Archive for the ‘Understanding’ Category

Testing your understanding of an author’s words

February 22, 2008

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read.  Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant?  Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?  To imagine a possible case is often as good as citing an actual one.  If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.

Propositions do not exist in a vacuum.  They refer to the world in which we live.  Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought or knowledge.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

It may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live

November 10, 2007

From How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren:

There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was. Radio and especially television have taken over many of the functions once served by print, just as photography has taken over functions once served by painting and other graphic arts. Admittedly, television serves some of these functions extremely well; the visual communication of news events, for example, has enormous impact. The ability of radio to give us information while we are engaged in doing other things — for instance, driving a car — is remarkable, and a great saving of time. But it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the more active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements — all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics — to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.


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