Mortimer J. Adler

An Overview of His Main Philosophical Insights

[Revised, April 2006]

Biographical Information

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 education.

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 curriculums.

In Conditions of Philosophy, Adler laid out six conditions for philosophy to reacquire its former prominence in society. They are:

1. Philosophy must be recognized as an autonomous branch of knowledge

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 world.

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 and subjects.

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 knowledge involves:

1. The addition of new truths to our existing body of knowledge.

2. The replacement of less accurate or comprehensive forms with better ones.

3. The discover and rectification of errors.

4. The discarding of generalizations that have been falsified by negative instances.

"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 Great Ideas.

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)

Ten Philosophical Mistakes

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 determinism
  • 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 ability.