceed to read them analytically,” as you might have expected. In a sense, of course, you do have to read each of the individual works that, together, constitute the literature of your subject, with those skills that you acquired by applying the rules of analytical reading. But it ·must never be forgotten that the art of analytical reading applies to the reading of a single book, when understanding of that book is the aim in view. As we will see, the aim in syntopical reading is quite different.
The Five Steps in Syntopical Reading We are now prepared to explain how to read syntopically.
We will assume ,that, by your inspection of a number of books, you have a pretty good idea of the subject that at least some of them are about, and furthermore that this is the subject you want to investigate. What, then, do you do?
There are five steps in syntopical reading. We shall not call them rules, although we might, for if any of the steps is not taken, syntopical reading becomes much more difficult, perhaps impossible. 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. Since we are of course assuming that you know how to read analytically, we are assuming that you could read each of the relevant books thoroughly if you wanted to. But that would be to place the individual books first in the order of your priorities, and your problem second. In fact, the order is reversed. In syntopical reading, it is you and 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. It is unlikely that the whole of any of the books is directly on the subject you have chosen or that is troubling you. Even if this is so, as it very rarely is, 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 the book, the purpose of which was to discover whether the book was at all relevant to your concerns. In many cases, that is so. But it is unwise to consider that this is always possible. Remember that one of the aims of your first inspection of the book was to zero in on the subject matter of your syntopical reading project. We have said that an adequate understanding of the problem is not always available until you have inspected many of the books on your original list. 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. Otherwise, you are likely to make serious mistakes in identifying the relevant passages, mistakes that will have to be corrected later with a consequent waste of time and effort.
Above all, remember that your 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 authors 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. In syntopical reading, as we have noted, the books that are read serve you, not the other way around. In this sense, syntopical reading is the most active reading you can do.
Analytical reading is also active, of course. But when you read a book analytically, you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.
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. As we have pointed out several times, we assume that the author of a book we want to read analytically is our better, and this is particularly true if the book is a great one. Our tendency is to accept the author’s terms and his organization of the subject matter, no matter how active we may be in trying to understand him. In syntopical reading, however, we will very quickly be lost if we accept any one author’s terminology. We may understand his book, but we will fail to understand the others, and we will find that not much light is shed on the subject in which we are interested.
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. Often, indeed, such coincidence will be inconvenient; for if we use one term or set of terms of an author, we may be tempted to use others among his terms, and these may get in the way rather than help.
Syntopical reading, in short, is to a large extent an exercise in translation. We do not have to translate from one natural language to another, as from French to English. But we do impose a common terminology on a number of authors who, whatever natural language they may 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 author’s 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. The difficulty is that the questions we want answered may not have been seen as questions by the authors. Their view of the subject may have been quite different from ours.
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. But even if he does not discuss the question explicitly, we can sometimes find an implicit answer in his book.
If he had considered the question, we may conclude, he would then have answered it in such and such a way. Restraint is necessary here; we cannot put thoughts into our authors’
minds, or words into their mouths. But 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 directions 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 The Fourth level of Reading: Syntopical Reading 321
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.
When only two answers are given by all of the authors examined, the issue is a relatively simple one. Often, more than two alternative answers are given to a question. In that case, 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 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 consideration, 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.
Let us assume that the problem with which we began was not a simple one, but was rather one of those perennial problems with which thinkers have struggled for centuries, and about which good men have disagreed and can continue to disagree. We should recognize, on this assumption, that our task as syntopical readers is not merely to answer the questions ourselves-the questions that we have so carefully framed and ordered both to elucidate the discussion of the subject and the subject itself. The truth about a problem of this sort is not found so easily. In fact, 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.
We may, indeed, have done more than that. A thorough analysis of the discussion of a problem may provide the groundwork for further productive work on the problem by others. It can clear away the deadwood and prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough. Without the work of analysis, that might not have been possible, for the dimensions of the problem might not have been visible.
The Need for Objectivity An adequate analysis of the discussion of a problem or subject matter identifies and reports the major issues, or basic intellectual oppositions, in that discussion. This does not imply that disagreement is always the dominant feature of every discussion. On the contrary, agreement in most cases accompanies disagreement; that is, on most issues, the opinions or views that present opposite sides of the dispute are shared by several authors, often by many. Seldom do we find a solitary exponent of a controversial position.
