Saturday, February 24, 2024

Mortimer J. Adler, Philosopher at Large


Opening Passage:

Reading the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill at the age of fifteen while in the editorial office of the old New York Sun led me to the discovery of Socrates; and this, in turn, formed my early resolution to try to become a philosopher. Though I had not completed high school, I managed to get into Columbia College, where, a year after I entered, John Erskine introduced a course of readings in the great books of Western civilization. That series of fortuitous circumstances, with the addition of one more accident, equally benign, set the stage and pointed the direction for all that subsequently happened in my life. Not quite all, perhaps, but all that belongs to the record of work done and things accomplished. (p. 1)

Summary: Mortimer Jerome Adler was born in Manhattan in 1902; he dropped out of school as a teenager in the hope of becoming a journalist. While reading in order to improve his writing, he became interested in philosophy and went on to study at Columbia University (then Columbia College). He did quite well, for the most part, but refused to satisfy the physical education requirement, which was a swimming test. Adler eventually did learn to swim, at least enough to be serviceable, but never took the swimming test or earned his bachelor's degree. At Columbia, however, he became interested in the General Honors program, developed by John Erskine, which focused on reading a number of classics. Erskine had come up with the idea in providing educational opportunities to soldiers while on a tour of duty in Germany; in what would become a recurring pattern in Adler's own life, he had managed to get the program introduced at Columbia over the vehement resistance of a large portion of the faculty. Adler did well in the program, although perhaps not in a way that would indicate how important it would be for his career; well enough that he was able to get a position as a lab assistant in the Psychology Department and was invited to co-teach a General Honors seminar with his fellow student Mark Van Doren. 

It was while teaching the course with Mark Van Doren that he developed his discussion-focused approach to the classics and first began referring to the course as a 'great books course'. This is in a sense the first major step to the creation of the Great Books movement. The second occurred in the mid-twenties when Adler became involved in the People's Institute. There he met two other people with broadly similar interests, Scott Buchanan (Assistant Director of the People's Institute and later the founder of the St. John's College Great Books program) and Richard McKeon (who, having studied under Etienne Gilson, became a central figure in the revival of interest in medieval philosophy in the United States). The third was meeting and becoming friends with Robert Hutchins, with whom he had an even greater affinity. When Robert Hutchins became President of the University of Chicago at an unusual young age, he was full of visions of reform -- and part of this was an interest in Adler's ideas. He brought Adler to Chicago, over the resistance of a great many of the longstanding faculty at Chicago (he had to hire him as a professor in the law school, where Hutchins as former dean still had some influence, because there was so much resistance to both Hutchins and Adler everywhere else), and together they became allies in a losing fight against many of the Chicago faculty. But in the course of the fight, many of the ideas for developing a Great Books program would become consolidated and developed.

One of the interesting things through it all is a look at a very different academic world than currently exists. It's a world in which university presidents were seen as major intellectual leaders at the national level, in which faculty had a much greater say in how their courses were run than they do today, in which the Faculty Senate was still the real practical authority in a university, in which universities were run like little republics rather than like corporate firms, in which administrative bureaucracy had only a fraction of the role and importance that it currently does. While Adler's course of becoming a professor of law in one of the nation's major universities without a degree, entirely on the strength of some prior work on the philosophy of legal evidence and the enthusiasm of the university president for his pedagogical ideas, was unusual, it was very much a world in which such things could happen. That world is certainly gone. Over and over Adler gets away with things that today would certainly get an academic at the same stage of career fired today. But of course, while the old academic world had many irregularities, it also had a great deal of creativity.

Nonetheless, some things never change, and one of the things that never change is that academics hate, hate, hate being pressured to do something other than what they are used to doing. The Hutchins era at the University of Chicago was an explosion of ideas and plans, and they were all resisted by the faculty who consistently did not like any of the new ideas about how to do things. It did not help that it was the heyday of pragmatism as a philosophy of education, and the plans of Hutchins and Adler were definitely not pragmatist. They were seen as regressive and (even worse!) suspiciously Catholic-looking. Despite repeatedly insisting that it was untrue, Hutchins was regularly accused of trying to run the university on Thomistic lines (and I note that Hutchins's Wikipedia page still after all this time still claims that he was trying to reform the university "along Aristotelian-Thomist lines" despite all of Hutchins's protests that his approach was much more general and inclusive than that). Nonetheless, in academia repeated failure sometimes has the same results as success, and the Hutchins plans, repeatedly rejected at the University of Chicago, had significant influence, both direct and indirect, elsewhere. Likewise, after many struggles, the Great Books movement expanded massively for a while after the Second World War, and then began to dwindle; but its effects have often endured.

Adler, of course, eventually became more involved in the creating of The Great Books of the Western World, and a large part of the book is devoted to the story of his development of the Syntopicon, the topic-based index to the set. Adler, in fact, is obsessed with lists and files and indexes; his entire intellectual biography is in a sense a history of lists and files and indexes. But this would stead Adler very well. Given that universities were not particularly welcoming to many of his ideas, his ability to continue doing philosophy outside the standard academic bounds depended crucially on his obsessive focus on order. Philosopher at Large comes from the title of a poem by Mark Van Doren that was dedicated to Adler; one way to take it is precisely as 'philosopher who is not confined but roams among the people'. A significant concern Adler has throughout his career is how to facilitate the education of people, and in practice much of his answer was that you have to build the intellectual infrastructure for it, which he did by his lists and indexes and by cooperating with others to host discussions of great books.

This is very much an intellectual biography; large numbers of biographical details only get passing mention, and many of them in the very last chapter. Personal life only gets discussed to the extent that it is tangled up in one way or another with Adler's lifelong pursuit of solutions to the problem of how to have a truly democratic system of education, which means that, outside his college years (a time when personal and intellectual are unusually tangled), it only occasionally gets mentioned at all. I suspect a reader just sitting down to it, expecting an ordinary biography, would mostly just get the impression that Adler was a very strange bird. Which he was; he lived in a time when people had a lot of tolerance for intellectuals and academics being strange birds, and his obsession with order and method certainly go well beyond what would normally be expected of even most methodical human beings. But the book is really a biography of an approach to education, one that happened to be located in Mortimer Jerome Adler, and when you recognize this, much of it is an interesting exploration of what it means to educate and to be educated.

Favorite Passage:

...While schools of all sorts, from kindergarten to the graduate school, are educational institutions, education should not be identified with schooling. Rightly conceived, education is the process of a lifetime, and schooling, however extensive, is only the beginning of anyone's education, to be completed, not by more attendance at educational institutions in adult years, but rather by the continuation of learning through a wide variety of means during the whole of adult life. Schooling can and should be terminated at a certain time, but education itself cannot be terminated short of the grave.... (pp. 232-233)

Recommendation: It's an odd work, but interesting in its own way; and, particularly if you are interested in matters of education, Recommended.


Mortimer J. Adler, Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography 1902-1976, Collier Books (New York: 1977).