Mortimer J. Adler

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Mortimer J. Adler
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Adler while presiding over the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Mortimer Jerome Adler

(1902-12-28)December 28, 1902
New York City, New York
DiedJune 28, 2001(2001-06-28) (aged 98)
San Mateo, California
Education Columbia University
  • Helen Leavenworth Boynton
    (m. 1927;div. 1960)
  • Caroline Sage Pring
    (m. 1963;died 1998)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Aristotelian, Thomist
Main interests
Philosophical theology, metaphysics, ethics

Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He lived for long stretches in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and San Mateo, California. [1] He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica , and Adler's own Institute for Philosophical Research.

Aristotelianism tradition in philosophy

Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. This school of thought, in the modern sense of philosophy, covers existence, ethics, mind and related subjects. In Aristotle's time, philosophy included natural philosophy, which preceded the advent of modern science during the Scientific Revolution. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school and later on by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings. In the Islamic Golden Age, Avicenna and Averroes translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic and under them, along with philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Aristotelianism became a major part of early Islamic philosophy.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Chicago City in Illinois, United States

Chicago, officially the City of Chicago, is the most populous city in Illinois, as well as the third most populous city in the United States. With an estimated population of 2,705,994 (2018), it is the most populous city in the Midwest. Chicago is the principal city of the Chicago metropolitan area, often referred to as Chicagoland, and the county seat of Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States. The metropolitan area, at nearly 10 million people, is the third-largest in the United States.



New York City

Adler was born in New York City on December 28, 1902, to Jewish immigrants from Germany, Clarissa (Manheim), a schoolteacher, and Ignatz Adler, a jewelry salesman. [2] [3] He dropped out of school at age 14 to become a copy boy for the New York Sun, with the ultimate aspiration to become a journalist. [4] Adler soon returned to school to take writing classes at night where he discovered the works of men he would come to call heroes: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and others. [5] He went on to study at Columbia University and contributed to the student literary magazine, The Morningside (a poem "Choice" in 1922 when Charles A. Wagner [6] was editor-in-chief and Whittaker Chambers an associate editor). [7] Though he refused to take the required swimming test for a bachelor's degree (a matter that was rectified when Columbia gave him an honorary degree in 1983), he stayed at the university and eventually received an instructorship and finally a doctorate in psychology. [8] While at Columbia University, Adler wrote his first book: Dialectic, published in 1927. [9]

Germany Federal parliamentary republic in central-western Europe

Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany, is a country in Central and Western Europe, lying between the Baltic and North Seas to the north and the Alps, Lake Constance and the High Rhine to the south. It borders Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, Austria and Switzerland to the south, France to the southwest, and Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to the west.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Adler worked with Scott Buchanan at the People's Institute and then for many years on their respective great books efforts (Buchanan as founder of the great books program at St. John's College). [10]

Scott Buchanan was an American philosopher, educator, and foundation consultant. He is best known as the founder of the Great Books program at St. John's College, at Annapolis, Maryland.

St. Johns College (Annapolis/Santa Fe) Liberal arts college with two campuses, Annapolis and Santa Fe

St. John's College is a private liberal arts college with dual campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, which are ranked separately by U.S. News & World Report within the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges. It is known for its distinctive curriculum centered on reading and discussing the Great Books of Western Civilization. St. John's has no religious affiliation.


In 1930 Robert Hutchins, the newly appointed president of the University of Chicago, whom Adler had befriended some years earlier, arranged for Chicago's law school to hire him as a professor of the philosophy of law; the philosophers at Chicago (who included James H. Tufts, E.A. Burtt, and George H. Mead) had "entertained grave doubts as to Dr. Adler's competence in the field [of philosophy]" [11] and resisted Adler's appointment to the University's Department of Philosophy. [12] [13] Adler was the first "non-lawyer" to join the law school faculty. [14] Adler also taught philosophy to business executives at the Aspen Institute. [9]

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1890, the school is located on a 217-acre campus in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, near Lake Michigan. The University of Chicago holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.

University of Chicago Law School law school

The University of Chicago Law School is a professional graduate school of the University of Chicago. It is consistently ranked among the top law schools in the world, and has produced many distinguished alumni in the judiciary, academia, government, politics and business. It employs more than 200 full-time and part-time faculty and hosts more than 600 students in its Juris Doctor program, while also offering the Master of Laws, Master of Studies in Law and Doctor of Juridical Science degrees in law.