The agreement of human beings about the nature of things in any field of inquiry establishes some presumption of the truth of the opinions they commonly hold. But their disagreement establishes the counter-presumption-that none of the opinions in conflict, whether shared or not, may be wholly true. Among conflicting opinions, one may, of course, be wholly true and all the rest false; but it is also possible that each expresses some portion of the whole truth; and, except for flat and isolated contradictions (which are rare in any discussion of the kind of problems we are dealing with here), it is even possible that all the conflicting opinions may be false, just as it is possible for that opinion to be false on which all seem to agree. Some opinion as yet unexpressed may be the truth or nearer to it.
This is another way of saying that the aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it, or the final solution of the problem with which the project began. This is particularly true of the report we might try to make of such syntopical reading. It would be dogmatic, not dialectical, if, on any of the important issues that it identified and analyzed, it asserted or tried to prove the truth or falsity of any view. If it did that, the syntopical analysis would cease to be syntopical; it would become simply one more voice in the discussion, thereby losing its detached and objective character.
The point is not that one more voice carries no weight in the forum of human discussion on important issues. The point is that a different type of contribution to the pursuit of understanding can and should be made. And this contribution consists in being resolutely objective and detached throughout.
The special quality that a syntopical analysis tries to achieve can, indeed, be summarized in the two words “dialectical objectivity.”
The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. Of course, he will fail in this exacting ideal. Absolute objectivity is not humanly possible. He may succeed in taking no sides, presenting the issues without prejudice to any partisan point of view, and treating opposing views impartially. 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 looking at all sides, we say, but it remains difficult even so. The syntopical reader must resist certain temptations and know his own mind. Perfect dialectical objectivity is not guaranteed by avoiding explicit judgments on the truth of conflicting opinions. 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 it 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.
Only the syntopical reader’s firm intention to avoid them can be relied on to prevent other sorts of departure from dialectical objectivity. That ideal demands a deliberate effort to balance question against question, to forgo any comment that might be prejudicial, to check any tendency toward overemphasis or underemphasis. In the last analysis, although a reader may be the judge of the effectiveness of a written report of a dialectical exposition, only the writer of it-only the syntopical reader himself-can know whether he has satisfied these requirements.
An Example of an Exercise in Syntopical Reading : The Idea of Progress An example may be helpful to explain how syntopical reading works. Let us consider the idea of progress. We do not take this subject at random. We have done extensive research on it. The example would not be so useful to you if that were not so.
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 inspectional readings of several times that many books, articles, and other pieces. It is important to point out that in the case of the idea of progress, as would be true in the case of most other important ideas, many of the items finally judged to be relevant were found more or less by accident, or at least with the help of educated guesses. There were obvious places to start; many recent books contain the word “progress” in their titles. But others 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. We have already observed that including novels, plays, and poems in a syntopical reading project is difficult, and this is so for several reasons. First of all, the backbone or essence of a story is its plot, not its positions on issues. Second, even the most talkative characters seldom take clear positions on an issue they tend to talk, in the story, about other matters, mainly emotional relations. Third, even if a character does make such a speech-as, for example, Settembrini does about progress in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain-we can never be sure that it is the authors view that is being represented. Is the author being ironic in allowing his character to go on about the subject? Is he intending you to see the foolishness of the position, rather than its wisdom? 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 used 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 a historical change in the human condition that is for the better, and since betterment is of 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 syntopical reading is, as we have noted, getting the questions clear. Our intuition about the primary question in the case of progress turned out to be correct upon examination. 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 in the direction of improvement in man’s 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. However, there are a number of different ways of saying Yes, several different ways of saying No, and at least three different ways of saying that we cannot know whether human progress occurs or not.
The multifarious and 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 by progress authors-authors who assert that progress occurs.
These issues have to do with the nature or 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 occurences? (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 are as 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, although a number of writers deny that 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.
The Syntopicon and How to Use It If you read this chapter carefully, you will have noticed that, although we spent some time discussing it, we did not really solve what we called the paradox of syntopical reading.
That paradox can be stated thus: Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read. Another way to state it is in the form of what may be called the fundamental problem of syntopical reading, namely, that if you do not know where to start, you cannot read syntopically; and even if you have a rough idea of where to begin, the time required to find the relevant books and relevant passages in those books may exceed the time required to take all of the other steps combined.
