MCAT Verbal : Comprehension

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #6 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from "The Writing of History" in Political and Literary Essays 1908-1913 by the Earl of Cromer (1913)

What are the purposes of history, and in what spirit should it be written? Such, in effect, are the questions which Mr. Gooch propounds in this very interesting volume. He wisely abstains from giving any dogmatic answers to these questions, but in a work which shows manifest signs of great erudition and far-reaching research he ranges over the whole field of European and American literature, and gives us a very complete summary both of how, as a matter of fact, history has been written, and of the spirit in which the leading historians of the nineteenth century have approached their task.

Mr. Bryce, himself one of the most eminent of modern historians, recently laid down the main principle which, in his opinion, should guide his fellow-craftsmen. "Truth," he said, "and truth only is our aim." The maxim is one which would probably be unreservedly accepted in theory by the most ardent propagandist who has ever used history as a vehicle for the dissemination of his own views on political, economic, or social questions. For so fallible is human nature that the proclivities of the individual can rarely be entirely submerged by the judicial impartiality of the historian. It is impossible to peruse Mr. Gooch's work without being struck by the fact that, amongst the greatest writers of history, bias—often unconscious bias—has been the rule, and the total absence of preconceived opinions the exception. Generally speaking, the subjective spirit has prevailed amongst historians in all ages. The danger of following the scent of analogies—not infrequently somewhat strained analogies—between the present and the past is comparatively less imminent in cases where some huge upheaval, such as the French Revolution, has inaugurated an entirely new epoch, accompanied by the introduction of fresh ideals and habits of thought. It is, as Macaulay has somewhere observed, a more serious stumbling-block in the path of a writer who deals with the history of a country like England, which has through long centuries preserved its historical continuity. Hallam and Macaulay viewed history through Whig, and Alison through Tory spectacles.

Neither has the remoteness of the events described proved any adequate safeguard against the introduction of bias born of contemporary circumstances. Mitford, who composed his history of Greece during the stormy times of the French Revolution, thought it compatible with his duty as an historian to strike a blow at Whigs and Jacobins. Grote's sympathy with the democracy of Athens was unquestionably to some extent the outcome of the views which he entertained of events passing under his own eyes at Westminster. Mommsen, by inaugurating the publication of the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, has earned the eternal gratitude of scholarly posterity, but Mr. Gooch very truly remarks that his historical work is tainted with the "strident partisanship" of a keen politician and journalist. Truth, as the old Greek adage says, is indeed the fellow-citizen of the gods; but if the standard of historical truth be rated too high, and if the authority of all who have not strictly complied with that standard is to be discarded on the ground that they stand convicted of partiality, we should be left with little to instruct subsequent ages beyond the dry records of men such as the laborious, the useful, though somewhat over-credulous Clinton, or the learned but arid Marquardt, whose "massive scholarship" Mr. Gooch dismisses somewhat summarily in a single line. Such writers are not historians, but rather compilers of records, upon the foundations of which others can build history.

Under the process we have assumed, Droysen, Sybel, and Treitschke would have to be cast down from their pedestals. They were the political schoolmasters of Germany during a period of profound national discouragement. They used history in order to stir their countrymen to action, but "if the supreme aim of history is to discover truth and to interpret the movement of humanity, they have no claim to a place in the first class." Patriotism, as the Portuguese historian, Herculano da Carvalho, said, is "a bad counsellor for historians."

The historians mentioned in the third paragraph are primarily criticized for their __________.

Possible Answers:

lazy research

subjective approach

mundane approach

lack of evidence

boring style

Correct answer:

subjective approach

Explanation:

The primary argument of this essay is that historians should focus on conveying objective truth in their writing, so even without direct evidence, one could infer that any historians being criticized would be being criticized for their lack of objectivity. However, there is direct evidence as well, such as when the author derides Mitford for allowing his political opinions to enter into his history of the French Revolution, or when the author criticizes Grote for his sympathetic recording of Greek history. Towards the end of the paragraph, the author does criticize some of the authors for their “boring style” and “mundane language,” but this is a secondary criticism because it is much less related to the overall thesis of the essay.

