the professor or THE DIALOGUE?

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


For many years Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, now head of the Institute for Philosophical Research, has vigorously attempted to revitalize the idea of a genuine liberal arts education. Throughout these years, because of his views, he has been a very controversial philosopher. Because of his dislike of the table-thumping “professor,” and his encouragement of the dialogue, he has been accused of being a “relativist.”

Because he believes in reason, he has been called a “rationalist.” One will recall that in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas was considered a “dangerous innovator.” Obscurantism never dies, and seldom fades away. Even those who pretend to stand for the liberal arts oppose Adler, or neatly avoid him, so that they can continue converting the liberal arts college into a professional school and substituting textbooks for the Great Books.

The Owl has traditionally believed that the liberal arts college exists to produce liberal artists, free men prepared to live a meaningful life. And it, like the Cross Currents Club on this campus following Dr. Adler, believes that the dialogue is of crucial importance in achieving such an education. The Cross Currents recently presented the First Cross Currents Award for stimulating dialogue to Dr. Adler; during that occasion Dr. Adler delivered the Cross Currents Lecture of the Year (1958-1959) “the professor or THE DIALOGUE?” Consequently The Owl is happy and privileged to publish this outstanding lecture by an outstanding philosopher and educator.

Special thanks are due to the Reverend George V. Kennard, S.J., who edited the manuscript, to Geraldine and Irene Palermo, who transcribed the lecture from the tape-recording, and to fast-footed Jim Mitchell, who took the manuscript to Dr. Adler for approval. Without their help, and the help of others too numerous to mention, The Owl could not have published “the professor or THE DIALOGUE?”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am not only deeply honored by this plaque1 but I am delighted with the title that was invented for this talk. “the professor or THE DIALOGUE?” is an excellent caption for the remarks which the person who invented it could not have known I was going to make. I am very happy indeed for this opportunity to take part in discussions that obviously have been going on around this campus for the whole of this year.

My delight unfortunately is accompanied by one regret: that as I grow older there are many things about which I am both less clear and less hopeful than I was when I was younger. I am less clear about what should be done in college and less hopeful about what can be expected from college. Hence, I must ask you to forgive me in advance if I am unable to defend with adamantine vigor one right solution of the problem. There is one that I favor; but I would hesitate to say that I know it to be the only right solution. So, instead of stating simply and dogmatically what a program for a college should be and what the teacher should be like, I shall deal with a number of topics relevant to the problem of learning in general and to teaching and study in a liberal arts college in particular.

One further warning I should like to make in advance. In some thirty or thirty-five years of thinking about education and twenty-five or more of teaching in colleges and universities, I have been mainly engaged with secular institutions. Quite frankly, such conclusions as I have reached about liberal education in college are mainly conceived within the framework of the secular institution. I am deeply sensitive of the fact that the Catholic college has different tasks and different problems from those of secular institutions. Perhaps not all of the points I shall make hold true of both secular and Catholic institutions; nevertheless it seems to me that some of them do, if not equally or without qualification, because they are based on human nature and the inhabitants of both kinds of institutions are human beings. But even those points which may need modification when applied in the framework of specifically Christian education can be best understood, I think, by looking at them in the more general context of secular education. I shall try to warn you in every case when I am shifting from thinking of the secular institution to thinking of the specifically Catholic institution.

With these preliminary explanations, let me indicate the topics I would like to discuss. First, I should like to talk most generally and in the most elementary fashion about the role of the teacher at any point in the educational scheme and the attitude of students toward teachers. Secondly I should like to talk about the relation of schooling to education. Third, 1 should like to talk about the main aims of liberal schooling — note that I said liberal schooling, not liberal education. Fourth, I shall come more narrowly to the problem, within liberal education, of the teaching of philosophy and the history of philosophy. Finally I shall draw some conclusions about the study of philosophy and its difficulties. I think these five points deal with the problems you have been discussing. I hope that what I say may elicit from you new questions that will in turn enable me to clarify, later, whatever is not clear in this presentation.

We begin, then, with the nature of the teacher — to my mind, one of the most fascinating subjects men have ever thought about. Curiously enough, so far as I know, in the great tradition of western thought there have emerged only two views of the role or nature of the teacher. One we find in the dialogues of Plato, represented and advocated by Socrates, particularly in the Theatetus and the Meno; the other, which appears to be a different theory of the teacher, at the other extreme, is found in St. Thomas — in the De Veritate, the question often reprinted as the De Magistro (On the Teacher), and at the end of the first part of the Summa Theologica. There is, of course, another view, that taken by St. Augustine in the little work called the De Magistro. But in fact St. Augustine is really to the left of Socrates, and I think the Platonic position is better represented by taking Socrates rather than St. Augustine.

