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 the longest 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[edit]

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

"Great Books" and beyond[edit]

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.[10] 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.

Popular appeal[edit]

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.[11] 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."[12]


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.[13]

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.[14] 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".[15] 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.[14]

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.[16]

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."[17]

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."[17]

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.[18] 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.[14] "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[17] and his almost equally long membership of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.[2]


Moral philosophy[edit]

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 believed we are as enlightened by Aristotle’s Ethics today as were those who listened to Aristotle's lectures when they were first delivered because the ethical problems that human beings confront in their lives have not changed over the centuries. Moral virtue and the blessings of good fortune are today, as they have always been in the past, the keys to living well, unaffected by all the technological changes in the environment, as well as those in our social, political, and economic institutions. He believed that the moral problems to be solved by the individual are the same in every century, though they appear to us in different guises.

According to Adler, six indispensable conditions must be met in the effort to develop a sound moral philosophy that corrects all the errors made in modern times.

First and foremost is the definition of prescriptive truth, which sharply distinguishes it from the definition of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth consists in the agreement or conformity of the mind with reality. When we think that that which is, is, and that which is not, is not, we think truly. To be true, what we think must conform to the way things are. In sharp contrast, prescriptive truth consists in the conformity of our appetites with right desire. The practical or prescriptive judgments we make are true if they conform to right desire; or, in other words, if they prescribe what we ought to desire. It is clear that prescriptive truth cannot be the same as descriptive truth; and if the only truth that human beings can know is descriptive truth – the truth of propositions concerning what is and is not – then there can be no truth in ethics. Propositions containing the word "ought" cannot conform to reality. As a result, we have the twentieth-century mistake of dismissing all ethical or value judgments as noncognitive. These must be regarded only as wishes or demands we make on others. They are personal opinions and subjective prejudices, not objective knowledge. In short, the very phrase "noncognitive ethics" declares that ethics is not a body of knowledge.

Second, in order to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, we must formulate at least one self-evident prescriptive truth, so that, with it as a premise, we can reason to the truth of other prescriptives. David Hume said that if we had perfect or complete descriptive knowledge of reality, we could not, by reasoning, derive a single valid ought.

Third, the distinction between real and apparent goods must be understood, as well as the fact that only real goods are the objects of right desire. In the realm of appetite or desire, some desires are natural and some are acquired. Those that are natural are the same for all human beings as individual members of the human species. They are as much a part of our natural endowment as our sensitive faculties and our skeletal structure. Other desires we acquire in the course of experience, under the influence of our upbringing or nurturing, or of environmental factors that differ from individual to individual. Individuals differ in their acquired desires, as they do not in their natural desires. This is essentially the difference between "needs" and "wants." What is really good for us is not really good because we desire it, but the very opposite. We desire it because it is really good. By contrast, that which only appears good to us (and may or may not be really good for us) appears good to us simply because we want it at the moment. Its appearing good is the result of our wanting it, and as our wants change, as they do from day to day, so do the things that appear good to us. In light of the definition of prescriptive truth as conformity with right desire, we can see that prescriptions are true only when they enjoin us to want what we need, since every need is for something that is really good for us. If right desire is desiring what we ought to desire, and if we ought to desire only that which is really good for us and nothing else, then we have found the one controlling self-evident principle of all ethical reasoning – the one indispensable categorical imperative. That self-evident principle can be stated as follows: we ought to desire everything that is really good for us.The principle is self-evident because its opposite is unthinkable. It is unthinkable that we ought to desire anything that is really bad for us; and it is equally unthinkable that we ought not to desire everything that is really good for us. The meanings of the crucial words "ought" and "really good" co-implicate each other, as do the words "part" and "whole" when we say that the whole is greater than any of its parts is a self-evident truth. Given this self-evident prescriptive principle, and given the facts of human nature that tell us what we naturally need, we can reason our way to a whole series of prescriptive truths, all categorical.

