Mortimer J. Adler: The Philosopher


I. Introduction

At the conclusion of these lectures on the works of the mind, it seems appropriate to begin by surveying the series and noting the principles by which the parts are ordered. This is also a fitting way to introduce the philosopher, for the part that philosophy always tries to play is never one part among others, but rather the ordering of all parts to provide a grasp of the whole. Here at once you see two characteristics of philosophical work: its apparent megalomania, or desire for universality; and its obsessive devotion to neatness, or desire for order.

What is common to all forms of intellectual work is their concern with truth. As if prompted by that fact, I must hasten to exemplify a third characteristic which, in the popular conception, is most typical of the philosopher — the tendency to disagree with other philosophers.

In the opening lecture, Yves Simon made a fundamental division of all intellectual work into two sorts: intellectual work directive of manual labor, and intellectual work which prepares for contemplation. Both sorts of intellectual activity are as truly work as the productive labor of the hands. They are useful rather than terminal, aiming at a result beyond themselves; and they engage the mind in change or motion, in time and transitivity. As manual work is work, but not of the mind, so contemplation, in Yves Simon’s view, is of the mind, but not work. In contrast to all forms of intellectual work, contemplation is an immanent activity, terminal and useless, intrinsically enjoyable, in the mode of rest rather than of motion, and so detached from the process of time — an image in this life of eternity!

If Yves Simon were right, what would be most worthy of the philosopher: to do the work of inquiry, analysis, and demonstration which seeks to learn the truth, or to transcend work and enjoy the rest of contemplating truths already learned? This is, of course, a variant of Lessing’s famous question: Which is better — the pursuit of the truth or its possession?

Not being an incurably romantic German, I would — and so would Yves Simon — give the obviously sensible answer. The possession of the truth, of course, is better. But here I must part company with Simon. I do not think that, in this life, any except the simplest truths can be enduringly possessed. Except for axioms which are almost a natural habit of the mind and simple truths like “two plus two equals four,” there is no truth which requires strenuous work to learn that we can hold on to for more than a moment without continuing to work at it. The same sort of work — the work of analyzing, arguing, proving — is needed to sustain the truth in our minds as was needed for its original acquisition.

Even if it were not confirmed by Christian dogma, the evidence is persuasive that, in this life, we are condemned to work and are not privileged to rest. I am speaking now as a philosopher on the natural plane. The theologian can have more to say. He can say that on the supernatural plane and with the help of grace the soul can achieve some measure of heavenly rest on earth — in a remote and inchoate participation of beatitude. But the philosophic life is certainly not to be identified with the life of grace. It is entirely an affair of labor, of keeping the truth alive in our minds by intellectual work, with no time out for resting to contemplate it. On the natural plane, man — body and soul together — is a temporal creature, completely immersed in time and embroiled in process. Not even in the most stable habits of the mind is there any transcendence of time, for even they fail and atrophy without the continual effort of exercise.

The object of contemplation is not truth in that logical or subjective sense of truth which signifies a quality inherent in our judgments when they conform to reality. Though “two plus two equals four” and the law of contradiction are relatively permanent truths which we can possess without perpetual reworking, they are not proper objects for contemplation. As for every other form of knowledge, so for contemplation, the proper object is not the content of the mind itself but an existent thing, a real being. But contemplation differs from all other forms of knowledge in two respects: first, it is an act of comprehensive vision rather than of discursive thought; second, it is never an act of the intellect alone but of the intellect united with the will in a synthesis of knowledge and love. Precisely because of this, the object of contemplation is always something beautiful, for beauty is that synthesis of truth and goodness which is the objective counterpart of the union of knowledge and love in our act of contemplation.

In the opinion of the theologian, the only adequate object of contemplation is the divine beauty. The beauty of the real and immutable existence of God is the object of the beatific vision, not the discursive or demonstrable truth that God exists or that God is immutable. But the vision of God belongs to the order of the supernatural and the eternal. Such contemplation is not possible in this life. What is possible, according to the theologian, is that remote and inchoate participation in beatitude which occurs in the contemplative acts of religious devotion and meditative absorption. Certainly the work of philosophy does not specifically prepare for contemplation of this sort. The least speculative person who is truly religious is more inclined to contemplation than the philosopher.

There is, however, one sort of contemplation which does occur in this life and on the natural plane. It takes place whenever we give ourselves fully to the immediate apprehension of any individual whole, whether a natural thing or a work of art. Two conditions must be fulfilled. We must embrace the object cognitively; that is, we must apprehend it in an act of vision, rather than analytically or discursively. And we must go beyond a mere knowing of it to the loving enjoyment of its real perfection. The mind being inadequate for the knowledge of individual, sensible things, such contemplation is primarily aesthetic — an act of the sensitive faculties, in which the mind cooperates. If there is in this life any cognitive activity which gives us a moment of rest, detachment from utility, and escape from the purposiveness of work, it occurs in the contemplation of sensible beauty. Certainly the work of philosophy does not prepare for contemplation of this sort.

It has seemed necessary to insist upon this point in order to identify the philosopher and the philosophic life. It is not, as Aristotle said, the godlike life of contemplation. It is, on the contrary, the quite human life of perpetual toil, winning nothing but each day’s bread, and having to work again for the next, with no imperishable store of truth to lay up for feasting in days of leisure. Philosophy begins in wonder as Aristotle said, but, Aristotle to the contrary, it also ends in wonder with old questions unanswered and with familiar answers alive only in so far as they raise new questions.