Two words (from medicine, by the way) state for you very dramatically the characteristics of the teacher. According to Socrates the teacher performs the function of intellectual midwife. Teaching is midwifery. According to Aquinas, the teacher is a doctor. (This sounds more apt in contrast than it is, because the word ‘doctor’ does not mean physician; in the middle ages the physicians took it over). The word ‘doctor’ means ‘one who is possessed of doctrine’; one who knows is a doctor. That makes the contrast sharper, because Socrates in all his remarks about his function in teaching young men claims not to know. In the great dialogue the Meno this is perfectly clear. He doesn’t know where the discussion of virtue is going but he is able to lead it nevertheless. He knows what he is looking for. (He is looking for a definition of virtue and an answer to the question, can virtue be taught.) The question is clear. He is able to lead the discussion without — so he pretends at least — knowing the answer. In the Theatetus all this comes to explicit definition: when asked what his kind of teaching is he says, “I am like a midwife.” It is the young man who is learning, who gives birth to ideas, in whom knowledge or understanding or insight is born. Ultimately the teacher’s task is only that of making the delivery easier; he is merely skilled in the process of acquiring ideas or of delivering them to oneself. The midwife is only a help in the process of giving birth, and the teacher is a midwife.

Opposed to this we find in the writings of Aquinas apparently a contrary view. I say, apparently; in one of the articles in the question on the teacher Aquinas appears to say (and you see how apt this would be) that the teacher knows actually what the student knows potentially, in good Aristotelian fashion. Teaching is therefore that action by the teacher which reduces the student from potentiality to actuality. There couldn’t be a prettier, simpler formula in contrast to the Socratic, for here is knowledge in the teacher, actual knowledge, and there the mere potentiality. It is like the heated object and the one which is only potentially hot, to which heat flows in the presence of the heated object. (The only difference would be that the heated object loses the heat, whereas the teacher, one supposes, in the act of reducing the student from potentiality to actuality does not himself cease to be an actual knower, though I suspect it could happen.)

I have often talked about these two contrasting views of the teacher — the knowing teacher and the inquiring teacher — as if they really were two different theories and radically opposed. But actually, upon a closer reading of what St. Thomas has to say about teaching and learning, St. Thomas doesn’t disagree with Socrates at all. There may be a slight change in emphasis, but there is really only one view. The most important distinction that Aquinas makes in his writing on the subject is the distinction between two modes of learning: learning by instruction and learning by discovery. He defines these as follows: one learns by discovery if one learns whatever one learns without the aid of a teacher. The use of one’s cognitive faculties upon the data of experience in the absence of a teacher is learning by discovery. But when you examine what St. Thomas means by instruction it becomes clear that the distinction is not as sharp as that between the teacher instructing and a person without a teacher doing the opposite, which is discovery. In fact, the best way to make the distinction is to distinguish between aided and unaided discovery. Aquinas makes it clear that the teacher is never the principal cause of the learning. The principal cause of learning is the reason or intellect of the learner. The teacher, says Aquinas, at his best is both dispensable and auxiliary — an instrumental cause, so that actually the instructor is not the principal or sole cause of learning but merely an assistant in the Socratic sense. Learning without a teacher is unaided discovery; learning with a teacher is aided discovery. The teacher is at best a dispensable aid.

When I say that the teacher is a dispensable aid I want to be very clear. Everything that can be learned — everything any man can learn — can be learned without a teacher. Everything which is originally learned is learned in this way, as is perfectly obvious. Nothing originally learned is learned with a teacher by discovery. Now the only reason for teachers is the purely pragmatic reason that if everybody were left to himself to learn by unaided discovery without the very real help which teachers can give, no one would learn very much and would take too long to learn the things we have to learn. Hence, though the teacher is dispensable in the sense that he is never necessary, he is nevertheless pragmatically very useful, as Socrates says, to make the pain of learning lighter and to facilitate the process as in all the arts that work with nature, by expediting and regularizing it.

I want you to notice that if the teacher were, as is sometimes thought, not only the sole but even the principal cause of learning on the part of the instructed you would have what I call indoctrination: the doctor putting doctrine into the student as if the student were a plastic receptacle in strictly obediential potency, as in some sense the potter shapes the clay. If this were the case, indoctrination would be possible. But since by any sound analysis of the human mind the mind is not in obediential potency to the human teacher but is an active as well as ‘possible’ or passive power, indoctrination is impossible. When it looks as if anyone is indoctrinating anyone else, I assure you all that is happening is memorization. When you say, “He’s indoctrinated that fellow,” nothing has happened to the mind whatsoever. The mind can’t be indoctrinated. You can however make a parrot out of man and get verbal responses well memorized; this is possible. But this isn’t teaching or learning.

In instruction or aided discovery — as in unaided discovery — the activity of reason on the part of the student is always the principal cause; the teacher is at best a secondary, instrumental cause and a dispensable instrument. This being the case, one thing follows: the more the teacher makes the process of instruction imitate the process of discovery the greater his art as a teacher.

All I am saying here is what is said about art in general and particularly about those extraordinary arts, the co-operative arts. What is said about the arts in general (at least by the philosopher I respect most on this subject, Aristotle) is that the arts imitate nature. In the three co-operative arts, which are the arts of healing, farming, teaching, the artist doesn’t imitate nature in terms of a sensible similitude but works with nature, imitating the natural process. Thus, the Hippocratic physician watches the way the body heals itself and cooperates with the healing body. The skillful farmer watches the way that nature nourishes and helps plants grow, and cooperates with nature. So the teacher, just like the farmer and the healer, watches the way the human mind learns in the process of discovery unaided by teachers and aids it by imitating and using the arts of learning. This is teaching.

