Great Ideas

In the last couple of weeks I have been reading some books by Mortimer J. Adler, a teacher and writer with a broad grasp of the history of philosophy, and an advocate of living the examined life through understanding the “Great Ideas“.


He spent much of his career teaching and writing, with an emphasis on what have been called the Great Ideas – a survey of the fundamental ideas of philosophy. He was an advocate of philosophical literacy. He thought that people could and should study logic and ideas along with language and other skills. After spending much of his writing career working on the Great Ideas project under the sponsorship of the Encyclopedia Britannia, he started to write short books about philosophy for the general public. He was a prolific writer all his life, and he wrote many books in later life. For instance “Truth in Religion” was published in 1990 when he was 88 years old. He lived another 11 years and wrote 7 more books.
His writing is clear. His books tend to be short and to get to the point. He does not oversimplify. He repeats key ideas when he covers the same subject in different books. He mentions philosophers by name to make a point, but he prefers to deal with ideas and principles. He writes with confidence and authority, but he maintains a civil and respectful tone.
Most of his work was devoted to describing and teaching the Great Ideas as they have been described and explored by writers over the course of recorded history. That means he is anchored in the thinking and writing of European philosophers, starting with the Ancient Greeks, although some Arab writers were important. His writing is therefore in the category of the study of the ideas of the infamous cabal of powerful dead white males. That study is out of favour with some philosophers today who regard ideas and culture as being somehow imposed by persons with power on less powerful people. In this view the whole of Western philosophy represents, potentially, the suppression of the authentic and valuable insights of other cultures, and of women.
He has a number of admirers and fans. The Radical Academy web site has an Adler archive.
Professor Adler didn’t directly answer that attack although he takes a few shots at the clique of post-war French Existentialists in his books. It isn’t clear, from what I have read so far, if he found time to read and answer any of the post-modernists. His general answer is that logic and reason are cross-cultural and that there are universal truths, founded in reality and logic, and that there are a lot of bad, stupid and simply untrue ideas loose in the world.
In fact Professor Adler was a little out of step with the academic philosphers of his own generation too. He wasn’t impressed with several of the key ideas of a series of philosophers of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He favours Aristotle and Aquinas. He thought they had identified most of key problems in philosophy and had reasonable solutions that have withstood criticism. In the epilogue of “Ten Philosophical Mistakes” he suggests that their work was rejected by the thinkers of the Enlightenment as part of their reaction to Scholasticism, without due consideration of their systems. He makes the point that in several branches of philosophy, thinkers are still working on the same information about the facts of life with more or less the same logical tools. In philosophy, unlike the natural sciences, there is no particular reason to think that we are evolving or progressing.

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