Yet I would not completely depart from Yves Simon’s attempt to make a basic distinction among the activities of the mind. Instead of doing it in terms of work and contemplation, I would do it in terms of the speculative and the practical — practical work preparing for or directing moral conduct and artistic production, manual or otherwise; and speculative work aiming at knowledge about reality, not contemplation of it. It seeks to form habits of knowledge and keep them alive by continual consideration of truths which we once thought we fully understood, but which in this life can never be perfectly comprehended.

  1. What is its end or aim?

  2. What is its subject matter?

  3. By what method or process, by what motions of the mind, does it proceed?

  4. Most important of all, is it individual or cooperative, solitary or social?

II. The End or Aim of Philosophical Work

We are all familiar with the distinction between the useful and the fine arts. Some arts, like shoemaking and shipbuilding, make things to be used; shoes and ships are not normally ends in themselves but means to the accomplishment of some purpose, such as locomotion or transportation. Other arts, like music and poetry, make things to be enjoyed rather than used; sonatas and sonnets can, of course, be made to serve some ulterior purpose, even as a shoe or a ship can be admired rather than used, but the intention of the poet or musician is normally to provide an object to be known and to delight the knowing mind. This distinction between the useful and the fine arts derives partly from the intention of the artist and partly from the manner in which the product of the artist’s work is received. The recipient of the work can violate the artist’s intention, using what he meant to be enjoyed, or enjoying what he meant to be used.

As we have already observed, an individual work of art can be an object of contemplation when its beauty pleases us on being seen. To the extent that the artist intended the product of his labors to be contemplatively enjoyed, his work can be described as preparing for contemplation. But, paradoxically, his work is not itself a speculative work of the mind. Artistic thinking is practical thinking, in one of the two major senses of practicality. It aims at production. Moral and political thinking are practical in the other major sense. They aim at human action, private or social. If, now, we add the fact that the speculative work of the scientist and the philosopher, unlike that of the artist producing a thing of beauty, does not prepare for contemplation, we see that the basic division of the works of the mind into speculative and practical cannot be made by reference to contemplation as the end of the one, and utility as the end of the other.

What, then, are the ends by which we can distinguish the speculative from the practical operations of the mind? The traditional answer is: knowledge and action. But this answer will be misleading unless we clarify both of its principal words.

By “knowledge” we must understand only those types of apprehension which can be expressed in a judgment, an affirmation or denial; we must exclude the kind of knowledge which cannot be so articulated, namely, the intuitive perception of individuals, the nonanalytic vision of wholes. This does not exclude contemplation from the realm of knowledge, natural or supernatural; it merely denies that it is an end which can be served by the speculative work of the mind.

By “action” we must understand both making and doing, the production of ships and poems as well as the performance of moral and political deeds. Otherwise, identifying action too narrowly with moral and political activity, we would exclude artistic work from the sphere of the practical, where it properly belongs even when its product happens to be an object of contemplation.

We are now ready to note one of the distinguishing characteristics of philosophical work. It is both speculative and practical, whereas — with the exception of theology — all other works of the mind are either speculative or practical, but not both. Let us consider the works of the mind which have been discussed in this series of lectures. They are exemplary of all types, even if not exhaustive.

On the one hand, we have the painter, the sculptor, the architect, the musician. The work of these, and typically of all the other arts, is essentially practical in end, aiming at production, not knowledge. So, too, is the work of the legislator, the statesman, and the administrator, for they are men of prudence, aiming not at knowledge, but at moral and political action.

On the other hand, we have the historian, the scientist, and the mathematician. We can ignore, as incidental, the fact that these men are usually writers who produce works of liberal art. We can similarly ignore the fact that historical knowledge may have implications for political action, or that scientific knowledge may have technical applications in the sphere of the useful arts. The primary aim of the historian, the scientist, the mathematician, is to learn the truth about some phase of existence or reality. His end being knowledge, rather than action, his work is essentially speculative. And even when the knowledge he has gained has practical significance, the consideration of that knowledge as directive of action or production does not fall within the scope of historical or scientific research. Such practical consideration, and ultimately the use of knowledge, belongs to the man of action or to the engineer.

Though the philosopher is neither a man of action nor an engineer, though he is neither a man of prudence nor a productive artist, he does not, like the historian, the scientist, and the mathematician, limit himself to learning what is the case, but is equally concerned with what should be. Judgments about what is the case are theoretic. Judgments about what should be done are practical. The philosopher is concerned with both sorts of truth, theoretic and practical. Those who fail to understand the twofold aim of philosophy usually make the mistake of identifying philosophy with logic or metaphysics, on the one hand; or with ethics and politics, on the other.

I shall presently deal with the character of speculative philosophy, in considering the difference in subject-matter and method between philosophy and history, science, and mathematics. Here I wish to add a few remarks about the nature of practical philosophy.

Philosophy is practical in only one of the two basic divisions of the practical order. As we observed, thought and knowledge can be practical or useful in two ways: either in the sphere of doing as a guide to right conduct, or in the sphere of making as directing good productions. Philosophy is practical only in the sphere of prudence, not in the sphere of art. [Note] Moral and political philosophy tell us how to act well, privately or socially; they do not tell us how to make anything. Even the philosophy of art does not tell us how to produce fine or useful objects; it is not the sort of technical knowledge which underlies the techniques of the particular arts but rather a speculative inquiry into the nature and kinds of art. This fact is of importance in the contemporary world because of the prevalent tendency to think that knowledge is useless or impractical unless it is ultimately productive. By that false criterion, philosophy is utterly impractical or useless. Even mathematics is more useful, and certainly science is the most useful form of knowledge, because the truths these disciplines discover have such wide technical applications in the invention of machines or in the production of the comforts of life we call “utilities.” Mathematics and physics produce an atomic bomb, not directly of course, but through the engineering application of their knowledge. If the question were, however, not how to make an atomic bomb or even how to harness atomic energy industrially, but how such instruments can be employed for human welfare, then mathematics and physics would be utterly useless knowledge. Only moral and political philosophy can answer a question of this sort. This is the utility of philosophy, without which we use scientific knowledge at our peril.