On all these points, apart from differences in imagery and apart from the fact that in one case we are talking in the language of Plato and in the other in the language of Aristotle, there really is no difference in the theory of the teacher. But two very interesting questions remain. One question is whether the teacher — apart from what the art of the teacher is — must know actually what the student has to learn. Or, must the teacher merely have greater expertness as a learner, that is, more skill in the liberal arts of learning? A second question is whether, even if he has the knowledge actually, the teacher should ironically pretend not to know in order to give the student the sense that he too is inquiring.

To the first question I should answer that to demand that the teacher actually know is to demand too great a perfection of the teacher, if by knowledge you really mean the truth. And let me say quickly on this point that as I look back at my own long career as a teacher I know that I was as effective a teacher when I was in error as when I was right. In fact I often think that the times when I was most vigorously committed to a wrong doctrine were the times when I taught most effectively. The truth is a hard thing to ask anyone to have in full measure; I don’t think actually having the truth is the measure of a teacher. What I would demand of the teacher is not that he actually have the truth; the demand that takes the place of this would be that he have, rightly or wrongly, profound intellectual commitments and convictions. I wouldn’t want to have an “open-minded” teacher — a teacher for whom anything was as right or as wrong as anything else. Whether one talks in terms of the Thomistic doctor or the Socratic inquirer, this requirement is common.

The second question is a little more subtle. Personally, I think that here Socrates is more right than Aquinas. All through the dialogues Socrates keeps pretending that he does not know and is not bothered by the fact that he is nevertheless teaching. The commentators on Plato always call this Socratic irony, because if you look at the text in another way you see that there are a lot of things he really does know. He will say, for example, “I am sure that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Then why does he keep pretending, ironically, not to know? My answer to that has something to do with the psychology or tactics of the teacher. This degree of irony, this pretense not to know, is required I think in order to bridge the gap between the teacher and the student, for the teacher can help the student only by actually engaging in the inquiry which the learner must attempt. Now it is preposterous to be inquiring when you really have the end of the inquiry, so you’ve got to pretend a little bit that it isn’t too clear to you, that you still are inquiring; if the teacher doesn’t inquire then he is not a good conductor and cannot aid the student’s discovery. To stand there and know while the student is discovering is a bad posture. Even if in his heart he thinks he knows, he should with a certain kind of irony pretend not to know.

I would like to make two comments on this last point. Whenever the mind is fortunate enough to come into possession of any truth we say that the mind is assimilated to reality, to that which is. Truth is the adequation of intellect and thing, the correspondence or agreement of mind with reality. That agreement is a kind of assimilation. It isn’t the reality that gets assimilated to the mind; it is the mind which becomes like the real. And it is this fact that misleads a great many people about what teaching is. They turn around and say that just as in learning the truth by discovery I make my mind like the real, so in teaching I make my student’s mind like mine. It is natural to want to short-cut things. Why bother to have the student get in contact with reality directly if he can get in contact with your mind first of all?

This is an error. Teaching, whether you teach the truth or error (teachers do both), is not the assimilation of the student to the teacher. The concept of assimilation fits the theory of teaching as indoctrination: you can get students to repeat the words you use. In most classes all over the country and in all kinds of colleges at examination time this is what most students do — hand back to the teachers the words the teachers used and get graded according to proficiency in verbal memory. Usually this stuff is forgotten, and well it might be, as soon as the examination is over. It has nothing to do with learning at all. Nothing has happened to the mind. The concept of assimilation of student to teacher fits indoctrination but does not fit the theory that the teacher is an aid in the process of discovery.

The second comment I want to make here — with great feeling and with some depth of experience — concerns a simple fact of life that most of us who have been engaged in teaching are almost bound to overlook. When this fact first hit me it almost ruined me; I think I gave up teaching when I faced this fact. Face it too clearly and you are paralyzed. It is the fact of distance between the mind of the teacher and the mind of the student.

Let me make this quite concrete. I was a graduate student in philosophy and psychology at the age of twenty; by the time I was thirty-five I had gone through a great many changes of mind. The things I came to understand by the age of thirty-five came out of a very elaborate process of purification, correction, refinement, fire and torture. I go into a classroom at the age of thirty-five — and it is worse when you are forty-five and worse when you are fifty-five — and here are these bright young faces at the age of eighteen and nineteen. I imagine I understand something, and I am going to try to make them understand it too. The ground I have traversed painfully, year by year, I am going to drag them over — but their feet aren’t going to touch it. They are going to be saved all that I have been through, without any effort on their part! It is impossible. As you get older your understanding gets richer and deeper — not surer, necessarily, but more subtle and more qualified. The distance between the teacher and the student increases.

I say there are only two ways to bridge that gap. One is by shutting your eyes and giving lectures; this way you have a satisfied feeling because at least you have heard the sound of your own voice. The other way that gets harder as you get older, is to try really to teach: which means to pretend ironically that you are back there where the student is — actually to get yourself back there and learn with him. This is a very trying ordeal for a mature person.

Teaching as the process of facilitating discovery on the part of the learner requires a great effort of soul. It is a very charitable act on the part of the teacher to remove himself from where he is intellectually and somehow refashion his mind back to a point where he can stand with the student, look at his world and see it approximately from where the student stands. This is a trying and difficult thing to do.

