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).

Bonaventure for Lent X

 ...since the Father brings forth the Son, and through the Son, and together with the Son brings forth the Holy Spirit, God the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit is the principle of everything created; for if He did not produce them eternally, He could not produce through anything in time; and therefore He is rightly called the "Fount of Life" by reason of this production within the trinity. "As He has life in Himself, so He grants to the Son to have life in Himself," etc. Therefore it follows that eternal life consists in this alone, that the rational spirit, which emanates from the most blessed trinity and is a likeness of the trinity, should return after the manner of a certain intelligible circle -- through memory, intelligence, and will -- to the most blessed trinity by God-conforming glory.

[Bonaventure, Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity (q. 8 ad 7), Hayes, tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (St. Bonaventure, NY: 2005) p. 266.]

Friday, February 23, 2024

Dashed Off IV

Who loves, seeks out relevant challenges, striving to overcome them for the sake of the beloved. Who loves, seeks to be useful to the one loved.

Human beings lead place-structured lives; we are locative animals, and our memory for places is both very strong and very fine-grained. This is why the method of topical memory works so well; this is why we can walk or drive to familiar places without much thought.

the brain as neuronic indexing system

For the most part, we remember classifications more than particulars.

Centralization often creates a sort of learned helplessness.

The precise measurement of time requries assessment of counterfactuals.

the Seventh Letter as arguing for the importance of faithful friendships to establishing rule of law

processes of traditioning
(1) imitation of known patterns
(2) abstraction and application of principles from prior experiences and events
(3) critical appropriation of external in light of what is consistent with what is received
(4) rigorous analysis and inference
(5) search for anticipatory hints relevant to current problems
(6) maintenance and protection of archive
(7) revival of interest by persuasive means

While their communion is defective, the apostolic sees do maintain a kind of transtemporal communion in that they at least intend to maintain communion with prior versions of each other -- up to Nicaea, up to Ephesus, up to Chalcedon, up to Second Nicaea, or as the case may be. (This is reflected, for instance, in their calendar of saints.)

church architecture as a memory palace for theology

All inquiries depend on things not earned in the inquiry itself.

asceticism as a two-pronged process of respecting the integrity of the soul and respecting the integrity of the body, including teh holy destinations of each

iconodoulia as an expression of love of neighbor

the Good as 'the greatest study'

the Gospel of Mark on the doxastic scandal of Jesus

baptism : letter :: confirmation : signature

'a metaphysics of light and a sociology of shadows' (Ricoeur)

"If sensation is to appear in some way intelligible, the mind must establish itself at the outset in a universe which is not a world of ideas." Marcel
"It is obvious that if I am somebody, a particular individual, I am only so at once in connection with and in opposition to an indefinite number of other somebodies."

"If a person uses religion as a means to experience peace and harmony, he will never acquire that peace and harmony." von Hildebrand
"Disrespect for truth, when not merely a theoeretical thesis, but a lived attitude, patently destroys all morality, even all reasonability and all community life."
"What, precisely, distinguishes the true philosopher from the mere schoolmaster is the consciousness that the plenitude and depth of being surpass incomparably the range of true insights he may have." 
"In order to be great, an artist must have an artistic conscience."

Most of the annoyances of life, even serious ones, are just that, annoyances, and not injustices.

"In a Pope no fault is so small that the nations do not think it enormous." Pius II

The initiation of wise and noble things generally comes from coopreations.

"The transformation of the world of objects into the world of signs is founded on the ontological presupposition that it is possible to make replicas: the reflected image of a thing is cut off from its natural practical associates (space, context, intention, and so on), and can therefore be easily included in the modelling associations of the human consciousness." Lotman

Our respect for rights is modulated by honor; one upholds the rights of the dishonorable, but certainly not in the same way as the honorable.

A fact is constructed by the attempt to articulate something true.