As the very words “moral and political theory” indicate, philosophy is practical in a theoretic manner. The philosopher is not a man of action. Unlike the legislator, the statesman, or the administrator, he does not determine policies or devise means for contingent circumstances; he does not formulate rules; above all, he does not make decisions, and so he does not actually solve any practical problems, for practical problems cannot be solved by thinking which stops short of deciding and executing. The practical philosopher is concerned only with the ends of human conduct, and with a consideration of the universal means thereto — universal in the sense that they are not restricted to the contingent circumstances of any concrete historic situation. Rules and decisions made for the here and now are the practical work of the statesman, the legislator, the administrator. The universal principles of conduct, underlying all rules and decisions which have a rational basis, are the practical work of the philosopher. Though he cannot apply his principles to his own life or his own society without the exercise of prudence, the practical competence of the philosopher is not measured by his own prudence, for it is a competence to direct human conduct by defining its ends and by ascertaining universally the conditions prerequisite to their achievement.

Precisely because it is both practical and speculative, philosophy establishes the connection between these two orders of thought and knowledge. It is the philosophy of history and the philosophy of science which explains in general the moral significance of history and the technical utility of science. It is the philosophy of law and the philosophy of art which explains the derivation of the precepts of conduct and the rules of art from our knowledge of the nature of man and the laws of nature. Most important of all, it is a profound maxim of sound philosophical work never to divorce the practical and the speculative, but rather always to draw from the most abstract of metaphysical truths its practical consequences, and to find for every moral or political principle its theoretic foundation.

III. The Subject Matter of Philosophical Thought

In the practical order, the matters or problems with which the philosopher deals do not differ from those of the statesman, the legislator, or administrator. Here the only difference is one of level of consideration, the philosopher being concerned with universal principles, the others with particular rules and decisions. But in the order of speculative thought, philosophy has a distinctive subject matter, a set of problems exclusively its own, though it is also true that philosophical thought can be characterized by the relation in which it stands to all other types of speculative inquiry. Let us first note the speculative aim of the philosopher by defining the object of philosophical knowledge, and then examine the relation of philosophical to other types of knowledge.

I think that it is fair to take history, science, mathematics, and philosophy as the four major types of speculative inquiry, thus dividing the realm of natural knowledge. I have omitted theology or religious knowledge because if it is based on supernatural faith it stands apart from all natural knowledge; and if it is not based on faith, but is entirely a work of reason, theological speculation or religious thought becomes a part of philosophy.

The distinction between history and philosophy is easiest to make. The object of historical knowledge is the past and its particulars. Though the philosopher is like the historian in being concerned with real existences, and though he may consider the past in trying to understand the tenses of time, he does not seek knowledge of its individuals or events. In this respect, however, the philosopher remains undistinguished from the scientist and the mathematician. They, too, have no concern with past particulars.

The distinction in subject matter between science and philosophy is most difficult to make briefly, for it depends upon the distinction between appearance and reality which is itself a philosophical distinction. Unlike the historian, both the scientist and the philosopher strive to know the general aspect of things; they try to formulate what is true universally, apart from the distinctions of past, present, and future. But here the similarity ends. The so-called “laws of nature” which exemplify scientific knowledge at its best are generalizations about the way in which things behave, statements about the invariant relationships or correlations of phenomena. The atomic scientist can tell us the quantitative proportions which obtain when matter is converted into energy, but, unless he turns philosopher, he cannot tell us what matter is, or energy, or what it means for the one to be convertible into the other. He cannot because, as a scientist, his inquiry does not extend to the nature of things, or to their causes, but only to their apparent behavior. The philosopher always goes behind the phenomena to the underlying realities — to what things are, and why. The scientist can be satisfied with nominal definitions, to identify the phenomena with which he is dealing; but it is only by establishing real definitions that the philosopher can grasp the natures of things as they are. A number of consequences follow from this central point of distinction.

One can inquire into how things behave without asking what they are or why, but the what question is not separable from the why: the real definition of natures involves an analysis of causes. Hence whereas scientific formulations are merely descriptive, philosophical knowledge is explanatory. Furthermore, in seeking knowledge of causes, the philosopher must press his inquiry to the ultimate — to the first principles of being and becoming. In the realm of phenomena, the scientist not only can, but must, specialize. He cannot do his work well by taking all phenomena as his object. He must study stars or atoms, colloids or chlorophyll, the brain or the heart. But the philosopher cannot do his work at all if he specializes. Underlying all phenomena, phenomena of every sort, are the same principles of existence and change. Seeking to know what kinds of things there are, their order and connection, and what it means for anything to be or to become, the philosopher cannot even limit himself to the reality of the physical world. He must ask whether there are immaterial modes of being, and spiritual forms of action.

The very questions which the scientist who understands his business must avoid are the very questions the philosopher must try to answer. Let me illustrate this by one example which should succeed in clearly differentiating the philosopher from the scientist. Because he seeks to know the what of everything, the nature of knowledge itself is a problem for the philosopher, not for the scientist. Though his whole professional life is engaged in seeking knowledge, the chemist or botanist cannot tell us what knowledge is, or, for that matter, even what scientific knowledge is. The problem with which we are at this very moment concerned — the distinction between science and philosophy as forms of knowledge — is typically a problem of the philosopher.

