GMAT Verbal : Understanding the Thesis in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for GMAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Understanding The Thesis 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.

The author primarily beleives that radical skepticism is an unreasonable position because __________.

Possible Answers:

radical skepticism is logically inconsistant

experimental evidence shows that the world exists

the senses can be trusted to tell us about the nature of the world

it can be proved that the world exists

it is to our advantage to trust what the senses tell us about what gives pleasure or pain

Correct answer:

it is to our advantage to trust what the senses tell us about what gives pleasure or pain


The correct answer relates most closely to the author's central point, that the senses are to be trusted primarily as guides to what gives pleasure and pain. All the other answers are either not mentioned in the text or are explicitly rejected by the author.

Example Question #2 : Understanding The Thesis In Humanities Passages

Although today high-heeled and platform shoes are often seen as footwear designed simply to make a woman seem more fashionable and appealing, they served a more utilitarian purpose during the Middle Ages. During this time, both men and women would wear detachable wooden platforms in order to protect their shoes from the weather and the grit of the streets. However, in contemporary times, heeled shoes are almost exclusively reserved for women’s footwear, primarily for aesthetic effect. Not only is the foot made to seem more petite and dainty, but the entire appearance of a woman’s body is altered.

In order to maintain her balance, a woman must tense her legs and buttocks, making them to appear more fit and firm. The back is forced in a sinuous arch, and the elongation of the legs makes a woman’s hips sway back and forth in a wider ellipsis. Whereas heels were once used for practical purposes, today they are employed purely for a pleasant aesthetic effect.

Taking this into consideration, we should evaluate why it is that women wear high heels. Is it to increase confidence in one’s sexual appeal? To attract attention from others? Or is it simply to conform to the dress expectations of society at large? The various possible motivations that might cause a woman to wear a high-heeled shoe create a great level of ambiguity as to why the shoe continues to persevere in fashion.

This passage is most probably intended to __________.

Possible Answers:

serve as a conclusion for a longer passage about footwear and its interaction with society. 

objectively compare the past uses of platform shoes with the current uses of high heels, without casting either in a negative or positive light. 

praise the use of platform shoes in earlier eras. 

compare the past uses of platform shoes with the current uses of high heels in order to point out the lack of functionality of the latter. 

make people consider the social implications of fashion at large. 

Correct answer:

compare the past uses of platform shoes with the current uses of high heels in order to point out the lack of functionality of the latter. 


The purpose is primarily to compare past uses of high-heeled shoes to current uses of high-heeled shoes, while casting the past uses in a more positive light than the present uses. The correct answer choice most closely reflects this. Some of the incorrect answer choices are overly broad and are not specific enough to be a correct answer choice. 

Example Question #3 : Understanding The Thesis In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “The Celebration of Intellect” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1861)

I cannot consent to wander from the duties of this day into the fracas of politics. The brute noise of cannon has, I know, a most poetic echo in these days when it is an instrument of freedom and the primal sentiments of humanity. Yet it is but representative and a far-off means and servant; but here in the college we are in the presence of the constituency and the principle itself. Here is, or should be, the majesty of reason and the creative cause, and it were a compounding of all gradation and reverence to suffer the flash of swords and the boyish strife of passion and the feebleness of military strength to intrude on this sanctity and omnipotence of Intellectual Law.

Against the heroism of soldiers I set the heroism of scholars, which consists in ignoring the other. You shall not put up in your Academy the statue of Caesar or Pompey, of Nelson or Wellington, of Washington or Napoleon, of Garibaldi, but of Archimedes, of Milton, of Newton. . . .

For either science and literature is a hypocrisy, or it is not. If it be, then resign your charter to the Legislature, turn your college into barracks and warehouses, and divert the funds of your founders into the stock of a rope-walk or a candle-factory, a tan-yard or some other undoubted conveniency for the surrounding population. But if the intellectual interest be, as I hold, no hypocrisy, but the only reality, then it behooves us to enthrone it, obey it, and give it possession of us and ours; to give, among other possessions, the college into its hand casting down every idol, every pretender, every hoary lie, every dignified blunder that has crept into its administration.

What is a summary of the author’s argument in this passage?

Possible Answers:

Most people pay attention to the conveniences afforded by practical matters.

The intellectual life has a rightful place in society and has its duties to undertake.

The great generals of history are nothing compared to the poets.

The barbarism of modernity is mostly due to the militarism of the international states.

Militarism should be abolished from all civic life.

Correct answer:

The intellectual life has a rightful place in society and has its duties to undertake.


This passage does combat a certain kind of love of militarism, but that is not the main point of the text. In contrasting such militarism with the sciences and intellectual life, Emerson wishes to draw to light the importance of the intellectual life for culture. He then closes this section by proposing the duties incumbent upon all who believe such a position regarding the intellectual life.

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