Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Which Men Can Do Better or Worse

Point # 2

"(A practical book)is always about a field of human behavior in which men can do better or worse."
Originally I had the point buried below the second paragraph, but I thought the title might throw you off if I didn't explain it right away.   We are talking about the generic gender and about the fields of human behavior that are discussed in practical books.    This is continued from Part 2

Practical books fall into two main groups, Mortimer Adler says.   Some are basically presentation of rules.  Cookbooks and "how to" manuals are prime examples of that.  Do this, and that will follow.  Others are concerned with the principles that generate good rules and make them good.   Some great books on morals, economics or politics are of this type.  Most actual books have some overlap.   For example, Adler says, his book is primarily a rule-book, but does include some reference to the principles behind the rules.   Other more theoretical books might describe specific rules in order to present an example of the point. 

Either way, you can tell a practical book by its subject matter. This brings us to the point stated above. 


By the definition of a "field of human behavior in which men can do better or worse", is a Latin textbook a practical book? I'm looking at my Wheelock's and it is looking rather ominously back at me.  It tells me that I can potentially do better or worse at Latin and that reading it and applying its rules can help me do better.   So it would seem that it is a practical book. 

But can it be practical when it's liberal?   You always hear about practical being opposed to liberal, because practical is to serve a useful end and liberal education is to do with an end in itself. 

I think this is why I have trouble reading practical books like How to Read a Book.  Because I don't usually do too well with applications.  Adler says that when you read a Practical Book you ought to read between the lines of the rules and principles to how they would actually work in real life.  And I try, but not always successfully. I wish someone would write a book called How to Be a Practical Person (without giving up your Principles).

Instead of applications, my mind seems to want to come up with questions about WHY, which aren't really the point of learning to DO something better rather than worse. And teaching how to DO something is the point of the book, usually, and my goal for reading the book.  So really, I should be focusing on that part of it.

Any thoughts on textbooks:  are they practical or speculative?

Moving on, because now I've messed up my mind:

If I'm reading a cookbook, I'm going to learn the theory of cooking only inductively.  For example, if I find a bunch of recipes employing butter I might conclude that adding animal fat to recipes is a generally effective strategy.    If I notice that ginger and soy sauce are often used together but basil and vanilla rarely are, I might intuit some principle about the compatibility of various flavors.   But the core of the book will be simple rules that can be followed by anyone with the materials, skills, and understanding.

If I am reading about theory of cooking, however, I might be able to evaluate recipes better and I might know some strategies that would work in all cooking situations.  Yet I might still (lacking any kind of experiential knowledge) stare in confusion at the chicken, celery, garlic powder and flour on my counter.

Adler says about this:

In any art or field of practice, rules have a disappointing way of being too general.  The more general, of course, the fewer, and that is an advantage.  The more general, too, the more intelligible -- it is easier to understand the rules in and by themselves.   But it is also true that the more general the rules, the more remote they are from the intricacies of the actual situation in which you try to follow them.
The theory of cooking would make me understand cooking better, more rationally, but the recipe-book would let me walk through the steps of actually getting some cooking done.   Which I would choose might depend on what my goals were and where I already was in my knowledge of cooking. 

Latin textbooks tell you rules for reading Latin, so maybe they are Practical Books. There might be an equivocation with the word "practical", meaning, "servile" or "useful" and used in opposition to "liberal", the the word "practical" meaning "having to do with practice or DOING" which would cover the liberal arts and everything that is done by men (generic gender usage).  I'll go with that for now.

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