But let me say that the teacher who does this, as the lecturer never can, may learn something in the process. In the last ten years of my teaching I had this experience enough times to know what it is. I still tried to teach, and I found that even on the subjects where I was most sure I often did learn something. And I would like to say that anyone who wants to teach has a simple criterion as to whether he is succeeding, which he himself (and no one from the outside) can apply. It is not whether his students are learning anything, but whether he is learning something. As he leaves the classroom can he say to himself, “Today I learned a little; I saw something I hadn’t seen”? If he can, probably he has done the most effective teaching he could do. This is the surest sign. Any teacher who leaves the classroom in the same state of mind as when he came into it probably has not done very well.

This is a very high test, you understand; and so it happens very infrequently. Don’t suppose you teach every day in this effective way. If it happens five or six times a semester you’ve done well. It is a hard thing to do, and therefore you can’t ask to have it done regularly. There are many class sessions in which nothing very much happens to anybody.

A word about the attitude of students towards teachers. There are two virtues, one of which St. Thomas definitely connects with learning; the other he handles in a different treatise in which he is talking about prudence. In an essay I wrote in 1940, in the Commonweal, I appropriated what St. Thomas said about the second virtue and generalized it to the whole speculative life. The two virtues of the student are studiousness (studiositas) and docility (docilitas). For Aristotle and Aquinas, every virtue is a mean between extremes of opposed tendencies. Studiousness is a middle ground between lack of interest, apathy, and that immoderate craving to learn for the wrong reason, curiositas. Studiousness is handled by St. Thomas very simply as one of the virtues annexed to temperance.

Docility is much harder. Curiously enough, the word itself throws us off, though it is a virtue and, I think, the prime virtue of the student. The extremes between which it mediates are subservience and indocility or recalcitrance. Unfortunately most people use the word ‘docility’ in the sense of the extreme; they speak of a person as docile when they mean that he is submissive, lamb-like, subservient. But the extreme is a vice, not the virtue, just as recalcitrance or intransigence is a vice. Docility, that middle ground between the two, involves a critical use on the part of the student of the teacher as an instrument of learning. I am saying that the docile student uses the teacher. It is perfectly right for him to use the teacher because the teacher is an instrument. To use the teacher critically means that the student is neither submissive to his authority without active inquiry (since nothing is to be accepted on the authority of the teacher, nothing is to be memorized and parroted) nor resistant to the art or skill of the teacher showing him the way to learn.

His attitude is one of respect; he listens. What the teacher says just by virtue of his office is worth asking about to see whether it is true. What the teacher says is listened to respectfully as a challenge. Where the student is initially inclined to disagree, he should watch himself from becoming indocile and recalcitrant; where he is initially inclined to agree, he should guard against becoming submissive.

Let me go on now to my second point: the distinction between schooling and education. The Bachelor of Arts degree in the middle ages, as the meaning of ‘baccalaureate’ tells us, was the degree of an initiate. The person who was given the B.A. in the medieval school was a young man who, I assure you, was not certified as learned. That is the one thing in the world that he was not — not a doctor, not a master, not learned. All being a bachelor meant was that he had the skill of learning, that he was now able to learn and go on to become a master or a doctor. At the point of being a bachelor he had been initiated into the world of learning by being given the skills of learning. And what were these? These were the liberal arts: reading and writing and speaking and listening and observing and measuring and calculating. Nothing else, nothing more, nothing less. Anyone who can practice these arts well is skilled in learning. Anyone who cannot is not ready to start learning. This was the whole point of the baccalaureate.

When you understand this, you understand something that is profoundly important to understand, which I am sorry to say our twentieth century and our generation has forgotten. None of our ancestors misunderstood this. You can take all the theories of education from the Greeks down to the end of the nineteenth century and no one made the mistake we make. Our contemporaries, our teachers, our students, our parents — all of us think that education is something that happens in school. This is preposterous. It cannot happen there. Schooling is not education. Schooling is preparation for education. That is why I said let’s use those words carefully. Education cannot possibly be accomplished in school. No one in the past ever thought it could. No one thought that a boy graduated from school with a B.A. was an educated man, no one who understood that education consists in slowly, slowly becoming wise, acquiring a little understanding. No young man at the age of twenty could possibly be educated, no matter what kind of school he went to and what he did there. He could not possibly be wise or have much understanding or much insight. How could you talk about schooling as producing an educated man? The purpose of schooling is to prepare young people to go out of school and get an education thereafter.

The reason for this is not far to seek. It has nothing to do with whether the schools are good or bad. If the schools were the very best schools you could possibly imagine in Utopia and the students were all of them earnest, industrious, energetic and the brightest students you could imagine, it still wouldn’t be true because the greatest and the most insuperable obstacle to becoming educated in school is youth; and that is what you have in school. You cannot educate young people. You cannot make them wise. Nothing will do that except a long life, much experience and much thought.