Fourth, in all practical matters or matters of conduct, the end precedes the means in our thinking about them, while in action we move from means to ends. But we cannot think about our ends until, among them, we have discovered our final or ultimate end – the end that leaves nothing else to be rightly desired. The only word that names such a final or ultimate end is "happiness." No one can ever say why he or she wants happiness because happiness is not an end that is also a means to something beyond itself. This truth cannot be understood without comprehending the distinction between terminal and normative ends. A terminal end, as in travel, is one that a person can reach at some moment and come to rest in. Terminal ends, such as psychological contentment, can be reached and then rested in on some days, but not others. Happiness, not conceived as psychologically experienced contentment, but rather as a whole life well lived, is not a terminal end because it is never attained at any time in the course of one's whole life. If all ends were terminal ends, there could not be any one of them that is the final or ultimate end in the course of living from moment to moment. Only a normative end can be final and ultimate. Happiness functions as the end that ought to control all the right choices we make in the course of living. Though we never have happiness ethically understood at any moment of our lives, we are always on the way to happiness if we freely make the choices that we ought to make in order to achieve our ultimate normative end of having lived well. But we suffer many accidents in the course of our lives, things beyond our control – outrageous misfortunes or the blessings of good fortunes. Moral virtue alone – or the habits of choosing as we ought – is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of living well. The other necessary, but also not sufficient condition is good fortune.

The fifth condition is that there is not a plurality of moral virtues (which are named in so many ethical treatises), but only one integral moral virtue. There may be a plurality of aspects to moral virtue, but moral virtue is like a cube with many faces. The unity of moral virtue is understood when it is realized that the many faces it has may be analytically but not existentially distinct. In other words, considering the four so-called cardinal virtues – temperance, courage, justice, and prudence – the unity of virtue declares that no one can have any one of these four without also having the other three. Since justice names an aspect of virtue that is other regarding, while temperance and courage name aspects of virtue that are self-regarding, and both the self- and other regarding aspects of virtue involve prudence in the making of moral choices, no one can be selfish in his right desires without also being altruistic, and conversely. This explains why a morally virtuous person ought to be just even though his or her being just may appear only to serve the good of others. According to the unity of virtue, the individual cannot have the self-regarding aspects of virtue – temperance and courage – without also having the other regarding aspect of virtue, which is justice.

The sixth and final condition in Adler’s teleological ethics is acknowledging the primacy of the good and deriving the right therefrom. Those who assert the primacy of the right make the mistake of thinking that they can know what is right, what is morally obligatory in our treatment of others, without first knowing what is really good for ourselves in the course of trying to live a morally good life. Only when we know what is really good for ourselves can we know what are our duties or moral obligations toward others. The primacy of the good with respect to the right corrects the mistake of thinking that we are acting morally if we do nothing that injures others. Our first moral obligation is to ourselves – to seek all the things that are really good for us, the things all of us need, and only those apparent goods that are innocuous rather than noxious.

The intellect[edit]

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):

Strictly speaking, a human being (as defined by the dualistic theory) is not what common sense supposes that person to be: one indivisible thing. That person is actually divided into two individual things, as different and distinct as the rower and the rowboat in which he sits. If this dualistic theory were true, it would confront us with the most embarrassing, insoluble difficulties should we try to explain how these two utterly different substances could interact with one another, as they appear to do in human behavior. Brain injuries or defects produce mental disabilities or disorders. We also have the reports from neurological surgery that tell of electrical stimulation of the brain producing conscious experiences. How can this be so if mind and brain are as separate as the rower and the rowboat, a separation so complete that it permits the rowboat to be sunk while the rower swims away unharmed?

