GMAT Verbal : Understanding Main Ideas in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for GMAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

"Poetry and Philosophy" by Justin Bailey

As the logical positivism rose to ascendancy, poetic language was increasingly seen as merely emotive. Wittgenstein’s influential Tractatus argued that only language corresponding to observable states of affairs in the world was meaningful, thus ruling out the value of imaginative language in saying anything about the world. Poetry’s contribution was rather that it showed what could not be said, a layer of reality which Wittgenstein called the “mystical.” Despite Wittgenstein’s interest in the mystical value of poetry, his successors abandoned the mystical as a meaningful category, exiling poetry in a sort of no man’s land where its only power to move came through the empathy of shared feeling.

Yet some thinkers, like Martin Heidegger, reacted strongly to the pretensions of an instrumental theory of knowledge to make sense of the world. Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur all gave central value to poetry in their philosophical method; signifying a growing sense among continental thinkers that poetic knowing was an important key to recovering some vital way of talking about and experiencing the world that had been lost.

The author is primarily concerned with __________.

Possible Answers:

explaining various theories of why poetic language has the power to move the human spirit

enumerating the reasons why Wittgenstein and his successors were misguided in their philosophical approach

arguing that given the current trajectory of philosophy, poetry will soon no longer be studied in mainstream society

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

exploring the contribution of philosophy to discussions of poetic method and appreciation

Correct answer:

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

Explanation:

The first paragraph states the main argument, which can be gleaned from the first and last sentence of the paragraph. The second paragraph introduces a contrast with the word "yet" and then proceeds to enumerate three examples of philosophers who made poetry a part of their philosophical method. 

Example Question #1 : Understanding Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

But yet, if any one will be so sceptical as to distrust his senses, and to affirm that all we see and hear, feel and taste, think and do, during our whole being, is but the series and deluding appearances of a long dream, whereof there is no reality; and therefore will question the existence of all things, or our knowledge of anything: I must desire him to consider, that, if all be a dream, then he doth but dream that he makes the question, and so it is not much matter that a waking man should answer him.

But yet, if he pleases, he may dream that I make him this answer, That the certainty of things existing in rerum natura when we have the testimony of our senses for it is not only as great as our frame can attain to, but as our condition needs. For, our faculties being suited not to the full extent of being, nor to a perfect, clear, comprehensive knowledge of things free from all doubt and scruple; but to the preservation of us, in whom they are; and accommodated to the use of life: they serve to our purpose wen enough, if they will but give us certain notice of those things, which are convenient or inconvenient to us.

For he that sees a candle burning, and hath experimented the force of its flame by putting his finger in it, will little doubt that this is something existing without him, which does him harm, and puts him to great pain; which is assurance enough, when no man requires greater certainty to govern his actions by than what is as certain as his actions themselves. And if our dreamer pleases to try whether the glowing heat of a glass furnace be barely a wandering imagination in a drowsy man's fancy, by putting his hand into it, he may perhaps be wakened into a certainty greater than he could wish, that it is something more than bare imagination.

So that this evidence is as great as we can desire, being as certain to us as our pleasure or pain, i.e. happiness or misery; beyond which we have no concernment, either of knowing or being. Such an assurance of the existence of things without us is sufficient to direct us in the attaining the good and avoiding the evil which is caused by them, which is the important concernment we have of being made acquainted with them.

In this passage, the author is primarily concerned with arguing against the position that __________.

Possible Answers:

the senses give us perfect insight into the natures of things

the senses do not accurately tell us what is pleasureable or painful

people are born with certain innate ideas of things

pain is to be sought and pleasure avoided

the senses might tell us nothing about the world

Correct answer:

the senses might tell us nothing about the world

Explanation:

The first paragraphs state and argue for the main idea of the passage, that the senses can be trusted to tell us something useful about the world. The other options are either not mentioned in this passage, or are secondary to and support the author's main idea.

