GMAT Verbal : Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for GMAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #2 : Meaning In Context

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 meant by the underlined selection, “and a far-off means and servant”?

Possible Answers:

The goals of military are subordinate to those of culture.

Military valor is best undertaken by those of a servile mindset.

Slavery is the root of war, particularly in American culture in Emerson's day.

Learning is merely a means to an end.

None of the other answer choices is correct.

Correct answer:

The goals of military are subordinate to those of culture.

Explanation:

The whole context for interpreting this passage is: "Yet it [the cannon] is but representative and a far-off means and servant." This is referring to militarism in general, which is merely a distant ("far-off") means for higher goods (and a "servant," not the master of culture). It represents something subordinate (i.e. secondary) in rank and/or importance.

Example Question #81 : Reading Comprehension

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 the effect of the expression “dignified blunder” that is underlined in the passage?

Possible Answers:

To make a raucous joke

To question all authority and condemn it

To destroy the idols created by irreligious people

To foreshadow the coming riots that would engulf the university

To subtly mock a kind of hidebound conservatism

Correct answer:

To subtly mock a kind of hidebound conservatism

Explanation:

The expression itself is subtle in its placement, so Emerson clearly is not making an "over the top" sort of joke. Instead, he is "poking fun" at the administration of the university for the mistakes that it has likely made, though it gives them the appearance of being proper and "dignified." There is an irony in such "dignified blunders." Blunders are far from dignified things! To give such things the appearance of dignity could indicate a kind of conservatism that does not wish to change things.

Example Question #301 : Comprehension

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."

Which of the following is likely true about “Romantic speculation”?

Possible Answers:

It was surprisingly correct about scientific details.

It really was not scientific in nature.

It was emotional and had mostly to do with themes taken from love ballads.

It represented a reaction against the scientific details of evolutionary thought.

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

It really was not scientific in nature.

Explanation:

This answer is quite clear if you pay attention to two sentences: (1) "It even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution"; (2) "But then the word 'evolution' was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense." The idea is that this "Romantic" philosophy was more of a revelry than a real undertaking of science.

Example Question #1 : Understanding Style, Argument, And Organization 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.

According to the passage, if the claims of science and literature are not to be taken seriously, what would be the best description of the actions that should be taken?

Possible Answers:

The university should be closed and its resources used for more practical matters.

The books of the university should be burned and the ashes used for gardening soil.

The money left to the university by the founders should be given to the poor.

The students should begin to work at practical things while undertaking their studies.

The blunders of the past should be enthroned as great accomplishments.

Correct answer:

The university should be closed and its resources used for more practical matters.

Explanation:

The key sentence is, "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." Do not infer more from this sentence than what is supported by it. It does not say anything about giving out the money to the poor (though the things done after closing the university would be useful, it seems). Likewise, it might be the case that the students would work in the new industries created, but that is not what the advice is about either. Instead, the general plan outlined is this: close the school (resign its charter), use its lands and/or property for barracks and warehouses, and use the money to fund convenient enterprises.

Example Question #2 : Understanding Style, Argument, And Organization In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Jack London’s The Road (1907)

Barring accidents, a good hobo, with youth and agility, can hold a train down despite all the efforts of the train-crew to "ditch" him—given, of course, night-time as an essential condition. When such a hobo, under such conditions, makes up his mind that he is going to hold her down, either he does hold her down, or chance trips him up. There is no legitimate way, short of murder, whereby the train-crew can ditch him. That train-crews have not stopped short of murder is a current belief in the tramp world. Not having had that particular experience in my tramp days I cannot vouch for it personally.

But this I have heard of the "bad" roads. When a tramp has "gone underneath," on the rods, and the train is in motion, there is apparently no way of dislodging him until the train stops. The tramp, snugly ensconced inside the truck, with the four wheels and all the framework around him, has the "cinch" on the crew—or so he thinks, until some day he rides the rods on a bad road. A bad road is usually one on which a short time previously one or several trainmen have been killed by tramps. Heaven pity the tramp who is caught "underneath" on such a road—for caught he is, though the train be going sixty miles an hour.

