Lessons Learned from Adler's Philosophy Arguments Still Ring True

Lessons Learned from Adler's Philosophy Arguments Still Ring True

Mortimer Adler, a respected scholar who never received a formal bachelor's degree, created one of the greatest arguments in favor of the "science" of philosophy, an argument that continues to withstand modern conscience.
Penlighten Staff
By Mark Hoerrner

Mortimer Adler, Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago and author of numerous works on education and philosophy, was born, then lived as a pagan, a scholar, an Episcopalian, and died a Catholic. Nothing unusual there - just a birth, a rise, and then a descent into entropy and decay. They told him philosophy had gone the same way. He disagreed, and did so elegantly and with an argument honed over years of revering philosophy as a kind of "art of the mind."

Adler started with a career in journalism, but night classes led him to the philosophical works of John Stuart Mill and other great thinkers of Western civilization. He soon spent the majority of his time ensconced in a favorite chair, devouring everything he could. With scholarship money in hand, Adler began pursuing a bachelor's degree in philosophy, but failed to meet the physical education requirements of his degree. It was surprising to know that Columbia University, the same university that denied Adler a baccalaureate degree, would later award him a doctorate in philosophy and hire him as a faculty member because of his command of the classics.

Adler was riled by accusations from colleagues that philosophy was not a science, because he disagreed about the standard by which philosophy was measured. He noted that science had a significant progress over time, and that as technology improved, and as more and more individuals were engaged in its pursuit, science would produce more results. This was not true of philosophy, an art carried on largely in private by private thinkers. But the nature of philosophy, he argued, is such that it should not be expected to produce results at the same rate because the difference in the two disciplines was so vast.

"First, philosophy by its very nature cannot make the same kind and rate of progress that is made in science; to expect it to do so is to make a false demand; to denigrate philosophy for not doing so is unjustified," Adler said in a paper on the differences between science and philosophy. "Second, because of the difference in the factors operative in the two disciplines, it is more difficult to make progress - and more difficult to make it steadily and at an ever-accelerating pace - in philosophy than in science." This difference, Adler felt, did not make philosophy less worthy an area of inquiry than modern science, but illustrated a divide in the perceptions of the populace about certain areas of social studies.

One of the concerns raised by his peers was that philosophers, as a matter of generality, tended to disagree on philosophical terms. Adler pointed out that those philosophers engaged in active debate rarely were debating the same thing, but usually an overarching idea that they approached with very different points of view.

"When philosophy is properly conducted as a public enterprise and philosophers work cooperatively," Adler said, "they will succeed to a much greater extent than they do now in addressing themselves to the same problems, clearly joining issue where they differ in their answers, and carrying on rational debate of the issues in a way that holds some promise of their eventual resolution."

The primary argument against which Adler railed was the notion that philosophy was useless because it did not produce knowledge useful in the administration of daily life or the promotion of the scientific community. Science, he said, with all its productivity and application, does not tell us as people to what end we should pursue something. In other words: sure, we can seek a cure for cancer, but why do we do this? To what end? Is it the curing of cancer we seek or the lessening of the pain of our fellow man? And if it is the lessening of pain in our fellow man, what drives us to care about that person? This is the primary rationale for philosophy, he stated.

"These truths state the categorical moral obligations that govern the conduct of our lives and the institutions of our societies," Adler said in his paper on science and philosophy. "In this second dimension, we find the use that philosophy uniquely confers on us. The difference in the usefulness of science and philosophy corresponds to the difference in their methods as modes of inquiry. No question properly belongs to science which cannot be answered or elucidated by investigation. That is precisely why no ought question is scientific and why, therefore, science includes no prescriptive or normative branch, no ought knowledge."

Today, as the science of the late 20th century has now eclipsed that of previous centuries, we see Adler's observations of the constant march of technological discovery ringing true. What we also see is that his observations of the truth, the raison d'ĂȘtre of why we do what we do, are just as accurate now as they were then.