Example Question #2 : Understanding Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

When we eat food, our perceptions of the flavors are highly subjective, and are influenced by far more than simply our senses of taste and smell. Our visual, tactile, and even auditory senses all play a role in signaling to our brains how we enjoy food. The more brightly colored that produce is, the more that we associate it with the quality of being fresh. As a result, some chefs prepare food in order to maximize the color of the produce, manipulating other ingredients in order to obtain the desired flavors of the dish. With respect to how our auditory senses affect our experience of food, studies have shown that diners experiencing their food to the backdrop of soothing music enjoyed their food more than diners who did not.

Unlike everyday diners, food critics are trained to consider their experiences of food by evaluating them through the lens of each of their various senses, and consider how their various perceptions give rise to the aggregate dining experience. They are aware of the visual, tactile and even auditory elements, yet able to experience the smell and taste of food independently of those senses. While some people may make the mistake of underestimating the acumen involved in assessing the quality of food, it is truly an art form that few are capable of performing. However, with the rapid expansion of online news sources, it is becoming increasingly easy for any person to create a blog or column and offer his or her two cents on rising restaurants or new cuisine. While some might see this development as more egalitarian, others see it as tainting what was before a highly selective field of food critics and writers.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

shed light on a complex issue that may never be truly understood.

inform the reader about the complexities of evaluating food quality and the implications of being a food critic.

persuade the reader that only trained food critics should be able to evaluate dining experiences.

criticize the way that people in general tend to experience food.

argue that we are never able to taste food without being biased to some extent.

Correct answer:

inform the reader about the complexities of evaluating food quality and the implications of being a food critic.

Explanation:

Given the general tone of the passage, it should be apparent that the author is not attempting to "argue," "criticize," or "persuade." Answer choices beginning with those verbs can therefore be eliminated, given the objective tone of the author. The answer beginning "shed light..." is overly broad. The correct answer choice is the only possibility remaining, "inform the reader about the complexities of evaluating food quality and the implications of being a food critic."

Example Question #3 : Understanding Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “The Influence of the Conception of Evolution on Modern Philosophy” by H. Höffding (1909) in Evolution in Modern Thought (1917 ed.)

When The Origin of Species appeared fifty years ago, Romantic speculation, Schelling's and Hegel's philosophy, still reigned on the continent, while in England, Positivism, the philosophy of Comte and Stuart Mill, represented the most important trend of thought. German speculation had much to say on evolution; it even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution. But then the word "evolution" was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense. To speculative thought, the forms and types of nature formed a system of ideas, within which any form could lead us by continuous transitions to any other. It was a classificatory system which was regarded as a divine world of thought or images, within which metamorphoses could go on—a condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes.

Goethe's ideas of evolution, as expressed in his Metamorphosen der Pflanzen und der Thiere, belong to this category; it is, therefore, incorrect to call him a forerunner of Darwin. Schelling and Hegel held the same idea; Hegel expressly rejected the conception of a real evolution in time as coarse and materialistic. "Nature," he says, "is to be considered as a system of stages, the one necessarily arising from the other, and being the nearest truth of that from which it proceeds; but not in such a way that the one is naturally generated by the other; on the contrary [their connection lies] in the inner idea which is the ground of nature. The metamorphosis can be ascribed only to the notion as such, because it alone is evolution.... It has been a clumsy idea in the older as well as in the newer philosophy of nature, to regard the transformation and the transition from one natural form and sphere to a higher as an outward and actual production."

What is the overall purpose of this selection?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

To compare and contrast positivism and German Romanticism.

To provide an outline of the development of one particular approach to the scientific question of evolution.

To show that while there was much German discussion of evolution, it has little to do with The Origin of Species.

To catalogue the prominent figures of German Romanticism.

Correct answer:

To show that while there was much German discussion of evolution, it has little to do with The Origin of Species.

Explanation:

This passage opens by framing the discussion in terms of Darwin's Origin of Species. Throughout the passage, it wishes to show how the German Romantics used the word and notion of "evolution" in a way that was radically different from that used by Darwin. In this selection, at least, we are not presented with a rigorous comparison/contrast with positivism, though it is mentioned at the beginning. This whole passage focuses on how certain figures used the term in a way quite different from that of Darwin. (Note, also, that the passage does not provide a complete catalogue of positions.)

