In Chapter 10, "Criticizing a Book Fairly", Adler wrote:

The third [general maxim of intellectual etiquette] is closely related to the second. It states another condition prior to the undertaking of criticism. It recommends that you regard disagreements as capable of being resolved. Where the second maxim urged you not to disagree disputatiously, this one warns you against disagreeing hopelessly. One is hopeless about the fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can agree. Note that we said "can agree." We did not say all rational men do agree. Even when they do not agree, they can. The point we are trying to make is that disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolution of an issue.

These two facts, that people do disagree and can agree, arise from the complexity of human nature. Men are rational animals. Their rationality is the source of their power to agree. Their animality, and the imperfections of their reason that it entails, is the cause of most of the disagreements that occur. Men are creatures of passion and prejudice. The language they must use to communicate is an imperfect medium, clouded by emotion and colored by interest, as well as inadequately transparent for thought. Yet to the extent that men are rational, these obstacles to their understanding can be overcome. The sort of disagreement that is only apparent, the sort that results from misunderstanding, is certainly curable.

There is, of course, another sort of disagreement, which is owing merely to inequalities of knowledge. The relatively ignorant often wrongly disagree with the relatively learned about matters exceeding their knowledge. The more learned, however, have a right to be critical of errors made by those who lack relevant knowledge. Disagreement of this sort can also be corrected. Inequality of knowledge is always curable by instruction.

There may still be other disagreements that are more deeply buried, and that may subsist in the body of reason itself. It is hard to be sure about these, and almost impossible for reason to describe them. In any event, what we have just said applies to the great majority of disagreements. They can be resolved by the removal of misunderstanding or of ignorance. Both cures are usually possible, though often difficult. Hence the person who, at any stage of a conversation, disagrees, should at least hope to reach agreement in the end. He should be as much prepared to have his own mind changed as seek to change the mind of another. He should always keep before him the possibility that he misunderstands or that he is ignorant on some point. No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.

I have two questions regarding this passage. I know it is usually recommended to ask one question at a time, but I hope this will be justify for now, because the questions are really very close to each other.

  1. The first question is about the sentence that mentions "disagreements that subsist in the body of reason itself." What this sentence is actually about? Is it about disagreements like the existence of God, for example? Or about whether Picasso's "Portrait of woman in d'hermine pass" ("Olga") is a talented work of art or just a weird and ugly painting of a mediocre and overrated painter? (No offence to Pablo Picasso here. This is not what I think about him of his works myself.) Or maybe about something different/else? I am, of course, asking primarily about the evidences in the book itself.

  2. The second question is about the meaning of the whole passage. The author says that, except for "disagreements that subsist in the body of reason itself," two rational men can always agree if they have enough information and can talk to each other without passion and prejudice. Does it mean that the author shares the view according to which there is no such thing as subjective reality, that is, that in the end there is only one correct answer on moral dilemmas like, for example, death penalty for the most violent criminals, or about scientific questions like, for example, what exactly will happen if you can travel back in time and kill yourself or your parent?


1 Answer 1



Q1. The passage is a tautology: "reason cannot comprehend the limits of reason."
Q2. No.


Your second question is easier to answer, and the answer provides a way to answering your first, so let's take the second one first.

Adler says that reasonable people see disagreements about a book as the starting point for a more objective assessment of the book. Suppose, for instance, I dislike the ending of Willam Golding's Lord of the Flies (hereinafter LotF) because the appearance of the adult is a deus ex machina that deprives the novel of tragic force. You disagree, and explain to me that in the ending, as elsewhere throughout the novel, Golding is responding to R M Ballantyne's The Coral Island, which has a similar ending: three young boys are saved from cannibals because a missionary arrives and converts the cannibals to Christianity. I might respond okay, fine, that justifies the device, but it still dilutes the potential tragedy. And you might agree with me about that. That could end the discussion—we have reached agreement despite our initial disagreement about the ending.