Finally, what about mathematics and philosophy? A part of what has already been said about the difference between science and philosophy applies here. The mathematician is a specialist, concerned not with all things, but with quantity, relations, and types of order. Even so, unless he becomes a philosopher of mathematics, he does not consider such questions as what numbers are, the nature of unity and infinity, or the being of quantity, in itself and in relation to other modes of being. But there is still a further point of distinction. Unlike the historian and the scientist, the mathematician does not deal with real existences, but rather with ideal objects, abstracted from matter and from change or action of any sort. In this respect, the philosopher resembles the historian and scientist, and differs from the mathematician, with one qualification, of course, namely, that the philosopher is concerned with the distinction between the real and the ideal, the material and the immaterial, the changing and the immutable, as diverse modes of being, and so the ultimate character of the objects of mathematics within his inquiry.

I do not mean to suggest that the philosopher knows all the answers or even that he should try to answer all questions. On the contrary, he is as incompetent to solve the specialized problems which delimit the scope of historical and scientific work, as in turn the scientist and the historian are incompetent to answer the more general questions of philosophy. To each fundamental discipline of the mind belongs a proper task, which must not be usurped or infringed upon by other disciplines. None — not even philosophy, for all its universality — is justified in being intellectually omnivorous. Nevertheless, to philosophy falls a task which it must perform not only for its own sake but for the other disciplines as well, and for the good order of the human mind itself.

We have already observed that it is not history or science, but philosophy, which defines history and science, distinguishing them from each other and from philosophy. Philosophy thus introduces order into the whole intellectual enterprise, setting limits to each type of inquiry and establishing a division of labor. Of all the disciplines, being the only one which is reflexive, philosophy must define and regulate itself. But it must do one thing more. It must determine what questions cannot be answered by the natural faculties of man, what problems cannot be solved by the light of reason and with all the evidence that experience can ever make available. It is the special task of philosophy to determine the boundaries of natural knowledge and to qualify man’s insatiable desire to know with due humility.

The positivist who tries to perform this task usually lacks humility and arrogantly claims that the questions science cannot answer are unanswerable, even unintelligible. But the true philosopher acknowledges and sometimes is able to demonstrate that questions no human inquiry can answer are quite intelligible. He is, therefore, prepared to listen to the man of religious faith who claims that God has revealed truths which man’s unaided faculties cannot acquire. Without the integrity and humility which comes from the philosophical discipline of reason, there can be no harmony between science and religion, but only the disorder of their sterile antagonism or of their being isolated from each other in logic-tight compartments.

The simplest way to summarize the central point I have been trying to make about the scope of philosophical work is to say that the philosopher deals with problems which are common to all the other intellectual disciplines and so establishes their order and connection. The truth of this is evidenced by the fact that, whenever a historian, a scientist, a mathematician, a musician, a legislator, an administrator, or any other specialist, talks outside his narrow field, he acknowledges sometimes blatantly, sometimes apologetically, that he is talking philosophically.

The acknowledgment is correct. Whenever any of these specialists consider the general human significance of their work, try to connect it with the work of others, or give it intelligibility for the common man, they are on the verge of becoming philosophers. Philosophy is everybody’s business; it is the only intellectual vocation to which all men are called. Since philosophy is everybody’s business, everybody must make it his business to talk well philosophically. Too often the specialist, who has a proper respect for the technique of his own professional work, thinks that, since everyone on occasion must become philosophical, no special competence or technical proficiency is required.

The specialist, or anyone else, who philosophizes in this way should be apologetic. Philosophical discourse is the common conversation of mankind raised to the highest degree of elegance and precision. It is not loose talk in which the specialist can indulge when he wants to relax from the exacting labors of his own professional field.

To explain this point, I wish to turn now to the two remaining considerations — the technical requirements of philosophical work and its social character.

IV. The Technique of Philosophy

Let me begin negatively by stating what intellectual operations the philosopher does not perform.

He does not do research or carry on investigations which require the collection of data, the assembling of evidence, the examination of documents, or the transportation of his body from place to place in order to make observations. Such activities belong to the historian or his kith and kin, the social scientist, the humanist, and the naturalist.

The philosopher does not supplement the power of his senses by the use of apparatus; he does not employ machines of any sort to register the goings-on of nature or use instruments to explore the unknown; and, of course, he does not construct experiments to create ideal situations in which the essential is artificially isolated from the irrelevant. Such activities belong to the experimental scientist, to the biologist and the chemist, the physicist, and even the astronomer who, though he may perform no experiments, wields complicated machinery.

What this comes to so far is that the philosopher does not exercise his senses in special acts of observation and does no physical work — unless it be in the motions of oral or written speech. So far, then, he does not differ from the mathematician who is also an armchair thinker. What a commentary on our civilization that this phrase has become a derogatory epithet! The fact that the mathematician and the philosopher can perform their tasks sitting in an armchair is the clearest proof that theirs is the highest form of intellectual work — most purely intellectual, least dependent on the senses or the contributions of the manual arts.

How, then, does the philosopher differ from the mathematician? Still proceeding negatively, he does not make postulates; he does not develop deductively and by systematic elaboration the consequences of a small set of initial assumptions; he does not hypothecate ideal entities which are acceptable on the sole criterion of consistency. These are activities peculiar to the mathematician in which the philosopher does not share. Beyond this, they have much in common — precision of definition, exhaustiveness of analysis, and rigor of demonstration.