James Hayden Tufts (1862–1942), an influential American philosopher, was a professor of the then newly founded Chicago University. Tufts was also a member of the Board of Arbitration, and the chairman of a committee of the social agencies of Chicago. The work Ethics in 1908 was a collaboration of Tufts and John Dewey. Tufts believed in a conception of mutual influences which he saw as opposed in both Marxism and idealism.

"Great Books" and beyond

Adler and Hutchins 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 in 1952. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, and succeeded Hutchins as its chairman from 1974. As the director of editorial planning for the fifteenth edition of Britannica from 1965, he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. [15] He introduced the Paideia Proposal which resulted in his founding 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 in 1990 in Chicago.

<i>Great Books of the Western World</i> book series published by Encyclopædia Britannica

Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952, by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., to present the Great Books in a 54-volume set.

The Great Books Foundation, incorporated in the state of Illinois and based in Chicago, is an independent, nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to help people think and share ideas. Toward this end, the Foundation publishes collections of classic and modern literature as part of a continuum of reading and discussion programs for children and adults. The foundation has two main programs: Junior Great Books, serving students in kindergarten through high school, and Great Books Discussion for college students, continuing education, and Great Books book groups. The organization derives its income from the sale of books, teacher professional development fees, contributions, and grants.

<i>Encyclopædia Britannica</i> General knowledge English-language encyclopaedia

The Encyclopædia Britannica, formerly published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., is a general knowledge English-language encyclopaedia. It was written by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 contributors. The 2010 version of the 15th edition, which spans 32 volumes and 32,640 pages, was the last printed edition.

Adler long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works (such as How to Read a Book ) became popular bestsellers. He was also an advocate of economic democracy and wrote an influential preface to Louis O. Kelso's The Capitalist Manifesto . [16] Adler was often aided in his thinking and writing by Arthur Rubin, an old friend from his Columbia undergraduate days. In his own words:

<i>How to Read a Book</i> book

How to Read a Book is a 1940 book by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with the editor Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition. The 1972 revision, in addition to the first edition, treats genres, inspectional and syntopical reading.

Economic democracy is a socioeconomic philosophy that proposes to shift decision-making power from corporate managers and corporate shareholders to a larger group of public stakeholders that includes workers, customers, suppliers, neighbours and the broader public. No single definition or approach encompasses economic democracy, but most proponents claim that modern property relations externalize costs, subordinate the general well-being to private profit and deny the polity a democratic voice in economic policy decisions. In addition to these moral concerns, economic democracy makes practical claims, such as that it can compensate for capitalism's inherent effective demand gap.

Louis O. Kelso American lawyer and economist

Louis Orth Kelso was a political economist, corporate and financial lawyer, author, lecturer and merchant banker who is chiefly remembered today as the inventor and pioneer of the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), invented to enable working people without savings to buy stock in their employer company and pay for it out of its future dividend yield.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I never write books for my fellow professors to read. I have no interest in the academic audience at all. I'm interested in Joe Doakes. A general audience can read any book I write – and they do.

Dwight MacDonald once criticized Adler's popular style by saying "Mr. Adler once wrote a book called How to Read a Book. He should now read a book called How to Write a Book." [17]

Religion and theology

Adler was born into a nonobservant Jewish family. In his early twenties, he discovered St. Thomas Aquinas, and in particular the Summa Theologica . [18] Many years later, he wrote that its "intellectual austerity, integrity, precision and brilliance ... put the study of theology highest among all of my philosophical interests". [19] An enthusiastic Thomist, he was a frequent contributor to Catholic philosophical and educational journals, as well as a frequent speaker at Catholic institutions, so much so that some assumed he was a convert to Catholicism. But that was reserved for later. [18]

In 1940, James T. Farrell called Adler "the leading American fellow-traveller of the Roman Catholic Church". What was true for Adler, Farrell said, was what was "postulated in the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church", and he "sang the same tune" as avowed Catholic philosophers like Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain and Martin D'Arcy. Farrell attributed Adler's delay in joining the Church to his being among those Christians who "wanted their cake and ... wanted to eat it too", and compared him to the Emperor Constantine, who waited until he was on his deathbed to formally become a Catholic. [20]

