Controversy in the Life and Teaching of Philosophy

Mortimer AdlerMORTIMER J. ADLER, PH.D.


In a little more than twenty years, the honor of delivering the Annual Association Address has been thrice conferred on me — in Chicago in 1934, in Milwaukee in 1945, and tonight in Cincinnati. I am grateful not only for this honor, but also for the opportunity afforded by each of these occasions to report on work in which I was currently engaged. I would like to think that one reason for each invitation was the fact that in each case the work was a little off the beaten track.

In 1934, shortly after I had become notorious at the University of Chicago for being a non-Catholic Thomist who introduced non-Catholic students to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas, I was invited to discuss the place of scholastic philosophy in a secular university. In 1945, several years after Father Walter Farrell and I had been working together on the theory of democracy, I was given the opportunity to summarize our results in a statement on the future of democracy [1]. Tonight, after spending four years at the Institute for Philosophical Research on the problem of philosophical diversity, I am glad to have the opportunity to talk to you about controversy in the life and teaching of philosophy.

We have just completed a book on the nature of controversy and on the method of constructing the controversies about basic philosophical subjects. This book is intended as a preamble to a series of books which will attempt to set forth the controversies about such subjects as freedom, law, knowledge, man, the state. A book on the controversy about freedom is now in the process of being written.

I believe I am speaking for my fellow-workers as well as for myself when I say that we feel that the book on the nature and method of controversy contains discoveries of consequence for the study of philosophy and for its future development. I am going to try to cover its main conclusions for you in this brief paper. To do this, I shall, first, summarize these conclusions; second, expand on those which need amplification; and third, indicate what consequences follow from them if they are true. The one thing I shall not undertake, because it cannot be done in the time, is to try to prove to you that they are true.

– 1 –To prepare you for the summary of our conclusions, I must call your attention to the fact which is our point of departure, and to the assumption we have made about what lies behind this fact.

The fact is simply that a diversity of philosophical theories or doctrines has always existed and always will. This fact is sometimes made the basis for doubting the existence or attainability of truth in philosophical inquiry, but it is susceptible of other interpretations which are quite consistent with the conception of philosophy as a pursuit of truth which progressively achieves its goal. That an irreducible plurality of philosophies can persist until the end of time is inconsistent only with the nope that philosophical unanimity can be achieved on earth. For a careful analysis of what is and is not entailed by the fact of philosophical diversity, I refer you to the brilliant essay by Dr. James Collins on “The Problem of a Philosophia Perennis.” [2]

The assumption we have made is that behind the diversity lie genuine agreements and disagreements among philosophers about the subjects of their inquiries. Stated more precisely, we assume that it is always possible for philosophers to agree or disagree when they are considering the same subject, even though actually they sometimes do neither.

This assumption is not universally shared. The opposite assumption is quite prevalent in contemporary thought. It holds that the diversity of philosophies is like the diversity to he found in works of art rather than like the diversity of theories or hypotheses to be found in empirical science. Just as one cannot treat two different paintings as if they were pictures of the same object, concerning which they must either agree or disagree, so one cannot treat two different philosophies in that way either. The fact of philosophical diversity is regarded as ultimate. Neither actual nor possible agreements and disagreements are thought to lie behind it.

The assumption we have made is required by our view that philosophy, no less than empirical science, though quite differently, involves the pursuit and attainment of objective truth. The opposite assumption is required by the opposite view, which doubts or denies that philosophy has any concern with objective truth. These two assumptions lead to opposite views of the role of controversy in philosophy.

According to the assumption we reject, controversy is misguided and futile. When philosophers differ, they should not dispute with one another as if there were real issues between them, which warrant rational debate. They should recognize their differences as irresolvable and merely try to understand their diversity as such. According to the assumption we have made, fruitful controversy is possible. Philosophers who differ can disagree, and rational debate can serve the purpose of clarifying the issues and moving toward their resolution.

To the fact of philosophical diversity and to the assumption we have made about it, let us add one other preliminary consideration — our conception of controversy. Fruitful controversy rests on the possibility of genuine issues which are susceptible of rational debate. Genuine issues are possible only if philosophers can disagree by answering in opposite ways one and the same question about one and the same subject. Such disagreements can occur in philosophy only to the extent that philosophers are able to achieve what we have called minimal topical agreements. These agreements, unlike categorical agreements, do not unite two men in a common judgment for which they both claim truth. They consist rather of agreements in understanding, such as agreement about the subject under discussion and agreement about the question concerning it. Given such agreements between them, two men may either take the same side or opposite sides of the issue and thus be in categorical agreement or disagreement [3].

