Mortimer J. Adler
An Overview of His Main Philosophical Insights
[Revised, April 2006]
Mortimer J. Adler was chairman of the Board of Editors of
Encyclopedia Britannica, director for the Institute for
Philosophical Research in Chicago, and a senior associate at the
Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. He was a modern day
philosopher and the author of more than 50 books. His method in
several of these books is Socratic underpinning his familiarity with
a wide range of works of ancient and contemporary philosophers. His
philosophy has touched a broad spectrum of society including
Basic Tenets of Alder's Philosophy
Adler believes that philosophy is for everyman. He believes that
becoming, "a generally educated human being also involves some
grasp of the history of history and of philosophy, and some
understanding of the philosophy of history and of philosophy."
(Adler, Four Dimensions of Philosophy, pgs. viii-ix) Because Adler
feels that philosophy is something that everyone should do he has
made several proposals, to return philosophical dialogue about the "great
ideas " into current thinking and modern educational
In Conditions of Philosophy, Adler laid out six conditions
for philosophy to reacquire its former prominence in society. They
1. Philosophy must be recognized as an autonomous branch of
2. Philosophical knowledge should be knowledge of the first order
3. Philosophical theories should be judged by the same standards
of objective truth that are applied to the natural sciences.
4. Philosophy should be a public undertaking.
5. Philosophy must develop a method distinctly its own.
6. Philosophy must not be esoteric and out of touch with the real
Knowledege And Philosophy
To Adler knowledge is truth beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is "doxa
" a well founded opinion, based upon evidence and reason
that is testable, falsifiable and corrigible. Philosophy is like
mathematics to Adler, in that it is non-investigative. In other
words math can be developed without special equipment to conduct
investigations. Philosophy is also like math because it deals with
ideal objects, objects of thought. However; unlike math, philosophy
is empirical. This is because philosophy is based on synthetic
judgments in contrast to analytical judgments. This type of judgment
is testable by "sense experiences ", because all
human beings have "common experiences " that
include the knowledge acquired without ever asking a single
question. It is possible for anyone to verify or reject a synthetic
judgment; therefore, it is possible for every man and woman to be a
philosopher. Philosophy is like common sense it is acquired by
intellectual insights and rational thought processes. "It
cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everbody's business.
To be a human being is to be endowed with he proclivity to
philosophize." (Six great Ideas, pg.3 )
Adler believes new philosophy must be knowledge of the first
order. This means knowledge about reality. Knowledge of the second
order is knowledge about knowledge itself. However, Adler notes that
philosophy is the only branch of knowledge that exists in a number
of different dimensions. In fact he breaks philosophy up into four
distinct dimensions. Metaphysics and moral philosophy would be
examples of philosophy that is first order knowledge. The
understanding of ideas and subjects would be examples of philosophy
that is second order knowledge. Note that in these four dimensions
Adler refers to philosophy as both knowledge and as understanding.
We know metaphysics and moral philosophy. We only understand ideas
One way to test our "knowledge" of philosophy is by
applying the tests of truth. These include: the pragmatic test which
analyzes if a judgment which led to an action had a successful
outcome and the test of generalizations which analyzes if perception
is altered by one or more negative instances, but perhaps the most
important test of truth to Adler is the test of coherence. This test
shows whether or not a philosophy is consistent with reality, "only
a coherent theory or doctrine can correspond with reality." (Four
Dimensions, p. 32)
The Six Great Ideas
To Adler, philosophy is about ideas, especially "great
ideas ". Adler believes that Plato was right in, "holding
that ideas are objects that the human mind can think about."
(Six Great Ideas, pg. 9) Adler narrowed the great ideas to six. He
argues that a philosopher should begin with these six because of our
common call to be good citizens and thoughtful human beings. He
notes that five of the six ideas are prominent in the three
documents that are the prime source of the American testament; the
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg
Address. According to Adler three of these ideas we judge by truth,
goodness and beauty and three of these ideas we live by and act on
liberty, equality and justice.
