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Why I Studied Mortimer J. Adler: In Brief

April 25, 2008

This video goes a long way toward explaining why I find Mortimer J. Adler a fascinating U.S. cultural figure and—dare I say it—philosopher.

In the video, a September 1958 CBS television interview with Mike Wallace, Adler touches on multiple topics: the kinds of capitalism (i.e. laissez faire), the kinds of freedom, U.S. politics, private property, wealth distribution, labor, communism, ideological extremism, justice, socialism, human rights, natural rights, Christianity, charity, etc. The topic of freedom leads off the interview because the first Idea of Freedom volume had just been released in 1958.

Of course the premise behind the kind of profit/equity sharing advocated by Adler and his old buddy Louis O. Kelso, in the 1950s, is a stable, ethically sound capital markets structure. The current mortgage crisis, sadly, undermines their utopian wealth-through-capital idealism. – TL


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  1. Andrew permalink

    I've watched the video, and I still don't get it.

    In virtually every area in which he wrote, Adler's ideas were either demonstrably wrong (i.e., his epistemology), of marginal to no influence (i.e., his efforts to rehabilitate Aristotelian philosophy in the 20th century) or both (How To Think About God).

    I'm all for worker participation in management as a practical program, but in terms of philosophical underpinnings, aren't we better off with John Rawls than Mortimer Adler?

  2. Andrew,

    FYI: I replied to your question at Joe Posnanski's weblog.

    – TL

  3. Andrew,

    I'm no “true believer” in Adler's writings. I can be as critical as anyone. See my dissertation for more, although that document doesn't cover all my criticism of Adler's oeuvre.

    But on your second paragraph, please provide a concrete example. Adler extended Thomistic thought in the 1930s/1940s. He was honored with the Aquinas Medal by Notre Dame for this effort in the 1970s. That demonstrates some usefulness, yes? And Adler didn't pretend to replace Aristotle, but only to use Aristotle as a foundation for extensions and application. In sum, when you argue against Adler's influence, you're arguing against the applicability of any Aristotelian thought to the 20th century. That's a tall order.

    As for “philosophical underpinnings,” do you care to be more specific? I'm not opposed to Rawls's theory/ies of justice, but how is his overall philosophical program more enlightening or helpful than Aristotle's? And, would Rawls agree with you about the comprehensiveness you're giving Rawls's thought?

    – TL

  4. Andrew permalink

    Sparing Joe a bit of off-topic discussion 🙂 — I thought your reply to me there was a bit odd.

    My argument was that the claim “X exists” is an empirical one and therefore requires some sort of empirical evidence.

    You responded with a syllogism:

    1. Intangible things like “5,” “dreams,” “quarks,” and “the cosmos” exist;
    2. God is an intangible thing; therefore,
    3. God exists.

    The problems I have with this are:

    A. Premise (1) is an imprecise, unsupported assertion. Quarks exist and can be demonstrated empirically; ditto for the cosmos. Dreams “exist” as a function of the human mind and can be demonstrated empirically (if imprecisely) using an EKG. So none of that seems to help you much.

    So you're left with the isolated statement that “five” exists. But I have no idea what that means. “Five” is a linguistic construct that summarizes both our empirical observations about the world (e.g., that there are five oranges in this bad) and our rational thought processes (e.g., that two plus three equals five). But what on earth does it mean to assert that “five” therefore “exists?” Are you saying that it exists as some sort of Platonic form, that there is a universal “five”-giver that makes sure in all cases that when you add two apples to three apples you don't accidentally get, oh, I don't know, eighty-five billion apples?

    I suppose you could *argue* for such a thing, but I can't see how you can assert it as a premise.

    B. But even swallowing that entire camel, your conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. It rests upon a hidden analogy (which you don't make) that God is more like “five” than he is like a quark or an apple or a wildebeest. But again, you don't substantiate that argument either.

    Maybe I've misunderstood; if so, please let me know.


  5. Andrew,

    I'm sorry for this delayed reply. But here goes:

    On A: I agree that there was some vagueness in my assertion about the existence of those immaterial things. On the particular list, I disagree with you on the cosmos. We can't measure it; it's too big for our machinery, mental or otherwise. We simply imagine a kind of infinite, all-encompassing place in which everything exists (like a infinite fish bowl). We also, on a related note, can't demonstrate another mathematical principle, infinity, either. But infinity is used to solve mathematical problems in via Calculus (derivatives and integration). On numbers in general, and the fact they exist as real mental constructs for measuring, well, I'll let my point stand. Nobody in general doubts that numbers exist in a special way. And the nature and content of dreams cannot be measured—even if by certain machines we can know that someone is dreaming.