Actually if you look at the subjects of the curriculum there are only a few things that can be taught effectively to the young because they don’t require much understanding or wisdom. You can teach them history and geography. You can teach them languages. You can teach them mathematics and empirical science. Mathematics is an ideal subject for the young; it is abstract, doesn’t require any experience. The empirical sciences are something like that. The facts of history and geography are something like that. But there are certain subjects you cannot possibly teach well to the young, or even at all. They are the subjects that, just by their nature, the immature can’t grapple with, can’t become even reasonably proficient in. To name some of these subjects, I would say that they include the understanding of great poetry; ethics, politics, and practical wisdom; moral philosophy; certainly metaphysics and natural theology. These subjects are beyond the young.


Now I am not saying anything new. This is what Plato says in the Republic; this is what Aristotle says in the Ethics; this is what Aquinas says in his commentary on the Ethics; and this is what Gilson says they all say. In the Republic, where a program of education is laid down for the guardians of the Republic, the first twenty years contain music and gymnastics — the skills of coordination and some cultivation of the sensibilities; from twenty to thirty there are the mathematical arts, and you could have added the arts of reading and writing as well as the arts of calculation. After thirty-five they go out and do the work of the world, acquiring experience until they are fifty. After fifty — fifty-five, even — they come back into the Academy to study dialectics, which for Plato is metaphysics, the contemplation of the Ideas and the world of Being. For Plato, anyone under fifty is much too young. Aristotle says the same thing in the opening book of the Ethics: you can’t teach ethics to young people. What you do with young people is cultivate the moral virtues. You can train them by rewards and punishments, but you can’t teach them to understand the principles of moral philosophy or political philosophy. These are entirely beyond their experience. The vagaries of their emotions, the waywardness of their passions — these things make it impossible for them. And the thing that Aquinas adds in a commentary is that this is what ‘young’ means. Gilson in one of his wittiest and most perceptive papers, “Thomas Aquinas and our Colleagues,”1 points out that what St. Thomas meant by a young man was anything up to fifty. Fifty was the end of youth. From that point on you were mature. St. Thomas says again and again that not only ethics but metaphysics cannot be studied by anyone under fifty. And what are the reasons for fifty, by the way? It is not merely because you need a certain amount of experience but because at about fifty the body begins to weaken. With our modern health devices it may be sixty or seventy, but the body has got to begin to decay a little before the mind is emancipated from the passions and the weight of the body. These subjects require the mind to rise above the senses and imagination, to get rid of the body; and so it takes this kind of growing old for the study of these difficult subjects. (You see that people who run around in a gymnasium couldn’t possibly understand them.)

The conclusions to be drawn from these observations are that education requires a lifetime and that the real fruits it is aiming at — understanding, insight and wisdom — are not achieved until fairly late in a man’s life, until he is really mature. This is particularly true of certain subjects which are somehow most closely connected with the pursuit of wisdom. It is also, I think, true of the study of any ideas at all. I have taught the Great Books in college and for many years to the young; and it is perfectly obvious that the soil is too shallow. You can’t plant an idea in such shallow soil. It doesn’t take root. Teaching the same books to older people well along in life you can begin to see ideas take root. You can see that there is something there for the ideas to get into. Young people have nothing with which to take hold of an idea. This means that we simply cannot inculcate wisdom into college students or expect them to acquire it, nor can we expect them to become philosophers at that early age, except in the Socratic sense, surely, of being lovers of wisdom. That their emotions should be right, that they should somehow be persuaded that wisdom is the best thing in the world, or of all the natural virtues the thing most to love and seek; this is possible and in this sense we hope that every college student becomes a philosopher: a lover of wisdom, but not wise.

With these things said, then, what should be the main aims of liberal schooling especially at the college level? Let me answer that question first in secular terms and then in Catholic terms. What should be the main aim of a liberal arts college if it is secular? I say only three things: one, to develop in the students the skills of learning, the liberal arts; two, to acquaint the students, so far as can be done in four years, with the whole tradition of learning; three, to impel them to go on with learning after school and pursue the truth for a lifetime. Do not suppose that you can make students master any part of the tradition of learning; just acquaint them with it, as if you took them up to the threshold, the antechamber or portico of a great room and swung the doors open to look around and see what is there. “Isn’t it wonderful! Don’t you want to go in and look more carefully? But remember if you really go in there and start looking it will take you your whole lifetime before you get out.” All you do in college is open the door and say “There it is!” If a college does these three things I say that it has done all that can be done with young people. There is not another thing that you can do with them at that stage of life, but hope that the circumstances of their lives and their moral responsibility to themselves will be such that they will go on to discharge their obligation.

It is with these very limited objectives in mind, which I still think are the right objectives for a liberal arts college, that I have always recommended for the curriculum of such colleges, secular colleges, the use of the Great Books. Not, I assure you, because the young men in college can really understand or master them. Everything I have said would indicate that the young can’t really understand the great books, though believe me you must allow them the illusion that they can. Youth is so terribly proud; it has to kid itself that it understands these things. And the illusion is all right because it keeps them at it.

The reason why you use the books is not because the young really can understand them but because these books are the best materials for cultivating the skills of learning itself, the liberal arts, and for doing that other thing, giving that open view and acquaintance with the tradition of learning which you hope the student will investigate as he goes on. And I think that this kind of curriculum, if well administered, leaves the student with a really deep realization of how little he knows and how much he has to learn, which is the abiding motivation you want to leave him with in college so that he may go on learning afterwards. The worst thing that could happen to a student is to graduate from college thinking he knew it all. That student would have been ruined by college, ruined! If he comes out with a decent humility about how little he knows and how much he has to learn you have some hope for him.

