This short, authoritative text surveys some of the major gaps and problems in modern thought.
I bought a used copy of this book in 2010, as part of my first gush of excitement over learning about the Britannica Great Books series and Adler’s role in bringing it to fruition. I bought several of Adler’s books and downloaded a number of his papers and interviews. As I continue to work my way through them, I remain convinced that he was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century.
But are thinkers important? What difference does it make? One person thinks one thing, someone else thinks something else; so what?
At a number of places in this book, Adler states why it makes a difference. For example, in chapter 10 on “Human Existence”, about whether a human being is a single thing or a congeries of parts, he notes, “Without the kind of identifiable identity that belongs to the individual thing as a subject of change, human beings, having obviously mutable existence, could not be held morally responsible for their acts.” This is an important practical consequence of holding one view or another here.
The mission of the book is simple: to show how, with 10 major ideas, such as “Knowledge and Opinion”, “Moral Values”, and “Happiness and Contentment”, the opinions of modern philosophy are incorrect.
In the case of Knowledge and Opinion, Adler takes aim at the knots into which philosophy has tied itself over the question of whether and how we know what we know—if we do indeed know it. He identifies the key authors of the philosophical mistakes here as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), determined that the only knowledge that can properly be so called is that arrived at through mathematics, logic, and certain empirical sciences. Philosophy, theology, and other non-numeric fields “can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Kant, deeply affected by Hume’s work but finding his result repugnant, responded by developing an elaborate idealistic philosophy of his own that was intended to rehabilitate these junked fields of knowledge.
In Adler’s view, the work of both these thinkers was founded on mistakes early in their chain of reasoning. He says of Kant that he “had no awareness of the distinction between empirical concepts and theoretical constructs”—that is, between concepts derived from sense-experience and concepts that are purely abstract and not capable of being manifested to the senses in any way. Adler notes that many constructs of modern physics fall into the latter category, such as quarks, mesons, and black holes. Not distinguishing between these kinds of concepts, Adler says, led Kant to turn his back on reality and formulate a view of the world that was purely mental. But in reality, according to Adler, reality exists.
As implied by the book’s title, these issues are not matters of opinion; modern thinkers—and some ancient ones—made definite mistakes that led to erroneous conclusions. Adler is setting out to correct these mistakes and lead the reader to the correct conclusion in each case.
Is he right to think this? Here I’m not sure. This book, published when the author was 82, is a mature work by a diligent thinker who was deeply versed in the source texts and the whole tradition of thought. He does not suffer from the deficit of which he accuses other modern thinkers—including such heavyweights as Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and John Locke—namely, of not having thoroughly read the classic philosophical works, particularly those of Aristotle. In many cases, he says, Aristotle has the answer to these modern problems; it’s just that modern thinkers aren’t aware of it. And that lack of awareness has caused them to wander fruitlessly down many a long cul-de-sac. But can Adler really be so certain?
I wouldn’t dare contradict a man of Adler’s superior learning and depth of acquaintance with the material, but I do have my doubts. My own observation is that every philosopher is tempted at some point to overplay his hand and treat his conclusions as rock-solid. And the better the philosopher, the greater this temptation is likely to be. We now treat Aristotle’s celestial mechanics as a historical curiosity, but he felt it was quite solid because several independent lines of observation and reasoning all led to the same conclusions. And Aristotle was perhaps the greatest thinker in Western history.
My own more modest philosophical training has been in the context of Buddhism. I’m no expert there, but I do know that Buddhist thinkers have been closely examining the question of the nature of our identity and our existence for thousands of years, and I feel sure that their view of Adler’s take on “Human Existence” would be that while it is astute and well argued, it is only peeling the skin off the onion. He’s not in a position to be offering a final conclusion.
Likewise with the question of reality. Adler is critical and dismissive of idealism as a philosophy; he is a realist. But in Buddhism the nature of reality is not a simple question. It has depths that can really only be discovered in one’s experience, via meditation. There are ways in which our everyday experience is dreamlike, and yet we don’t regard dreams as real.
Be all that as it may. Adler may be offering his little book as a set of answers to these thorny philosophical problems, but its real value is merely in drawing our attention to them and discussing them. He lays out issues and he gets you thinking, and he does it with simple, vigorous, nontechnical prose. But I’m sure he doesn’t want us to take his word for any of these assertions. If we have questions and doubts about what he’s saying, then good—we’re thinking. I’m sure nothing would have pleased Adler more.