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The Mortimer J. Adler Archive


Dr. Adler's Briefing Room - 6

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How To Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan, by Mortimer J. Adler

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Adler on Science

The word "science" has changed its meaning as we pass from antiquity and the Middle Ages to modern times, especially to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today it means the observational or investigative sciences, sometimes called the empirical and experimental sciences. It must be added that the word "science" is also used to refer to mathematics, which is clearly nonempirical and noninvestigative.

The adjective "scientific" is used as a term of praise conferred on other disciplines; such disciplines employ methods which have a certain objectivity in their appeal to evidence which sets them apart from mere, unfounded opinion. Though history is not a science, nor is philosophy, nevertheless as branches of humanistic scholarship, both can be conducted in a manner that is praised when they are called scientific.

The word "science" derives from the Latin word "scientia," for which the Greek equivalent is either "episteme" or "doxa." In antiquity and the Middle Ages, the various branches of philosophy were called sciences. Today, from the point of view of the empirical sciences, when philosophers employ a praiseworthy method they are called scientific.

With the rise of positivism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which asserts that empirically reliable knowledge is to be found only in the empirical and experimental sciences, it has become necessary to set investigative science apart from history, from mathematics, and from philosophy.

I have explained elsewhere in what manner the branches of philosophy, especially metaphysics (or philosophical theology) and philosophical psychology, can be properly compared with the empirical and experimental sciences with regard to agreement and disagreement, progress, and the criteria of truth and falsity.

It is of great interest that all the disciplines being compared (the empirical sciences, mathematics, history, and philosophy) have a history and a philosophy, but no science (in the modern, positivistic sense) that is applicable to the understanding of the sciences themselves. There is no science of science.

If philosophy did not exist, we would have no moral philosophy as a branch of knowledge and we would have no understanding of science itself, for when scientists write about science, they do so as philosophers, not as scientists.

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Adler on Law

The word "law" in the vocabulary of religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims means the divinely ordained law of the Ten Commandants, and the Mosaic law enunciated in the last three books of the Pentateuch.

In the first two of these three religions, the ten Commandments are laws individuals are obliged to observe and honor.

But for Christians, both Catholic, and Protestant, what Jesus Christ called the two precepts of charity replace the Mosaic law. The two precepts of charity are to love God with all thy heart and all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself. On these two precepts, Christ tell us, "hang the law and the prophets." For Muslims, however, the Koran is a book of laws that deal with the everyday conduct of the faithful.

The law that is taught in our law schools is the human-made or positive law of the various jurisdictions, and also the underlying law of the U.S. Constitution, which all federal officeholders swear to uphold and all citizens regard as the fundamental safeguard of their natural rights.

The thing that connects the Constitution of the United States to the human-made laws of the federal government of the fifty-state jurisdictions is the natural law. Religious persons believe that the natural law is instilled in our minds and hearts by God, but even atheists can appeal to the natural law as the law of reason concerning what ought and ought not to be sought and what ought and ought not to be done.

It is the law of reason that proclaims our natural rights. Natural rights are the same at all times and places, but in the course of history there has been a growing recognition of such rights.

Chattel slavery was always a violation of man's natural right to liberty, but this natural right was not always recognized by most countries, and it is still far from being universally observed.

In the United States today there is still dispute between those who advocate a strict interpretation of the Constitution and those who think that reason can instruct us with regard to rights not mentioned in the Constitution or its Bill of Rights.

The strict constitutionalists have difficulty in explaining our government's foreign policy -- one that condemn those nations in the world which do not respect the natural rights of human beings. Strict constitutionalists have difficulty also in recognizing that if chattel slavery is wrong now, it was wrong when it was incorporated into the Constitution originally, which was thus itself in that extent wrong, and made right only with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

If I am correct in thinking that every human being has a right to a decent livelihood, then it must be inferred that the United States has not yet become a nation that secures all the natural rights of its citizens.

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Adler on Wittgenstein

I read Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-philosophicus" (1922) when I was a graduate student at Columbia University immediately after it was published in this country in the same series in which my first book "Dialectic" was published in 1927. This series was edited by C. K. Ogden under the title International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method.

