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had their nature been understood, would have required time and patient attention to overcome. In all these things we plainly discern that many persons, who even read a great deal, and on various subjects, yet neglect that first necessary step of a clear and full comprehension.


Locke attributes this defect to a class of readers who would be most astonished to find themselves ranked among the superficial. "There is not seldom to be found," he says, even amongst those who aim at knowledge, who, with an unwearied industry, employ their whole time in books, who scarcely allow themselves time to eat or sleep, but read, and read, and read on, yet make no great advance in real knowledge, though there be no defect in their intellectual faculties to which their little progress can be imputed. The mistake here is, that it is usually supposed that by reading, the author's knowledge is transfused into the reader's understanding; and so it is, but not by bare reading, but by reading and understanding what he writ. Whereby I mean not barely comprehending what is affirmed or denied in each proposition (though that great readers do not think themselves concerned precisely to do), but to see and follow the train of his reasonings, observe the strength and clearness of their connection, and examine upon what they bottom. Without this a man may read the discourses of a very rational author, writ in a language and in propositions which he very well understands, and yet acquire not one jot of his knowledge; which consisting only in the perceived, certain, or probable connection of the ideas made use of in his reasonings, the reader's knowledge is no farther increased than he perceives that; so much as he sees of this connection, so much he knows of the truth or probability of that author's opinions."*

It is not, then, till we form a clear conception of an author's purpose, of his view of the subject, and mode of treating it; of the grounds of his opinion, and the principles he desires to establish upon them, that we can be said to understand a book. Mere indolence of mind is, perhaps, the most general cause of careless reading; but there is also, in minds unused to any severe exercise, an incapacity of perceiving difficulties; they are not aware of the obstacles which perseverance would be required to overcome. For instance, all the ambiguities and inaccuracies of language which we have spoken of as hindering the clear exercise of reason, require to be guarded against; the language must be carefully sifted, and the argument or narrative stripped of any false colouring, in order that the facts or reasonings may be

Essay on the Conduct of the Human Understanding, sec. 24.


reduced to their simple value. But a mind unused to study cannot perform this process, and does not feel its necessity; whatever, therefore, there may be of error or ambiguity remains unexamined, and a thorough comprehension of the subject is consequently impossible.

Dr. Arnold, speaking of the right method of reading, says :"We should ask questions of our book and of ourselves;-what is its purpose; by what means it proceeds to effect that purpose; whether we fully understand the one ;-whether we go along with the other? Do the arguments satisfy us ;-do the descriptions convey lively and distinct images to us;-do we understand all the allusions to persons or things? In short, does our mind act over again from the writer's guidance what his acted before;-do we reason as he reasoned, conceive as he conceived, think and feel as he thought and felt ;-or if not, can we discern where and how far we do not, and can we tell why we do not?"


Wherever, in such a series of questions, we fail to give a satisfactory answer, we must return perseveringly to the obscure point and try to discover whence arises the difficulty, for that discovery goes half-way towards removing it. It may be caused by obscure writing, or careless expression; then considerable patience is required to unravel ill-constructed sentences, or perhaps to compare one passage with another, in which the same loose or doubtful term occurs, in order to ascertain if it is always used in the same sense, and if not, what are its different meanings. Perhaps it has occasionally been employed in the literal, and occasionally in the metaphorical sense, or the two senses are confounded, and the term having been used metaphorically, conclusions are drawn from it as though it had been used literally. Or, it may have been employed in one passage in a particular and restricted meaning, and then argued from in another, as if accepted in its general sense. Or, a word may be changed, or used indifferently, with one apparently synonymous, and inferences drawn from the latter, which are only just in another and non-synonymous sense of the term. All these are common sources of error and obscurity; they may arise from a writer's carelessness, or from intention to mislead, but the reader must be equally on his guard against both; that neither the sophistry nor the neglect of another, may produce confusion in his own mind, or lead him into error. The point where the

* Lecture read before Rugby Literary Society.

It will, perhaps, be objected, that this degree of care cannot be required for mere narrative, history, &c., which women mostly read. Withou


error begins may generally be detected by careful self-questioning, and persevering return over the same ground wherever any obscurity remains. When we have a clear conception in our own mind, we may commonly assume that we have apprehended rightly; for where there is error, there is generally confusion; and we must labour to discover whether it be in the book itself, or in our own understanding of it.

Definitions are a great source of difficulty; an author employs some term in a new or unusual sense, and affixes his own definition, but the careless reader attends little to this; and, indeed, few things are more difficult to bear in mind than a new meaning given to a known term, for the more familiar one will, again and again, unconsciously recur, and produce confusion. In any difficult passage it is often advisable to substitute the definition for the term, by which means we can probably detect whence our misapprehension arises, and we make it clear, at least, whether the confusion is our own, or whether the author has himself departed from the meaning he had previously affixed. In writings of an ancient date, there may be some verbal difficulties, owing to words being used in a different sense at different periods. This we see frequently, for instance, in our version of the Scriptures, and still more, therefore, in older works; but this difficulty is easily removed with a little patience, and a good lexicon; and the research into the various meanings, and the etymologies of words, is of great use in giving clearness and accuracy to our own expressions. The study of language is ever preparing the way for thought.