The "shack" (brakeman) takes a coupling-pin and a length of bell-cord to the platform in front of the truck in which the tramp is riding. The shack fastens the coupling-pin to the bell- cord, drops the former down between the platforms, and pays out the latter. The coupling-pin strikes the ties between the rails, rebounds against the bottom of the car, and again strikes the ties. The shack plays it back and forth, now to this side, now to the other, lets it out a bit and hauls it in a bit, giving his weapon opportunity for every variety of impact and rebound. Every blow of that flying coupling-pin is freighted with death, and at sixty miles an hour it beats a veritable tattoo of death. The next day the remains of that tramp are gathered up along the right of way, and a line in the local paper mentions the unknown man, undoubtedly a tramp, assumably drunk, who had probably fallen asleep on the track.

The author ends the passage by noting the newspaper says the man feel asleep in order to __________.

Possible Answers:

show how little people care about tramps

convince the reader that trains are an incredibly dangerous form of transportation

indicate the dangers of sleeping on train tracks

show sympathy with the train crew that finds a man under the train

mock the hobo who gets "caught" under a train

Correct answer:

show how little people care about tramps

Explanation:

The author describes one of the more persistent troubles hobos can find themselves in when they try to ride trains surreptitiously. The author's sentiments are clearly on the side of the man who got caught underneath, rather than the train crew that harmed him. The mention of the newspaper's report of a man falling asleep is done to show that people rarely respect hobos.

Example Question #31 : 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.

It can be inferred from the passage that __________.

Possible Answers:

Heidegger's complaint was that philosophers were taking poetic language too seriously in their philosophical method

philosophers agree that instrumental theories of knowledge are sufficient in understanding the world

some of Wittgenstein's successors used his work to exclude something that was important to Wittgenstein

poetry's power to move through empathetic feeling signifies that its claims about the world are true

most positivists followed Wittgenstein in arguing for poetic knowledge as a meaningful category in philosophy

Correct answer:

some of Wittgenstein's successors used his work to exclude something that was important to Wittgenstein

Explanation:

This answer is taken from the final sentence of the first paragraph. Wittgenstein wanted to make room for poetry in his category of the mystical, but his successors simply abandoned it, citing his work.

Example Question #1 : Making Inferences 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.

It can be inferred from the passage that the author believes that __________.

Possible Answers:

radical skepticism was a popular position when the author was writing

knowledge gained through experimentation is the only valid kind of knowledge

things that are hot are always painful to touch

the existence of the world is something that cannot, and need not, be absolutely proven

dreams are not based on real events

Correct answer:

the existence of the world is something that cannot, and need not, be absolutely proven

Explanation:

While the author does not believe it useful to doubt the existence of the external world—indeed, he beleives such a belief to be harmful—he also beleives that the human mind and senses are not powerful enough to discover the natures of things in themselves, and thus rationally prove beyond any possible doubt that the world exists. The other inferences are not supported by the text.

Example Question #2 : Making Inferences 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.

According to the author, modern high heels have the effect of

I. causing a woman to appear more aesthetically appealing

II. empowering a woman

III. changing the way a woman engages her muscles 

Possible Answers:

I and II

I only 

III only

I and III

I, II, and III

Correct answer:

I and III

Explanation:

Although the author states that high heels cause a woman to appear more aestethically pleasing, the author does not claim that wearing high heels empowers a woman. However, high heels do change the way a woman engages her muscles. 

The correct answer reflects that I and III are statements that the author would believe, omitting II. 

Example Question #3 : Making Inferences 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 author’s use of the word “egalitarian” in the last sentence of the passage most closely means __________ in this particular context.

Possible Answers:

governmental

justifiable

polarizing

conducive to equality

fraudulent

Correct answer:

conducive to equality

Explanation:

The word "egalitarian" is used here to suggest that online avenues of expression have increased the ability that everyone has to express his or her views. Therefore, "egalitarian" most closely means "conducive to equality" in this particular context, as it is describing the emergence of an oppportunity for people to express their opinions that is more equal than those that have been available to people in the past.

Example Question #4 : Making Inferences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke (1790) (Project Gutenberg Edition)

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning-star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom! little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

From this passage, we can infer what about the Queen of France?

Possible Answers:

That she was of royal blood

That she died of natural causes

That she was French

That she was an economist

That she suffered some violence

Correct answer:

That she suffered some violence

Explanation:

Burke speaks of "disasters falling upon her" and of men ready to fight over "even a look that threatened her with insult." From those two sentences we can reasonably infer that the queen suffered something malicious due to the deliberate actions of another party. 

It is presented as fact that the queen is both royal and French—facts are different from inferences. 

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