Now let’s consider a Catholic college. The main difference, as I see it, that calls for modification here, is the addition to the truths of reason and of sense, the whole realm of natural knowledge, of the truths of faith based on revelation: supernatural knowledge. Sacred or dogmatic theology, as contrasted with natural theology, can be taught dogmatically. Yet even here, of course, there are profound differences among the great speculative theologians — between Aquinas and Augustine, between Aquinas and Bonaventure, between Aquinas and Suarez. These philosophical differences within the framework of sacred theology the young cannot understand.

I would like to have you listen to two pages of Gilson on the difference between the Catholic and the secular colleges. Gilson, talking at Princeton, wanted it to be understood that teaching philosophy at Princeton was impossible. And he was right, but then he said very nicely: You realize that I’m caught here, because though St. Thomas is saying this, he obviously thought he was teaching and studying philosophy, and he died before he was fifty. Now how do I put those two things together? Gilson’s answer is really worth listening to; it has a bearing on the one modification I would make for teaching in the Catholic college. He said:

Now while Thomas Aquinas said that young men were not qualified to study metaphysics, including natural theology, he certainly never said, nor thought, that young people should not study revealed theology, including what of metaphysics and ethics it may contain. He could not perceive any contradiction between what he had written and what he had done, because the two questions were entirely different. He had written that a man with no religion, or at least, with no religious revelation, if his ultimate goal were to become a philosopher, had better wait for the later part of his life before handling metaphysical problems. Himself a young Christian, and already a monk, Thomas had studied philosophy in view of becoming a theologian in his thirties, and not at all a “philosopher” such as Plato or Aristotle. Two questions, two answers. Do you intend to become a metaphysician? Then you can hardly begin too late. Do you want to become a theologian? Then you cannot begin too soon.
What does this mean for our own problem? So far as I can see, what makes the difference between the two cases is the presence or absence of a religious revelation. Now, obviously, no religious revelation can teach us metaphysics, nor even, to the extent that it is a speculative science known in the light of natural reason, ethics. God commands or forbids. He is no professor of ethics. God tells us about Himself; He does not give us metaphysical demonstrations of what He says. Then how can revelation help the philosopher? Not by giving him ready-made conclusions which he has only to demonstrate. First, because revelation teaches many conclusions about God which no metaphysics can demonstrate; secondly, because, even when it can be demonstrated by natural reason, its demonstration does not make a revealed truth more certain to the theologian than it was before. Still more obviously, it would not do for a Christian to deduce by natural reasoning the consequences following from an article of faith and to call it philosophy. Then what is the difference between philosophizing in the light of revelation and philosophizing in the light of natural reason alone?2

His answer to this by the way, is the concreteness of the one and the abstractness of the other, and he goes on in another paragraph to say:

The main reason of Thomas Aquinas against an early teaching of metaphysics was the exceedingly abstract nature of its object. Religion cannot change it, but religion provides an exceedingly concrete approach to certain notions which the metaphysician considers in an abstract way. To take only one example, I do not consider it easy to interest a class of undergraduates in the metaphysical notion of “pure act”; but if you can tell them what you call pure act is another name for God, then they will realize that you are talking about something they already know, and not about a mere word. If, moreover, the teaching of religious knowledge has already given them at least the beginnings of a theological training, then your students will find it most natural to use the light of their reason in order to investigate the why of His commandments with respect to moral conduct. All the concreteness conferred by religion upon the abstract object of metaphysical speculation, all the moral maturity of a young man, or woman, long trained to the complexity of ethical problems, can be considered so many favorable conditions for the earlier ripening of aptness to philosophical speculation. In the thirteenth century, philosophy was taught in such a religious atmosphere; it really was a preamble to theology, just as certain philosophically demonstrable propositions were held to be preambles to Christian faith. This, I submit, is the reason why what applied to philosophers did not apply to himself, to his own masters, nor to his fellow students, in the mind of Thomas Aquinas. Unless we recreate around our teaching of philosophy a like religious atmosphere, I fail to see how we can avoid the objections raised by Thomas Aquinas against the college teaching of metaphysics and ethics.3

I don’t know how perfectly true what Gilson says is, but I think it does offer a solution. Let theology (sacred theology, dogmatic theology) be taught all through a Catholic college, and such philosophy as can be taught in the context of it — always in the context of it. Apart from this, I would still urge the use of the Great Books to cultivate the liberal arts, to become acquainted with the tradition of learning, and to be stimulated to go on learning. With this one addition which Gilson suggests, the situation is the same for a Catholic college as for a secular one.

