Philosophical Mistakes

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


This quote is from a chapter on Philosophy’s Past from Dr. Adler’s book “The Four Dimensions of Philosophy.” Hopefully it will shed light on some of the issues we have been discussed.

“The second unfortunate result can, with equally good reason, be called “suicidal psychologizing.” Like the first, it is also a retreat from reality. Where the first is a retreat from the reality of the knowledge that we actually do have, the second is a retreat from the reality of the world to be known. Modern idealism begins with Kant. It is the worst of the modern errors in philosophy.

What I mean by “suicidal psychologizing” is sometimes less picturesquely described as “the way of ideas,” fathered by Descartes, but given its most unfortunate effects by the so-called British empiricists–Locke, Berkeley, and Hume–who made the psychologizing of common experience the whole of philosophy and substituted that for the use of common experience as a test of the soundness of philosophical theories or conclusions about the experienced world. The psychologizing of common experience deserves to be called suicidal; for, in effect, it cuts away the very ground on which the philosopher stands. It makes experience subjective, rather than objective.

I need not dwell here on the far-reaching consequences of this fundamental substantive error–the subjectivism and the solipsism that resulted from proceeding in this way, together with all the skeptical excesses that it led to, and the epistemological puzzles and paradoxes that confronted those who tried to hold onto the most obvious features of our experience after they had been psychologized into myths or illusions.

Starting from Locke’s fundamental error and carrying it to all its logical conclusions, later philosophers–first Berkeley and Hume, then the phenomenalists and logical empiricists of the twentieth century–reached results that they or others had enough common sense to recognize as absurd; but though many have deplored the resulting puzzles and paradoxes, no one seems to have recognized that the only remedy for the effects thus produced lies in removing the cause, by correcting Locke’s original error, the error of treating ideas as “that which” we apprehend instead of “that by which”. It is this error that makes our common experience subjective rather than objective–introspectively observable, which it is not.

I turn now to the second major disorder of philosophy in modern times–the emulation of science and mathematics. This begins in the seventeenth century. It can be discerned in Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, as well as in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Beginning then, it runs through the following centuries right down to the present day.

The philosophers of the seventeenth century, misled by their addiction to “episteme”, looked upon mathematics as the most perfect achievement of knowledge, and tried to “perfect” philosophy by mathematicizing it. This was done in different ways by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, but the effect upon philosophy was the same–the frustration of trying to achieve a precision of terminology and a rigor of demonstration that are appropriate in mathematics, but inappropriate in philosophy as an attempt to answer first order questions about reality–about that which is and happens in the world or about what ought to be done and sought.”

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]