Adler: On the Importance of Philosophical Reflection

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

The knowledge we can derive from science and history, are limited to first-order knowledge by their investigative mode of inquiry. They are incapable of enlarging our understanding by the second-order work, or philosophical analysis, with respect to ideas and all branches of knowledge. Without the contributions made by philosophy, we would be left with voids that science and history cannot fill.

Even in the one sphere in which the contributions of science and philosophy are comparable — our knowledge of reality — philosophy, because it is noninvestigative, can answer questions that are beyond the reach of investigative science — questions that are more profound and penetrating than any questions answerable by science. By virtue of its being investigative, science is limited to the experienceable world of physical nature. Philosophical thought can extend its inquiries into transempirical reality. It is philosophy, not science, that takes the overall view.

Furthermore, when there is an apparent conflict between science and philosophy, it is to philosophy that we must turn for the resolution. Science cannot provide it. When scientists such as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg become involved with mixed questions, they must philosophize. They cannot discuss these questions merely as scientists; the principles for the statement and solution of such problems come from philosophy, not from science.

For all these reasons, I think we are compelled to regard the contributions of philosophy as having greater value for us than the contributions of science. I say this even though we must all gratefully acknowledge the benefits that science and its technological applications confer upon us. The power that science gives us over our environment, health, and lives can, as we all know, be either misused and misdirected, or used with good purpose and results. Without the prescriptive knowledge given us by ethical and political philosophy, we have no guidance in the use of that power, directing it to the ends of a good life and a good society. The more power science and technology confer upon us, the more dangerous and malevolent that power may become unless its use is checked and guided by moral obligations stemming from our philosophical knowledge of how we ought to conduct our lives and our society.

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