To turn now more narrowly to the problem of teaching the history of philosophy, it is my own feeling, and I would like to read you one more passage from Gilson to support this, that the history of philosophy can be taught and understood well only by men who are accomplished philosophers. In other words, substituting the history of philosophy for philosophy is no solution to the problem of teaching philosophy to the young, because I assure you in proportion that they are not accomplished philosophers, they can’t understand the history of philosophy. On this let me once more read you a very telling statement by Gilson speaking now of himself — very poignantly, by the way:

I distinctly remember a young man of twenty passionately interested in metaphysical problems, but fully aware of the fact that he could not understand the metaphysicians. He thought it wise to bide his time and to teach history or philosophy in order to learn philosophy before teaching it. Many years later, he began to realize that the history of philosophy requires identically the same intellectual maturity as philosophy itself, because unless you are something of a philosopher, you may well report what philosophers have said, you cannot understand it. Their words are in your mouth, Thomas would say, their ideas are not in your mind. He then began to understand why Henri Bergson was living in constant fear of his future historians. Just as art critics say what they think about what artists do, so historians of philosophy say what they understand of what philosophers think. In both cases, it seldom amounts to much.4

I think this is simply true. And I would like to have you consider for a moment the reason why it is true. This is important, because the word that characterizes our intellectual age most deeply is: historicism. All the way down the line we are given to the fallacies and foibles and sins of historicism. History — the history of thought or the history of culture — raises not only more problems than it can solve, but all the problems it raises it cannot solve. Let me illustrate this sharply.

The fundamental fact of intellectual or cultural history is the fact of diversity. It would be wonderful if it were the other way around; there would be no problems at all. The fundamental fact which the history of any culture, the history of cultures, or the comparative studies of periods and men reveals is that they differ — differ profoundly. You have the diversity of pagan and Christian and secular cultures, and within a single culture, the culture of the ancient world, classical and Hellenic culture, you have the great diversities of Plato and Aristotle and Democritus. In the Christian world, particularly in the last two centuries after the middle ages, you have the basic diversity between the Augustinians and the Aristotelians. And there are many more.

Now there are two attitudes you can take towards the diversity when you find it. One is the attitude of the historian as a relativist. The diversity is simply a diversity. He does not try to do anything about it. In fact, he has no interest in the truth; he is interested only in the historical picture. And he is usually interested in this, by the way, without a sense that there is more diversity in historical scholarship than any place else. There is hardly anything that any historian says of the past, any interpretation given of any period by any writer but you can find another historian who can give an opposite one. The field of historical scholarship is ridden with diversity.

There is another attitude, the only attitude, I would say, that one can take towards history if one is interested in the truth. That is the dialectical attitude. The problems history poses require the most rigorous, the most difficult kind of dialectical procedure. If you believe that there is truth; that men can rationally pursue the truth; that when men differ they really disagree; that where there is disagreement truth and falsity does not lie equally on both sides or in the same respect; if you believe this then your task is — in the face of intellectual or cultural diversity — to say what are the issues, who agrees with whom, who disagrees. And when you get a real issue or a real disagreement — which is so seldom, so difficult to get — you keep asking what are the reasons on either side, until finally you get in that frame of mind where the pursuit of truth is not deterred but in some sense facilitated by examining the historical facts about human thought as it exists up to the present.

Revelation or faith may enable us to make, dogmatically, certain choices among the diverse views men have held. But even within the framework of accepted dogmas the problem of diversity remains to be dealt with dialectically. The great works of the middle ages, I assure you, did not come out of the air. The Sic et Non of Abelard, the Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, are the beginnings of this careful, patient, systematic work of dealing with diversity, of ordering it, clarifying it, to make further intellectual work possible: “On the one hand … on the other hand … here are the agreements and disagreements, here are the lines of opposition.”

To illustrate a dialectical problem within a dogmatic framework, let me give you an example. The Church in the second part of the last century declared dogmatically — de fide — that the existence of God could be demonstrated by human reason. It is an article of Catholic faith that the existence of God can be proved from reason. You understand that the declaration is not that the existence of God has been demonstrated; that would be an historical statement, and hardly, I think, possible for the Church to define. The proposition that is declared de fide is that the existence of God can be demonstrated: that the nature of God and the nature of human reason is such that the human reason by its natural processes, can, unaided by faith, come to a rationally certain knowledge of God’s existence. I say that within the framework set by that article of faith the dispute about any particular proof or set of proofs of the existence of God can go on from now until the end of time. And I assure you that, to my mind, the most living question is: how to prove the existence of God. The supposition that it was done in the thirteenth century, that it is done in scholastic textbooks today is, I think, on the face of it preposterous. It is the most difficult thing in the world to do. Everything else in one’s mind is a preparation for it. The notion that we have done it is, I think, presumptuous. The dogma can be absolutely true and it can also be true that the consideration, the human consideration of one proof or another, the slow perfection of the proof, the consideration of conflicting arguments about the proofs can go on until the end of time.

Now the interesting thing about history in this connection is that history cannot explain the discovery of a single truth. If any truth has ever been discovered no historical facts at all — nothing about the man’s time or culture or background or setting — ever in the least explains how this man discovered the truth. The only thing that history can ever explain are some of the errors that men make. This is very interesting indeed. You can by the limitations of an historical period explain how something that is learned later was not learned earlier; you can never explain why it was learned when it was learned.