The violence or peculiarity of an author's opinions will also prevent a careless reader from obtaining a clear comprehension of the subject, by giving something of a different tone and value to the commonest expressions he uses. We have seen what difficulty necessarily arises in this respect, from the impossibility of carrying the logical clearness of scientific reasoning into speculative questions, which must be treated of in common language, and be subject, consequently, to all its ambiguities and imperfections. If, therefore, violence, prejudice, or party-spirit come in to increase this difficulty, it is not easy


entering into this question, which would lead to a discussion on the purpose of historical teaching, which will find a better place hereafter, (chap. iv. p. 160,) we would remark, that although women may not care to enter into speculative subjects generally, they read a great number of religious works, in which this caution is peculiarly necessary; the subject being one which, from its very nature, admits of all the errors arising from ambiguity and sophistical use of language, and on which human passions and prejudices are more strongly excited than on any other.

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to determine the true and simple meaning of the language in which even facts are stated, and still less the real worth of the arguments brought forward. A slight reference to any of the party writings with which our press abounds, will sufficiently prove the importance to the reader of bearing this consideration in mind. We need not say that if he comes his own mind biassed by prejudice or violent feelings, the very avenue to simple apprehension of the opinions of others is closed up; enough has been already said on that point.* Doubtless our own views will colour the judgment we form, but understanding a book, and deciding on its merits, are two different operations, and cannot, by the young reader, be kept too distinct. In anything of earnest study, especially, we should first come to a book with a simple desire to understand it, as to matter and language, and to enter into the author's own views in bringing forward his sentiments or reasonings. The process of judging these and comparing his opinions with our own, is a subsequent one; but if too eagerly commenced, is in danger of encroaching upon the other, and of being founded, therefore, on mere confusion and misapprehension.

When after all due pains have been taken to sift the language, and allow for the peculiar views of an author, his opinions in some passages are still obscure, and we are still unable clearly to understand the grounds of his reasoning, or the conclusions he would establish upon them, we may assume there is some error or confusion in him which we have been unable to detect, or that we do not possess the knowledge requisite fully to apprehend his meaning. We shall be assisted in detecting the error in our author by a careful comparison of different passages; if this fails, it will be best to note the obscure passage, and pass it over for a time, to be referred to again at a later period, when the views in question have become more familiar to us, or our own studies and reflections have given us a clearer grasp of the subject, or supplied the knowledge we wanted before. If the work we are studying treat of any controverted points, or make much reference to the opinions of other writers, it will probably be necessary to consult the works referred to before a clear conception of the discussion can be formed; possibly before the value of certain expressions or principles can be felt. The labour of comparing quotations is one which a careful reader will never shrink from; their value is not felt, and their meaning is often wholly misconceived from want of examining the context. Scripture itself may be made to utter blasphemy by isolated quotations.

It is useful, also, in order to obtain a clear grasp of a subject,

* See Chap. v.


to study it in the works of different writers. We need not necessarily go through the whole work of each writer; it is enough to examine their different mode of stating the particular fact or theory we wish to understand. Their very differences in treating the same subject, will greatly assist the mind in forming a clear conception of it. In the variety of definitions, explanations, or illustrations, we may find some-not perhaps always intrinsically the best, or most generally convincing,-but the most fitted to our own turn of thought, and therefore conveying the clearest impression to our minds; appealing to a particular class of information we happen to possess, or to peculiar associations which are most familiar to us. This variety will also save the reader from one great danger of incomplete apprehension, namely, that of confounding the principle of a theory with the circumstances which serve to develop it. This may seem to minds accustomed to reason, too gross an error to fall into; but a little attention to the conversation and crude opinions of a vast number of those who read and pretend to understand, will prove how common this confusion is with persons unaccustomed to close investigation. To discern the distinct nature of various propositions, to distinguish the essential difference between a fact and a law, is the work of reason; and just as the unreasoning mind is incapable of applying a general principle, so is it incapable, when such a principle is applied or illustrated by others, of disentangling it from the circumstances with which it is thus adventitiously surrounded, in order to view it in its real simplicity. When, however, a proposition is stated, and illustrated by several writers, it is probable that the impressions made will correct each other, and lead the mind to feel the true nature and bearing of the question.


2. The formation of our own opinions on the subject we are studying, which we have placed second in order of time, is really first in importance, since it little matters that we read and understand and follow the reasonings of the best authors, unless we exercise our own judgment upon the knowledge thus presented to us, and make it our own by reflection. "Read," says Lord Bacon, "not to contradict or confute, nor to believe and take for granted, but to weigh and compare." This is the golden rule for study. A good memory can acquire superficial information almost by glancing over books, but real knowledge is to be gained only by the exercise of our own reason upon the information which comes before us. Even in studies which seem mostly addressed to the memory, as dealing principally with facts; such,

* See Chap. v.


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