Chapter 20: Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

Chapter 20: Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading
(From the book: How to Read a Book. (The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.))

Review done by Kevin Jesmer NIU UBF 6-2512

Definition of Syntopical: Referring to a type of analysis in which different works are compared and contrasted.

Etymology: Coined by w:Mortimer Adler, Mortimer Adler in “How to Read a Book”. Derived from the term Syntopicon, a two-volume topical guide published as part of the Great Books of the Western World series.

The Role of inspection in Syntopical reading

There are times when we may have to read more than one book. We may have to read several books on one subject.

To begin we can seek out a bibliography of books to read. When one does this they will realize that our subject may be very vast. How do we continue to deal with the vast range of material that we are presented with? We may have to limit the inquiry. If we don’t find a way to focus then we can read 12-100 books before you are sure about what you are reading about. We need a short cut for we don’t have 10 years to get prepared. We need to engage in inspectional reading of the books in our bibliography. This includes skimming and superficial reading. Skimming is deciding what kind of book it is and the structure of the book. Inspectional and analytical reading are preparations for syntopical reading. In analytical reading there may be books that requiring a quick read and a fast read. We must discern about these. Skilled readers perform all of these tasks concurrently. It takes time and practice to get to this level. (There are practice lessons in the appendix B in the back of the book.)

Five steps in Syntopical Reading.

Step 1: Finding the relevant passages

In syntopical reading, it is the “you” and your concerns that are to be served not the needs of the book. Our aim is to find the passages in the books that are the most germane to our needs. We read the books for the light that it may throw on your own problem-not for its own sake. In syntopical reading you are the master of reading. It is not a disciple/master relationship as in analytical reading.

Step 2: Bringing the authors to terms

The read must establish the terms. You must bring the author to terms rather than the other way around. When we do, we need to be ready to accept the fact that no author’s terminology may be useful to us.

Step 3: Getting the questions clear

Here we are faced with the task of establishing a set of neutral propositions as well. We need to frame a set of questions. Here is a good quote… “The questions must be stated in such a way and in such an order that they may 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.” (p. 319) We must also accept the fact that the authors may not have any answers we seek.

Step 4: Defining the issues

There are times when two alternative answers are given to a question. The task of a sytnopical reader is to “define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as can be.” (p. 321) There is a need to sort the issues out and arrange it in an orderly fashion.

Step 5: Analyzing the discussion

We need to ask ourselves several questions concerning the books. What does it say? How does it day it? Is it true? What of it? We need to think about the order of the discussion itself. We need to ask questions in a certain order and be able to defend that order. Analytical reading will reveal the dimensions of the problems that we are tackling.

The Need for Objectivity

There is an ironic saying, “Agreement in most cases accompanies disagreement” (p. 323) In the cloud of differing opinions there are some portions of the whole truth. Sometimes all conflicting opinions are not true at all. The sytopical reader tries to look at all sides of the discussion and not take any side. We must resist certain temptations and know their own minds. Absolute objectivity however is not always possible. To maintain objectivity frequent references must be made to the actual text of the authors, reading the relevant passages and reading them over and over again. (p. 325)

There is a term presented in page 325. It is called “dialectical objectivity”. Its definition is…

Dialectic: discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation; specifically : the Socratic techniques of exposing false beliefs and eliciting truth

Objectivity: Objective: relating to or existing as an object of thought without consideration of independent existence —used chiefly in medieval philosophy

An Example of an exercise in Syntopical reading: The idea of progress. The author gives a practical example of how to do a sytopical survey on the idea of progress. (a very broad topic)

The Syntopicon and How to Use It

Syntopicon, a two-volume topical guide published as part of the Great Books of the Western World series.

The paradox of syntopical reading. “unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically but unless you can read syntopically you do not know what to read.” Also, “If you don’t know where to start you cannot read syntopically; and even of 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 the other steps combined.” (p. 329)

And so we need a reference book that tells us where to find the relevant passages on a large number of subjects of interest.” It does not tell you how the passages should be read. it does not judge their meaning or their significance. (p. 330) It is an index of just one set of books. It can help us initiatively, suggestively, and instructively. It initiates the reading of the Great Books. One can read short passages from a large number of authors. It can arouse interest in related subjects. It can serve in helping the reader to interpret the passage. It sharpens the reader’s interpretation of each passage. Since the Syntopical reading is done in a number of different subjects. The passage may be in more than one subject. In this way it may serve an instruction purpose.

Other Principles That Underlie Syntopical Reading

There is a danger that we can read the books out of context. The authors are also separate and unique. Should we be blending the author’s differing terms.

“Believing, then, that translation is possible (because it is done all the time), that books can talk to one another (because human beings can 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.” (p. 335)

Summary of Syntopical Reading

A. Survey the Field
1. Create a tentative bibliography
2. Inspect all the books on the tentative bibliography

B. Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage l

1. Inspect the books to find the most relevant passages.
2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing neutral terminology
3. Establish neutral propositions. See if the authors are giving answers.
4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones.
5. Analyze the discussion and order the questions and the issues to throw max light.

Note: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should be maintained.

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