PSAT Critical Reading : Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Question #5 : Comparing And Contrasting In Humanities Passages

"Commentaries" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The idea of a commentary is not anywhere as simple as most people think. To the popular imagination, the commentator makes a few observations based on a text, not going far beyond its contents. This standard opinion completely misses the various types of commentaries that can be written. Indeed, even the notion of “literal commentary” is itself so variegated that it is incorrect to imagine that such “literal” work is merely a slavish repetition of an original text.

Some literal commentaries truly are “literal,” that is, based on the letters and words of the text. Such philological studies investigate the language structures and meanings of a text. The interpretation of the text proceeds based on these linguistic investigations. Often, this process will note the types of rhetoric being used, the dialects utilized, and any odd language structures that might imply something with regard to the text’s meaning. All of these methods remain very concerned with the “letter of the text” in a very direct manner.

Indeed, even the Medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s works could be considered “literal,” though they do differ from such linguistic approaches. Men like Thomas Aquinas would very carefully read Aristotle’s text, giving what was called a divisio textus for every section of the text in question. This “division of the text” sought to provide a succinct but correct outline of the text in question so that its literal meaning might be more easily noticed. Certainly, the commentary that followed this divisio textus did express some aspects of Aquinas’ own thought. However, he (like other literal commentators of this type) would attempt to remain as close to the literal meaning of the text as possible, always using the divisio textus as a guide for understanding the structure of the original author’s thought.

What is the difference between the type of commentary mentioned in the second paragraph and that which is mentioned in the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The first type is far more scientific and historical than the latter, outdated medieval methodology.

The first type is far more modern than the other type.

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 

The first type of commentary is still being written, but Thomas Aquinas was the last person to do a literal, divisio textus commentary.

The first merely provides an historical analysis, while the latter provides a true commentary.

Correct answer:

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 


Do not be distracted by secondary details about the two paragraphs. Clearly, the overall intent of this passage is to show these as two legitimate examples of types of so-called "literal commentaries." The first sentence of the third paragraph can help to see the contrast: "...though they do differ from such linguistic approaches." The difference is then stated: divisio textus outline in opposition to the linguistic approaches noted above.

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