Philosophy’s Future

Mortimer AdlerBY MORTIMER J. ADLER, PH.D.

There is little point in asking whether philosophy has a future, for that question hardly admits of a negative answer. The probability is great that in some sense there will always be philosophy — in the family of disciplines, in our education, in our culture.

Nor should we ask whether philosophy will have a future brighter than its past. That calls for a prediction that is too hazardous to make. Nothing that has been said in this book furnishes us with grounds for defending an optimistic prediction about philosophy’s future. On the contrary, what we have seen of philosophy’s past may lead us to think that the opposite prediction about its future is a more likely one.

This leaves the question to which I think an answer can be given with some confidence: Can philosophy have a future brighter than its past? The possibility of its having such a future can be argued with some assurance. In light of philosophy’s past, as recounted in the preceding pages, I can indicate why I think that philosophy can have a brighter future.

I shall first list the misfortunes or disorders that philosophy has suffered in the past, which it should be possible to eliminate from its future. I shall then list the good starts, gains, or advances that philosophy has made, which it should be possible to preserve, consolidate, and enhance.

(i) The negative features of philosophy’s past which can be eliminated from its future:

1. The illusion of episteme
2. Dogmatic systems and personal system building
3. Carry a burden of problems beyond its competence, resulting from a lick of sharp distinction of the domain of philosophy from the domain of science, on the one had, and from the domain of religion and dogmatic theology, on the other
4. The emulation of science and mathematics in respects quite inappropriate to the conduct of the philosophical enterprise
5. Philosophy’s assumption of quasi-religious status by offering itself as a way of life
6. The relinquishment of first-order inquiries to science and the retreat to second-order questions exclusively
7. Suicidal epistemologizing with all its consequences
8. The psychologizing of experience

(ii) The positive features of philosophy’s past which can be preserved, consolidated, and enhanced:

1. Plato’s and Aristotle’s exploration of first-order questions, both speculative and practical. (This has been enhanced by the addition of questions posed and explored by philosophers in subsequent centuries.)
2. Aristotle’s first approximation to philosophy’s distinctive method, which involves common experience as a source and as a test of philosophical theories and conclusions. (This, too, can be enhanced by our ability now to make a clearer distinction between special and common experience.)
3. The separation, in modern times, of the particular positive sciences from the parent stem of philosophy. (As a result, science as an investigative mode of inquiry is at last quite distinct from philosophy as a noninvestigative mode of inquiry, though both deal with first-order questions empirically.)
4. The equally sharp separation, first seen as a possibility in the thirteenth century, of the domain of philosophy from the domain of religion or dogmatic theology. (With the realization of that possibility, philosophy should be relieved of the burden of theological questions beyond its competence, just as the clear distinction between science and philosophy relieves it of the burden of scientific questions beyond its competence.)

If the philosophical enterprise from now on took advantage of the four things just enumerated, that would give philosophy, for the first time in its history, a clearly defined domain of its own, a distinctive method of its own, and a sense of its own proper value, unembarrassed by comparisons with science, mathematics, or religion.


The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought


This is possible in the future as never before. There are, in addition, hopeful indications that, in the years ahead, philosophy can finally be exorcised of its bewitchment by the illusion of episteme, to be replaced by a sober respect for testable doxa as the only grade of organized knowledge that is achievable either in philosophy or science.

I hope I may be pardoned for referring here to the program of the Institute for Philosophical Research and to the work that it has done. The further prosecution of such work and the extension of it through similar undertakings in our universities would, in my judgment, advance the clarification of philosophical discourse about its own first-order theories or conclusions, and facilitate the conduct of philosophy as a public enterprise by helping philosophers to join issue and debate disputed questions.

Briefly summarized, the work of the Institute involves (a) taking stock of the whole accumulation of philosophical opinions on a given subject, (b) treating all the relevant opinions as if they were contemporary efforts to solve a common problem, (c) clarifying that problem by constructing genuine issues about it, thus defining the agreements and disagreements that can be found in philosophical discourse about the subject in question, and (d) then constructing, from the recorded materials, some approximation to a rational debate of the issues, so far as that is possible.

The Institute refers to the method by which it carries out this program of second-order work in philosophy as dialectical. The work of the dialectician thus conceived is an effort to clarify philosophical discourse itself. It makes no contribution to the substance of philosophical thought, nor does it impose upon philosophical thought any critical standards whereby the truth or falsity of philosophical theories is to be judged.

Its only function, to borrow a word much in use by the analytic and linguistic philosophers, is therapeutic. However, where their therapeutic efforts are directed against the puzzles and paradoxes that arise from confusions and mistakes in the substance of philosophical thought, the dialectical effort attempts to remedy the deficiencies in philosophical thought which arise from a procedural rather than a substantive failure on the part of philosophers — their failure to conduct philosophy as a public enterprise wherein they engage collectively and cooperatively in the pursuit of truth.

I am proposing that second-order work in philosophy, of the dialectical type represented by the Institute’s efforts to clarify the state of philosophical opinion about FREEDOM, LOVE, PROGRESS, HAPPINESS, JUSTICE, and the like, should be extended to cover the whole field of recorded philosophical thought, even though that is a project of gargantuan proportions.

I am, further, proposing that dialectical work of this kind should be sustained as a continuing and essential part of the whole philosophical enterprise, subsidiary, as all second-order work should be considered, to the main philosophical effort on the plane of first-order questions.

If these things were done, the main effort could be much more effectively prosecuted in the future, for it would be carried on in the light of a much better understanding than philosophers now have of the contributions, both cumulative and conflicting, that have been made to the solution of their first-order problems.

One might even hope that eventually there need be no division of labor between dialecticians working at their second-order tasks and philosophers trying to answer to answer first-order questions. Philosophy might finally become the collective and cooperative pursuit that it should be — an enterprise in which the individual participants communicated effectively about their common problems, joined issue when their solutions were opposed, and engaged in rational debate for the sake of resolving their disagreements and reaching whatever measure of agreement is attainable in the field of debatable opinion.

I conclude with one last summary of the argument. If the negative features of philosophy’s past are eliminated from its future, as they can be — and if the positive features that I have enumerated are preserved, consolidated, and enhanced, as they also can be — then it follows that philosophy can have a future brighter than its past.

The full realization of the possibility just indicated may require a future far beyond the present century. The twenty-five centuries of philosophy’s Western past may be at the most the period of its infancy — its first uncertain steps and stumblings. The gradual achievement of maturity in the philosophical enterprise may require a much longer span than the three hundred years — from the seventeenth century to the present — during which science appears to have outgrown its infancy and to have matured.

One reason for this delayed maturity may be that philosophical problems are more difficult than scientific ones, humanly speaking, if not intellectually. To conduct philosophical discussion fruitfully requires greater discipline of the passions than is needed to carry on scientific investigation in an efficient manner.

It is easier to lift scientific research to the high plane of the near-perfect experiment than to lift philosophical discussion to the high place of the ideal debate. In addition, the philosophical enterprise may be a much more complex form of intellectual life than the scientific endeavor is; and, like all higher organisms, therefore slower to mature.

Considering man’s biological origins, we should, perhaps, be filled with admiration that human beings took less than six thousand years after they emerged from the conditions of primitive life to produce the civilization of the dialogue. Six thousand years is a short period in the span of human life on earth; and the twenty-five hundred years of the philosophical enterprise so far is shorter still.

It should not tax our imaginations, therefore, to contemplate a much longer future in which the latent possibilities for philosophy’s development are realized and philosophy gradually achieves intellectual maturity.


Excerpted from The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy, by Mortimer J. Adler.


The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought


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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.