With these preliminaries covered, I can now summarize the main conclusions we have reached as the result of four years of work on philosophical diversity in general and on the diversity about freedom in particular. They are as follows:

(1) Controversy is essential to the philosophical enterprise as a whole. Engaging in controversy is not essential to the work of the individual philosopher. He can pursue in complete isolation his objective of knowing what is or should be the case. Conceivably, he might attain the truth he is seeking without paying the slightest attention to the thoughts of his fellow men. This possibility does not exclude the utility of philosophy as a collective endeavor. But it exists as a collective endeavor only to the extent that philosophers forsake their solitude and some-how confront, one another in the light of their differences. To whatever extent the total philosophical diversity involves disagreement, controversy becomes an essential part of the philosophical enterprise as a whole.

(2) With exceptions so rare that even they may be doubted, philosophers do not actually join issue. Philosophers fail to disagree because they fail to achieve the minimal topical agreements prerequisite to genuine disagreement. In consequence, philosophical controversy has seldom if ever actually taken place. This conclusion applies to the written record of philosophical thought across the centuries as well as to the dialogues of contemporaries who engage in oral discourse or in correspondence, through letters or in the journals [4].

(3) Faced with this fact and rejecting the assumption that makes philosophical controversy impossible, we have concluded that the genuine disagreements and the rational debate which constitute fruitful controversy must be implicit in philosophical discussion, even if they are not actually present there. The immediate corollaries of this conclusion are twofold: first, that it must be possible to construct actual controversies from the materials afforded by the actual discussions in which they are implicit; and second, that, so far as the written record of past philosophical thought is concerned, the work of constructing the latent controversies must be done in order to give them actual existence and to make them explicitly available for study.

(4) The work of constructing controversies requires a method that is quite distinct from any of the methods which have been or can be employed in the conduct of philosophical inquiry itself. Let me add here parenthetically that we think we have devised such method and put it successfully to work in our construction of the several related controversies about human freedom.

(5) In certain respects, this method resembles the methods of the empirical sciences. Its constructions are hypotheses initially formed as a result of observing the discussion that has actually taken place, and subsequently tested by reference to all available, relevant data. But in one crucial respect, this method differs from the methods of empirical science as well as of philosophical thought. It is a method of dealing with the diversity of theories or opinions as such, and so moves on the plane of second intentions, in the sense that its only objects are intentions of the mind. The methods of empirical science and of philosophical inquiry, on the other hand, all move on the plane of first intentions, for their objects are the realities intended by the mind. So far as they deal with diversity, it is a diversity of phenomena or of natures and beings, not a diversity of opinions or theories [5].

(5) The constructions achieved by this method must be completely neutral with respect to the truth or falsity of the philosophical doctrines which are involved in. the controversies it constructs. They must, therefore, be formulated in a language that is neutral with respect to the technical vocabularies and idioms of the several philosophies involved. One cannot actually participate in a controversy as a party without being a partisan for the truth of a particular theory or doctrine as against others. But detachment from such partisanship, or impartiality, is required for the construction of issues if these are to be acceptable to men who hold opposed philosophical views on the questions at issue [6].

(6) Having the requisite neutrality, these formulations also have a kind of truth which is quite distinct from the doctrinal truth that is at stake in the controversy itself. Philosophical doctrines, when true, give us knowledge of whatever realities are the objects of inquiry. These constructions, when true, give us knowledge of the controversies that underlie the diversity of true and false philosophical doctrines. It is obviously possible for men to be united in such truth even though they are divided on points of doctrinal truth.

– 2 –The conclusions I have just summarized do not, need further explanation for the most part. But some amplification may throw light on three points which, I suspect, may be troubling you. The first of these is a statement of fact which may seem to you to run counter to everyone’s experience. I said that philosophical controversy has seldom if ever actually taken place. No matter how much I emphasize the word “actually” to make clear that I am not denying the latent or implicit existence of controversy in the life of philosophy, your reaction may be that philosophical controversy is plain and rife on all sides — in every epoch of the past, in the contemporary journals, and in meetings such as these.

If that is your reaction, then it may be that you have too easily acquiesced in the familiar complaint about philosophy, as compared with science, that philosophers always and everywhere disagree. Would that that were the case, for then philosophy would be full of controversy. But that is simply not the case, as careful attention to the logical conditions of genuine disagreement makes clear. Two men can be in genuine disagreement only when these two conditions are satisfied: (a) they must be discussing a subject which is identical for both of them, and (b) they must be answering a question whose terms they understand in the same way. Only then is it possible for them to join issue and to disagree by giving different answers, both of which cannot be true.