Example Question #7 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from “Edgar Allen Poe” in The Courier by Willa Cather (October 12, 1895)

The Shakespeare society of New York, which is really about the only useful literary organization in this country, is making vigorous efforts to redress an old wrong and atone for a long neglect. Sunday, Sept. 22, it held a meeting at the Poe cottage on Kingsbridge road near Fordham, for the purpose of starting an organized movement to buy back the cottage, restore it to its original condition, and preserve it as a memorial of Poe. So it has come at last. After helping build monuments to Shelley, Keats, and Carlyle, we have at last remembered this man, the greatest of our poets and the most unhappy. I am glad that this movement is in the hands of American actors, for it was among them that Poe found his best friends and warmest admirers. In some way he always seemed to belong to the strolling Thespians who were his mother’s people.

Among all the thousands of life’s little ironies that make history so diverting, there is none more paradoxical than that Edgar Poe should have been an American. Look at his face. Had we ever another like it? He must have been a strange figure in his youth, among those genial, courtly Virginians, this handsome, pale fellow, violent in his enthusiasm, ardent in his worship, but spiritually cold in his affections. Now playing heavily for the mere excitement of play; now worshipping at the shrine of a woman old enough to be his mother, merely because her voice was beautiful; now swimming six miles up the James river against a heavy current in the glaring sun of a June midday. He must have seemed to them an unreal figure, a sort of stage man who was wandering about the streets with his mask and buskins on, a theatrical figure who had escaped by some strange mischance into the prosaic daylight. His speech and actions were unconsciously and sincerely dramatic, always as though done for effect. He had that nervous, egotistic, self-centered nature common to stage children who seem to have been dazzled by the footlights and maddened by the applause before they are born. It was in his blood. With the exception of two women who loved him, lived for him, died for him, he went through life friendless, misunderstood, with that dense, complete, hopeless misunderstanding which, as Amiel said, is the secret of that sad smile upon the lips of the great. Men tried to befriend him, but in some way or other he hurt and disappointed them. He tried to mingle and share with other men, but he was always shut from them by that shadow, light as gossamer but unyielding as adamant, by which, from the beginning of the world, art has shielded and guarded and protected her own, that God-concealing mist in which the heroes of old were hidden, immersed in that gloom and solitude which, if we could but know it here, is but the shadow of God’s hand as it falls upon his elect.

We lament our dearth of great prose. With the exception of Henry James and Hawthorne, Poe is our only master of pure prose. We lament our dearth of poets. With the exception of Lowell, Poe is our only great poet. Poe found short story writing a bungling makeshift. He left it a perfect art. He wrote the first perfect short stories in the English language. He first gave the short story purpose, method, and artistic form. In a careless reading one cannot realize the wonderful literary art, the cunning devices, the masterly effects that those entrancing tales conceal. They are simple and direct enough to delight us when we are children, subtle and artistic enough to be our marvel when we are old. To this day they are the wonder and admiration of the French, who are the acknowledged masters of craft and form. How in his wandering, laborious life, bound to the hack work of the press and crushed by an ever-growing burden of want and debt, did he ever come upon all this deep and mystical lore, this knowledge of all history, of all languages, of all art, this penetration into the hidden things of the East? As Steadman says, “The self-training of genius is always a marvel.” The past is spread before us all and most of us spend our lives in learning those things which we do not need to know, but genius reaches out instinctively and takes only the vital detail, by some sort of spiritual gravitation goes directly to the right thing.

The author’s revelation that Poe loved a "woman old enough to be his mother, merely because her voice was beautiful," highlights __________.

Possible Answers:

The author’s belief that Poe was motivated by uncommon things

Poe’s great love of music and voice

The author’s understanding of Poe as a dark and cold figure

How little Poe fit in with his fellow Virginians

The emphasis on physical beauty that existed in Poe’s era

Correct answer:

The author’s belief that Poe was motivated by uncommon things

Explanation:

In context, the author is talking about how much of an unusual figure Poe was. He makes a list of a few of the unusual things Poe did (such as swimming up a river in the middle of the day and loving a woman because of her voice alone). You can tell that the author wishes to highlight how Poe was motivated by uncommon things because of the language she uses in the sentences surrounding the relevant information: “He must have been a strange figure in his youth"; “He must have seemed to them an unreal figure, a sort of stage man who was wandering about the streets with his mask and buskins on, a theatrical figure who had escaped by some strange mischance into the prosaic daylight.”