Before I come to these three intellectual acts which comprise the whole of philosophical work, I would like to develop the consequences of both the negative and the positive analogy between mathematics and philosophy.

Unlike mathematics, especially modern mathematics, philosophy is not advanced by the construction of elaborate theoretic systems. In modern times philosophers have been seduced by mathematics into system-building; they have sold their intellectual birthright for a mess of postulates. Mathematics can be deductive in the simple linear style of deriving one theorem after another. But linear deduction is a small and relatively unimportant part of philosophical thought. No system of deductions could ever be large or flexible enough to contain the concatenation of reasonings which make up philosophical discourse. Furthermore, inductive proof — the proof of existence, totally unlike mathematical induction — is indispensable in philosophy. Most important of all, philosophical thought is argumentative; it is as much concerned with refutations as with proofs; it is always involved in weighing opposites, balancing contraries, even in establishing polarities. Oppositions, which are the death of systems, are the very life of philosophy, because it is at all moments essentially dialectical, even when it has demonstrated a conclusion.

Like mathematics, philosophy must always try to transcend the limits of the imagination, to go beyond the merely imaginable to the abstractly conceivable. Granted that no human thought can ever wholly escape its bondage to the senses or totally uproot itself from imagery, nevertheless, the philosopher, like the mathematician, must safeguard the integrity of his processes by avoiding poetry as if it were the very plague. I do not mean that the philosopher should shun the work of the poet. I mean only that he must not himself have recourse to poetizing, as a weak substitute for the work of definition, analysis, and demonstration. When it is hard to be precise, or exhaustive, or rigorous, great and terrible is the temptation to convey insights by imagery and meanings by metaphor. He must struggle against this; he must use examples, real or imaginary, and draw diagrams or pictures, only as auxiliary devices. They must not be his main stock in trade. The Weltanschauung is as much an enemy of philosophy as it is the system; poetic expression as much a sign of philosophical weakness as deductive simplicity.

Definition, analysis, and demonstration, may I repeat, comprise the whole of philosophical work. Yet the simple enumeration of this triad of functions does not adequately convey the complex motion of the mind in performing these acts, not isolated from one another, but interdependent and interpenetrating. The feel of the thing is, perhaps, much better expressed in a statement by Aristotle which St. Thomas Aquinas expanded. Aristotle, in the opening chapters of the Metaphysics, had said, trying to define the highest intellectual undertaking, that it was the business of the wise man to order all things. In the first question of the Summa, St. Thomas repeats this: it is the task of a wise man to order or arrange and, he adds, also to judge. To order and to judge. This is what the philosopher must do. Let us look again at these two intellectual obligations and at their relation to each other.

To judge. — This imposes upon the philosopher the duty to be a man of conviction, not a man of opinion. The philosopher ought never try to avoid the duty of making up his mind by merely entertaining opinions or advancing them lightly. I would go further: the philosopher should eschew the expression of opinion altogether. Opinion is proper to the man of affairs, for in the realm of action, opinion must be resorted to, but it is never admissible in the man of thought, not even as a last resort. If a philosopher has nothing better to offer than an opinion, it would be better that he keep his silence. What, then, is the opposite of opinion, to which the philosopher should restrict himself? It is a judgment, intuitive or reasoned, self-evident or demonstrated. An opinion is an act of the mind in which the will or the passions participate precisely because the evidence is inadequate. When what one is thinking about does not determine what one thinks, one must voluntarily, or emotionally, decide what to think, and so an opinion is formed, to which we may hold lightly or obstinately according to the strength of our desires. In contrast, a purely intellectual judgment is involuntary. The light of reason and the evidence are sufficient to determine what we think, and, when we think dispassionately, one judgment is not stronger or weaker than another. The duty of the philosopher to judge thus requires him both to restrain himself from wishful thinking and to submit his mind selflessly to the object of thought — not passively, however, but with the fullest effort to discern what objectively is demanded of the mind. In short, the exercise of philosophical judgment, in the acceptance of principles and in the demonstration of conclusions, achieves that intellectual objectivity which is supposed to be the special mark of the scientific mind, but which, in truth, is the highest quality of the mind as a thinking and knowing faculty.

To order or arrange. — Only things which are different in some respect can be ordered; only the elements of a more complex unity, the parts of a whole, can be arranged. Order and arrangement imply distinction, acknowledge not merely multiplicity but contrariety, and presuppose a unity in which even the greatest diversity can be embraced and the most extreme opposites can be bridged. Distinction or differentiation is impossible without definition. Hence the duty to order requires the philosopher to define. And since definition tells us not only what a thing is but also what it is not, the resulting distinctions involve oppositions of all sorts. But order cannot be fully achieved unless there is a place for everything and everything is in place. Only then is a multitude well ordered; and only then is the unity of a complex whole perceived without the neglect of its least parts or its most intransigent element. To accomplish this, the philosopher must supplement definition by analysis — analysis carried on exhaustively and tested by synthesis, even as addition tests subtraction in the arithmetic process.

To judge and to order. — The philosopher must do both, not one or the other. At every stage of definition and analysis he is called upon to judge; and with every act of judgment, whether he is asserting what is evident or what is demonstrated, he must explicate what is implied, acknowledge what is presupposed, and hold the is not along with the is, so that the movements of analysis and synthesis will not stop at half-truths but will complete their round, to come back later to the is understood as is not, and the is not as is. This almost endless process which is perpetually invigorated and renewed by judging for the sake of order, by ordering for the sake of judgment, is the dialectical motion of the human mind engaged relentlessly in philosophical discourse.