Adler also disagreed with the theory of extreme monism. He believed that while mind and brain may be existentially inseparable, and so regarded as one and the same thing, the mental and the physical may still be analytically distinct aspects of it. He put this theory to the test in the following manner:

Let a surgeon open up an individual's brain for inspection while the patient remains conscious. Let the surgeon dictate to a secretary his detailed observation of the visible area of the brain under scrutiny, and let that area of the brain be its center for vision. Let the patient dictate to another secretary a detailed description of the visible walls of the room in which the surgery is occurring. The language used by the surgeon and the language used by the patient will be irreducibly different: the one will contain words referring to physical phenomena occurring in the brain; the other, words referring to conscious experiences of the room. The extreme monism that asserts not only the existential unity of brain and mind, but also that there is no analytical distinction between them, thus becomes untenable.[19]

Adler was also a harsh critic of the Mind-Brain Identity Theory:

One extremist theory about mind and brain asserts their identity. Used literally, the word "identity" must here mean that there is no distinction whatsoever between mind and brain. That, in turn, means that the two words – "mind" and "brain" – are strict synonyms. If that is the case, we cannot meaningfully ask about the relation of psychology to neurology because psychology is identical with neurology.[19]

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[disambiguation needed] intellect is also requisite as a condition; and that the difference between human and animal behavior is a radical difference in kind. His reason for this is that their cognitive sensory powers do not and cannot apprehend universals. Their cognitive reach does not go beyond particulars. Hence, we would not be able to apprehend universals if we did not have another and quite distinct cognitive power – the power of intellect. Our concepts are universal in their signification of objects that are kinds or classes of things rather than individuals that are particular instances of these classes or kinds. Since they have universality, they cannot exist physically or be embodied in matter. But concepts do exist in our minds. They are there as acts of our intellectual power. Hence that power must be an immaterial power, not one embodied in a material organ such as the brain.

Adler argued that if such an immaterial power did not exist in human beings, our use of common nouns would not be possible. Particular instances are designated by proper names or definite descriptions. When we use the word "dog," we are referring to any dog, regardless of breed, size, shape, or color. To refer to a particular instance, we would use a canine name, such as "Fido," or a definite description, such as "that white poodle over there lying in front of the fire." Our concepts of dog and poodle not only enable us to think about two classes of animals, they also enable us to understand what it is like to be a dog or a poodle.

According to Adler, The action of the brain, therefore, cannot be the sufficient condition of conceptual thought, though it may still be a necessary condition thereof, insofar as the exercise of our power of conceptual thought depends on the exercise of our powers of perception, memory, and imagination, which are corporeal powers embodied in our sense-organs and brain.

Only if the brain is not the sufficient condition for intellectual activity and conceptual thought (only if the intellect that is part of the human mind and is not found in other animals is the immaterial factor that must be added to the brain in order to provide conditions both necessary and sufficient) are we justified in concluding that the manifest difference in kind between human and animal minds, and between human and animal behavior, is radical, not superficial. It cannot be explained away by any difference in the physical constitution of human beings and other animals that is a difference in degree.

Adler defended this position against many challenges to dualistic theories. For example, David Hume believed that man is equipped with sensitive faculties only, and has no intellect. As a nominalist, Hume then faced the problem of how to explain the meaning of the general words in our everyday language; for example, the common nouns that signify classes or kinds. Hume attempted to solve this problem by arguing that when we use words that appear to have general significance, we are applying them to a number of perceived individuals indifferently; that is, without any difference in the meaning of the word thus applied.

Adler found this explanation to be a complete contradiction. To say that we can apply words to a number of individuals indifferently amounts to saying that there is a certain sameness in the individual thing that the speaker or writer recognizes. He argued that if human beings enjoy the powers of conceptual, as opposed to perceptual thought, there would be no difficulty in explaining how words signify universals or generalities. They would derive their significance from concepts that give us our understanding of classes or kinds.

As for the challenge that man’s understanding is derived only from sense, and to the denial of "abstract" or "general ideas, Adler cites the following quote:

Let any man try to conceive of a triangle in general, which is neither Isosceles, Scalenum, nor has any particular length or proportion of sides; and he will soon perceive the absurdity of all the scholastic notions with regard to abstraction and general ideas.

