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What Is a LWS Book Review?

by Paul Allen

In academic journals and in book review sections of large-circulation newspapers, it is common to read book reviews that are one-sided or neglectful of some of the basic elements of a book review. Many examples of poor book reviews exist. These types of reviews include some of the following detriments:

  • the opinion of the reviewer on a related subject area,
  • a very critical or very enthusiastic endorsement of the book without sufficient substantiation,
  • or a belaboured repetition of the contents of the book without a judgment regarding the book's value in terms of its particular field.

In fact, the book review is a specific form of prose that contains unique elements that are not explicitly common elsewhere. The purpose of this note is to highlight two general yet basic elements of the book review, elements that will be familiar to the reader who is versed in Lonergan's contribution to philosophical method. The significance of these two elements of a book review lies in Lonergan's potential in the field of hermeneutics, an aspect of his thought that has been recognised in a preliminary way by some scholars.

First, the book review must contain a section which elaborates on the readers's basic comprehension of the text or literary work. That is, the person reading the review needs to understand what the book is saying. But, in order to obtain a good understanding of the book through a thorough review, one has to rely on the ability of the reviewer in the act of reviewing.

In reading a book review, one's act of understanding is directly contingent upon the authenticity of the reviewer in a unique way. Lonergan himself refers to this question of ability in lecture 9 of Understanding and Being (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990):

"All interpreting depends upon the ability of the interpreter to move from his(sic) experiences to imaginative reconstruction of the situation in the past, from his(sic) understanding to a hypothetical account of the understanding behind those signs, from his(sic) knowledge of the possibilities of human judgment and the possibilities that arise from the polymorphism of the human subject, to the type of judgments and the type of decisions and motives that lie behind those signs." (p. 223)

So, the ability of the reviewer to articulate her/his understanding in terms of "imaginative reconstructions", "hypothetical accounts" and the discernment of decision-types, motives and the existence within texts of judgments, is an ability measured in terms of a certain form of detachment or "distanciation".

Insofar as this exercise of detachment is made intentional in these respects, I believe one can say that a better understanding of the book is made possible. The significance of an authentic understanding and acts of interpretation is the participation in the 'hermeneutic circle.' Heidegger's comment on the hermeneutic circle appears freshly pertinent: "What is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it in the right way." (Being and Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 195.

Entrance into the hermeneutical circle eventually involves participation in the widened discourse, which is made possible (in this case) through an act of judgment by the reviewer of a book. The problem of judgment addresses the question of whether the book being discussed represents an advance in its field or not. (For a work of fiction, more diverse criteria such as prose style, narrative quality, aesthetic 'texture', depth of character etc. are more applicable.) The reviewer's judgment reverses and yet carries forward the 'distanciation' noted with respect to the first basic element of the review: the element of understanding. Here, in judgment, the aim and contents of the book are brought forward in the raising of the question of the book's value. This is the basic second element to a book review, one which really demands a commitment on the part of the reviewer. In many respects, this is the greatest challenge in the writing of the book review, but it adds, without doubt, a richness and a definitive quality to the review.

It is because of the significance and the difference between these two basic elements of a book review that the Lonergan Web Site encourages an explicit advertance to the two different performances in the writing of reviews which appear on the site. We think that this heightened awareness of the nature of a good review makes for better reviews.

What do you think? Feel free to respond to Paul Allen.


Allen Paul. What is a LWS Book Review? 15 Feb. 1998. < http://www.lonergan.on.ca/breviews/understandreview.htm > (Your access date).

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