Actually, of course, there is at least a theoretical resolution of the paradox and solution of the problem. Theoretically, you could know the major literature of our tradition so thoroughly that you had a working notion of where every idea is discussed in it. But if you are such a person, you need no help from anybody, and we cannot tell you anything you do not know about syntopical reading.
On the other hand, even if you did not have this knowledge yourself, you might be able to apply to someone else who did. But you should recognize that if you were able to apply to such a person, his advice might turn out to be almost as much a hindrance as a help. If the subject was one on which he had himself done special research, it would be hard for him merely to tell you the relevant passages to read without telling you how to read them and that might well get in your way. But if he had not done special research on the subject, he might not know a great deal more than yourself, although it might seem so both to him and to you.
What is needed, therefore, is a reference book that tells you where to go to find the relevant passages on a large number of subjects of interest, without at the same time saying how the passages should be read-without prejudging their meaning or significance. The Syntopicon is an example of such a work. Produced in the 1940’s, it is a topical index to the set of books titled Great Books of the Western World. Under each of some 3,00 topics or subjects, it lists references to pages within the set where that subject is discussed. Some of the references are to passages covering many pages, others are to key paragraphs or even parts of paragraphs. No more time is required to find them than is needed to take down the indicated volume and flip through its pages.
The Syntopicon has one major defect, of course. It is an index of just one set of books (albeit a large one) , and it gives only a very rough indication of where passages may be found in other books that are not included in the set. Nevertheless, it always provides you with at least a place to start on any syntopical reading project. And it is also true that the books included in the set are ones that you would almost always want to read anyway, in the course of any such project. Thus the Syntopicon should be able to save the mature scholar or reader who is beginning his research into a certain problem much of the preliminary labor of research, and advance him rapidly to the point where he can begin to think independently about it, because he knows what thinking has been done.
Useful as the Syntopicon is for that kind of reader, it is much more useful for the beginner. The Syntopicon can help such a reader in three ways: initiatively, suggestively, and instructively.
It works initiatively by overcoming the initial difficulty that anyone faces when confronted by the classical books of our tradition. These works are a little overpowering. We may wish that we had read them, but often we do not do so. We find ourselves advised from all sides to read them, and we are given reading programs, beginning with the easier works and proceeding to the more difficult ones. But all such programs require the reading of whole books or, at least, the integral reading of large parts of them. It is a matter of general experience that this kind of solution seldom achieves the desired result.
A syntopical reading of these major works with the aid of the Syntopicon provides a radically different solution. The Syntopicon initiates the reading of great books by enabling persons to read particular ones on the subjects in which they are interested; and on those subjects, to read relatively short passages from a large number of authors. It helps us to read in the great books before we have read through them.
Syntopical reading in the great books, with the help of the Syntopicon, may also work suggestively. Starting from the reader’s existing interest in a particular subject, it may arouse or create other interests in related subjects. And once started on an author, it is hard not to explore the context. Before you know it, you have read a good portion of the book.
Finally, syntopical reading with the aid of the Syntopicon works instructively, in three distinct ways. This, in fact, is one of the major benefits of this level of reading.
First, the topic in connection with which the passage is being read serves to give direction to the reader in interpreting the passage. But it does not tell him what the passage means, since the passage may be relevant to the topic in several or many different ways. Hence the reader is called upon to discover precisely what relevance the passage has to the topic.
To learn to do this is to acquire a major skill in the art of reading.
Second, the collection of a number of passages on the same topic, but from different works and different authors, serves to sharpen the readers interpretation of each passage read. Sometimes, when passages from the same book are read in sequence and in the context of one another, each becomes clearer. Sometimes the meaning of each of a series of contrasting or conflicting passages from different books is accentuated when they are read against one another. And sometimes the passages from one author, by amplifying or commenting on the passages from another, materially help the reader’s understanding of the second author.
Third, if syntopical reading is done on a number of different subjects, the fact that the same passage will often be found cited in the Syntopicon under two or more subjects will have its instructive effect. The passage has an amplitude of meaning that the reader will come to perceive as he interprets it somewhat differently in relation to different topics. Such multiple interpretation not only is a basic exercise in the art of reading but also tends to make the mind habitually alert to the many strains of meaning that any rich or complex passage can contain.