Perhaps I can exemplify in a small way this dialectical motion. I have said a number of things about the nature of philosophy. To be philosophical, I should consider the opposites of what I have said. I should then return to my original remarks with new aspects of a larger truth. Since this is a brief and formal lecture, not an interminable, which is to say a good, conversation, I cannot promise to carry the process to completion. But I can begin and, perhaps, reach some conclusion with which we can temporarily pause and say good night.

V. The Opposite View of Philosophical Work

Let the antiphonal voice be heard. What do my opponents assert? They deny that philosophy is a form of knowledge, for either it employs the method of science or it does not. If it does, it is indistinguishable from science; if it does not, it cannot be knowledge, for — so say the positivists — except for the attainment of scientific research, man has no knowledge. All else is opinion. Or, in another mood, they say that, in order to avoid being undisciplined purveyors of opinion, philosophers must adopt the methods of mathematical logic and confine themselves to purely formal patterns and ideal constructions, having no converse with reality or dealings with existence. The logic-chopping of the medieval Schoolmen is still verboten, but under the guise of modern logistics the philosopher is asked to be happy performing new mental gymnastics — the old game of the mind playing tag with itself. On this supposition it is the play of the mind, not serious intellectual work, which the consideration of philosophy should describe. It is almost out of place in a series of lectures which treat of such useful and serious endeavors as science and history.

The implications of such a view of philosophy are plain enough, but what are its presuppositions? Whence does it arise? To tell the story, and at the same time to make a long story short, let me mention three historical facts which, unless seen in a new light, seem to provide sufficient grounds for the mockery the positivists make of philosophy. Then I shall try to add the light which reinterprets these facts and tears off the mask, or the false face, which is all the positivists see when they look at philosophy in its history.

The first fact is the undeniable fact of disagreement. There is no question about this. Philosophers disagree. They always have. They are still doing it. They will continue to. How, then, can philosophy claim to be knowledge, or avoid the charge that it is opinion, individual and subjective opinion? Consider science and its history. There, agreement prevails.

The second fact is the fact of isms. There is no such thing as philosophy. There are only isms — Platonism and Aristotelianism, idealism and realism, the Thomists and the Scotists, the Cartesians and the Kantians, rationalism and empiricism, scholasticism and pragmatism — even positivism. On the surface, this also seems to be true. The history of philosophy reads this way, or at least it is written this way by its loyal and devoted servants. And as positivism itself bears witness, any attempt to do away with isms instantly becomes itself just another ism. How, then, can anyone claim that the work of philosophy is not to build systems? That is precisely what the philosophers do — build systems, each bearing the name of its architect, and worth attention only as a museum piece or as a relic, often dilapidated, of the past. Compare science. It is a single, ever growing body of knowledge, bearing the name of no man, and throwing off isms as a healthy body throws off disease.

The third fact is the fact of progress. Here we begin with science, or mathematics, or even history. In each of these types of inquiry there has been a steady progress from less to more knowledge, from less perfect to more adequate understanding of the matters under investigation. Now compare philosophy. Even its own practitioners have complained about the lack of progress. Certainly, the great modern philosophers, more candid than their forebears, Descartes and Bacon, Locke and Hume and Kant, made the evident lack of progress up to their own time their own point of departure. They found nothing they deemed worthy to build upon. That is why each had to scatter the disorderly stones left standing from the past, clear the field, lay his own foundations, and erect a new system which could pretend to be the mansion of philosophy only for a day; for, with the dawn of the next, it would become just another ism for another philosopher to clear away and start the same process all over again. The scientist, not the philosopher, can say, “In my house are many mansions,” for the scientists make progress in building the city of knowledge by adding new dwellings to old, but the philosophers are always tearing each other’s down in order to make room for the one edifice that is to house the mind but never does.

These last two facts, like the first, seem undeniable enough on the historic record. There would be no point in denying them, for they lie on the surface of intellectual history, plain for all to see. But there is some point in looking behind the appearances — as a philosopher certainly should deal with the appearances of history — and trying to discover the causes and the reality which the surface phenomena conceal.

The fact of disagreement in philosophy is a half-truth: The other half is the fact of agreement. Nor should the fact of agreement among scientists be allowed to overshadow their disagreements. What gives plausibility to these half-truths is the quite different way in which agreement and disagreement occur in science and philosophy. Scientists of one generation generally disagree with scientists of an earlier day, and this disagreement with the past is praised as progress. In contrast, there are major agreements among philosophers across the centuries — Whitehead with Plato, Dewey with Bacon, Russell with Leibniz, James with Kant, Hobbes with Lucretius, Hegel with Plotinus, Descartes with St. Augustine, Spinoza with Epictetus, Aquinas with Aristotle. Such agreements are seldom fully noted and, when they are, discounted as atavisms. But if the major lines of agreement throughout the history of philosophy were systematically traced and developed, it would be found that the major issues are few, and that many minds have concurred in taking the sides which constitute them.

Yet, we shall be reminded, philosophers contemporary with one another tend to disagree, whereas scientific minds in the same generation tend toward unanimity. This is partly, if not wholly, accounted for by the fact that science is authoritarian and philosophy is not. The appearance of unanimity in the scientific world is due to the fact that any scientist who is not a specialist in a particular field accepts the work of specialists in that field on their authority as reputable scientists. Such docility does not prevail among specialists in the same field; their disagreements are often as violent as they are scientifically fundamental. In contrast, no philosopher worthy of the name is a specialist, and none who had integrity would accept a single principle or conclusion on the authority of another. In a lecture at this university some years ago, Charles Adams Brown epitomized the difference between science and philosophy by stressing this fact — that authority is the primary basis for holding and sharing scientific truths, whereas in philosophy the only basis on which any judgment can be made is the free conviction of one’s own mind. It is this fact which explains the difference between science and philosophy with respect to agreement and disagreement.