These conditions are extremely difficult to satisfy even when two philosophers confront one another in actual discourse with all the patience, good will, and intellectual acumen that is necessary for the task. If your experience of philosophical meetings is anything like mine, it tells you that such disagreement is a rare event, and that sustained rational debate of the issues is even rarer. These things are rarer still in the history of philosophy, if they have ever occurred at all. The greater the philosophers, as measured by the magnitude of their original contributions, the further removed they are from actually joining issue with one another.

What has actually occurred in the history of philosophy and what occurs everyday among philosophers is a counterfeit of genuine disagreement which, for want of a better name, we have called “subjective disagreement.” On a matter about which he is concerned, Philosopher A is occupied with certain questions to which he thinks Philosopher B gives the wrong answers. Without making sure that Philosopher B is considering the same matter or that he understands the questions in the same way, Philosopher A “takes issue” with Philosopher B, and advances arguments aimed at refuting him. Since two can play at this game, Philosopher B reciprocates by “taking issue” with and refuting Philosopher A.

The topical agreements prerequisite to genuine disagreement are lacking here. Each philosopher “took issue” with the other, but they did not join issue, because each was answering his own questions about a subject he had set up for himself. About that subject and to those questions, each attributed wrong answers to the other, and acted as judge in his own case. Since they did not join issue with one another, their arguments and counter-arguments do not constitute a rational debate. They are merely polemical attack and counter-attack [7].

In other words, the subjective disagreement of Philosopher A with Philosopher B only within the mind of Philosopher A or the minds of his partisan followers. It is not identical with the subjective disagreement of Philosopher B with Philosopher A. This, too, exists only within the mind of Philosopher B or the minds of his partisan followers. Underneath such reciprocal subjective disagreements, there may be genuine disagreement. If there is, it will be objective in the sense that it is an issue which can exist identically in the mind of Philosopher A and Philosopher B, or in the mind of anyone else, whether a party to the issue or an observer of it.

Hence the anti-philosophical complaint that philosophers are forever disagreeing and disputing is in one sense right and in one sense wrong. Subjective disagreements and polemical refutations abound on the surface of philosophical discussion. But in the precise sense in which we have used the word “controversy,” to signify objective disagreements and rational debate, little if any controversy actually exists. The complaint that philosophers differ should not disturb us as much as the complaint that, though they differ, they seldom if ever disagree objectively. If we took that complaint seriously, I should think that, in philosophy’s defense, we would make every effort to show that, underneath the surface of subjective disagreement and polemical refutations, genuine controversy can be found, present at least implicitly if not actually.

This brings me to a second point which may need some amplification. I said a moment ago that the problem was to find the genuine disagreements in philosophy and the debate of issues that are squarely joined. But if these are only implicit in the records of philosophical discussion, then it will not be enough just to discover their latent presence. They must be made explicit. They must become actually present to our minds. Their actuality, which can be fruitful for the philosophical enterprise as a whole, must replace the actuality of subjective disagreement and polemical refutations, which are so futile.

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

To accomplish this, all the elements of philosophical controversy must be constructed. On the basis of the evidence provided by what philosophers have written, we must construct the subjects of controversy by identifying the objects that two or more philosophers have in mind when they use such words as “freedom,” “law,” “matter,” “knowledge” or “God.” If we can identify the object that is common to two or more philosophers, we must construct the disagreements about it which are genuine issues, by formulating the questions about that object which they commonly understand and by formulating the incompatible answers they severally give. That done, we must construct the debate of these issues and relate the issues to one another in the light of the reasoning that connects one with another. If the matter under consideration is complex, and if the discussion of it is extensive and varied, we shall probably have to distinguish the several related subjects that are distinct subjects of controversy. The discussion of such subjects as freedom or law, for example, calls for the construction, not of a single controversy, but of a number of related controversies. By distinguishing different types of controversy as well as different types of issue, we must construct the form of the controversy as a whole.

Every construction we make is a formulation which can and must be checked against what the philosophers say and mean, though none is a formulation which, as stated, can be found in the writings of the philosophers. They are found by interpreting the intent of the language or, rather, the various languages that the philosophers use; and since their whole purpose is to state the elements of a controversy which can be agreed upon by philosophers who are parties to it, a thoroughly neutral language must be employed to formulate them. The neutrality of these constructions, both in language and thought, enables them to serve as the medium through which divergent philosophers can categorically agree and disagree with one another.

