Mortimer Adler

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Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902June 28, 2001) was an American philosopher and author.

Adler was born in New York City. After dropping out of high school at age 14, he worked as a copy boy for the New York Sun. Wanting to become a journalist, he took 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. He went on to study philosophy at Columbia University. Though he failed to complete the necessary physical education requirements for a bachelor's degree, he stayed at the university and eventually was given a teaching position and was awarded a doctorate in philosophy.

Adler was appointed to the philosophy faculty at the University of Chicago in 1930, where he met its president Robert Hutchins, with whom he founded the Great Books of the Western World program. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in 1952. For a long time he was Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and influenced many of the policies of the 15th edition. He founded the Paedia 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.

Adler long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works (such as How to Read a Book) became popular bestsellers. 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.

Adler took a long time in his own life to "make up his mind" about theological issues. In Volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (2001), Ken Meyer includes his 1980 interview with Adler, conducted after How to Think About God was published. Meyer 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."

Meyer goes on to point out that Adler finally "surrendered to the hound of heaven" and "made a confession of faith and was baptised" only a few years after that interview. Offering insight into Adler's conversion, Meyer quotes Adler from his 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."

Also in that 1980 interview, Meyer "playfully" asked Adler which single book he would want to take on a desert island. Adler responded with eleven:

Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War [1]
5 or 6 of Plato's Dialogues
Aristotle's Ethics & Politics
Augustine of Hippo's Confessions
Plutarch's Lives
Dante's Divine Comedy
some plays of Shakespeare
Montaigne's Essays
Gulliver's Travels
Locke's Second Treatise on Government
Tolstoy's War and Peace

In the summer of 1981 Adler conducted a seminar at the Aspen Institute in Colorado based on his book Six Great Ideas. It was filmed by PBS for a popular television series hosted by Bill Moyers the following year.

Adler was a controversial figure in some circles who saw his focus on the classics as eurocentric and dogmatic, and he was never afraid to speak his mind. Adler was also a world federalist.


"The philosopher ought never to try to avoid the duty of making up his mind."
"We ought to desire only that which is good for us."
"Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men."
"[I]f local civil government is necessary for local civil peace, then world civil government is necessary for world peace." - Philosopher at Large, 1977


  • Dialectic (1927)
  • The Nature of Judicial Proof: An Inquiry into the Logical, Legal, and Empirical Aspects of the Law of Evidence (1931, with Jerome Michael)
  • Diagrammatics (1932, with Maude Phelps Hutchins)
  • Crime, Law and Social Science (1933, with Jerome Michael)
  • Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy (1937)
  • What Man Has Made of Man: A Study of the Consequences of Platonism and Positivism in Psychology (1937)
  • The Philosophy and Science of Man: A Collection of Texts as a Foundation for Ethics and Politics (1940)
  • How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940)
  • A Dialectic of Morals: Towards the Foundations of Political Philosophy (1941)
  • How to Think About War and Peace (1944)
  • The Revolution in Education (1944, with Milton Mayer)
  • The Capitalist Manifesto (1958, with Louis O. Kelso) ISBN 0837182107
  • The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (1958)
  • The New Capitalists: A Proposal to Free Economic Growth from the Slavery of Savings (1961, with Louis O. Kelso)
  • The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Controversies about Freedom (1961)
  • Great Ideas from the Great Books (1961)
  • The Conditions of Philosophy: Its Checkered Past, Its Present Disorder, and Its Future Promise (1965)
  • How to Read a Book: A Guide to Reading the Great Books (1966)
  • The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967)
  • The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense (1970)
  • The Common Sense of Politics (1971)
  • How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (1972, with Charles Van Doren)
  • The American Testament (1975, with William Gorman)
  • Some Questions About Language: A Theory of Human Discourse and Its Objects (1976)
  • Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (1977)
  • Reforming Education: The Schooling of a People and Their Education Beyond Schooling (1977, edited by Geraldine Van Doren)
  • Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (1978)
  • How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan (1980)
  • Six Great Ideas: Truth-Goodness-Beauty-Liberty-Equality-Justice (1981) ISBN 0-02-072020-3
  • The Angels and Us (1982)
  • The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982)
  • How to Speak / How to Listen (1983)
  • Paideia Problems and Possibilities: A Consideration of Questions Raised by The Paideia Proposal (1983)
  • A Vision of the Future: Twelve Ideas for a Better Life and a Better Society (1984) ISBN 0025002805
  • The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984, with Members of the Paideia Group)
  • Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985) ISBN 0-02-500330-5
  • A Guidebook to Learning: For a Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom (1986)
  • We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (1987)
  • Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (1988, edited by Geraldine Van Doren)
  • Intellect: Mind Over Matter (1990)
  • Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (1990)
  • Haves Without Have-Nots: Essays for the 21st Century on Democracy and Socialism (1991) ISBN 0025005618
  • Desires, Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough (1991)
  • A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher At Large (1992)
  • The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought (1992)
  • The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical-Moral-Objective-Categorical (1993)
  • Art, the Arts, and the Great Ideas (1994)
  • Adler's Philosophical Dictionary: 125 Key Terms for the Philosopher's Lexicon (1995)

Edited works

  • The New Technology: Servant or Master (in work, with Phillip W. Goetz)
  • Scholasticism and Politics (1940)
  • Great Books of the Western World (1952, 52 volumes)
  • A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas (1952, 2 volumes)
  • The Great Ideas Today (1961-1977, 17 volumes, with Robert Hutchins)
  • Gateway to the Great Books (1963, 10 volumes, with Robert Hutchins)
  • The Annals of America (1968, 21 volumes)
  • Propaedia: Outline of Knowledge and Guide to The New Encyclopædia Britannica 15th Edition (1974, 30 volumes)
  • Great Treasury of Western Thought (1977, with Charles Van Doren)
  • The Great Ideas Today (1978-1999, 20 volumes)
  • Great Books of the Western World 2nd Edition (1990, 60 volumes)
  • A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas 2nd Edition (1990, 2 volumes)

See also

External links - resources