About truth, Adler says that it has both objective and subjective
elements and that we should incorporate a mild form of skepticism
that questions not its objective aspect but its subjective aspect.
"The objective truth of a statement may be immutable, but not
our subjective judgment about whether it is true. there are no
degrees of objective truth. ...But when, subjectively, we judge a
statement to be true or false, we may do so with more or less
assurance, and accordingly, we may speak of it as being more or less
true...." (Six great Ideas, pg.45)
According to Adler the pursuit of truth in all branches of
1. The addition of new truths to our existing body of knowledge.
2. The replacement of less accurate or comprehensive forms with
3. The discover and rectification of errors.
4. The discarding of generalizations that have been falsified by
"The sphere of truth, in short, is the sphere of those
matters about which we think disagreement is profitable precisely
because we think that these are matters about which it is possible
to resolve differences." (Six Great Ideas, p. 58)
According to Adler, the difference between truth and goodness is
found in the relationships that they both pose.
"When we talk about the pursuit of truth, we are regarding
truth as an object of desire and, in doing so, we are in effect
attributing goodness to truth."
(Six Great Ideas, p. 67) According to Adler, we can
determine what is good if we can discriminate between our natural
and acquired desires, our wants and needs if you will. this
distinction allows us to draw a line between real and apparent
goods. Those things which fulfill are natural desires our good for
us. Goodness allows us to express three degrees of evaluation, the
positive, the comparative and the superlative.
While Adler acknowledges the skepticism that would say that truth,
goodness and beauty are all subjective. He effectively argues that
there are elements of each which are objective. Beauty is intimately
related to goodness because it too so based upon it relationship
with us. The whole idea of beauty and how it is defined and
perceived Adler further explores in Arts, the arts, and the
Adler notes that of the three great ideas we act upon justice is
sovereign to liberty and equality, much as truth is sovereign to
goodness and beauty. He also believes that all three ideas fall into
the domain of goodness. for instance, to act rightly or justly is to
do good. According to Adler all three are "real goods"
that are needed in the pursuit of happiness. Of these three only
justice is an unlimited good.
Regarding freedom Adler says there are three forms. They are: 1.
natural freedom, the freedom that we are born with, freedom of our
wills, 2. liberty, the freedom associated with wisdom and moral
virtue and 3. circumstantial freedom which is contingent upon
conditions and can change frequently in the course of a lifetime.
Regarding equality Adler says, "The equalities to which we
are entitled, by virtue of being human, are circumstantial, no
personal. They are equalities of condition-of status, treatment and
opportunity." (Six Great Ideas, pg.165)
Finally, Adler in Ten Philosophical Mistakes discusses the
errors that plague modern philosophy. He identifies:
- 1. the mistake about consciousness
- 2. the mistake about the human mind
- 3. the failure to recognize that ideas are meanings
- 4. the mistake of not acknowledging the contributions of
philosophy are as important as those of the sciences.
- 5. the mistake that makes good and evil subjective
- 6. the mistake in the identification of happiness
- 7. the misunderstanding between freedom of choice and
- 8. the denial of human nature
- 9. failure to understand how the basic forms of human
association are both natural and conventional
- 10. the fallacy of reductionism
To renew philosophy in this century we must remove many of the
mistakes that have beomce all too common in modern philosophy. Many
of these mistakes are small to Adler, theideas that fix them are
simple. Many of these moder mistakes have roots that lie in
antiquity. The two most significant philosophical mistakes though,
are the first two.
The first mistake is based upon Locke's view of consciousness,
which said that all ideas are that which we apprehend when we are
conscious of anything. In contrast, Adler says that a cognitive idea
cannot be that which and that by which I apprehend
something. That this view defies common sense. The second mistake,
the mistaken view of the human mind is based upon Hobbes, Berkeley
and Hume who believed that the mind was entirely a sensitive
faculty, with no trace of intellectuality. Adler's counter argument
is based upon Locke's argument which differentiated between
perceptual and conceptual thought based upon man's reflective