Example Question #8 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from The Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln by Francis Fischer Browne (1913)

In 1838, Lincoln was for a third time a candidate for the State Legislature. Mr. Wilson, one of his colleagues from Sangamon County, states that a question of the division of the county was one of the local issues. "Mr. Lincoln and myself," says Mr. Wilson, "among others residing in the portion of the county that sought to be organized into a new county, opposed the division, and it became necessary that I should make a special canvass through the northwest part of the county, then known as Sand Ridge. I made the canvass. Mr. Lincoln accompanied me, being personally acquainted with everyone we called at nearly every house. At that time it was the universal custom to keep some whiskey in the house for private use and to treat friends. The subject was always mentioned as a matter of politeness, but with the usual remark to Mr. Lincoln, ‘We know you never drink, but maybe your friend would like to take a little.' I never saw Mr. Lincoln drink. He often told me he never drank, and had no desire for drink, nor for the companionship of drinking men."

The result of this canvass was that Lincoln was elected to the Legislature for the session of 1838-39. The next year he was elected for the session of 1840-41. This ended his legislative service, which comprised eight consecutive years, from 1834 to 1841. In these later sessions, he was as active and prominent in the House as he had been in the earlier times when a member from New Salem.

Lincoln's faculty for getting the better of an adversary by an apt illustration or anecdote was seldom better shown than by an incident which occurred during his last term in the Legislature. Hon. James C. Conkling has given the following graphic description of the scene: "A gentleman who had formerly been Attorney General of the State was also a member. Presuming upon his age, experience, and former official position, he thought it incumbent upon himself to oppose Lincoln, who was then one of the acknowledged leaders of his party. He at length attracted the attention of Lincoln, who replied to his remarks, telling one of his humorous anecdotes and making a personal application to his opponent that placed the latter in such a ridiculous attitude that it convulsed the whole House. All business was suspended. In vain the Speaker rapped with his gavel. Members of all parties, without distinction, were compelled to laugh. They not only laughed, they screamed and yelled; they thumped upon the floor with their canes; they clapped their hands and threw up their hats; they shouted and twisted themselves into all sorts of contortions, until their sides ached and the tears rolled down their cheeks. One paroxysm passed away, but was speedily succeeded by another, and again they laughed and screamed and yelled. Another lull occurred, and still another paroxysm, until they seemed to be perfectly exhausted. The ambition of Lincoln's opponent was abundantly gratified, and for the remainder of the session he lapsed into profound obscurity."

In June, 1842, ex-President Van Buren was journeying through Illinois with a company of friends. When near Springfield they were delayed by bad roads, and were compelled to spend the night at Rochester, some miles out. The accommodations at this place were very poor, and a few of the ex-President's Springfield friends proposed to go out to meet him and try to aid in entertaining him. Knowing Lincoln's ability as a talker and storyteller, they begged him to go with them and aid in making their guest at the country inn pass the evening as pleasantly as possible. Lincoln, with his usual good nature, went with them, and entertained the party for hours with graphic descriptions of Western life, anecdotes, and witty stories. Judge Peck, who was of the party and a warm friend of the ex-President, says that Lincoln was at his best. There was a constant succession of brilliant anecdotes and funny stories, accompanied by loud laughter in which Van Buren took his full share. "He also," says the Judge, "gave us incidents and anecdotes of Elisha Williams, and other leading members of the New York bar, going back to the days of Hamilton and Burr. Altogether there was a right merry time. Mr. Van Buren said the only drawback upon his enjoyment was that his sides were sore from laughing at Lincoln's stories for a week thereafter."

How does the anecdote about Lincoln and the whiskey drinker help support the primary argument of this passage?

Possible Answers:

It demonstrates Lincoln’s loyalty to the people of his constituency.

It shows that Lincoln was sober-minded and very serious.

It demonstrates Lincoln’s love of alcohol, but hatred of drunks.

It shows that Lincoln’s tendencies and characteristics were well known to his constituents.

It shows that Lincoln was unwilling to partake of another man’s hospitality if it went against his conscience.

Correct answer:

It shows that Lincoln’s tendencies and characteristics were well known to his constituents.

Explanation:

The primary argument and purpose of this passage is to show how Lincoln had positive relationships with those around him and that he we was well-known and well-liked. In the anecdote about Lincoln and the whiskey drinker, it is made clear that Lincoln and his tendencies were well-known to the people in his constituency. The author says, “The subject was always mentioned as a matter of politeness, but with the usual remark to Mr. Lincoln, 'We know you never drink, but maybe your friend would like to take a little.'”

Example Question #1 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from Samuel Johnson's "Labor Necessary to Excellence" in No. 169 of The Rambler (1751)

No vanity can more justly incur contempt and indignation than that which boasts of negligence and hurry. For who can bear with patience the writer who claims such superiority to the rest of his species as to imagine mankind are at leisure for attention to his extemporary sallies and that posterity will reposit his casual effusions among the treasures of ancient wisdom?