Adler took a long time to make up his mind about theological issues. When he wrote How to Think About God: A Guide for the Twentieth-Century Pagan in 1980, he claimed to consider himself the pagan of the book's subtitle. In volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (2001), Ken Myers includes his 1980 interview with Adler, conducted after How to Think About God was published. Myers reminisces, "During that interview, I asked him why he had never embraced the Christian faith himself. He explained that while he had been profoundly influenced by a number of Christian thinkers during his life, ... there were moral – not intellectual – obstacles to his conversion. He didn't explain any further." [21]

Myers notes that Adler finally "surrendered to the Hound of Heaven" and "made a confession of faith and was baptized" as an Episcopalian in 1984, only a few years after that interview. Offering insight into Adler's conversion, Myers quotes him from a subsequent 1990 article in Christianity magazine: "My chief reason for choosing Christianity was because the mysteries were incomprehensible. What's the point of revelation if we could figure it out ourselves? If it were wholly comprehensible, then it would just be another philosophy." [21]

According to his friend Deal Hudson, Adler "had been attracted to Catholicism for many years" and "wanted to be a Roman Catholic, but issues like abortion and the resistance of his family and friends" kept him away. Many thought he was baptized as an Episcopalian rather than a Catholic solely because of his "wonderful – and ardently Episcopal – wife" Caroline. Hudson suggests it is no coincidence that it was only after her death in 1998 that he took the final step. [22] In December 1999, in San Mateo, where he had moved to spend his last years, Adler was formally received into the Catholic Church by a long-time friend and admirer, Bishop Pierre DuMaine. [18] "Finally," wrote another friend, Ralph McInerny, "he became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life". [4]

Despite not being a Catholic for most of his life, Adler can be considered a Catholic philosopher on account of his lifelong participation in the Neo-Thomist movement [21] and his almost equally long membership of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. [4]


Adler referred to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as the "ethics of common sense" and also as "the only moral philosophy that is sound, practical, and undogmatic". Thus, it is the only ethical doctrine that answers all the questions that moral philosophy should and can attempt to answer, neither more nor less, and that has answers that are true by the standard of truth that is appropriate and applicable to normative judgments. In contrast, he believed that other theories or doctrines try to answer more questions than they can or fewer than they should, and their answers are mixtures of truth and error, particularly the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Adler was a self-proclaimed "moderate dualist", and viewed the positions of psychophysical dualism and materialistic monism to be opposite sides of two extremes. Regarding dualism, he dismissed the extreme form of dualism that stemmed from such philosophers as Plato (body and soul) and Descartes (mind and matter), as well as the theory of extreme monism and the mind–brain identity theory. After eliminating the extremes, Adler subscribed to a more moderate form of dualism. He believed that the brain is only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for conceptual thought; that an "immaterial intellect" is also requisite as a condition; [23] and that the difference between human and animal behavior is a radical difference in kind. Adler defended this position against many challenges to dualistic theories.

Freedom and free will

The meanings of "freedom" and "free will" have been and are under debate, and the debate is confused because there is no generally accepted definition of either "freedom" or "free will". [24] [25] [26] Adler's "Institute for Philosophical Research" spent ten years studying the "idea of freedom" as the word was used by hundreds of authors who have discussed and disputed freedom. [27] The study was published in 1958 as Volume One of The Idea of Freedom, sub-titled A Dialectical Examination of the Idea of Freedom with subsequent comments in Adler's Philosophical Dictionary. Adler's study concluded that a delineation of three kinds of freedom circumstantial, natural, and acquired is necessary for clarity on the subject. [28] [29]

  1. "Circumstantial freedom" denotes "freedom from coercion or restraint".
  2. "Natural freedom" denotes "freedom of a free will" or "free choice". It is the freedom to determine one's own decisions or plans. This freedom exists in everyone inherently, regardless of circumstances or state of mind.
  3. "Acquired freedom" is the freedom "to will as we ought to will" and, thus, "to live as [one] ought to live". This freedom is not inherent: it must be acquired by a change whereby a person gains qualities as "good, wise, virtuous, etc." [28]


As Adler's interest in religion and theology increased, he made references to the Bible and the need to test its articles of faith for compatibility with certainties from fields of natural knowledge such as science and philosophy. [30] In his 1981 book How to Think About God, Adler attempts to demonstrate God as the exnihilator (the creator of something from nothing). [5] Adler stressed that even with this conclusion, God's existence cannot be proven or demonstrated, but only established as true beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in a recent re-review of the argument, John Cramer concluded that recent developments in cosmology appear to converge with and support Adler's argument, and that in light of such theories as the multiverse, the argument is no worse for wear and may, indeed, now be judged somewhat more probable than it was originally. [31]

Adler believed that, if theology and religion are living things, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about efforts to modernize them. They must be open to change and growth like everything else. Further, there is no reason to be surprised when discussions such as those about the "death of God" – a concept drawn from Friedrich Nietzsche – stir popular excitement as they did in the recent past and could do so again today. According to Adler, of all the great ideas, the idea of God has always been and continues to be the one that evokes the greatest concern among the widest group of men and women. However, he was opposed to the idea of converting atheism into a new form of religion or theology.