Let us suppose for a moment that the neutral formulations we are able to construct represent with perfect accuracy the controversy that is implicit in the philosophical discussion of a certain subject. If that is so, then all the participants in the discussion will accept our constructed identification of the subject of controversy; they will accept our formulation of the questions about that subject which raise the various issues; and they will accept our statement of the several positions on each issue, one of which is their own as a party to the issue.

By accepting these constructions, the disputants share with one another and with us, the observers, the truth about the controversy; and in the light of that truth, they see where and how they agree and disagree with one another about the matters under consideration [8]. Jacques Maritain is of the opinion that it is only through the medium of such neutral constructions that philosophers can be brought into agreement or disagreement. Without it, each remains in the world of his own thought and is conversant there with other philosophers only in the guise he gives them when he imports them into his own world [9].

I said earlier that the method of constructing the elements of controversy is not a method used by philosophers to acquire knowledge of reality. As I have described the work of construction, I am sure you have gained the sense that those who engage in this endeavor are dealing with the results of philosophical work rather than doing such work themselves. But if the method or the work is not strictly philosophical, what is it?

To answer this question, we have appropriated the word “dialectic.” We say that the method and work of constructing philosophical controversies is dialectical. I shall not defend our appropriation of this word, which has been used in so many senses, none of which is ours. But I do wish to avoid misunderstanding. There is little danger that you would confuse the method we have developed — I think for the first time [10] — with Plato’s dialectic, or Kant’s or Hegel’s. But because our dialectic is a method which deals with the diversity of opinions, and because it works only on the plane of second intentions, you might associate it with the method Aristotle expounds in his Topics.

No doubt it has some remote generic similarity to Aristotle’s dialectic, on any one of the several theories of dialectic that Aristotelians attribute to Aristotle. Admitting this distant resemblance, I wish only to add that dialectic as a method of constructing controversies in a thoroughly neutral manner and for the sake of discovering the dialectical truth about the discussion of any philosophical subject, is not to be found anywhere in Aristotle’s Topics. With this said, I hope I can use the word ” dialectic ” in what follows without being misunderstood.


– 3 –Before I proceed now to comment on the bearing of dialectical work on philosophy, let me repeat that I have merely summarized our conclusions. I have not tried to establish their validity. There are certainly no a priori reasons why they must be true. Their truth is entirely a matter of fact, ascertained by us through our experience of trying to discover the controversy about such subjects as freedom. Anyone who wishes to ascertain the truth for himself must submit himself to a similar experience.

Taking the truth of our conclusions for granted, let me proceed now to develop their consequences for the study and future of philosophy. In the time that remains, there are four points I would like to make briefly.

First, a division of labor is needed within the philosophical enterprise as a whole. The problem of dealing with the diversity of philosophies is quite distinct from the problems of philosophical inquiry itself. To solve the problems of philosophy, we must make and defend judgments that answer questions about the objects of philosophical inquiry. To solve the problems raised by the diversity of philosophies, we must make and defend, not philosophical judgments, but judgments about philosophical thought. Here, then, are two different kinds of work — the work of philosophizing and the dialectical work of constructing the controversies that are implicit in the diversity of philosophies.

Conceivably, both kinds of work might be done by the same individual. There would, however, still be a tension between them which would make it impossible for one man to perform both tasks at the same time. Actually, it is unlikely that any individual could discharge both tasks well, even if he had the talent and skill required for each. Each is so arduous and exacting that it would be very difficult for an individual to meet the demands of both upon his time and energy. Prudence, therefore, recommends a division of labor in order to accomplish the objectives of dialectical work, in addition to carrying on philosophical inquiry itself.

Because the proposed division of labor has yet to be instituted on a scale proportionate to the magnitude of the dialectical as well as the philosophical task, little dialectical work has so far been done. In the whole history of thought, the only effort that even remotely resembles a separate undertaking of the task of neutral dialectical construction is to be found in Abelard’s Sic et Non and Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences, and these make their dialectical contribution to theology, not philosophy. The fact that constructive dialectical work has not been done in philosophy explains why philosophical controversy is still only implicit in the record of philosophical discussion.