"The historian is a prophet turned to the past." Schlegel

Scientific inquiry always begins kludgy.

indelible chracter as like a lens

the externa world as part of the teloi of our sense organs
-- sensory organs have a world-oriented and a thought-oriented (cognitive) telos

internal referentiality to another: potentiality, participation, finality
mediating referentiality to another: objectivity/intentionality, value
external referentiality to another: signfication, systematicity, design

the body as intrinsic jurisdiction (this is perhaps the grain of truth in self-ownership accounts)

We may cause by receiving a final cause from another or by positing a final cause for another.

Zikkaron in Hebrew seems to suggest perpetuation by sign.

Tribal government is always a part of human government, but tribal articulation can be in greater or lesser degree.

weddings as shared sacred experiences

"Enoch pleased God and was translated into paradise that he may give repentance to the nations." Sir. 44:16
-- Enoch's translation as a type of Christ's ascension

"The principles of faith are fear, mereit, and repentance." Asatir 7:24

People often say 'facts and logic' when they mean 'classifications and rules'.

Bereshith Rabbah 17: Dream is th eunripe fruit of prophecy.

prophethood as part of our destinate condition, but lost with original jutstice, only had since sporadically and incompletely by divine grace

Zelazny's Roadmarks as a depiction of authorial process in writing

Maimonides Guide 40: prophecy vs plagiarism

Maimonides: the bat-kol as like an echo of prophecy, which comes to those not prepared for prophecy

"It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause again a cause, and so on, till the First Cause, viz. the will and decree of God, is reached." Maimonides, Guide 48

The Structure of The Guide for the Perplexed
Part I: Preliminaries -- Negative Theology (the intellectual discipline required for interpreting the Mysteries of the Chariot and of Creation)
Part II: Preliminaries -- General Account of Prophecy (positive knowledge required for interpreting Chariot & Creation)
Part III: The Mysteries of the Chariot and of Creation

"Man has free will; it is therefore intelligible that the Law contains commands and prohibitions, with announcements of reward and punishment." Maimonides
-- This summarizes part of the Mu'tazilite position, but the point seems shared by the Jewish position M. describes; the difference of the two is in the ground of reward and punishment -- divine Wisdom for Mu'tazilites, divine justice and human merit for Jews.

-- Maimonides takes it to be significant that Job, while said to be righteous, is not said to be wise.

It is a natural impulse to want to harmonize the saints; done badly, it falsifies, but done well, it is the enrichment of the Church.

-- black holes can be completely specified by mass, charge, and spin
-- the analogy between thermodynamics and black hole mechanics (entropy // area of event horizon, temperature // surface gravity)

"Not every natural License, or Poewr of doing a Thing, is properly a *Right*; but such only as includes some moral Effect, with regard to others, who are Partners with me in the same Nature." Pufendorf

The major principle governing Christian response to any culture is that human nature is disordered, that the human person is out of true and errant.

the government-funded class

The Church teaches the same truths by means both fallible and infallible.

Bonaventure for Lent IX

 Since the First Principle is most exalted and utterly perfect, it follows that in it are found the highest and most universal properties of being to the highest degree. These are the one, the true, and the good, which are not associated with being in its supposits but with its very principle. For 'one' describes being as numerable, and this is because it is not susceptible of division in itself; 'true,' as intelligible, and this by virtue of being inseparabel from its proper form; and 'good,' as communicable, and this by reason of being inseparable from its proper operation. This triple indivisibility has a logical ordering in that the true presupposes the one, and the good presupposes the one as well as the true. Thus it follows that these three qualities, as being perfect and transcendental, are attributed to the First Principle to the highest degree, and, as having an orderly reference, are attributed to the three persons.

[Bonaventure, Breviloquium 1.6.2, Monti, tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (St. Bonaventure, NY: 2005) pp. 45-46.]