I turn next to the isms and to the charge that there is no progress in philosophical thought. Though the lack of progress has been exaggerated, though the isms are often more a matter of language than of thought, I prefer to grant the fact and make the most of it by explaining why, in modern times particularly, these regrettable ills have beset philosophy. I start again from the overemphasized disagreement among philosophers. The men of the Renaissance were unduly impressed by the quibblings of a decadent scholasticism, which, understandably enough considering their lack of perspective, they permitted to obscure the great tradition of European thought. Their dissatisfaction with the bad intellectual climate in which they grew up expressed itself in two equally false reactions: they went either to the skeptical or to the dogmatic extreme. Since philosophers disagree, the skeptics said, let us give it up entirely, for no truth or knowledge can be gained from such an enterprise. Contemporary positivism is their offspring. And, said the dogmatist, if my predecessors in philosophy disagree, there is nothing for me to do but to throw the whole tradition aside and start from scratch as if I were the first philosopher alive. Modern system-building in philosophy was the inevitable consequence. No wonder that philosophy has become so discredited in our day and that the common man seeking wisdom, or the eager student in our universities, turns away with a bitter taste.

But there is a third attitude which can be taken toward the difficulties of the philosophical enterprise and in the face of profound disagreement on major issues. It is the critical attitude which avoids the skeptical and the dogmatic extremes, the dialectical attitude of Aristotle when he said: “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed” (Metaphysics ii. 1). Discounting the individual and placing hope only in the collective pursuit of truth, Aristotle formulated a maxim for himself — and for all other philosophers — to follow. “It is necessary,” he said, “to call into council the views of our predecessors, in order that we may profit by whatever is sound in their thought and avoid their errors” (De anima i. 2).

This maxim, and the understanding on which it is based — that philosophy must be a collective not an individual enterprise — has seldom been perfectly honored, but certainly much more so in the ancient and medieval world than in modern times. The debacle of modern philosophy is largely to be accounted for by the loss of this understanding and the violation of the maxim. In modern times philosophers have undertaken their work as if they were poets or painters, each engaged in the utterly individualistic effort of producing his own version of all things in heaven and earth. There is no greater error, no more egregious misconception of the nature of the philosophical task. The task of the fine artist is the polar opposite. In concluding this lecture on philosophical work, I would, therefore, like briefly to describe its essentially social character and to draw there from the light which may guide us in the recovery of philosophy from its present disgraceful plight.

VI. The Social Character of Philosophical Work

Among the works of the mind, the most profound difference arises from their individual or social character — whether by their very nature they are solo performances or must be co-operative efforts. We would be shocked at the thought of ten men getting together to write a sonnet or to compose a sonata. We should be equally shocked at the notion of one man by himself trying to construct a philosophy. Unfortunately, we take it for granted that a philosopher should retire to the solitude of his study or should ascend to the lofty isolation of his ivory tower. On the contrary, he belongs in the market place, as Socrates so well knew. Solitude may be desirable for the mathematician, but not for him. [Note] The philosopher could make no worse mistake than to absent himself from the felicity of social intercourse. Far from being a solitary vocation, the philosophical life draws its vitality from conversation and sustenance from the exchange of opinion among ordinary men.

Of all the works of the mind, philosophy is the most demanding of good social conditions and the most dependent on community and co-operation. It is usually supposed that this is true of science, but it is not true to the same extent or in the same way. Philosophy requires the co-operation of minds which work together on the plane of equality, not of the hierarchical order of master and helper. The scientist is more like the architect than the philosopher. In both cases, the master-builder assigns tasks for subordinates to perform, but he alone organizes their various contributions to produce the whole. The individual philosopher can do nothing well alone. He is merely one worker in the vineyard, and he works well only if he sees the ultimate fruit as the harvest of many hands joined freely and equally together.

The supremely social character of philosophical work follows directly from its being dialectical in method rather than investigative or experimental, or even systematic and deductive as is mathematics. It also follows from the fact that the philosophical mind is discursive rather than contemplative. To say that philosophy is essentially discursive means more than the negation of contemplation; it means positively that it thrives on discourse. Removed from conversation, or from the opportunity therefore, philosophical thought soon dries up and withers. It is a work of conversation; it might almost be said that it is a work of teaching and being taught. The philosopher must be both a teacher and teachable. It is indispensable for the philosopher to teach and to be able to learn from his students. This is true of no other work of the mind. The mind can produce great poetry or music quite apart from teaching poetry or music — in fact, it is usually done that way. The great historian or scientist can dispense with the experience of teaching, and in our universities he usually does for the most part. And if the great statesman or legislator — I do not say educational administrator — is also a teacher of men, that is a consequence of his work, not a condition prerequisite to doing it well. Only the philosopher cannot divorce his work from that of teaching and being taught; which is just another way of saying that his work is through and through dialectical, that it is a work purely and simply of the liberal arts, as is no other function of the human mind. Since teaching and being taught are also nothing but the liberal arts in action, it might be wondered whether the whole educational process can prosper in an atmosphere from which philosophy has been withdrawn or in which it is stultified.

