Mortimer Adler, Miami Bookfair International, 1988

How to Criticize a Book: The Third Stage of Analytical Reading

In the first stage of analytical reading we found out what kind of book we were dealing with and got a general idea of what it was about as a whole; in the second stage we learned in greater detail what was being said and how; and now, in the final stage, we must ascertain whether what is being said is, and what the implications of our conclusions are.

This is a topic that goes deep to the roots of philosophy, but today we shall not dive so deep (I go deeper on that in my post on heroic analysis). Instead, today we will just be surveying Adler’s general maxims of intellectual etiquette and special criteria for points of criticism.

Adler’s General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

• Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand.”
• Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
• Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

• Show wherein the author is uninformed.
• Show wherein the author is misinformed.
• Show wherein the author is illogical.
• Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Against popular belief: if you fail to do any of these, you must agree, at least in part, with what the author says. However, you may suspend judgment on the whole, but only in light of the last point.

As they stand, they offer us a great guide for criticizing a book rationally. However, for greater breakdown, I encourage you buy and read Mortimer J. Adler’s book: How to Read a Book, and get a step-by-step breakdown of the process of reading from the master.


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