What is an Idea?—Mortimer J. Adler


Mortimer AdlerIn the vocabulary of daily speech, the word “idea” is generally used to name the subjective contents of our own minds — things that each of us has in his or her own mind. This use of the word predominates in a large portion of modern psychology, concerned as it is with something called “the association of ideas” or “the stream of consciousness” — with the images we experience in dreams or in acts of imagination. It is a kind of omnibus term that covers all the contents of our minds when we have any conscious experience — our sensations and perceptions, our images and memories, and the concepts we form.

But that, obviously, is not the way the word “idea” is being used when we engage one another in the discussion of ideas. In order for a discussion between two or more persons to occur, they must be engaged in talking to one another about something that is a common object of their conjoined apprehension. They do not have a common object to discuss if each of them is speaking only of his own ideas in the subjective sense of the term.

Consider, for example, a number of individuals arguing with one another about liberty and justice, about war and peace, or about government and democracy. They probably differ in the way they subjectively think about these matters. Otherwise, they would not find themselves arguing about them. But it must also be true that they could not be arguing with one another if they did not have a common object to which they were all referring. That common object is an idea in the objective sense of the term.

These two uses of the one word “idea” — the subjective use of it to signify the contents of an individual’s conscious mind and the objective use of it to signify something that is a common object being considered and discussed by two or more individuals — may be a source of confusion to many. We might try to eliminate the source of confusion by restricting the use of the word “idea” to its subjective sense and substituting another mode of speech for “idea” in its objective sense. We might always use the phrase “object of thought” instead. Thus, freedom and justice, war and peace, government and democracy might be called objects of thought.

One other example may help to reinforce what has just been said. Let us turn from our thinking to our sense-experience of the world in which we live. We are in a room sitting at a table. On the table is a glass of wine. You are facing the light and I am sitting with my back to it. We have, therefore, different subjective impressions or perceptions of the color of the table and of the wine in the glass. But in spite of our divergent subjective perceptual experiences, we know that we are sitting at one and the same table and looking at one and the same glass of wine. We can put our hands on the table and move it. We can each take sips out of the same glass of wine. Thus we know that the table and the glass of wine are one and the same perceptual object for both of us. It is that common object that we can talk about as well as move and use.

We live in two worlds: (1) the sensible world of the common perceptual objects that we move around and use in various ways and (2) the intelligible world of ideas, the common objects of thought that we cannot touch with our bodies or perceive with our senses, but that, as thinking individuals, we can discuss with one another.

The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s INTELLECT MIND OVER MATTER

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

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