Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer J. Adler

Adler seated at a table in front of an open book

Adler while presiding over the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Born Mortimer Jerome Adler
(1902-12-28)December 28, 1902
New York City, New York, United States
Died June 28, 2001(2001-06-28) (aged 98)
Palo Alto, California, United States
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.


New York City

Adler was born in New York City on December 28, 1902, to Jewish immigrants. 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.[2] 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.[3] 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[4] was editor-in-chief and Whittaker Chambers an associate editor).[5] 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.[6] While at Columbia University, Adler wrote his first book: Dialectic, published in 1927.[7]


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]"[8] and resisted Adler's appointment to the University's Department of Philosophy.[9][10] Adler was the first "non-lawyer" to join the law school faculty.[11] Adler also taught philosophy to business executives at the Aspen Institute.[7]

"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 from its inception in 1949, 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.[12] 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.

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.[13] Adler was often aided in his thinking and writing by Arthur Rubin, an old friend from his Columbia undergraduate days. In his own words:

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."[14]


The ethnic composition of Adler's Great Books list was controversial in some academic circles, as was his response to accompanying criticism. Some fellow academics characterized the list as ethnically exclusive with Henry Louis Gates saying the assembly of the list showed a "profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color – red, brown or yellow." Others, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., claim the Great Books of the Western World project was inherently unnecessary, saying that an understanding of shared cultural items within books is more important than reading them. Adler was asked in a 1990 interview with the LA Times why his Great Books of the Western World list did not include more non-whites and non-Europeans. He attributed the lack of Latino authors to the lack of recommendations by Mexican poet and committee member Octavio Paz, and the lack of black authors to a lack of books good enough to fit the criteria. In the face of criticism Adler maintained that ethnic quotas were irrelevant to the subject.[15]

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.[16] 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".[17] 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.[16]

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.[18]

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."[19]

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."[19]

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.[20] 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.[16] "Finally," wrote another friend, Ralph McInerny, "he became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life".[2]

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[19] and his almost equally long membership of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.[2]


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;[21] 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".[22][23][24] 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.[25] 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.[26][27]

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.”[26]


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.[28] In his 1981 book How to Think About God, Adler attempts to demonstrate God as the exnihilator (the creator of something from nothing).[3] 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.[29]

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 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.


Mortimer Adler was married twice and had four children.[30]

Published works

Collections edited by Adler

See also


  1. "Adler", The great ideas (short biography).
  2. 1 2 3 McInerny, Ralph, Memento Mortimer, Radical academy.
  3. 1 2 Mortimer Adler: 1902–2001 – The Day Philosophy Died, Word gems.
  4. "Charles A. Wagner", The New York Times (obituary), December 10, 1986.
  5. "The Morningside". x (5–6). Columbia University Press. April–May 1922: 113. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.
  6. "Mortimer J Adler", Remarkable Columbians, Columbia U.
  7. 1 2 "Mortimer Adler", Faculty, Selu
  8. 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.
  9. Van Doren, Charles (November 2002), "Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001)", Columbia Forum (online ed.).
  10. Temes, Peter (3 July 2001), "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher", Sun-Times, Chicago.
  11. Centennial Facts of the Day (website), U Chicago Law School.
  12. Adler, Mortimer J (1986), A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom, New York: Macmillan, p. 88.
  13. Kelso, Louis O; Adler, Mortimer J (1958), The Capitalist Manifesto (PDF), Kelso institute.
  14. Rosenberg, Bernard. "Assaulting the American Mind." Dissent. Spring 1988.
  15. Venant, Elizabeth (3 December 1990). "A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground". The Los Angeles Times.
  16. 1 2 3 Redpath, Peter, A Tribute to Mortimer J. Adler, Salvation is from the Jews.
  17. Adler, Mortimer J (1992), A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large, New York: Macmillan, p. 264.
  18. 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. 106–9.
  19. 1 2 3 Mortimer Adler (biography), Basic Famous People.
  20. Hudson, Deal (June 29, 2009), "The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic", Inside catholic.
  21. Mortimer J. Adler on the Immaterial Intellect, Book of Job.
  22. Kane, Robert (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, p. 10.
  23. Fischer, John Martin; Kane, Robert; Pereboom, Derk; Vargas, Manuel (2007), Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell, p. 128.
  24. Barnes, R Eric, Freedom, Mtholyoke, retrieved October 19, 2009.
  25. Adler 1995, p. 137, Liberty.
  26. 1 2 Adler 1958, pp. 127, 135, 149.
  27. Adler 1995, pp. 137–38, Liberty.
  28. Adler, Mortimer J (1992) [Macmillan, 1990], 'Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (reprint), Touchstone, pp. 29–30.
  29. John Cramer. "Adler's Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God". Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 1995, pp. 32–42.
  30. Grimes, William (June 29, 2001), "Mortimer Adler, 98, Dies; Helped Create Study of Classics", The New York Times.
  31. What Man Has Made of Man, Archive, OCLC 807118494.

Further reading

  1. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Recipients of the Saint Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
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