Adler responded to this challenge in his book "Ten Philosophical Mistakes":

There we have it in a nut shell. If all we have are sense-perceptions and images derived from sense, then we can never be aware of anything but a particular triangle, one that is either isosceles, scalene, or equilateral, one that has a certain size or area, one the lines of which are either black or some other color, and so on. What is here said of triangles can be said of everything else. We are never aware of anything except particular individuals-whether by perception or imagination-this cow or that, this tree or that, this chair or that, each with this one particular instance of a certain kind of thing. We may have a name for that certain kind, as we do when we use such words as “triangle”, “cow”, “tree”, and "chair", but we have no idea of that kind as such. We have no idea or understanding of triangularity as such, or of what any individual must be like to be a particular triangle, cow, tree, or chair. Only our words are general. Nothing in reality is general; everything there is particular. So, too, nothing in the mind is general; everything is particular. Generality exists only in the words of our language, the words that are common, not proper, names. Those who regard the human mind as having intellectual as well as sensitive powers have no difficulty in meeting Hume’s challenge head on. By means of an abstract concept, we understand what is common to all the particular cows, trees, and chairs that we can perceive or imagine.

—Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, p. 41-42

Free will[edit]

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.”[20] “Freedom” and “free will” are often treated together because “free will” is commonly used as synonymous with “freedom.”[21]

Three meanings of freedom[edit]

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.[22] 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 is necessary for clarity on the subject. These three kinds of freedom were delineated as follows:[23]

1. “Circumstantial freedom” denotes “freedom from coercion or restraint,” a freedom that allows us “to do as we please.” Thus, circumstantial freedom was also called the “freedom of self-realization.” It has been observed that this is the kind of freedom that Thomas Hobbes and David Hume thought was compatible with determinism.
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 as a “natural endowment.” It is, according to Adler, “(i) inherent in all men, (ii) regardless of the circumstances under which they live and (iii) without regard to any state of mind or character which they may or may not acquire in the course of their lives.”
3. “Acquired freedom” (also called “moral freedom”) is the freedom “to live as [one] ought to live.” In his description of acquired freedom, Adler sometimes used freedom’s synonym “ability.”[24] Thus, Adler described acquired freedom as “the ability to will as we ought to will” and the ability to act as we ought to act. This kind of freedom/ability is not inherent: it must be acquired. To live as one ought requires “a change or development” whereby a person acquires “a state of mind, or character, or personality” that can be described by such qualities as “good, wise, virtuous, righteous, holy, healthy, sound, flexible, etc.”

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.[25] The article Theodicy and the Bible demonstrates the compatibility between Adler’s three kinds of freedom and the Bible.

Volume two[edit]

In 1961, Volume 2, The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Controversies about Freedom was published. In it Adler revisits the idea of a natural freedom of self-determination, which explicitly includes alternative possibilities and the uncaused self as a cause so our actions are "up to us." The uncaused self decides by choosing from prior alternative possibilities.

We have employed the following descriptive formula to summarize the understanding of self-determination that is shared by authors who affirm man's possession of such freedom. They regard it, we have said, as "a freedom which is possessed by all men, in virtue of a power inherent in human nature, whereby a man is able to change his own character creatively by deciding for himself what he shall do or shall become.

We have further explained that "being able to change one's own character creatively by deciding for one's self what one shall do or shall become" expresses the topical agreement about self-determination only when at least two of the three following points are affirmed:

(i) that the decision is intrinsically unpredictable, i.e., given perfect knowledge of all relevant causes, the decision cannot be foreseen or predicted with certitude;
(ii) that the decision is not necessitated, i.e., the decision is always one of a number of alternative possible decisions any one of which it was simultaneously within the power of the self to cause, no matter what other antecedent or concurrent factors exercise a causal influence on the making of the decision;
(iii) that the decision flows from the causal initiative of the self, i.e., on the plane of natural or finite causes, the self is the uncaused cause of the decision it makes.
These three points, as we shall see, generate three distinct existential issues about man's natural freedom of self-determination. Writers who deny (iii) that, on the plane of natural or finite causes, there are any uncaused causes deny, in consequence, the existence of a freedom the conception of which posits such causes. Writers who deny (ii) that an effect can be caused in a manner which does not necessitate it deny, in consequence, the existence of a freedom the conception of which attributes to the self the power of causing but not necessitating the decisions it makes. The existence of self-determination is also denied by writers who claim (i) that God's omniscience excludes a freedom the conception of which involves the intrinsic unpredictability of decisions that are the product of man's power of self-determination.
—Mortimer J. Adler, The Idea of Freedom, vol.II, p.225

