GMAT Verbal : Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for GMAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #4 : Understanding The Content Of 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:

pain is to be sought and pleasure avoided

people are born with certain innate ideas of things

the senses might tell us nothing about the world

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

the senses give us perfect insight into the natures of things

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 #5 : Understanding The Content Of 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:

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

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

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

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

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

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 #1 : 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."

What is the overall purpose of this selection?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

To catalogue the prominent figures of German Romanticism.

To compare and contrast positivism and German Romanticism.

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

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

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 #1 : Understanding The Content Of 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."

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

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

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

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

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

It was derived from theological speculation on divine ideas.

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 #6 : Understanding The Content Of 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:

contradictory accounts of the significance of the Easter Rebellion

the effect of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on the modern era

the importance of the timing of the Easter Rebellion

the lasting legacy of an unsuccessful military action

contrasting views on the success of a social movement

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.

Example Question #7 : Understanding The Content Of 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:

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

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

radical skepticism is logically inconsistant

experimental evidence shows that the world exists

it can be proved that the world exists

Correct answer:

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

Explanation:

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 #1 : 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:

praise the use of platform shoes in earlier eras. 

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

make people consider the social implications of fashion at large. 

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. 

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

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. 

Explanation:

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 #1 : Author, Tone, And Intent

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.

Explanation:

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.

Example Question #61 : 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 word "ascendancy" used in the first sentence most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

meaningfulness

marginalization

hegemony

lassitude

optimism

Correct answer:

hegemony

Explanation:

"Hegemony" is defined as when one group's views exert controlling influence over a group of people. The clues here are "rising" and the word "ascent" hidden in "ascendancy." The idea here is that logical positivism is becoming the dominant way of thinking. You do not need to know what positivism is to answer this correctly, since the point is that this way of thinking is raised "above" other ways of thinking.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing The Text In Contemporary Life Passages

"Why Learning Multiple Languages in Graduate School is Important" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

In graduate school, students are often required to learn a number of foreign languages in addition to their regular coursework. This can be quite frustrating and difficult, for the normal courses in graduate school require significantly more reading and writing than do undergraduate courses. It is not unusual for graduate students to have regular reading assignments of several hundred pages for each course that they take. Likewise, they often write papers of much greater length than those that they wrote as undergraduate students. When language examinations are added to this difficult course load, it can be very frustrating for graduate students to try to find the time to prepare for these additional examinations.

Although these frustrations are understandable, this system has not been created solely to cause woe for graduate students. Much of the work for which these students are being prepared will focus on research. While much has been written in English about many topics, adequate research can only be done if one is able to read what people have written in other languages. For instance, there are many important articles and books written about almost every topic by European scholars. If a graduate student does not know any foreign languages, all of these article and books will be impossible to read, and hence useless to their research endeavors. This would be a great loss for a student's research. Therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education.

Which of the following sentences implies a negative outcome that might occur if graduate students no longer were required to study (and be examined in) foreign languages?

Possible Answers:

If a graduate student does not know any foreign languages, all of these article and books will be impossible to read and hence useless to their research endeavors.

Although these frustrations are understandable, this system has not been created solely to cause woe for graduate students.

Much of the work for which these students are being prepared will focus on research.

This can be quite frustrating and difficult, for the normal courses in graduate school require significantly more reading and writing than do undergraduate courses.

Therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education.

Correct answer:

If a graduate student does not know any foreign languages, all of these article and books will be impossible to read and hence useless to their research endeavors.

Explanation:

Throughout the second paragraph, it is argued that graduate students are being trained to do research. The place of foreign languages in graduate study is justified in light of this training. The correct answer among the options provided is the one that explains what will occur if the students are not able to read foreign languages: the many articles and books written in other languages will be useless because the students will be unable to read them.

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