The philosophical enterprise thus exhibits a remarkable deficiency. In the absence of adequate dialectical work, something essential is missing, and philosophy falls short of its own ideal. “The ideal of the great philosophers,” Jacques Maritain has written me,

is to achieve agreement, disagreement, and rational debate, but it is for each one an accompaniment of his own individual enterprise and within his own individual mind — precisely because the purpose of each one is to embrace and encompass the whole universe of objective truth and rational debate within his own mind. But no philosopher succeeds in achieving the ideal in question, by reason of the limitations of human nature. As a result, the necessity appears of the special branch of philosophy and the special undertaking which is dialectical work.

What is necessary in the life of philosophy is also necessary in the teaching of it. In a sense, the primary use of dialectic is pedagogical or propadeutic. It does not solve the problems of philosophy; it merely prepares the mind for the task of solving them. Given the plurality of philosophies, it is not enough for the student to learn why the adherents of a particular philosophy think it is true. Such truth as it possesses must be seen by the student in the light of the positions that that particular philosophy takes in every controversy to which it contributes. But until enough dialectical work has been done to present such controversies explicitly to the mind, the best possible instruction will tend to give the student the subjective disagreements and the polemical refutations which adherents of this or that particular philosophy usually substitute for the explication of genuine controversy. The best teaching of philosophy that is so far possible is not good enough.

What I have just said applies to Thomism as well as to any other philosophy, perennial or otherwise. It applies to the teaching of philosophy in Catholic as well as in secular institutions. But here I am aware of certain differences between the teaching of philosophy in a Catholic and in a secular college.

If I understand Professor Gilson’s views on this matter, philosophy cannot be studied in a secular institution as a means of acquiring wisdom. The students are much too young to acquire wisdom, even secular wisdom, while in college or graduate school [11]. If, then, secular institutions persist in trying to teach philosophy, the only course Professor Gilson leaves open to them, it would seem, is a dialectical teaching of the subject.

On the other hand, according to Professor Gilson, and here Father Gerard Smith joins him, some philosophical wisdom can be acquired by the young in Catholic institutions, but only on condition that philosophy is taught under the auspices of dogmatic theology and in the light of faith [12]. Since in their view it remains philosophy even when so taught, and since Professor Gilson admits that conflicting philosophies exist and are always possible within the framework of Catholic dogma, the task of teaching philosophy even in a Catholic institution cannot now be adequately discharged by adherents of this or that philosophical doctrine. Nor can it be improved until the major philosophical controversies within the tradition of Catholic thought have been explicitly constructed. In addition, I would think that Catholic philosophy, in any of its forms, cannot be well taught until the dialectical work is done which places Catholic doctrines in the larger context of the philosophical controversies that represent the whole of Western thought.

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

I turn from the role of dialectic in the teaching of philosophy to its bearing on a problem which has become clear only in modern times. That is the problem of the difference between philosophy and empirical science. In my judgment, Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge is the best contemporary statement of the problem; it offers a solution that deserves everyone’s attention. But even when we understand the difference between the objects of philosophical and of empirical inquiry, and even when we understand the difference in their methods, which enable each to solve problems that are entirely beyond the competence of the other, we still do not understand certain differences between philosophy and science that perplex everyone who candidly examines these two intellectual efforts as human undertakings. Each enterprise has a life of its own, which differs strikingly from that of the other in such matters as the conditions of its progress, or the way in which its representatives agree, disagree, and deal with their differences.

Understanding the critical importance of constructive dialectical work in philosophy will help us to understand these contrasts between science and philosophy. There may be some problems on the fringes of empirical science, especially in physics and psychology, which are quasi-philosophical to the extent that they cannot be solved by empirical methods. These aside, a purely scientific problem is one which can be solved by experimentation or whatever other observational techniques will obtain the special data needed to test competing hypotheses or theories. Within the sphere of such problems, there is absolutely no need for dialectical work. Dialectical constructions are not needed to formulate objective agreements or disagreements among scientists. When scientists disagree about any matter which is susceptible of experiment, they construct an experiment, not a debate, as the best available means of clarifying and settling the issue [13]. In other words, the very methods scientists use to solve their problems, they can also use to resolve disagreements when they are confronted with competing solutions.

But while philosophers can, as individuals, propound solutions to their problems without the help of dialectic, they cannot collectively begin to resolve their differences until their agreements and disagreements have been objectified by the work of dialectical construction. What now passes for philosophical discussion of such differences hardly suffices. It merely perpetuates the misunderstandings, the subjective disagreements, and the polemical refutations to which individual philosophers are prone. Let me say at once that the fault lies not with the philosophers as human beings. They are not, as compared with scientists, an inferior breed. Rather it is something in the very nature of philosophy and in the methods of philosophical inquiry which makes it difficult to tell whether philosophers are answering the same question about the same object, and difficult, consequently, to determine whether or not they objectively disagree.