In points (i) and (ii) Adler has defined a two-stage model of free will like that of William James and a dozen other philosophers and scientists.[26]


In his 1981 book How to Think About God, Adler attempts to demonstrate God as the exnihilator [the creator of something from nothing][3] of the cosmos. The steps taken to demonstrate this are as follows:

  1. The existence of an effect requiring the concurrent existence and action of an efficient cause implies the existence and action of that cause
  2. The cosmos as a whole exists
  3. The existence of the cosmos as a whole is radically contingent (meaning that it needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence to preserve it in being, and prevent it from being annihilated, or reduced to nothing)
  4. If the cosmos needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence, then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused, in other words, the Supreme Being, or God

The reason we can conceive the cosmos as being radically rather than superficially contingent is due to the fact that the cosmos which now exists is only one of many possible universes that might have in fact existed in the past, and might still exist in the future. This is not to say that any cosmos other than this one ever did exist in the past, or ever will exist in the future. It is not necessary to go that far in order to say that other universes might have existed in the past and might exist in the future. If other universes are possible, than this one also is merely possible, not necessary.

In other words, the universe as we know it today is not the only universe that can ever exist in time. How do we know that the present cosmos is only a possible universe (one of many possibilities that might exist), and not a necessary universe (the only one that can ever exist)? We can infer it from the fact that the order and disorder, the arrangement and disarray, of the present cosmos might have been otherwise. That it might have been different from what it is. There is no compelling reason to think that the natural laws which govern the present cosmos are the only possible natural laws. The cosmos as we know it manifests chance and random happenings, as well as lawful behavior. Even the electrons and protons, which are thought to be imperishable once they exist as the building blocks of the present cosmos, might not be the building blocks for a different cosmos.

The next step in the argument is the crucial one. It consists in saying that whatever might have been otherwise in shape or structure is something that also might not exist at all. That which cannot be otherwise also cannot not exist; and conversely, what necessarily exists can not be otherwise than it is. Therefore, a cosmos which can be otherwise is one that also can not be; and conversely, a cosmos that is capable of not existing at all is one that can be otherwise than it now is.

Applying this insight to the fact that the existing cosmos is merely one of a plurality of possible universes, we come to the conclusion that the cosmos, radically contingent in existence, would not exist at all were its existence not caused. A merely possible cosmos cannot be an uncaused cosmos. A cosmos that is radically contingent in existence, and needs a cause of that existence, needs a supernatural cause, one that exists and acts to exnihilate this merely possible cosmos, thus preventing the realization of what is always possible for merely a possible cosmos, namely, its absolute non-existence or reduction to nothingness.

Adler finishes by pointing out that the conclusion reached conforms to Ockham’s rule (the rule which states that we are justified in positing or asserting the real existence of unobserved or unobservable entities if-and only-if their real existence is indispensable for the explanation of observable phenomena) because we have found it necessary to posit the existence of God, the Supreme Being, in order to explain what needs to be explained-the actual existence here and now of a merely possible cosmos. The argument also appeals to the principle of sufficient reason.

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.[27]

Religion in modern times[edit]

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, and cited many "new theologians" such as William Hamilton, Paul Van Buren, Thomas Altizer and Gabriel Vahanian, who promoted this error:

Have any great intellectual events been ushered in by the new and "radical" theologians? Any new truths in theology? None. Any new insights into the nature of religion? None. Any new advances for the reform of religion? None. The authors who gave currency to the notions of the new "radical theology" supported their assertions with nothing more substantial than the kind of proof that would satisfy the bellman in Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark who cried: "What I tell you three times is true!" There was, however, a close accord between the ambiguous language they used and their purpose. Their purpose was to transform atheism into a new theology – "the religionless Christianity," "atheistic religion," "secularized Christianity" – to preserve some of Christianity's religious teaching while secularizing and combining it with atheism. So the question emerges again. What is new about the new theology? Again the answer is nothing. Atheism is not new, nor is irreligion, nor is secularism. These are very old even when they sounded in the work of the eminent modern predecessors of the new theologians.[28]

