Mortimer J. Adler, The Conditions of Philosophy: Its Checkered Past,
Its Present Disorder, and Its Future Promise. New York:
Atheneum, 1965. xii+303. From
The Journal of Higher Education, 36:7, October 1965, 409-410.
conditions in Mr. Adler’s title has a double meaning. In one sense
it refers to the present situation in philosophy. In a second sense,
which is more important to the discussion, it refers to the conditions
that philosophy must fulfill if it is to achieve complete scholarly
respect. The norm of respectability is set by history and science.
As for the condition
of philosophy in the first sense, Mr. Adler deplores it. One large
school of philosophers, the analysts, has turned over to science the
attempt to know the nature of things and has retreated into a “suicidal
epistemologizing,” examining and re-examining its own ideas. Another
large school, the existentialists, offers us “philosophies to be adopted
in the religious manner, by a kind of transcendental faith,” and
declines to submit its conclusions to rational test. There is little
contact between the two schools, and workers in other disciplines go on
their way contentedly, ignoring both.
What are the
conditions that philosophy must fulfill if it is to escape this limbo of
futility? Mr. Adler names five of them, which he develops with admirable
clarity in successive chapters.
(I) Philosophy must
give up its old ideal of demonstrable or certain knowledge and content
itself, as science does, with conclusions that are corrigible in the
light of fact.
(2) It must therefore
accept a standard that admits of degrees of truth, or at least of
(3) It must cease to
be an activity conducted by moles, each burrowing in its own hole, and
become a public and co-operative enterprise.
(4) It must have
autonomy; that is, it must have questions that are distinctively its own
and a method of its own for dealing with them.
(5) At least some of
these questions must be first-order questions regarding the nature of
things, not second-order questions about our ways of knowing.
But are there
such questions that philosophy can claim as its own? Positivists, of
course, have denied this, holding that all such questions belong to the
factual sciences and that the business of philosophy is not to achieve
new truth but simply to clarify meanings. Here Mr. Adler dissents. He
rests his case on a distinction: there are “investigative” and
“non-investigative” disciplines. An investigative discipline rests on
data gained by special research; a non-investigative one is able to
proceed on the basis of common experience alone. Now philosophy is a
non-investigative discipline. Such questions as the nature of causation,
or the problem of freedom, or the proper ends of human life are
first-order problems of the greatest importance; but the data needed to
deal with them are open to all men: they are supplied by daily
experience. It is on this common foundation that philosophers have
always built and must continue to build.
This is an
exhilarating defense of philosophy—vigorous, timely, lucid, and in the
main, I think, convincing. Its clear-cut discussion of the aims and
boundaries of the major disciplines should be helpful to those who brood
over college curriculums as well as to professional philosophers. The
book is as orderly as a card catalogue, but since it was written for
presentation in the form of lectures at the University of Chicago, it
has some of the ease and flow of talk. It should have a wide reading.
Posted February 17, 2007
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