The Need For “Understanding” To Precede Criticism

I learned a lesson in humility from a book that I recently read. In the book the authors, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, speak about criticism and making judgments on books as well as other people’s opinions. The authors state,

“You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I Understand,’ before you can say any one of the following, ‘I Agree,’ or ‘I Disagree,’ or ‘I Suspend Judgement.'”

For myself I have had plenty of experiences where I’ve been critically questioned or criticized by others and I have also watched fellow students question teachers in a critical manner when there is plainly no foundation of understanding to what is being taught. As I ponder my years of schooling and pastoral ministry I have also come to the conviction that I have all too often followed this same course, passing criticism without proper understanding.

It seems to me, as well as the authors, that it takes a great deal of time, patience and listening before one can say, “I Understand.” For one to arrive at the point of understanding another person’s point of view takes more energy than it does to offer up a critique. Only when one understands another person, book or idea are they in the position to offer up an assessment. Only after there is understanding can a critique be offered up fairly, whether a positive critique or a negative critique. For when a critique is offered up without understanding the affirmations or criticisms are meaningless and unfounded, they are offered on the basis of a false understanding.

Adler and Van Doren offer up a bit of encouragement in handling criticism saying,

“You yourself may remember when an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or the most two, ‘I don’t know what you mean, but I think you’re wrong.’ There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent.”

Excerpts From:
How To Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren
(Touchstone Book, 1972), 143-144.

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