Adler saw such movements as obvious and disingenuous attempts to convert atheism and secularism into new forms of religion, rather than calling them by their right names:

For my part, I respect the honest clear-minded atheist who denies that God exists and tries to offer thought out reasons for the denial. I respect the honest, critically minded agnostic who denies we can ever know whether God exists or not, and treats religious belief as a pure act of faith, incapable of being supported or challenged by rational analysis or empirical knowledge of the world. I respect the person who, in his horror of the superstitions and persecutions that have attended the practices of religious institutions, rejects the whole of religion as something from which man should emancipate himself. But I cannot respect those who corrupt the integrity of words in the very act of addressing matters of central importance in theology and religion. I cannot respect those who instead of calling atheism by its right name, contrive a peculiar set of excuses for atheism (as in the "death of God movement") and then – in spite of laws against false labeling – call the result a new theology.[28]

With regard to the apparent increase of secularism or irreligion in Western society, Adler responded:

I suggest that the men and women who have given up religion because of the impact on their minds of modern science and philosophy were never truly religious in the first place, but only superstitious. The prevalence and predominance of science in our culture has cured a great many of the superstitious beliefs that constituted their false religiosity. The increase of secularism and irreligion in our society does not reflect a decrease in the number of persons who are truly religious, but a decrease in the number of those who are falsely religious; that is, merely superstitious. There is no question but that science is the cure for superstition, and, if given half the chance with education, it will reduce the amount that exists. The truths of religion must be compatible with the truths of science and the truths of philosophy. As scientific knowledge advances, and as philosophical analysis improves, religion is progressively purified of the superstitions that accidentally attach themselves to it as parasites. That being so, it is easier in fact to be more truly religious today than ever before, precisely because of the advances that have been made in science and philosophy. That is to say, it is easier for those who will make the effort to think clearly in and about religion, not for those whose addiction to religion is nothing more than a slavish adherence to inherited superstition. Throughout the whole of the past, only a small number of men were ever truly religious. The vast majority who gave their epochs and their societies the appearance of being religious were primarily and essentially superstitious.”[29]


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

Books by Adler

  • 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)[31]
  • St. Thomas and the Gentiles (1938)
  • 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), 1966 edition subtitled A Guide to Reading the Great Books, 1972 revised edition with Charles Van Doren, The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading: ISBN 0-671-21209-5
  • 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 0-8371-8210-7
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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) ISBN 0-684-83823-0
  • How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan (1980) ISBN 0-02-016022-4
  • 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) ISBN 0-02-500570-7
  • 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 0-02-500280-5
  • 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) ISBN 0-02-064140-0
  • Haves Without Have-Nots: Essays for the 21st Century on Democracy and Socialism (1991) ISBN 0-02-500561-8
  • 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)
  • Natural Theology, Chance, and God (The Great Ideas Today, 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)
  • How to Think About The Great Ideas (2000) ISBN 0-8126-9412-0
  • How to Prove There is a God (2011) ISBN 978-0-8126-9689-9

Collections edited by Adler[edit]

  • Scholasticism and Politics (1940)
  • Great Books of the Western World (1952, 52 volumes), 2nd edition 1990, 60 volumes
  • A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas (1952, 2 volumes), 2nd edition 1990
  • The Great Ideas Today (1961–1977, 17 volumes), with Robert Hutchins, 1978–1999, 20 volumes
  • The Negro in American History (1969, 3 volumes), with Charles Van Doren
  • Gateway to the Great Books (1963, 10 volumes), with Robert Hutchins
  • The Annals of America (1968, 21 volumes)
  • Propædia: 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)


