The Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft once said that if he ever became a college president, his first item of business would be to require every student to read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. (The original version was published in 1940, with a second edition co-authored by Charles Van Doren in 1972.)

Nearly 25 years ago as a first-year seminarian, I read Adler’s section on understanding as a prerequisite for critique.  It struck me then, and still strikes me now, as nothing less than an application of Jesus’s golden rule. Love of neighbor requires that we seek understanding, treating others as we would want to be treated.

Adler wrote:

You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”

For those who don’t do this, he says:

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.

Alder goes on:

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.

Adler counseled that when you disagree with someone’s work, you should do so reasonably, not disputatiously or contentiously. You should respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by offering reasons for any critical judgment you make. Maybe, he said, the author is uninformed or misinformed. Maybe the argument is illogical or incomplete. But you have to show that this is the case by presenting arguments to advance your claim.

The latter point was made by C. S. Lewis in his 1941 essay on the fallacy of what he called “Bulverism” —another piece that should be required reading today.

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

I thought about both of these pieces when reading a post by Kevin DeYoung in World Opinions. DeYoung, who did his PhD in early modern history under John Coffey at the University of Birmingham, offers a starting answer to the question of how we interpret the past:

In dealing with texts and people from the past, we should—in so far as possible, and as the first and most important line of intellectual inquiry—endeavor to see things their way.

That last phrase, “seeing things their way,” was made popular by the famed British intellectual historian Quentin Skinner (b. 1940), one of the founders of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought.

DeYoung explains:

Opposed to the reductionistic historiography of the 1960s, Skinner tried to steer a middle course between the materialist school (which crammed everything into Marxist or Freudian categories) and the idealist school (which tended to put Great Thinkers in supposed conversations with other Great Thinkers).

Skinner’s conviction was that the historian’s first job was to make every effort “to see things their way” . . . .

To be sure, historians are not prohibited from criticizing texts and persons from the past, but prior to criticism, they should seek to understand historical agents as they understood themselves.

DeYoung quotes David Bebbington reflecting on this method:

Only if the agents are content that their intentions have not been misrepresented can the account stand.

This principle is becoming depressingly uncommon in some quarters of Christian history writing, where selective and tendentious readings are praised as long as they reach the correct conclusions.

DeYoung again:

We should be slow to impute unstated motives to people in the past and hesitant to think we have uncovered the “real” reasons for their ideas and actions. Again, Coffey and Chapman put it well:

Some historians are still inclined to explain religious belief as a mask for more fundamental social, economic, or political interests, or as a reflection of psychological needs. Such approaches are deeply problematic because they allow historians to ignore what their subjects actually say.

If the problem with Christian historians used to be hagiography (making our religious heroes into uncomplicated saints), the danger today is hamartiography (making our religious opponents into unmitigated sinners).

Too many historical reconstructions—either on the academic level or of the more casual journalistic variety—are adept at highlighting the worst things someone has said or done and then using those sins and mistakes to deconstruct an entire movement, era, tradition, theology, or people group. The problem is not that we are made to reckon with the failures of the past. The problem is with any historical approach that traffics in monocausal explanations, judges the past by the concerns of the present, and applies its own method unevenly.

When our people are in the dock, we want nuance, caution, carefulness, and precision. When our ideological opponents are being evaluated, however, we are quick to make unflattering connections, assume motives, and make the evidence fit the story we want to tell. . . .

Of course, doing history in this way does not mean that everyone will agree with our interpretations. But careful criticism (where necessary) mingled with genuine appreciation (where appropriate) is not the same as quick, constant, and vituperative denunciation.

You can read DeYoung’s whole piece here. And think about these principles the next time you read a history that offers a neat and tidy history narratives filled with uncomplicated characters who do either all good or all bad.