Six Great Ideas
Mortimer J. Adler
It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody's
business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity
to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical
thought in the course of our daily lives.
Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to
understand why this is so and what philosophy's business is.
The answer in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great
ideas--the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves,
our society, and the world in which we live.
These ideas constitute the vocabulary of everyone's thought.
Unlike the concepts of the special sciences, the words that name the
great ideas are all of them words of ordinary, everyday speech. They
are not technical terms. They do not belong to the private jargon of
a specialized branch of knowledge. Everyone uses them in ordinary
conversation. But everyone does not understand them as they can be
understood, nor has everyone pondered sufficiently the questions
raised by each of the great ideas. To do that and to think one's way
through to some resolution of the conflicting answers to these
questions is to philosophize.
When mathematics is applied to observable phenomena, its
application is mediated by measurements made in other sciences, such
as physics and economics. Philosophy's application to reality needs
no such mediation. It is direct, without intervention by or
dependence on quantified data that are required for the application
of mathematics and that can be gathered only by the special
observational techniques employed by the investigative sciences.
This explains why philosophy can be everybody's business, as the
special sciences, including those that apply mathematics, are not.
Precisely because it can be everybody's business, it should be part
of everyone's general education.
Becoming acquainted and conversant with the great ideas will not
prepare the individual for any special career--in business, the
learned professions, or highly skilled occupations of one technical
sort or another. Specialized schooling is required for that. But
everyone is called to one common human vocation--that of being a
good citizen and a thoughtful human being.
Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all
is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all
because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic
only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy--with an
introduction to the great ideas.
The words that name the great ideas--none of them technical terms
in any special science, all of them terms of common
speech--constitute the basic vocabulary of philosophical thought,
which is also to say the basic vocabulary of human thought. If
philosophy is everybody's business, then not only should everyone be
able to use these words correctly in a sentence when the standard of
correctness is merely grammatical, but also everyone should be able
to engage, to some extent, in intelligent discourse about the object
of thought under consideration.
How much can the individual say, sequentially and coherently, when
he is asked to consider one or another great idea? What answers can
be given to these questions? Which answers hang together and which
are opposed? What practical difference does it make whether we adopt
one or another of the opposed answers? And how is one great idea
related to others?
My purpose now is to list the words that are not only in
everyone's vocabulary, but that also name great ideas that everyone
who has completed a basic, humanistic schooling should be reasonably
conversant with. Only a few of the ideas I am going to name have
emerged into prominence in modern times or have taken on special
significance in the twentieth century. As Mark Twain correctly
quipped, "The ancients stole all our ideas from us." Here,
in alphabetical order, are the ones that should be in the possession
of human beings at all times, but, perhaps, not in all places,
because it must be acknowledged that they are characteristically
Animal Art Beauty Being Cause Chance Change Citizen Constitution
Democracy Desire Duty Education Emotion Equality Evolution
Experience Family God Good and Evil Government Habit Happiness Honor
Imagination Judgment Justice Knowledge Labor Language Law
Liberty-Freedom Life and Death Love Man Matter Memory Mind Nature
Opinion Pleasure and Pain Poetry Progress Punishment Reasoning
Relation Religion Revolution Sense Sin Slavery Soul Space State Time
Truth Tyranny Violence Virtue and Vice War and Peace Wealth Will
Readers can cross-examine themselves--or, perhaps, members of
their family or their friends--by asking, about each of the great
ideas listed above, the kind of questions I suggested a little