Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Note on Means and Ends

I was going to write something little and non-taxing today but that last post about How to Read a Practical Book just won't leave my mind.  Don't you hate that!

I don't feel quite satisfied with the difference between Adler's thinking on the crux of a Practical Book and how I think about it.    But perhaps the reason my approach seems to differ from Adler's on what is of first importance in reading a Practical Book is that I am thinking of a different type of book than he is.    I've been reading books about parenting, homeschooling, exercise, dealing with emotions, organizing, and productivity.  He is probably talking about the more theoretical books about economics, politics, pedagogy in general, and so on.   The Big Books, not the self-help ones.  

Most of the Practical Books I read are self-help or personal improvement  -- in other words they are about making better judgments in ordinary life... the goals are fairly obvious, and it is the methods, and the principles that inform the methods, that are in question.   In the books that Adler uses as examples, like books about economics or politics or ethics in general, perhaps there is more question about the goals.

Prudence is  "right reason applied to practice".    Aquinas seems to say (if I am understanding him rightly) that prudence itself does not determine the ends or goals.   The reason for this is that the ends or goals reside in the appetite, not in the intellect per se.    The appetite is drawn to the apparent or real good, and prudence deals with how to actually get to that good.   

If I didn't already have an inclination towards the goal or good thing presented in the book, I probably wouldn't read it.  So while the goal may be the thing upon which everything else turns, as Adler posits, it probably isn't the biggest intellectual problem to solve for me as I read the book, since I already resolved the question to some extent by deciding to read the book.   Still, it is probably useful to consider exactly what specific "vision" the author has of the goal.   For example, I wouldn't be too sympathetic with parenting books that thought parenting was all about fulfilling oneself, or about making children into mechanically obedient little soldiers. 

That's where I will leave it for now.

Maybe I will read Aquinas's treatise on Prudence.   It is winter (almost) and I have lots of time.


  1. Interesting questions. I was just reading a parenting article yesterday that advocated a method that is not at all one I would choose. It's one many parents would avoid. The author's argument was in short: Everyone says this is a bad idea; but this is what I did and see my kids turned out fine. Except that she never defined clearly what her vision of "turned out fine" is. It seemed to me that basically it entailed the grown children having good jobs and being economically self sufficient. So if that was her metric, then I suppose the method was good enough. But my goals for my children are a little loftier. To me their highest good is being in right relationship with God and others. By that definition her method might in fact be disastrous, I have no idea since she was not using that as her measure of success. So I think before you commit to following a course of action advocated by a book, you would still want to evaluate the goals.

    Even with something as simple as a weight loss book, there can be many different goals that are lumped under the category "weight loss". I may say that is my goal; but if I dig deeper I might find that it's not really about the numbers on the scale but about being healthier. Yesterday I read an article about a man who lost a good amount of weight eating only twinkies. If my goal is only changing the numbers on the scale, his diet might in fact work for me; but if I'm using "loosing weight" as a shorthand for being healthy, then I would want to dig a little deeper. I might find that in fact my goal is not losing weight but acquiring healthier habits of diet and exercise and that how much I weigh is merely one metric by which I can judge whether I am reaching that goal.

    Perhaps the real reason Adler's advice doesn't seem that helpful is that to some extent you've already gone through that evaluating process for these particular books? My understanding is that they are ones you already own, for the most part already have read. I'd assume that if they didn't already meet a basic criteria for agreeing with your goals, then you wouldn't have kept them.

  2. I think I see what you are saying, Melanie. I like the "metric" take on it -- what yardstick is being used to measure better vs worse? That might help me as a reader to get from the author's "goal" in the most general terms to a more specific view of what he thinks are the parameters of that goal or end.

    I will add that metric ruler to my toolbox ;-).

    It's true that the books I'm reading have already passed the inspectional test -- when I'm picking up a book from the library shelves I usually scan to make sure the author's view is somewhat compatible with mine -- and if I get into the book and find it's not what I hoped for, I decide whether it's worth continuing with or not.

  3. I was thinking about this some more while scrubbing the kitchen baseboards. I wonder if this lady's advice might fit into a different category than Practical. It might be more like "Evidence to the Contrary." There is a lot of conventional wisdom out there, and sometimes people like to stand up and say "I did it differently and my kids turned out all right" (by whatever standard -- that's the part where it gets tricky, as you say) But the contrarian testimony can be valuable sometimes since so much of parenting advice is anecdotal and goes in trends and waves. For example, right now we're all about hyper-safety and it takes a brave parent to stand up and say "I let my kids ride the city bus" (or whatever it is).


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!