The necessity of dialectical work in philosophy but not in science thus explains the striking difference between philosophers and scientists so far as genuine agreement and disagreement are concerned. It also explains the difference between progress in science and in philosophy.

Progress in philosophy: is extremely difficult to define and measure, especially if we make the mistake of adopting the special kind of progress that is made in science as the standard for measuring progress in any intellectual pursuit. That kind of progress is not possible in philosophy, and what is possible there cannot be measured in that way. Without attempting an analysis of progress in philosophy, I would nevertheless like to suggest that if philosophy is to make greater progress in the future than it has so far achieved in twenty-five centuries of Western thought, the division of labor I have proposed must be instituted and an adequate amount of dialectical work must be done in the centuries ahead.

Advances in science are not accomplished merely by the formulation of new theories or the improvement of old ones. Such theoretical developments often outrun the data needed to test them. Additions to scientific knowledge finally depend upon the success of empirical research to obtain the decisive data.

In philosophy, the decisive data are always the same — the facts of common experience. The formulation of new theories and the improvement of old ones certainly constitute one condition of philosophical progress, on the side of an ever expanding envelopment of the truth about the objects of philosophical inquiry. But such envelopment includes the persistence and proliferation of philosophical errors as well as an increase in the amount of philosophical truth that is available to the human race at any given time. Hence the progressive envelopment of philosophical truth by a multiplicity of doctrines must be matched by a progressive development of dialectical truth about their diversity. The controversies that underlie this diversity must be constructed if philosophical differences are ever to contribute more to understanding than they do to confusion. Dialectical work is, therefore, the other condition of philosophical progress, on the side of the contribution to the pursuit of truth which can be made by a rational debate of genuine issues [14].

This brings me to the last observation I would like to lay before you. One consequence of the conclusions we have reached is the hope that the future of philosophy will be quite different from its past. Philosophy, past and present, has not been accompanied by adequate dialectical work. Certain deficiencies in the philosophical enterprise as a whole are largely attributable to that deficiency. Hence if, by the expedient of a division of labor, that deficiency were to be repaired; and if, in the future, as the diversity of philosophical views continues to multiply, the dialectical effort were to keep pace with the growing amplitude of the discussion, it might be reasonable to expect a brighter future for philosophy. I must confess that nothing else I can imagine holds out such hope.

I am not thinking here only of greater progress in philosophy, though that, in my judgment, would be the chief benefit to come in the future from the full performance of the dialectical service to philosophical thought [15]. I am thinking also of the cultural status and stature of philosophy, as compared with science and poetry.

We accept the fact that poets differ, without expecting them, as poets, to agree, disagree, or settle their differences by controversy. But the way in which philosophers differ, without clearly agreeing or disagreeing in an objective manner, and without achieving a decent measure of rational debate, is and has long been a public scandal. The general opprobrium philosophy has suffered in consequence is not entirely unmerited.

In our century, the belittlers of philosophy often contend that the great philosophical systems are like poetry. Unfortunately, the charge has plausibility, because, when philosophy is not accompanied by constructive dialectical work, it cannot help appearing to be more like poetry than it really is and less like science. It is not enough to hold, as we do, that objective disagreement and rational debate are possible in philosophy as they are not in poetry. While it is true that except for this possibility dialectical work would be as inapplicable to philosophy as it is to poetry, we must do more than assert the possibility [16]. We must demonstrate it in a manner open to everyone’s inspection. The false image of itself that philosophy now presents must be corrected in the public mind by constructive dialectical work.

Suppose for the moment that I am right in thinking that such work is needed to improve philosophy in the line of its own development, and to win for it the respect it deserves, even in a culture where it must stand comparison with science. Why, then, has the doing of such work as an essential though separate part of the philosophical enterprise been so long delayed? One answer may be that men whose interest is in philosophy naturally wish to be philosophers and are unwilling to be diverted to the separate and subordinate dialectical task that some would have to devote themselves to in an actual division of labor. But that is not the whole answer.

In Western culture, empirical science and speculative philosophy are about of equal age. Each can look back upon twenty-five centuries of recorded effort. If we think of science with experimentation as empirical science finally grown mature, then the maturation of science has occurred in the last three hundred years. There is no evidence of a comparable maturation in philosophy. We can, however, imagine what it might be. Comparable to the transition in science from merely exploratory observation to the construction of critical experiments, the transition from the relatively futile discussion of philosophical differences to the construction of fruitful controversy may bring philosophy to its maturity in centuries still to come.