Men have sometimes appeared of such transcendent abilities that their slightest and most cursory performances excel all that labor and study can enable meaner intellects to compose, as there are regions of which the spontaneous products cannot be equalled in other soils by care and culture. But it is no less dangerous for any man to place himself in this rank of understanding and fancy that he is born to be illustrious without labor than to omit the cares of husbandry and expect from his ground the blossoms of Arabia.

The greatest part of those who congratulate themselves upon their intellectual dignity and usurp the privileges of genius are men whom only themselves would ever have marked out as enriched by uncommon liberalities of nature, or entitled to veneration and immortality on easy terms. This ardor of confidence is usually found among those who, having not enlarged their notions by books or conversation, are persuaded, by the partiality which we all feel in our own favor, that they have reached the summit of excellence because they discover none higher than themselves; and who acquiesce in the first thoughts that occur, because their scantiness of knowledge allows them little choice; and the narrowness of their views affords them no glimpse of perfection, of that sublime idea which human industry has from the first ages been vainly toiling to approach. They see a little, and believe that there is nothing beyond their sphere of vision, as the Patuecos of Spain, who inhabited a small valley, conceived the surrounding mountains to be the boundaries of the world. In proportion as perfection is more distinctly conceived, the pleasure of contemplating our own performances will be lessened; it may therefore be observed, that they who most deserve praise are often afraid to decide in favor of their own performances; they know how much is still wanting to their completion, and wait with anxiety and terror the determination of the public. I please everyone else, says Tally, but never satisfy myself.

It has often been inquired, why, notwithstanding the advances of later ages in science and the assistance which the infusion of so many new ideas has given us, we fall below the ancients in the art of composition. Some part of their superiority may be justly ascribed to the graces of their language, from which the most polished of the present European tongues are nothing more than barbarous degenerations. Some advantage they might gain merely by priority, which put them in possession of the most natural sentiments and left us nothing but servile repetition or forced conceits. But the greater part of their praise seems to have been the just reward of modesty and labor. Their sense of human weakness confined them commonly to one study, which their knowledge of the extent of every science engaged them to prosecute with indefatigable diligence.

What is the author's purpose in discussing "the ancients"?

Possible Answers:

To provide evidence for his claim that all hard workers always succeed

To provide an example of lazy, immodest workers, and to establish a comparison between the quality of work produced by hard workers and lazy, immodest workers

To provide an example of hard-working writers, and to establish a comparison between the quality of writing produced by hard workers and lazy, immodest workers

To provide evidence for his claim that, through a natural evolution of ideas, contemporary writing will always be more valuable than historical writing

To refute the claims made by the author's contemporaries that hard work is secondary to innate talent

Correct answer:

To provide an example of hard-working writers, and to establish a comparison between the quality of writing produced by hard workers and lazy, immodest workers

Explanation:

The author makes mention of the ancients in order to provide an example of hard-working writers and to establish a comparison between the quality of writing produced by hard workers and lazy, immodest workers. The author claims that "notwithstanding the advances of later ages in science," he and his contemporaries "fall below the ancients in the art of composition". He provides many possible reasons for this, but ascribes the "greater part" to the ancient's modesty and willingness to work hard, as compared with contemporary writers.

Example Question #1 : Tone, Structure, And Purpose Of Science Passages

Adapted from The Extermination of the American Bison by William T. Hornaday (1889)

With the American people, and through them all others, familiarity with the buffalo has bred contempt. The incredible numbers in which the animals of this species formerly existed made their slaughter an easy matter, so much so that the hunters and frontiersmen who accomplished their destruction have handed down to us a contemptuous opinion of the size, character, and general presence of our bison. And how could it be otherwise than that a man who could find it in his heart to murder a majestic bull bison for a hide worth only a dollar should form a one-dollar estimate of the grandest ruminant that ever trod the earth? Men who butcher African elephants for the sake of their ivory also entertain a similar estimate of their victims.

By a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the American bison is destined to go down to posterity shorn of the honor which is his due, and appreciated at only half his worth. The hunters who slew him were from the very beginning so absorbed in the scramble for spoils that they had no time to measure or weigh him, nor even to notice the majesty of his personal appearance on his native heath. In captivity, he fails to develop as finely as in his wild state, and with the loss of his liberty, he becomes a tame-looking animal. He gets fat and short-bodied, and the lack of vigorous and constant exercise prevents the development of bone and muscle which made the prairie animal what he was.