    On God's existence, we can approach it another way—via Aquinas famous Five Ways: First Cause, Prime Move, Necessary Being, Perfect Goodness, and Intelligent Designer. Adler, in How to Think About God (getting to the point of this H&E post), argued that Necessary Being was the best of the Five Ways. I agree (although I like Perfect Goodness).

    On B: Well, God is definitely bigger, better, and more alive than five. But I think I've covered the substance of this above.

    – TL

  6. Andrew permalink


    A: You're (unwittingly?) engaging in a sleight-of-hand, here. My argument is not that all things that exist are measurable, but only that they are empirically verifiable. Thus, we might not be able to measure the length and breadth of the universe (it being continually expanding and all), or the precise location of an electron (due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), but we can certainly verify empirically that both exist.

    B: A point-by-point refutation of Aquinas' five proofs is probably not possible given the limitations of Blogger's comment feature, but Adler's argument from contingency suffers from numerous flaws, the most critical of which is that premise (1) is simply not true for entities such as universes.

    To expand: we generalize about human experience at the macroscopic level when we say things like “you can't be in two places at once” or (parse Adler) “all contingent things require a necessary cause,” not because they are universal truths, but because they roughly correspond to our observations.

    But when we turn to the microscopic level, we see that those generalizations often break down. I cannot personally be both in Baltimore and in San Diego simultaneously, but an electron can pass through two different slits at the same time.

    Similarly, quantum particles pop in and out of existence all the time, with no identifiable antecedent cause. Thus, the proposition that all contingent entities require a necessary cause is empirically false.

    Accordingly, it's not only possible but quite likely that the creation of the universe itself — a quantum event — is not confined to the axioms that Aquinas coined to describe macroscopic events. And if that's the case, then the whole syllogism breaks down.

    C: My point was that the analogies between God and some of the other so-called “intangible” things you identified were imperfect ones. “Five” isn't supposed to have created the world or appeared as a burning bush. Dreams don't flood the earth or beget sons. And so on. God is supposed to be a real thing that really interacts with the real world. All I'm saying is that if that is the case, we would expect for him to be accessible using the tools that humans have to access other real things.


  7. Andrew,

    Aha! Point C shows that we are talking past each other. I only sought to make the argument that the “God of the philosophers” exists (an abstract, impersonal God), not the one also argued by sacred revelation (i.e. burning bushes, miracles). Many philosophers (i.e. Aristotle) are satisfied that a Supreme Being exists (who is neither measurable nor empirically verifiable—those are essentially to the same to me), but remain agnostic on the issue of a personal God.

    On A, I think you're cutting things too fine. To me, anything that is empirically verifiable is also measurable in some way (even if only temporarily, to the point of Heisenberg). Maybe I'm tired and not thinking well on this today (I was up at 3:30 am).

    The phrase “necessary cause” conflates two of Aquinas's Five Ways: (1) First Cause (which would go to your point about a chain of causes the so-called “quantum leap”) and (2) Necessary Being. On Adler's argument from contingency, he says that all existing things owe their continued existence while they endure to a Necessary Being. That particular argument doesn't deal with causation. – TL

  8. Andrew permalink


    Your reply to Joe was certainly vague enough to imply a bit more personal of a God than that! But point well made, and I'll be a more discerning reader in the future. 🙂

    “On Adler's argument from contingency, he says that all existing things owe their continued existence while they endure to a Necessary Being.”

    My point, if it wasn't clear, is that there's no reason to believe that proposition to be true.

  9. Jether permalink

    Hi. I found this blog entry through Google. I´m brazilian, sorry for any English grammatical errors I may commit.

    “the kinds of capitalism (i.e. laissez faire)”

    Wait a minute. He does not equate capitalism with laissez-faire. He says primitive capitalism is laissez-faire. In fact, he says there are four types of capitalism in the book he wrote with Louis Kelso: primitive capitalism (the only one being laissez-faire), State capitalism, mixed capitalism and Capitalism.

  10. Dear jetherj,

    You're absolutely correct. I meant the e.g. as merely an example of one type of the several indicated in the talk. But, the topic of laissez faire capitalism does come up the most in the exchange.

    – TL

  11. Anonymous permalink

    Just found this blog site and was curious.

    You stated:
    “My argument is not that all things that exist are measurable, but only that they are empirically verifiable.”

    Does this mean that the “existence” of measurable things and the existence of things inferred are the same? Or are they different?

    If they are different are you attributing different types of being to existences? And if so does one take priority over the other by more direct or immediate?

    Unclear about this??
    “but an electron can pass through two different slits at the same time” Are you sure you are not misrepresenting Heisenberg and his subsequent ammendment to the uncertainty principle here?

    hope to hear back,

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