It may seem astounding that the philosophical enterprise should be so slow in maturing and that, as compared with what it may still achieve, its accomplishments so far are good mainly as a promise of what can be done. Yet what is true of living organisms may also be true of philosophy as a living thing. The late maturity of the higher organisms is a sign of their greater potentiality, which must be actualized in the course of a longer development. In its own line of development, science may have advanced further than philosophy has in its, but philosophy may have much further to go and may therefore need more time.

In addition, philosophical problems are generally more difficult than scientific problems, not only humanly speaking but also intrinsically. For men to conduct philosophical discussion well is more difficult than it is for them to carry on scientific research in an efficient manner. It is easier to lift research to the high plane of the perfect experiment than it is to lift discussion to the high plane of the ideal debate. Here as before, the greater difficulty of the philosophical effort may be relative to human nature as a whole, not just relative to the power of the human mind.

Twenty-five hundred years is a short period in the span of human life on earth. It should not tax our imaginations, therefore, to contemplate a future in which long awaited developments may still occur, such as world peace, for example. The development of philosophy is no less possible or likely. What Dante said of world peace, with the vision of man’s whole future on earth before him, might also be said of the maturation of philosophy. It will happen because it is necessary to the fulfillment of the intellectual powers of the human race as a whole.


  1. That work had its inception in a paper I delivered on “The Demonstration of Democracy” at the meeting of this Association in Washington in 1939.

  2. Thought, Vol. XXVIII, No. 111, Winter, 1953-54. “The notion of a perennial philosophy,” Dr. Collins declares, “furnishes no basic directions about how to deal with philosophical differences.”

  3. Dr. Collins raises the question whether all genuine philosophical disagreements are capable of being resolved by an act of synthesis in which the opposed positions are seen as half-truths which can be transformed and united as parts of the whole truth. His answer is that philosophers can contradict one another “genuinely and definitively” in ways “which do not turn out to be complementary poles of one complex truth.” Apart from the Hegelian theory of absolute idealism, he writes, “no necessary reasons are forthcoming for sublating all oppositions and treating them as partial expressions of a single whole or truth. A non-idealistic version of a perennial philosophy cannot settle disputes by claiming in principle that conflicting views cannot contradict each other and must find a place within the total frame-work. . . . The standpoint of philosophical pluralism has no strictly cogent grounds for claiming that the various Scholastic systems involve no irreconcilable differences and can all be reduced to analogical variations on a common doctrinal unity.” (Loc. cit., pp. 593-594).

  4. The rare exceptions mentioned above would seem to be the great disputations of the thirteenth century and also, perhaps, the philosophical correspondence in which such men as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz engaged with their critics in the seventeenth century. But a close examination of such correspondence raises some doubts about its furnishing us with an exception; and the volumes of Disputed Questions which reflect the medieval debates are, after all, ex parte reports of the issues and arguments.

  5. The method of constructing philosophical controversies resembles the methods of empirical science mainly on its observational side and in its use of observed data as a source of hypothetical formulations and as basis for testing them. But unlike the scientific observation of natural phenomena, observation for the sake of constructing controversy must go to the historical record of philosophical thought. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish such observation from the historian’s observation of the same body of materials. The one ignores entirely, while the other concentrates on, the temporal sequences and the human connections which constitute philosophy’s history. The observer interested in constructing controversies concentrates on the diversity which arises from a plurality of philosophies and regards that diversity, no matter how it has developed, as if it obtained at a single moment of time. On the non-historical character of such work, see Dr. Otto Bird’s forthcoming book, Symbol and Icon, A Theory of the Liberal Arts, Ch. 5.

  6. In a memorandum which Jacques Maritain wrote in response to a preliminary report of the Institute’s work, he stressed the necessity of a neutral language, “immune from the doctrinal or systematic connotations which are inevitably present in the language of each particular philosopher.” To be neutral, the constructed formulations, he said, must be “‘echoless.’ i.e., strictly limited to what is barely stated and deprived of any further doctrinal overtones or connotations. Just because such assertions or formulas, having no actual philosophic life of their own, are, so to speak, only in potency with regard to some philosophical wholeness or totality, every philosopher in the group concerned can subscribe to them; but in doing so each will infuse into it the connotations or overtones peculiar to his own entire doctrine, and foreign to the doctrines of his colleagues.”

