Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

     In his video series Six Great Ideas, Mortimer Adler maintains philosophy is unique amongst the scholarly disciplines.  No research, experiments, or investigative efforts are called for as one seeks answers to philosophical questions.  Instead, he contends that our common experience, together with the common sense which this experience engenders, is sufficient for the analytical thought and reflection which constitutes philosophizing.  The value of this activity lies in the fact that it enriches our common sense insights and enlarges our understanding of the world we already know via our common experience.  Philosophy, then, is everyone’s business since this common experience belongs to all and requires no special tools or technical sophistication.  Adler faults today’s professional philosophers because they write abstract and technical tomes which do not speak to the general public and do not help mankind resolve the problems which are of interest to us all.  Instead of engaging in technical studies and pursuing specialized knowledge, Adler says, such scholars should help people understand those answers which have been offered to the philosophical questions and enable them to judge for themselves which answers are closest to the truth.1

     Adler is not alone in his distaste for philosophers’ technical jargon and their impossible prose.  Moreover, I imagine his complaint is not indigenous to our age.  Plato and Aristotle wrote for select audiences—few were admitted to the Academy and their most important writings were meant for general audiences.  Philosophers of the Middle Ages could hardly be accused of writing for the general public.  Hume and Kant were not writers who successfully addressed the general population.  Indeed, the philosopher who eschews technical jargon and writes for the everyman is a rare breed—the models Adler offers do not practice what he preaches: if Aristotle spoke to everyone, why does Adler need to write Aristotle for Everybody; couldn’t he merely offer a readable translation?  Thus Adler’s complaint must not be merely one in regard to present day philosophers.  Indeed, I believe, his is an attack upon philosophy itself!

     At one point, Stanley Cavell says “if philosophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledge, but because most men guard themselves against it.”  His claim is insightful in the present context.  How is it that “the many” mount this guard?  This can be clarified if we recognize that philosophy is not famous for the answers it provides but for the questions it poses.  If there is validity in this remark, Adler is partly right and partly wrong.  In saying philosophers are not famous for their answers I mean that, unlike scientists, philosophers do not seem to make much progress over the ages.  The problems which troubled Plato are the ones which trouble us.  The “answers” he offers are, of course, worth reading—here Adler is, certainly, squarely on the mark.  Moreover, Adler is correct in asserting that philosophers ought to present various “traditional” answers and enable all who will listen to evaluate them.  This conception of philosophizing is as old as Socrates.

     So, where has Adler gone wrong?  In his assertion that this is not what philosophers are doing and in his view that all this can be done without technical language or specialized knowledge.  The presentation of the “answers,” the understanding of the questions, and the evaluation of the former in terms of the latter (even when it is “common sense” which is the tribunal one appeals to) all require a good deal of technical facility, specialized knowledge, and intellectual sophistication.  It is these prerequisites of the philosophic enterprise many would guard themselves against.  Moreover, the evaluative process is one which often seems to lead us away from the original questions.  One begins by wondering what knowledge is, for example, and quickly finds the argument has shifted to talk of evil demons and so forth.  One begins by wondering what the structure of reality is and quickly finds the discussion has shifted to questions of necessary truth or the possibility of psycho-physical parallelism.  The central questions have not been lost, they can only be answered by approaching these others.  To evaluate a philosophic “answer,” one must engage in philosophy—one must critically scrutinize arguments offered by philosophers in favor of proffered “answers.”  Here the (apparently unnecessary) technicalities creep in.

     Understanding this and seeing where Adler leads us astray are the same accomplishment.  In effect, Adler seems to misunderstand the nature of philosophic questions.  When Socrates said “no one knows more than I,” he did not wish to stake much of a claim to positive knowledge—he thought he was superior only insofar as he, at least, recognized the woeful extent of his ignorance.  Plato may have thought he knew more, but he retained Socrates’ methodology.  Recognizing the extent of their ignorance in regard to certain important points (those Adler calls metaphysical and moral, for example), they sought to make the most of their predicament.  Thus they employed a dialectical and critical methodology: uncertain as to what “the truth” was, they attempted to offer reasoned defenses of various “answers” to these questions.  Such answers, I stress, were to be offered in a critical and reasoned fashion.  What was to determine whether the answers were adequate, more adequate than others which might be offered, or (at least) tentatively plausible, was the adequacy of the arguments offered.  Thus the enterprise of “technical” philosophizing was born!

     While common sense, certainly, has its role in the evaluation of these “answers,” it is no more adequate than are our ordinary logical habits.  The critical evaluation of dialectical arguments requires a study of logic and relies upon one’s mastery of a variety of technical tools—relying upon our “common sense logic” will allow us to be taken in and misled by fallacious reasoning.  Refinement is called for—unconscious standards, norms, and paradigms must be replaced by conscious ones, and these must themselves be subjected to critical examination.  Answers to various different questions must be compared and consistency must be sought.  Here philosophers are led to seemingly unnecessary technicalities.  If the evaluations they are to offer are to be appropriate, however, common sense is not enough.  The distinctive aspect of the philosophic approach to problems is the commitment to critical and dialectical scrutiny.

     Other individuals also address the “philosophic” questions (novelists, theologians, psychologists, and moralists for example).  None of them, however, are committed to the sort of critical process which a philosopher adheres to in her inquires.  To many of the other scholars, as well as to the “lay” individuals, the philosophers’ technical maneuvers seem unnecessary—often they seem to ignore the important for the arcane, and to throw the baby out with the bath water.  They are governed, however, by a principle of evidence and evaluation which requires that they reject and defend theses only by rational means and that they be willing to argue against all counterexamples until each individual’s critical reservations and objections have been met.

     They claim that the questions are of such great import that any other  procedure must be rejected.  Thus when Crito attempts to convince Socrates to escape from prison and save his life, the latter can reply only by engaging in a reasoned dialectic upon the merits of the proposal—the question is too important to be dealt with quickly.  Those who would make philosophy “accessible to the ordinary reader” put the cart before the horse.  The ordinary reader must be made “accessible” to philosophizing!  Such readers must develop critical abilities and norms before they may evaluate the various “answers” which have been offered.  The “hazing process” is torturous, it does not leave the individual the same (he or she changes because of it), and it is one which (unfortunately) merely leaves one in a state where one can recognize the inadequacies of past efforts—the attempt to progress places one in the position Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant found themselves in.  While the acquisition of the technical prerequisites is painful and the “answers” one can confront inadequate, the questions are of such importance that this study is valuable.  To attempt to capture the “answer” without mastering these technicalities and refining one’s common sense, however, is to attempt to accept Socrates’ statement that the unexamined life is unworth living without accepting the conception of examination he offered.  Here having one’s cake and eating it too will leave one unfulfilled and ignorant.


1 Cf., Mortimer Adler, Six Great Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1981).     Back

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