From observations made upon buffaloes that have been reared in captivity, I am firmly convinced that confinement and semi-domestication are destined to effect striking changes in the form of Bison americanus. While this is to be expected to a certain extent with most large species, the changes promise to be most conspicuous in the buffalo. The most striking change is in the body between the hips and the shoulders. As before remarked, it becomes astonishingly short and rotund, and through liberal feeding and total lack of exercise, the muscles of the shoulders and hindquarters, especially the latter, are but feebly developed.

Both the live buffaloes in the National Museum collection of living animals are developing the same shortness of body and lack of muscle, and when they attain their full growth will but poorly resemble the splendid proportions of the wild specimens in the Museum mounted group, each of which has been mounted from a most careful and elaborate series of post-mortem measurements. It may fairly be considered, however, that the specimens taken by the Smithsonian expedition were in every way more perfect representatives of the species than have been usually taken in times past, for the simple reason that on account of the muscle they had developed in the numerous chases they had survived, and the total absence of the fat which once formed such a prominent feature of the animal, they were of finer form, more active habit, and keener intelligence than buffaloes possessed when they were so numerous. Out of the millions that once composed the great northern herd, those represented the survival of the fittest, and their existence at that time was chiefly due to the keenness of their senses and their splendid muscular powers in speed and endurance.

Under such conditions it is only natural that animals of the highest class should be developed. On the other hand, captivity reverses all these conditions, while yielding an equally abundant food supply.

Which of the following best describes the purpose of the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

An anticipation of certain objections to the author's thesis

Drawing a secondary conclusion used to support the primary conclusion of the passage

Introducing a complex premise that supports a conclusion noted earlier

An empirical statement whose causes will be explained elsewhere in the passage

A delineation of certain necessary conditions needed for the author's conclusion to be true

Correct answer:

An empirical statement whose causes will be explained elsewhere in the passage

Explanation:

The third paragraph primarily describes the difference in form seen in captive bison—a set of empirical observations based not in logic or argumentation but in experiential evidence. The author does not proceed to lay out an argument in this section, nor does he attempt to define or delineate terms and conditions; rather, this section describes a set of observations made by the author about a certain class of animals, observations he will attempt to explain elsewhere in the passage.

Example Question #2 : Tone, Structure, And Purpose Of Science Passages

Adapted from The Extermination of the American Bison by William T. Hornaday (1889)

With the American people, and through them all others, familiarity with the buffalo has bred contempt. The incredible numbers in which the animals of this species formerly existed made their slaughter an easy matter, so much so that the hunters and frontiersmen who accomplished their destruction have handed down to us a contemptuous opinion of the size, character, and general presence of our bison. And how could it be otherwise than that a man who could find it in his heart to murder a majestic bull bison for a hide worth only a dollar should form a one-dollar estimate of the grandest ruminant that ever trod the earth? Men who butcher African elephants for the sake of their ivory also entertain a similar estimate of their victims.

By a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the American bison is destined to go down to posterity shorn of the honor which is his due, and appreciated at only half his worth. The hunters who slew him were from the very beginning so absorbed in the scramble for spoils that they had no time to measure or weigh him, nor even to notice the majesty of his personal appearance on his native heath. In captivity, he fails to develop as finely as in his wild state, and with the loss of his liberty, he becomes a tame-looking animal. He gets fat and short-bodied, and the lack of vigorous and constant exercise prevents the development of bone and muscle which made the prairie animal what he was.

From observations made upon buffaloes that have been reared in captivity, I am firmly convinced that confinement and semi-domestication are destined to effect striking changes in the form of Bison americanus. While this is to be expected to a certain extent with most large species, the changes promise to be most conspicuous in the buffalo. The most striking change is in the body between the hips and the shoulders. As before remarked, it becomes astonishingly short and rotund, and through liberal feeding and total lack of exercise, the muscles of the shoulders and hindquarters, especially the latter, are but feebly developed.