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Three Poem Drafts

 The Consolations of Discomfort

A deer is bounding, forest-hidden,
a hunter races forth with speed.
On hill, through dale, pursuit unending,
a rest I seek to quell my need.
The wind, inconstant, plays and teases
through boughs and leaves of restless trees,
and I, inconstant, ever-driven,
am seeking emptiness to please.
The bow sends out a sudden arrow;
the deer untouched it passes by;
this craving, driving, heart's own yearning
through paths of empty air will fly.
I stumble, stutter, and am clumsy
as feet are aching, worn and sore;
the pain is like a close companion,
a memory of something more.
Exhaustion makes my heart grow humble
as weariness impedes my pride,
reminds me of my ache-filled folly,
of Adam old who has not died.
The legs exhausted homeward wander;
in ache I wish to reach my end.
The weary roads are swiftest highways
and heavenward most surely bend.

Morris in Ashdown

The boots are on and the bells a-song
where the feet are quick on the Ashdown lawn;
the flutes are bright and the banners white
as the sticks a-play in the dawning light
make the day aflame in the morning.

The world that sings as the white flags fling
is a holy thing and a court for kings;
and you and I with our hats a-fly
are the truly crowned 'neath a splendid sky
as the day is bright in the morning.

On Montale's Translations of Shakespeare

With blandishment on thereby gilded peaks
the eye of morning shines in sovereign sway,
flirting with meadows green and gold,
by some strange alchemy turning base to noble.
Then fumes rise and cloud that heavenly brow;
the star in shame flees desolately westward,
hiding in obscurity its now-veiled face.
--- At dawn I knew the sun; and victory,
his victory, shone brightly upon me,
but only for one hour, alas, he stayed,
thus rapt into twisted and entangled clouds.
I contemn him not; surely a sun terrestrial
is allowed to darken like a sun celestial.

Bonaventure for Lent VIII

 Would you obtain patience to bear up against adversities, be assiduous in prayer. Would you obtain strength to overcome trials and temptations, be assiduous in prayer. Would you become acquainted with the subtle deceits of Satan in order to avoid them, would you cheerfully persist in the service of God, and tread the paths of mortification and affliction for his sake; woudl you renounce all carnal desires, and wholly betake yourself to a spiritual life, be assiduous in prayer. If you wish to destroy evil thoughts, be a man of prayer. If you are desirous to enrich your mind with holy reflections, and your heart with virtuous, fervent, and pious desires, be a man of prayer. If you are willing to strengthen your good purposes with manly resolution and steady perseverance, be a man of prayer. In a word, whether you mean to extirpate vice from, or implant virtue in your breast, make prayer your constant study.

[Bonaventure, Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Chapter XXXVI), in Saint Bonaventure: A Collection, Aeterna Press (2016) pp. 155-156.]

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Weeds

 As much as legislators and founders of states ought to be honoured and respected among men, as much ought the founders of sects and factions to be detested and hated; because the influence of faction is directly contrary to that of laws. Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other. And what should render the founders of parties more odious is, the difficulty of extirpating these weeds, when once they have taken root in any state. They naturally propagate themselves for many centuries, and seldom end but by the total dissolution of that government, in which they are sown. They are, besides, plants which grow most plentifully in the richest soil; and though absolute governments be not wholly free from them, it must be confessed, that they rise more easily, and propagate themselves faster in free governments, where they always infect the legislature itself, which alone could be able, by the steady application of rewards and punishments, to eradicate them.

[David Hume, Of Parties in General.]

Bonaventure for Lent VII

 Not only is Wisdom capable of knowing [all things]: it is the very principle of knowing. Therefore, it is called 'light,' as being the principle of knowing all that is known; 'mirror,' as being the principle of knowing all that is seen and approved; 'exemplar,' as being the principle of all that is foreseen and disposed; 'book of life,' as being the principle of knowing all that is predestined and reprobated. For divine Wisdom is the 'book of life,' considering things insofar as they proceed from God; 'the mirror,' considering things as they follow their course;  and the 'light,' from all these perspectives simultaneously. Now under the concept of 'exemplar,' we also use other terms, such as 'idea,' 'word,' 'art,' and 'reason.'