I can still remember and will never forget the stunning last sentence, numbered 7, of the "Tractatus", which read "That whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." In his later career as a philosopher, Wittgenstein practiced what he preached. He substituted showing for telling with regard to matters about which silence should be maintained, because no attempt should be made to make statements in propositional form that are not susceptible to logical proof or disproof.

I also remember I was so impressed by that stunning last sentence of the Tractatus that I was inspired to give a series of ten lectures on the philosophy of silence. Looking over my notes for those lectures still in my files, my present judgment is that they were an immature effort on my part. I am glad that I did not try to turn them into a book for publication.

I have read in the last year, Ray Monk's biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I noted the many similarities between Wittgenstein's youthful career in philosophy and my own -- his dissatisfaction with twentieth-century culture, so dominated by science and technology; his criticism of modern philosophy for taking science and mathematics as models to imitate; his contempt for most of his professorial contemporaries, whom he called "philosophical journalists"; his youthful addiction to logic and grammar as the indispensable foundation for philosophical thought; and his concern with the meaning of meaning. [1]

The similarities noted above do not necessitate any retraction on my part about my not having learned anything from Wittgenstein. We were both wrong in our youthful addiction to logic as the foundation for philosophical thought. If I were to add any exception to my statement that I learned nothing from Wittgenstein, it would be with respect to his distinction between what he called "family resemblances" and what in Aristotelian philosophy are treated as generic and specific samenesses and differences.

Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein contains a number of statements that confirm the parallelism that I have noted between Wittgenstein's attitude toward academic life and toward professors of philosophy and my own.

Monk writes that, for Wittgenstein, "academic life was detestable." I think I would use the word "intolerable" instead. Monk tells us that Wittgenstein congratulated his friend Maurice Drury for being "saved from becoming a professional philosopher." Monk quotes a passage from a letter that Wittgenstein wrote to Moritz Schlick in which he said ". . . from the bottom of my heart it is all the same to me what the professional philosophers of today think of me; for it is not for them that I am writing." [2] To that I say "Amen."

How divergent my mature work in philosophy is from that of Wittgenstein -- and why it should be obvious to anyone that I have not learned anything from him, for better or worse -- can be seen by reading "Some Questions About Language", "How to Think About God", "Ten Philosophical Mistakes", "Intellect: Mind Over Matter", "Truth in Religion", and "Desires, Right and Wrong", all books written since 1976. [3]

Let me sum up the difference between being a professional philosopher and the few of us who strive to make philosophy their life's vocation by writing philosophical books while not teaching philosophy in academic institutions. We are generalists in philosophy, thinking in all four of its dimensions and pursuing the truth in all four. The professors of philosophy in our academic institutions tend to be specialists, as college and university catalogues reveal, teaching courses in this or that branch of philosophy but seldom in all, and usually about the history of ideas and not about the ideas themselves as intelligible objects of philosophical thought. This is a dimension of philosophy that is neglected by most academic specialists. I think the list of my philosophical books show that my thinking covers -- perhaps not adequately -- all four dimensions of philosophical discourse.


1. "The Meaning of Meaning" was the title of a book written by I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden, which influenced me to write a juvenile essay on the philosophical and psychological problems of meaning, which I delivered before the Graduate Philosophy Club at Columbia University while I was still an undergraduate student in the college there (see "Philosopher at Large", pp. 39-40). The problems I had not solved in that early essay remained unsolved for me until, in 1976, I wrote "Some Questions About Language: A Theory of Human Discourse and Its Objects". In that book, I criticized the grave deficiencies and errors in the theories advanced by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (see the Epilogue to that book in the new paperback edition, 1991).

2. Ray Monk, "Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius", New York, The Free Press, 1990, pp. 323-324.

3. In a conversation with M. O'C. Drury, Wittgenstein confesses: "Here I am, a one-time professor of philosophy who has never read a word of Aristotle!" That confession may also explain the divergence between my mature philosophical work and that of Wittgenstein (see "Recollections of Wittgenstein", edited by Rush Rhees Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, p.158).

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