Both the live buffaloes in the National Museum collection of living animals are developing the same shortness of body and lack of muscle, and when they attain their full growth will but poorly resemble the splendid proportions of the wild specimens in the Museum mounted group, each of which has been mounted from a most careful and elaborate series of post-mortem measurements. It may fairly be considered, however, that the specimens taken by the Smithsonian expedition were in every way more perfect representatives of the species than have been usually taken in times past, for the simple reason that on account of the muscle they had developed in the numerous chases they had survived, and the total absence of the fat which once formed such a prominent feature of the animal, they were of finer form, more active habit, and keener intelligence than buffaloes possessed when they were so numerous. Out of the millions that once composed the great northern herd, those represented the survival of the fittest, and their existence at that time was chiefly due to the keenness of their senses and their splendid muscular powers in speed and endurance.

Under such conditions it is only natural that animals of the highest class should be developed. On the other hand, captivity reverses all these conditions, while yielding an equally abundant food supply.

Which of the following best describes the role of the underlined passage at the end of the last paragraph within the passage as a whole?

Possible Answers:

It is a sufficient condition for the passage's primary conclusion.

It is an assumption whose truth is not assured by the available evidence.

It is a piece of evidence used to strengthen the author's thesis by showing an important similarity between two seemingly disparate cases.

It introduces a necessary condition for one of the author's secondary conclusions.

It anticipates objections that could be raised against the author's thesis.

Correct answer:

It is a piece of evidence used to strengthen the author's thesis by showing an important similarity between two seemingly disparate cases.

Explanation:

By showing that both wild bison and captive bison are fed the same amounts of food, the author removes one possible cause (disparity in feeding) that might account for captive bison being fatter or wild ones being larger, and attempts to strengthen his case that the cause of this difference is due to the factors he mentions. In removing other possible variables, the author strengthens the causal chain that he argues is responsible for the change in appearance in captive bison. It should be noted that this statement is related to the causal, rather than strictly logical, order of the author's argument; it is not a necessary or sufficient condition, nor is it an anticipation of possible counterarguments, but rather an explanation that certain possible variables are more-or-less constant across all cases under consideration, meaning some cause other than over- or underfeeding must be responsible for the differences in appearance between captive and wild bison.

Example Question #11 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be treated after two different manners, each of which has its peculiar merit and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for action and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment, pursuing one object and avoiding another according to the value that these objects seem to possess and according to the light in which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the most amiable colors, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner and such as is best fitted to please the imagination and engage the affections. They select the most striking observations and instances from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments; and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honor, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their labors.

2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavors to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation, and with a narrow scrutiny examine it in order to find those principles that regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behavior. They think it a reproach to all literature that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism, and should forever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties, but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied ‘till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise, and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labor of their whole lives if they can discover some hidden truths that may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse, and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life; molds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to that model of perfection that it describes. On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our hearts, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound philosopher to the mere plebeian.

Why does the author believe that the simpler moral philosophy based on action and observation is superior to the strictly rational doctrine?

Possible Answers:

Because the moral philosophy based on action and observation will ignite stronger moral feelings and will stand the test of application, whereas the more complex doctrine tends to be overly relativistic, and lends itself to amoral behavior

Because the moral philosophy based on action and observation will ignite stronger moral feelings and will stand the test of application, whereas the more complex doctrine tends to be a purely academic exercise

Because obscure philosophies have been proven to produce immoral behavior in their followers on several specific occasions

Because moral philosophies based pure rationality are irreligious and violate the moral tenets of Christianity

Because moral philosophies are easier to understand, and less likely to restrict people from actions in which they wish to partake

Correct answer:

Because the moral philosophy based on action and observation will ignite stronger moral feelings and will stand the test of application, whereas the more complex doctrine tends to be a purely academic exercise

Explanation:

The author prefers the simpler, observation-based moral philosophy because the moral philosophy based on action and observation will ignite stronger moral feelings (feelings which "mold the heart and affections") and will stand the test of application, whereas the more complex doctrine tends to "dissipate all [the more complex philosophy's] conclusions" when the "philosopher leaves the shade."

Example Question #12 : Character And Subject Relationships

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be treated after two different manners, each of which has its peculiar merit and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for action and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment, pursuing one object and avoiding another according to the value that these objects seem to possess and according to the light in which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the most amiable colors, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner and such as is best fitted to please the imagination and engage the affections. They select the most striking observations and instances from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments; and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honor, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their labors.

2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavors to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation, and with a narrow scrutiny examine it in order to find those principles that regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behavior. They think it a reproach to all literature that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism, and should forever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties, but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied ‘till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise, and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labor of their whole lives if they can discover some hidden truths that may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse, and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life; molds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to that model of perfection that it describes. On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our hearts, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound philosopher to the mere plebeian.