Personal life

Mortimer Adler was married twice and had four children. [32] He and Helen Boynton were married in 1927 and later divorced in 1960 with whom he had two children, Mark and Michael. His second wife was Carolyn Pring, and he had two more children with her.[ citation needed ] [33]

Published works

Collections edited by Adler

See also

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  1. "Adler", The great ideas (short biography).
  2. Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, Simon and Schuster (2001), p. 298
  4. 1 2 3 McInerny, Ralph, Memento Mortimer, Radical academy, archived from the original on 2010-11-27.
  5. 1 2 Mortimer Adler: 1902–2001 – The Day Philosophy Died, Word gems, archived from the original on 2011-04-10.
  6. "Charles A. Wagner", The New York Times (obituary), December 10, 1986.
  7. "The Morningside". x (5–6). Columbia University Press. April–May 1922: 113. ISBN   0-300-08462-5.
  8. "Mortimer J Adler", Remarkable Columbians, Columbia U.
  9. 1 2 "Mortimer Adler", Faculty, Selu
  10. Adler, Mortimer J. (1977). Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography. Macmillan. p. 58-59 (St. John's College), 87-88 (People's Institute), 92-93 (rift), 113-116 (1929 collaboration). Retrieved 12 January 2018.
  11. A Statement from the Department of Philosophy, Chicago, quoted on Cook, Gary (1993), George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist, U. of Illinois Press, p. 186.
  12. Van Doren, Charles (November 2002), "Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001)", Columbia Forum (online ed.), archived from the original on 2007-06-09.
  13. Temes, Peter (3 July 2001), "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher", Sun-Times, Chicago, archived from the original on 4 November 2007.
  14. Centennial Facts of the Day (website), U Chicago Law School, archived from the original on 2004-10-26.
  15. Adler, Mortimer J (1986), A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom, New York: Macmillan, p. 88.
  16. Kelso, Louis O; Adler, Mortimer J (1958), The Capitalist Manifesto (PDF), Kelso institute.
  17. Rosenberg, Bernard. "Assaulting the American Mind." Dissent. Spring 1988.
  18. 1 2 3 Redpath, Peter, A Tribute to Mortimer J. Adler, Salvation is from the Jews.
  19. Adler, Mortimer J (1992), A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large, New York: Macmillan, p. 264.
  20. Farrell, James T (1945) [1940], "Mortimer T. Adler: A Provincial Torquemada", The League of Frightened Philistines and Other Papers (reprint), New York: Vanguard Press, pp. 106–09.
  21. 1 2 3 Mortimer Adler (biography), Basic Famous People.
  22. Hudson, Deal (June 29, 2009), "The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic", Inside catholic.
  23. Mortimer J. Adler on the Immaterial Intellect, Book of Job, archived from the original on 2004-09-22.
  24. Kane, Robert (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, p. 10.
  25. Fischer, John Martin; Kane, Robert; Pereboom, Derk; Vargas, Manuel (2007), Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell, p. 128.
  26. Barnes, R Eric, Freedom, Mtholyoke, archived from the original on February 16, 2005, retrieved October 19, 2009.
  27. Adler 1995, p. 137, Liberty.
  28. 1 2 Adler 1958, pp. 127, 135, 149.
  29. Adler 1995, pp. 137–38, Liberty.
  30. Adler, Mortimer J (1992) [Macmillan, 1990], 'Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (reprint), Touchstone, pp. 29–30.
  31. John Cramer. "Adler's Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God". Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , March 1995, pp. 32–42.
  32. Grimes, William (June 29, 2001), "Mortimer Adler, 98, Dies; Helped Create Study of Classics", The New York Times.
  33. Adler, Mortimer (1977). Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. p. 96. ISBN   0-02-500490-5.
  34. What Man Has Made of Man, Archive, OCLC   807118494 .

Further reading