Or we could take the discussion further and, talking more about the novel, say that the real tragedy is the disconnect between what the newly arrived adult sees happening ("fun and games") and the actual import of the scene (a murder, the third on the island, narrowly averted). We could say that the captain is a Piggy-like figure, unable to see what is going on except through a lens, naïvely certain that morality and reason prevail. So by working through our disagreement, we criticize the book more "fairly" (to use Adler's word) and arrive at a better reading of the book.

Note that I'm not actually making any of these claims about LotF, I'm merely hypothesizing a particular discussion to illustrate what Adler means. For Adler, discussions are dialectical. I have a thesis, you have its antithesis, and through our discussion, we synthesize our view of the book, our disagreement evaporating in the process. The process of dialectical reasoning assumes, as you rightly remark, that "two rational [people] can always agree if they have enough information and can talk to each other without passion and prejudice." Certainly this view assumes that there is both an objective way to conduct literary criticism, and an objective outcome. The objective way is an ethical prescription ("etiquette"), the objective outcome an epistemological one ("understanding").

Since the context of Adler's discussion is reading books, it's a leap to assume he means that "there is no such thing as subjective reality, that is, that in the end there is only one correct answer." The answer we have arrived at regarding LotF is contingent on the circumstances of our original debate. There is no absolute guarantee that this answer is the objective truth about the novel. It does not exhaust possible readings of the novel, nor even simply of its ending. We have arrived at one possible fair reading of the novel and its ending, but after all, we each began with limited perspectives on the novel. Our discussion may have broadened those, but what we arrive at is just another limited perspective—perhaps less limited than our initial ones, but limited nevertheless. Adler's claim here is narrow: we can use disagreements fruitfully, and doing so allows us to reach agreement. There is no evidence, at least in the passage quoted, that Adler therefore believes that underneath all such disagreements, there is a knowable objective reality accessible via dialectical reasoning.

To posit such a view for Adler is to elide the difference between epistemology and metaphysics. There is a fine but nevertheless real distinction between knowledge and reality. The claim that "we arrive at knowledge through a dialectical process" does not necessarily involve a further claim that "there is an objective reality to be known." To put it another way, "I know LotF a bit better now" is not the same is "I know the truth about LotF." What our discussion leads to is not the right view about LotF, but only one that's less wrong. Pace Hegel, we don't after all know what the ultimate result of the dialectic will be. What if Adorno is the model, and we engage in negative dialectics? Or what if I go full-on Buddhist, such that the result of my dialectical process leads me to believe that there is no such thing as objective reality?

Arriving at Adorno and/or Buddhism involves recognizing the limits of reason. We naïvely assume that reason is sufficient for knowledge. What if that assumption is wrong? Reason may be necessary, but not sufficient, for knowledge. As a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, Adler would say that for correct knowledge, we need faith in addition to reason. Faith also allows us to make the leap from epistemology to metaphysics: to know truth (which for Adler involves belief in the god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), one has to accept mysteries.

This does not render reason unnecessary. Something can be necessary without being sufficient. Adler is arguing that reasoning can resolve our disagreements and get us to slightly less imperfect knowledge. This means that I can't abjure reason—I can't claim "this is my subjective opinion, to which I'm entitled, and your contrary opinion does not affect mine." But from this it does not follow that using reasoning alone, I can arrive at objective reality.

Discussing your second question in this way leads us to your first. The answer becomes trivial: Adler is simply claiming that reason has its limits. If the book we are discussing is not LotF but Genesis, then for a Christian like Adler, the fact that we are fallen means that we cannot use our corrupted reason about such incorrupt things as God's motives or actions. We cannot, for instance, posit that it was unreasonable for God to create a fruit-bearing tree and then forbid us from eating the fruit. But one doesn't even need to subscribe to Adler's faith to agree that yes, reason has its limits. By definition, it's hard to understand those limits using our reason. Therefore, disagreements about the nature and limits of reason are pretty intractable: As Adler says, "It is hard to be sure about these, and almost impossible for reason to describe them."

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