  7. Anyone who has attended philosophical meetings is acquainted with the phenomena here described. At a joint meeting of the American Philosophical Association and the American Catholic Philosophical Association in New York in 1937, the subject proposed for discussion was dualism. Professor Sheldon of Yale and Professor Mercier of Harvard were supposed to debate this subject, but the one talked about the dualism of mind and body, while the other talked about the dualism of God and nature. Though the miscarriage of discussion is not always as flagrant as this, Edmund Husserl is nevertheless irrefutable in his observation that “there are plenty of philosophical meetings, but it is the philosophers who meet, not their philosophies.” (Meditations Cartesiennes, Paris, 1931: p. 4) The failure of participants in discussion to join issue is not limited to philosophical meetings. The philosophical journals are full of such miscarriages, as, for example, the supposed “debate” between Thomists and Pragmatists in Thought, Vol. XXX, No. 117, Summer, 1955: pp. 199-230.

  8. Men who disagree about the truth of this or that doctrine can, nevertheless, agree on the following points. (1) They can agree on the description of the subjects about which they disagree in various ways. (2) They can agree about the questions at issue on which they take opposite sides. (3) They can agree about the content of the issues — the statement of the positions that are opposed. (4) They may even be able to agree about the connection of one issue with another. Their agreement on all these matters still permits them to disagree categorically about what is true in fact; more than that, they could not disagree at all unless they were in agreement in at least the first three of these four ways.

  9. In the memorandum already referred to (see fn. 6 above), Jacques Maritain insisted that agreements and disagreements are possible among philosophers only through the medium of constructed formulations that are neutral, in language and intent. Without this medium as a tertium quid, it is difficult or impossible for philosophers to agree or disagree objectively with one another. “Every philosopher,” Maritain wrote, “understands his own assertions in the light of, or with the overtones peculiar to, his whole system. The entire doctrine reflects on every one of its parts.” This is the reason why it is difficult or impossible for philosophers, especially great ones, to achieve objective agreements or disagreements directly with one another.

  10. The only definite anticipation of this method of construction with which I am acquainted appears in an essay by Professor Edwin Burtt of Cornell University, entitled “The Generic Definition of Philosophic Terms” (Philosophical Review, Vol. LXII, No. 1, January, 1953) In this essay, Professor Burtt proposes a method of identifying, in a neutral manner, the subjects of philosophical disagreements which take the form of opposed definitions.

  11. See his essay, Thomas Aquinas and Our Colleagues, Princeton University Press, 1953.

  12. See Gilson, op. cit., pp. 14ff. See also Father Smith’s paper, “The Position of Philosophy in a Catholic College,” in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. XXIX, 1955: pp. 20-40.

  13. Precisely in proportion to the degree to which dialectic is applicable to theoretical differences among scientists, these differences are philosophical rather than scientific.

  14. In 1916, Professor Lovejoy, in his Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association, entitled “On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry,” called for “a program of methodical, consecutive, precise joining of issues,” (Philosophical Review, Vol. XXVI, 1917: pp. 123-163). I personally owe to Professor Arthur O. Lovejoy my own first conception of the dialectical task and my understanding of the service dialectical work can perform to advance philosophical thought. I would also like to refer the reader to an earlier projection of a plan for dialectical work, with an eye on the immediate future, in an essay I wrote for The New Scholasticism, entitled “The Next Twenty-five Years in Philosophy” (Vol. XXVI, No. 1, January, 1951: pp. 81-110).

  15. We may gain some impression of how serviceable dialectical work might be to the progress of philosophy, if we consider the service which Abelard’s Sic et Non and Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences rendered theology. The dialectical tasks these books performed brought order out of the chaos of apparently conflicting opinions which had accumulated from centuries of theological speculation. Without that preparatory work having been done for them, even the genius of St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus might not have been able to produce their great and clearly divergent theological doctrines. But, as Dr. Bird has pointed out, the dialectical task performed for theology by Abelard and Peter Lombard was far easier than the comparable dialectical task would be for philosophy. Abelard and Peter Lombard, Dr. Bird writes, “enjoyed a common deposit of faith, which assured a common ground for questions and answers and a common language in which to express them. Neither exists today.” (loc. cit.) Nor have they ever existed in the sphere of philosophy.

  16. Philosophy’s distinctive character is revealed by the fact that, while dialectic is inapplicable to poetry and unnecessary in science, it is both applicable to philosophy and also necessary for the full achievement of philosophy’s objectives.

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

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

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