Why does the author believe "the other species of philosophers" discussed in paragraph two are more primarily concerned with finding the underlying principles behind moral actions?

Possible Answers:

Because these philosophers study human nature as a scientific object, using only what proofs mathematics and experimentation may offer

Because these philosophers study human nature as a theoretical construct or object of intellectual study

Because these philosophers are concerned only with quantifiable observations of moral behavior

Because these philosophers are not concerned with moral philosophy at all, but with strict theological study

Because these philosophers believe strictly in rationality, and do not even admit the existence of a real, physical world

Correct answer:

Because these philosophers study human nature as a theoretical construct or object of intellectual study

Explanation:

The reason the author asserts that the rationalist moral philosophers ("philosophers who consider man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being") discussed in paragraph two are most concerned with "first principles" is that "they regard human nature as a subject of speculation." Because they treat human nature as a philosophical construct or subject of speculation, they prefer to study the principles behind moral actions as opposed to the results derived from "active" moral behaviors.

Example Question #12 : Using Evidence To Support The Thesis

Adapted from "A Criticism on the English Historians" by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #122 (1751)

Of the various kinds of speaking or writing, which serve necessity, or promote pleasure, none appears so artless or easy as simple narration; for what should make him who knows the whole order and progress of an affair unable to relate it? Yet we hourly find such as endeavor to entertain or instruct us by recitals, clouding the facts that they intend to illustrate, and losing themselves and their auditors in wilds and mazes, in digression and confusion. When we have congratulated ourselves upon a new opportunity of inquiry, and new means of information, it often happens, that without designing either deceit or concealment, without ignorance of the fact, or unwillingness to disclose it, the relator fills the ear with empty sounds, harasses the attention with fruitless impatience, and disturbs the imagination by a tumult of events, without order of time, or train of consequence.

It is natural to believe, upon the same principle, that no writer has a more easy task than the historian. The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine, and is therefore engaged in disquisitions, to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies, to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter, as for irregularity of disposition, or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labor than of gathering what tradition pours down before him, or records treasure for his use. He has only the actions and designs of men like himself to conceive and to relate; he is not to form, but copy characters, and therefore is not blamed for the inconsistency of statesmen, the injustice of tyrants, or the cowardice of commanders. The difficulty of making variety consistent, or uniting probability with surprise, needs not to disturb him; the manners and actions of his personages are already fixed; his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.

Yet, even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories; and among the innumerable authors who fill every nation with accounts of their ancestors, or undertake to transmit to futurity the events of their own time, the greater part, when fashion and novelty have ceased to recommend them, are of no other use than chronological memorials, which necessity may sometimes require to be consulted, but which fright away curiosity and disgust delicacy.

It is observed that our nation, which has produced so many authors eminent for almost every other species of literary excellence, has been hitherto remarkably barren of historical genius; and so far has this defect raised prejudices against us, that some have doubted whether an Englishman can stop at that mediocrity of style, or confine his mind to that even tenor of imagination that narrative requires.

They who can believe that nature has so capriciously distributed understanding, have surely no claim to the honor of serious confutation. The inhabitants of the same country have opposite characters in different ages; the prevalence or neglect of any particular study can proceed only from the accidental influence of some temporary cause; and if we have failed in history, we can have failed only because history has not hitherto been diligently cultivated.

But how is it evident, that we have not historians among us, whom we may venture to place in comparison with any that the neighboring nations can produce? The attempt of Raleigh is deservedly celebrated for the labor of his researches, and the elegance of his style; but he has endeavored to exert his judgment more than his genius, to select facts, rather than adorn them; and has produced an historical dissertation, but seldom risen to the majesty of history.

What is the author's purpose in referencing Raleigh in the last paragraph?

Possible Answers:

To provide an example of how terribly British historians have been received on the world stage

To provide an example of a British historian who, while somewhat esteemed, did not rise to the level of literary eminence he describes

To provide an example of the ways in which the British school system has rendered its students unable to be objective in their interpretation of history

To support his points about the ease of simple narration

To support his points about poets and the nature of their work as opposed to those of historians

Correct answer:

To provide an example of a British historian who, while somewhat esteemed, did not rise to the level of literary eminence he describes

Explanation:

The author references Raleigh in order to provide an example of a British historian who, while somewhat esteemed, did not rise to the level of literary eminence the author describes. The author praises Raleigh's style and research, and acknowledges that Raleigh is "deservedly celebrated," but ultimately emphasizes that he does not rise to the "majesty of history." This example supports the author's earlier assertions about the lack of esteem in which British historians are held.

