Watts: Discerning the judgement of others on books


Basically, he’s been discussing under what conditions should you let somebody else’s opinions of a book inform or sway you. This is worth thinking about, and thinking about carefully. What he says applies not only to books but other forms of media as well.

XI. When you hear any person pretending to give his judgment of a book, consider with yourself whether he be a capable judge, or whether he may not lie under some unhappy, bias or prejudice, for or against it, or whether he has made a sufficient inquiry to form his justest sentiments upon it.

It’s not enough that you respect his or her opinion as a capable judge- you must also consider whether or not the person attempting to convince you of the merits or demerits of a given book has any reason to be biased one way or the other, and also, whether he has actually made a careful investigation. For example, I have seen more than one discussion which goes something like this:
Reviewer: This is a terrible book, the author doesn’t know what she’s talking about, she promotes _____ism, and everybody knows ______ism is problematic because of x, y, and z.
2. Response: I am not sure I agree with you. I think you misunderstand _____ism. Have you read McGillicuddy’s meaty explanation of it?
3. Reviewer: No. Why should I? _______ism a bankrupt philosophy.
4. Responders give some reasons, pointing out that Reviewer’s version is not really accurate and McGillicuddy could set him right on some areas he has misunderstood, and perhaps an hour later, maybe, on occasion so long as a day or two, the reviewer also tears apart McGillicuddy. He gives no evidence of changing his understanding on a single point, which is a huge warning sign that his mind was already made up, regardless of what McGillicuddy actually says. Also, in most cases, nobody can do justice to McGillicuddy or anybody else upon such a short reading under such prejudicial circumstances. Reviewer is clearly not reading for understanding, but for ammunition, and to a man with a hammer that he badly wishes to use, every issue is a nail.

In internet debates of this nature, pay attention to the time stamps. Has Reviewer really given the question adequate time and attention? Usually, given the time stamps of when Reviewer admitted he had never read anything by or about McGillicuddy and when Reviewer writes as a newly minted expert on McGillicuddy (and his preconceived prejudices which he already revealed)- it would behove any careful reader to take these opinions under advisement and to withhold judgement until the reader has herself given careful time and attention to McGillicuddy.

In other words:
Though he be a man of good sense, yet he is incapable of passing a true judgment of a particular book, if he be not well acquainted with the subject of which it treats, and the manner in which it is written, be it verse or prose: or if he hath not had an opportunity or leisure to look sufficiently into the writing itself.

Watts continues:

Again, though he be ever so capable of judging on all other accounts, by the knowledge of the subject, and of the book itself, yet you are to consider also whether there be any thing in the author, in his manner, in his language, in his opinions, and his particular party, which may warp the sentiments of him that judgeth, to think well or ill of the treatise, and to pass too favourable or too severe a sentence concerning it. If you find that he is either an unfit judge because of his ignorance or because of his prejudices, his judgment of that book should go for nothing.

It does not matter how fine a person, how high your regard, how much you admire their expertise in some other area. Fairness and justice both to yourself and others demands that you consider all these things before agreeing with somebody’s opinions or judgement of a 3rd party or their work. Watts again resorts to one of his pseudonomynous personifications to demonstrate his point:
Philograpno is a good divine, a useful preacher, and an approved expositor of scripture; but he never had a taste for any of the polite learning of the age; he was fond of every thing that appeared in a devout dress; but all verse was alike to him: he told me last week there was a very fine book of poems published on the three Christian Graces, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and a most elegant piece of oratory on the four last things, Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Do you think I shall buy either of those books merely on Philographo’s recommendation?

Hint: The answer is no.=)



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