Let me give you two examples of this. Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery I hold to be flatly false; yet, Aristotle was a very bright man and didn’t make too many errors in the course of a large volume of work. Why did he make this crucial one? I think there is some possibility that by looking at him in his historical setting, at the conditions of Greek life and its slave society — looking at what he must have looked at as a man who walked the streets of Greek cities — we can learn how the facts of life as he saw them could have led him into error. (There are too many people living in this world, by the way, who are guilty of this error; and where you find them, look at where they live. Look at the conditions in which they grow up. You may in this way explain the error).

Let me give you a more obvious case. The error in Aquinas about the matter of the heavenly bodies being incorruptible is perfectly intelligible in terms of pre-telescopic observation of the heavens. The stars and heavenly bodies look as if they neither come into being nor pass away but are merely moved locally, without growing or changing in any way. Given telescopes the error is corrected. It isn’t the truth you can explain; it is the error that you explain by the conditions of life within a culture.

So let me say this, most summarily: for the understanding of what is right and what is true we must always go to nature or to reason — sometimes both of these aided by revelation — but never to history. History never teaches us what is right and what is true. It can’t possibly. The same holds true for what is universal and what is permanent. If you try to find out what is universal about mankind, the universals of human life and society, you can’t find them in history. To find out what is enduring, universal and permanent, you must again go to reason and then to nature. All that history can tell you about is the particular, the evanescent, the changing.

One last remark about the teaching of philosophy and its difficulties. This is personal and I shall make it brief; if anyone wants to push me on it, I shall be glad to answer questions. At the Institute for Philosophical Research we have been studying the idea of freedom now for eight years and by the end of ten years we shall, I think, have finished the work with the publication of the second volume. The first volume is already out. This has been a painstaking, long, drawn-out, careful examination of the whole literature of this vast subject. So far as we can tell, we have examined everything — writings by scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians, social scientists — everything that has been written on freedom. I just want to tell you what my impression of the history of human thought on this one subject is. My guess is that it’s equally true of every other subject. The twenty-five hundred years of the recorded history of western thought is, to use the language of the British airmen in the last war, simply a “poor show” — not very good. It doesn’t amount to very much. This is all right, too, because one would expect that the race has, you know, a hundred million years to go, and we’ll do better. But the first twenty-five hundred years of thought in the West doesn’t get along very far. I mean simply this: that the best writers in this field (and among the best, the most recent) are for the most part critically deficient in the knowledge of what others have written on the subject. There is no writer who even, I think, has a full acquaintance with what is possible for him to know. That is point one.

Point two: most of the great writers pay scant attention to what others have said. The more we go at this, and we are now working on the actual controversy, the fewer instances in which we can find, on difficult and important subjects, anything like a rationally respectable joining of issues. And where we do find that, the debate has not gone on. The thing that should be the glory of the human mind — to stand face to face when men differ, with detachment, without passion, to understand one another, argue, hear the argument and refute it — this thing, for which by the way we have a model in the disputations of the middle ages, this wonderful thing has not gone on. As a result, for example, on the great subject of the freedom of the will, about which more has been written than on any other aspect of freedom, the debate is a relatively poor thing. The reasons are not given beyond the first level. Assertion, then reason, then some question about that reason, and perhaps a second level of reason, and it stops. It actually isn’t going further, and you know that there’s much more to say, and it would have been said if the debate had been conducted well.

I say this only to indicate that any careful look at the history of thought will show, I think, that a great deal of work has to be done to history, to the historical materials, to make them useful to the human mind. In their raw existence, they’re not useful; they are only confusing. A great deal of hard work has to be done to make them useful, if their use is the pursuit of the truth. If the whole of thought so far is to enable those of us alive who can think to think better, which is what it should do, then the materials we have from the past must be greatly purified and refined. And this is a task. We’ve been a small group working for ten years on freedom; if you took the full range of ideas, think of how much work would have to be done to get the history of thought refined into an examined condition where it could yield some guidance to anyone who wants to think constructively and creatively today.

Obviously this last point has no relation to college teaching. You can’t do this in college. It takes too long. My own guess is that the best you can do in the college teaching of philosophy is what I suggested a Catholic college could do. And the best thing you can do in a secular college is to read the Great Books of philosophy or law, with the other great books, just in the hope that the student at the end of four years will understand some questions, face perhaps some issues, and look for the answers during the rest of his life. If there is any other way of doing it, if there is any other way of cultivating the liberal arts, the skills of learning, than by reading the Great Books, I certainly would welcome it. If it could be done better in some other way I would applaud it.

All I can say, as my own conclusion is that I simply don’t know of any other way in which it can be done as well, or done at all.

Thank you.

[1] “First Annual Cross Currents Award, presented by the Cross Currents Club of Santa Clara University to Mortimer J. Adler in recognition of his distinguished and continuing contribution to the cause of intellectual dialogue in the culture of our time: The Great Conversation.”

[2] Given as an Aquinas Lecture at the Aquinas Foundation at Princeton University, March 7, 1953, and reprinted by the Princeton University Press. The lecture is reprinted in entirety in A Gilson Reader: Selections from the writings of Etienne Gilson, edited with an introduction by Anton C. Pegis (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1957), A Doubleday Image Book, D 55. Page references are to this edition.

[3] Op. cit. pp. 289-290.

[4] Ibid., pp. 290-291.

[5] Ibid., p. 287.

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


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