Example Question #41 : Comprehension

Adapted from Bacon by R. W. Church (1884)

The life of Francis Bacon is one that it is a pain to write or to read. It is the life of a man endowed with as rare a combination of noble gifts as ever was bestowed on a human intellect; the life of one with whom the whole purpose of living and of every day's work was to do great things to enlighten and elevate humanity; it was the life of a man who had high thoughts of the ends and methods of law and government, and with whom the general and public good was regarded as the standard by which the use of public power was to be measured. All his life long his first and never-sleeping passion was the romantic and splendid ambition after knowledge, for the conquest of nature and for the service of humankind. It is difficult to imagine a grander and more magnificent career, and his name ranks among the few chosen examples of human achievement. And yet it was not only an unhappy life; it was a poor life. We expect that such an overwhelming weight of glory should be borne up by a character corresponding to it in strength and nobleness. But that is not what we find. He cringed to such a man as Buckingham. He sold himself to the corrupt and ignominious government of James I. He was willing to be employed to hunt to death a friend like Essex, guilty, deeply guilty, to the State, but to Bacon the most loving and generous of benefactors. With his eyes open he gave himself up without resistance to a system unworthy of him; he would not see what was evil in it, and chose to call its evil good, and he was its first and most signal victim.

Bacon has been judged with merciless severity. But he has also been defended by an advocate whose name alone is almost a guarantee for the justness of the cause which he takes up, and the innocency of the client for whom he argues. Mr. Spedding devoted nearly a lifetime, and all the resources of a fine intellect and an earnest conviction, to make us revere as well as admire Bacon. But it is vain. It is vain to fight against the facts of his life: his words, his letters. "Men are made up," says a keen observer, "of professions, gifts, and talents; and also of themselves." With all his greatness, his splendid genius, his magnificent ideas, his enthusiasm for truth, his passion to be the benefactor of his kind; with all the charm that made him loved by good and worthy friends, amiable, courteous, patient, delightful as a companion, ready to take any trouble—there was in Bacon's "self" a deep and fatal flaw. He was a pleaser of men. He was one of the men—there are many of them—who are unable to release their imagination from the impression of present and immediate power, face-to-face with themselves. It seems as if he carried into conduct the leading rule of his philosophy of nature, parendo vincitur. In both worlds, moral and physical, he felt himself encompassed by vast forces, irresistible by direct opposition. Men whom he wanted to bring round to his purposes were as strange, as refractory, as obstinate, as impenetrable as the phenomena of the natural world. It was no use attacking in front, and by a direct trial of strength, people like Elizabeth or Cecil or James; he might as well think of forcing some natural power in defiance of natural law. The first word of his teaching about nature is that she must be won by observation of her tendencies and demands; the same radical disposition of temper reveals itself in his dealings with men: they, too, must be won by yielding to them, by adapting himself to their moods and ends; by spying into the drift of their humor, by subtly and pliantly falling in with it, by circuitous and indirect processes, the fruit of vigilance and patient thought. He thought to direct, while submitting apparently to be directed. But he mistook his strength. Nature and man are different powers, and under different laws. He chose to please man, and not to follow what his soul must have told him was the better way. He wanted, in his dealings with men, that sincerity on which he insisted so strongly in his dealings with nature and knowledge. And the ruin of a great lifetime was the consequence.

The author uses Bacon’s role in the demise of Essex to demonstrate __________.

Possible Answers:

the negative relationship that Bacon and Essex had with the British government

Bacon’s desire to cause pain and suffering to others

Bacon’s willingness to betray his principles and integrity

the extent of Bacon’s fame and accomplishment

the constant struggle and unhappiness that defined Bacon’s life

Correct answer:

Bacon’s willingness to betray his principles and integrity

Explanation:

The first paragraph of this text is primarily an explanation of the author’s reasons for lamenting the life of Francis Bacon. The first sentence, “The life of Francis Bacon is one which it is a pain to write or to read,” is a succinct introduction to the author’s opinions on the matter. In the context of Essex, the author notes that Bacon was willing to “be employed to hunt to death” his friend, Essex. The author tells us that Bacon and Essex were friends and that Essex was even a benefactor of Bacon’s, but that Bacon allowed his integrity and principles to be subjugated to the “corrupt and ignominious government of James I.”

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