[Bonaventure, Breviloquium (1.8.2), Monti, tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (St. Bonaventure, NY: 2005) p. 50.]

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Bonaventure for Lent VI

 The manifold meaning of Scripture is also appropriate to its source. For it came from God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets and the other holy people who committed this teaching to writing. Now God speaks not with words alone, but also through deeds, because with God to say is to do, and to do is to say. All created things, being the result of God's action, point towards their cause. So, in Scripture, which has been handed on to us by God, deeds no less than words have meaning.

[Bonaventure, Breviloquium, prol.4, Monti, tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (St. Bonaventure, NY: 2005) p. 15.]

Monday, February 19, 2024

Links of Note

 * James Kalb, Remembering Augusto del Noce, at "Chronicles"

* Ariel Melamedoff, Modal Metaphysics and the Priority of Causes in Hume's Treatise (PDF)

* Barbara M. Sattler, What About Plurality? Aristotle's Discussion of Zeno's Paradoxes (PDF)

* Sandrine Bergès, Against power, at "Aeon", on Sophie de Grouchy's political writings

* Eugene Chislenko, The whitewashing of blame (PDF)

* Jonathan Rée, Like a Top Hat, at "London Review of Books", reviews Émile Perreau-Saussine's intellectual biography of MacIntyre

* Shane Duarte, Leibniz and Prime Matter (PDF)

* Eveline Groot, Public Opinion and Political Passions in the Work of Germaine de Staël (PDF)

* George Yancy, What Can Deaf Philosophy Teach the World -- and How Will It Change It?, at "truthout", interviews Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

* Stefano Bacin, Morality as Both Objective and Subjective: Baumgarten's Way to Moral Realism and Its Impact on Kant (PDF)

* Luka Ivan Jukic, Why Scotland lost its tongue, at "Engelsberg ideas"

* Howard Sankey, Taxonomic incommensurability (PDF)

* Jakub Jirsa, Divine Activity and Human Life (PDF), on Aristotle's account of eudaimonia

* Edward Feser, Avicenna, Aquinas, and Leibniz on the argument from contingency

* Devinder Pal Singh, Concept of God in Guru Nanak's Hymns (PDF)

* Richard Y Chappell, Philosophy's Digital Future, at "Good Thoughts"

Bonaventure for Lent V

 The procedure of Sacred Scripture -- unlike the other sciences -- is not confined by the laws of reasoning, defining, or making distinctions, nor is it limited to only one aspect of the universe. Rather, it proceeds, by supernatural inspiration, to give us human wayfarers as much knowledge as we need to achieve salvation. And so, in language that is sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic, as in a kind of summa, it describes the contents of the entire universe, and so covers the breadth; it narrates the course of history, thus comprehending the length; it portrays the excellence of those who will ultimately be saved, thus manifesting the height; and it depicts the misery of those who will be damned, thus plumbing the depth, not only of the universe, but of the very judgments of God. In this way it describes the breadth and length and height and depth of the entire unvierse, insofar as it is expedient to have knowledge of it for salvation.

[Bonaventure, Breviloquium (prologue), Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005) pp. 3-4.]

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Oh Woe to Sin, and Therefore Woe to Me!

by James Furneaux 

 "As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women."--1 Samuel XV. 33. 

 Oh woe to sin, and therefore woe to me!
 God ever punishes though He forgive.
 Oh, who would dare to sin could he foresee
 Stern Retribution (who would cease to live
 But for man's crimes) avenging one by one
 Each evil thought and word and action done.
 Let him who thinks of sin mark David's fall,
 His penitence and punishment, his flight,
 The never failing sword, and most of all
 His secret sin repaid in Israel's sight.
 When all his visitations I recall   
(The man of God's own heart) a fearful light
 Across my shuddering memory seems to creep,
 I think upon my secret sins -- and weep.

Lent, Feb. 1844