Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, in their classic book How to Read a Book (p.156-161), discuss the topic of agreeing or disagreeing with an author. There is one particular section that stands out for those who are seeking to become good critical readers, as well as good critical thinkers. The authors mention, “four ways in which a book can be adversely criticized.” And their hope is that, “if a reader confines himself to making these points, he will be less likely to indulge in expressions of emotion or prejudice.” These four points apply beyond just reading.
As Adler and Van Doren put it:
The four points can be briefly summarized by conceiving the reader as conversing with the author, as talking back. After he has said, “I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks to the author:
- “You are uninformed”
- “You are misinformed”
- “You are illogical – your reasoning is not cogent”
- “Your analysis is incomplete”
Notice that Adler and Van Doren’s first emphasis is on understanding the other position before launching into criticisms. Then, when there is understanding, the criticisms are specific and fall within the four categories above. The authors explain further:
These may not be exhaustive, though we think they are. In any event, they are certainly the principal points a reader who disagrees can make. They are somewhat independent. Making one of these remarks does not prevent you from making another. Each and all can be made, because the defects they refer to are not mutually exclusive.
They carefully spell out that way to disagree properly. Of course this applies to critical reading; but certainly this applies to critical thinking about all kinds of serious issues in which one finds disagreements. Adler and Van Doren emphasize precision in criticisms and giving adequate reasons when criticizing:
But, we should add, the reader cannot make any of these remarks without being definite and precise about the respect in which the author is uninformed or misinformed or illogical. A book cannot be uninformed or misinformed about everything. It cannot be totally illogical. Furthermore, the reader who makes any of these remarks must not only make it definitely, by specifying the respect, but he must also support his point. He must give reasons for saying what he does.
Adler and Van Doren also offer some helpful definitions of the four ways an author can go wrong:
To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve.
To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case.
To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning.
To say that an author’s analysis is incomplete is to say that he has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or that he has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to his undertaking.
Well, do you agree with Adler and Van Doren?