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c Ralph McInerny. "Memento Mortimer"
  3. ^ a b Mortimer Adler: 1902–2001 – The Day Philosophy Died
  4. ^ Charles A. Wagner – Obituary, The New York Times, December 10, 1986.
  5. ^ The Morningside. Columbia University Press. 1922 (Vol x, Nos. 5–6, April–May 1922). p. 113. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ "Remarkable Columbians" Columbia U. website on Adler
  7. ^ a b Mortimer Adler
  8. ^ Charles Van Doren,"Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001)", Columbia Forum online, November 2002; Peter Temes, "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher", Chicago Sun-Times, 3 July 2001; "grave doubts": "A Statement from the Department of Philosophy" at Chicago, quoted on p. 186 in Gary Cook, George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist, U. of Illinois Press 1993.
  9. ^ Centennial Facts of the Day, U Chicago Law School website
  10. ^ Mortimer J. Adler (1986), A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom, New York: Macmillan, p.88.
  11. ^ Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer J. Adler (1958). The Capitalist Manifesto
  12. ^ Rosenberg, Bernard. "Assaulting the American Mind." Dissent. Spring 1988.
  13. ^ Elizabeth Venant, (3 December 1990). ""A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground"". The Los Angeles Times. 
  14. ^ a b c Peter Redpath. "A Tribute to Mortimer J. Adler"
  15. ^ Mortimer J. Adler (1992). A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large. New York: Macmillan, p. 264.
  16. ^ James T. Farrell (1940), "Mortimer T. Adler: A Provincial Torquemada". Reprinted in The League of Frightened Philistines and Other Papers. New York: Vanguard Press, 1945, pp. 106–109.
  17. ^ a b c Mortimer Adler Biography,
  18. ^ Deal Hudson (June 29, 2009). "The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic"
  19. ^ a b Mortimer J. Adler. "Is Intellect Immaterial?". The Radical Academy Adler Archive. 
  20. ^ Robert Kane, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 10 and John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will (Blackwell, 2007) 128 and R. Eric Barnes,, accessed October 19, 2009.
  21. ^ Ted Honderich, “Determinism and Freedom Philosophy – Its Terminology,”, accessed November 7, 2009.
  22. ^ Mortimer J. Adler, Adler's Philosophical Dictionary: 125 Key Terms for the Philosopher's Lexicon (Touchstone, 1995) s.v. Liberty, 137.
  23. ^ Mortimer J. Adler, The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Idea of Freedom, Vol 1 (Doubleday, 1958), 127, 135, 149 and Mortimer J. Adler, Adler's Philosophical Dictionary: 125 Key Terms for the Philosopher's Lexicon (Touchstone, 1995) s.v. Liberty, 137-138.
  24. ^ Macmillan Dictionary s.v. “freedom.” Online at
  25. ^ Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (Macmillan, 1990; Touchstone reprint, 1992), 29-30.
  26. ^ Two-Stage Models for Free Will
  27. ^ John Cramer. "Adler's Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God". Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 1995, pp. 32–42.
  28. ^ a b Mortimer J. Adler. "Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion (Part One)". The Radical Academy Adler Archive. 
  29. ^ Mortimer J. Adler. "Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion (Part Two)". The Radical Academy Adler Archive. 
  30. ^ William Grimes, "Mortimer Adler, 98, Dies; Helped Create Study of Classics," New York Times, June 29, 2001
  31. ^ What Man Has Made Of Man, OCLC 807118494

Further reading

  • Harry Ashmore, Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins (New York: Little Brown, 1989).
  • Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).
  • Mary Ann Dzuback, Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991).
  • Amy A. Kass, "Radical Conservatives for a Liberal Education" (Ph.D. diss., 1973).
  • Tim Lacy, "Making a Democratic Culture: The Great Books Idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and Twentieth-Century America" (Ph.D. diss., Loyola University Chicago, 2006).
  • William McNeill, Hutchins' University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago 1929–50 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  • Hugh Moorhead, "The Great Books Movement" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1964). OCLC 6060691
  • Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).