The social work of philosophy cannot flourish where there is no intellectual community to support it. When the factors favorable to communication fail to operate, when the minds of most men suffer intellectual isolation for lack of a common tradition of ideas, common understanding, and common intellectual skills, there is no universe of discourse but only a confusion of tongues. Apart from a pervasive universe of discourse, and in a century such as ours in which there is no or little intellectual community, the work of philosophy cannot be well done. It is hardly done at all. It is not done in the meetings of philosophical associations or similar scholarly conferences, at which the members read papers at one another, and no one takes the floor except to express his own, usually dissident, opinion. It is not done, nor can it be revived, in our universities, for they are proudest of the fact that they have specialized everything, even philosophy, and that they have abolished the community of scholars in favor of individualistic freedom of opinion.

The American Philosophical Association has recently spent another grant of Rockefeller money to find out what is wrong with philosophy in our institutions of higher learning. Anyone who understood the nature of philosophy would have known the answer without research and at no public cost. Our institutions of higher learning are what is wrong with philosophy; they are at least the proximate cause of the trouble, the ultimate cause being the complete collapse of intellectual community in the culture of our civilization.

Can anything be done? Yes, but not by our philosophy departments or even in our universities more generally. For what must be done is so thoroughly antipathetic to the whole spirit of our institutions and the scholars who therein enjoy their splendid isolation, their freedom from unity, even if the unity required is only that of a universe of discourse; what must be done calls for so radical a reform of the culture which our universities reflect, that it would be naive or ironical to ask our universities to support, or even to participate in, a renovation which would alter them beyond recognition. Without specifying the institutional details, I can summarily outline what must be done, and even if it is not clear how it is to be done, it will be clear that it cannot be done in our universities.

A group of minds, trained in the liberal arts and acquainted with the whole tradition of European learning — not merely its philosophy, but its poetry and history, its science and theology as well — must work together to produce a Summa Dialectica. Such an intellectual synthesis would be the bare beginning, not the ultimate fruit, of an intellectual community. It might take twenty or thirty years to draft the first outlines of a Summa Dialectica, but if that work were done in the right way in its initial stage, no matter how inadequately or how tentatively, it would be the basis for a continually growing expansion and rectification as the work continued indefinitely into the future.

The great Summa’s of the Middle Ages were primarily theological, not philosophical; their framework was dogmatically determined, not dialectically developed, even though within that predetermined framework, the interior elaboration was largely accomplished by philosophical work in the dialectical manner. In contrast, the Summa Dialectica will not soon, and perhaps never, reach final conclusions and universally binding agreements. That kind of finality and infallibility is not possible in any work of reason apart from supernatural or dogmatic faith. Finality is not the aim of a Summa Dialectica. On the contrary, it aims at the beginning of something, the revival of philosophy and the renewal of the intellectual community. It will succeed in accomplishing these results if it is able to formulate the dialectical unity and the dialectical truth which resides in the whole tradition of learning and thought; which must be there implicitly, awaiting explication, if for no other reason, because that tradition is the expression of the human mind, common to all men of every time and place, living in a common world.

It should be clear from everything I have said that by “dialectical unity” I do not mean unanimity; and by “dialectical truth” I do not mean freedom from contradiction. It is, therefore, neither perfect unity nor perfect truth. But more than a dialectical unity, which grasps the whole in which all oppositions have their ordered place; and more than a dialectical truth, which judges the presuppositions and implications of taking sides in every intellectual dilemma and which discovers the interconnection of the issues; more than this may be impossible for the human mind ever to achieve.

There would be a touch of megalomania in the project of a Summa Dialectica, even if it were to restrict itself to searching out the dialectical unity and truth in the tradition and mind of the Western world. But without megalomania of this sort, nothing can be done, for we have reached that stage of intellectual decay where little things will not avail. When the patient is next to death, only strenuous measures hold out hope. Since the situation is so desperate, since world government is needed if civilization is to survive politically, and since world government needs the establishment of a world community if political institutions are to have spiritual foundations, let us carry the megalomania one step further. Why limit the project of a Summa Dialectica to the Western tradition? Why should not other cultures construct comparable intellectual syntheses of their own traditions? We may, perhaps, take the lead, begin the work, set the model which, if followed freely and creatively in all the great areas of human civilization, would result in a convergence of the many toward the one. The ultimate Summa Dialectica must provide the intellectual pattern of a world community, the common medium of exchange for all mankind, not only living together in one world at last, but also able to think together in a single universe of discourse.

The central theme of my remarks about philosophical work has been taken from the traditional statement that it is the business of the wise man to order and to judge. But the philosopher is not a wise man; he is not a man secure and established in wisdom, now or ever. He is, as Socrates first said, a lover of wisdom. That is the last, as well as the first, word about the philosopher.

A lover of wisdom aspires to the order which belongs to wisdom. A lover of wisdom emulates the judgment of the wise man. He hopes for a more perfect understanding of the truth than can ever be reached dialectically. So long as he is a lover of wisdom, he will not despair if, always working rightly toward his goal, he falls short of its possession — the possession which would transform his life. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, remains true to his ideal, and faithful to his love, so long as he strives without wavering to possess the perfect good of the human mind.

Note] Aristotle’s Poetics appears to be the solitary exception to this statement, but anyone who will examine why it is solitary will discover why it only appears to be, and is not really, an exception.

Note] There is no incompatibility between the two allocations of the philosopher — the armchair and the market place. The first signifies that he does not need to do research; the second that he does need the social circumstances of discussion with his fellow-men. In this last respect, he is quite different from the mathematician who can also do his work in an armchair, but who does not need one with wheels so that he can perambulate the public thoroughfares.

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