Example Question #6 : Analyzing Components Of An Argument In Single Answer Questions

Adapted from “The Influence of the Conception of Evolution on Modern Philosophy” by H. Höffding (1909) in Evolution in Modern Thought (1917 ed.)

When The Origin of Species appeared fifty years ago, Romantic speculation, Schelling's and Hegel's philosophy, still reigned on the continent, while in England, Positivism, the philosophy of Comte and Stuart Mill, represented the most important trend of thought. German speculation had much to say on evolution; it even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution. But then the word "evolution" was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense. To speculative thought, the forms and types of nature formed a system of ideas, within which any form could lead us by continuous transitions to any other. It was a classificatory system which was regarded as a divine world of thought or images, within which metamorphoses could go on—a condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes.

Goethe's ideas of evolution, as expressed in his Metamorphosen der Pflanzen und der Thiere, belong to this category; it is, therefore, incorrect to call him a forerunner of Darwin. Schelling and Hegel held the same idea; Hegel expressly rejected the conception of a real evolution in time as coarse and materialistic. "Nature," he says, "is to be considered as a system of stages, the one necessarily arising from the other, and being the nearest truth of that from which it proceeds; but not in such a way that the one is naturally generated by the other; on the contrary [their connection lies] in the inner idea which is the ground of nature. The metamorphosis can be ascribed only to the notion as such, because it alone is evolution.... It has been a clumsy idea in the older as well as in the newer philosophy of nature, to regard the transformation and the transition from one natural form and sphere to a higher as an outward and actual production."

Why is it fair to say, based on Höffding's words, that the German speculation on evolution was not really scientific?

Possible Answers:

It got caught up in transitions between species and never had any concrete ideas.

It was derived from theological speculation on divine ideas.

It was more of an artistic idea than one based on facts.

None of the other answers

It made no appeal to Darwin's work, at least explicitly.

Correct answer:

It was more of an artistic idea than one based on facts.

Explanation:

The way that the romantic philosophers argued was more like a poetic image than that of a scientific discourse. At the close of the first paragraph, this is indicated by the description: "A condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes." The overall image that Höffding provides of Romantic speculation is one of literary presentation and idealized images.

Example Question #4 : Understanding Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Mounted primarily by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Easter Rising of 1916, also known as the Easter Rebellion, aimed both to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic at a time when the military assets of the United Kingdom were heavily engaged in World War I and thus largely unavailable for activity on the home front. Led by schoolteacher and barrister Patrick Pearse, members of the Irish Volunteers joined forces with the smaller Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly and 200 members of the all-female Cumman na mBan, together seizing key locations in Dublin and ultimately proclaiming the Irish Republic independent with the issue of the Easter Proclamation. After six days of fighting, the Rising was suppressed, its leaders court-martialed and executed. Militarily, the Rising was a failure; even with its attention divided, the British military out-classed and outnumbered the insurgent force. Yet support for republicanism continued to rise in Ireland in the wake of the Easter Rebellion. Though many members of the Dublin public were originally simply bewildered by the outbreak of the Rising, the harshness of the British response and the summary execution of the movement’s leaders garnered sympathy. In elections only two years later, Sinn Féin, an Irish republican party, won 73 seats out of 105, dominating the Irish delegation to the British parliament, and under their leadership the Irish would again declare their independence in 1919, establishing the Republic of Ireland which persists to this day.

The passage is primarily concerned with describing ___________.

Possible Answers:

the importance of the timing of the Easter Rebellion

contrasting views on the success of a social movement

the lasting legacy of an unsuccessful military action

contradictory accounts of the significance of the Easter Rebellion

the effect of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on the modern era

Correct answer:

the lasting legacy of an unsuccessful military action

Explanation:

The stem of this main point question comes right out and tells us the author’s overall agenda was descriptive, asking only that we fill in the object of the description. When the task is so clear, expect the test maker to try hiding the right answer by using oblique language, as in the correct answer, where there is no mention of any of the proper nouns from the passage. Ultimately, this passage concerns the legacy and later results (later election victories and Irish independence) that came from an unsuccessful military action, the Easter Rising of 1916.

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