Because we believe that the Syntopicon can be useful to any reader wishing to read in the manner described in this chapter, be he a beginner or a mature scholar and researcher, we have taken the liberty of adopting its name for this level of reading. We hope the reader will forgive us what may seem to be a small self-indulgence. In return for that forgiveness, we would like to point out an important fact. There is a considerable difference between syntopical reading, with a small “s,” and Syntopical reading, where the latter phrase refers to reading the great books with the help of the Syntopicon. Syntopical reading, in the latter sense, can constitute a part of any syntopical reading project where the term is used in the former sense, and perhaps it would always be wise to start there. But syntopical reading with a small “s” is a term of much wider application than Syntopical reading.
On the Principles That Underlie Syntopical Reading There are those who say that syntopical reading (in the broader sense just mentioned) is impossible. It is wrong, they say, to impose a terminology, even a “neutral” one (if there is any such thing), on an author. His own terminology must be treated as sacrosanct, because books should never be read “out of context,” and besides, translation from one set of terms to another is always dangerous because words are not controllable like mathematical symbols. Further, the objectors maintain, syntopical reading involves reading authors widely separated in space and time, and differing radically in style and approach, as if they were members of the same universe of discourse, as if they were talking to one another-and this distorts the facts of the matter. Each author is a little universe in himself, and although connections can be made between different books written by the same author at different times (even here there are dangers, they warn) , there are no clear connections relating one author to another. They maintain, finally, that the subjects that authors discuss, as such, are not as important as the ways in which they discuss them. The style, they say, is the man; and if we ignore how an author says something, in the process of trying to discover what he says, we will miss both kinds of understanding.
It should be apparent that we disagree with all of those charges, and therefore an answer to each of them is in order.
Let us take them one at a time.
First, to the point about terminology. To deny that an idea can be expressed in more than one set of terms is similar to denying that translation is possible from one natural language to another. That denial is made, of course. Recently, for example, we read an introduction to a new translation of the Koran that began by saying that to translate the Koran is impossible. But since the author then proceeded to explain how he had done it, we could only assume that he meant that translation is particularly difficult in the case of a book held to be holy by large numbers of people. We would agree. But the difficult is not the impossible.
In fact, the view that an author’s terms must be treated as sacrosanct is probably always merely another way of saying that it is difficult to translate from one terminology to another.
We would agree to that, too. But again, the difficult is not the impossible.
Second, to the point about the separateness and uniqueness of authors. This comes down to saying that if Aristotle, for example, walked into our office, attired no doubt in robes and accompanied by an interpreter who knew both modern English and classical Greek, we would not be able to understand him or he us. We simply do not believe it. Doubtless Aristotle would be amazed at some of the things he saw, but we are quite confident that within ten minutes we could, if we wanted to, be engaged in a philosophical discussion of problems that we shared. There might be recurrent difficulties about certain conceptions, but as soon as we recognized them as such, we could resolve them.
If that is possible (and we do not really think anyone would deny it) , then it is not impossible for one book to “talk” to another through the medium of an interpreter-namely, you, the syntopical reader. Care is required, of course, and you should know both “languages”-that is, both books-as well as you can. But the problem is not insuperable, and it is simply foolish to suggest that it is.
Finally, to the point about the manner or style. This is equivalent, we think, to saying that there is no rational communication among men, but that all men communicate at the emotional level, which is the same level at which they communicate with pets. If you say “I love you” to your dog in an angry tone of voice, he will cower; but he does not understand you. Can anyone seriously assert that there is nothing more than tone of voice or gesture in vocal communications between two human beings? Tone of voice is important, particularly when emotional relations are the primary content of the communication; and body language probably has things to tell us if we will only listen (look?) . But there is something else, too, in human communication. If you ask someone how to reach the exit, and he tells you to follow Corridor B, it does not matter what tone of voice he employs. He is either right or wrong, lying or telling the truth, but the point is that you will soon find that out by following Corridor B. You have understood what he said as well as reacting, no doubt in all sorts of ways, to how he said it.
Believing, then, that translation is possible (because it is done all the time), that books can “talk” to one another (because human beings do so), and that there is an objective, rational content of communication between human beings when they are trying to be rational (because we can and do learn from each other), we believe that syntopical reading is possible.
Summary of Syntopical Reading We have now completed our discussion of syntopical reading. Let us therefore display the various steps that must be taken at this level of reading in outline form.
As we have seen, there are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is preparatory, and the other is syntopical reading proper. Let us write out all of these steps for review.
I . Surveying the Field
Preparatory to Syntopical Reading
Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.
Note: These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.
I I . Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I
Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.
More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.
Note: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.
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