U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Almost Always Polemical": Common Sense, Mortimer Adler, and Late Twentieth-Century Liberalism (Part II)

In my last post here on common sense in American history, I promised to connect the serious intellectual foundations of common sense with the philosophy of Mortimer J. Adler and his mid-twentieth-century community of discourse. In today’s post I will show _why_ Adler moved in the direction of using and promoting common sense as an antidote for 1960s political troubles in the United States. This involves a short study of his motivations for writing two different (but related) books, as well as a look, counter-intuitively, at their reception. In next week’s third and last post on this topic, I will discuss and analyze _how_ Adler articulated, defined, and applied the idea of common sense in both books. In other words, I hope to arrive at an explanation of his “common sense liberalism.”

By the late 1960s Adler [right] had spent many years trying to bridge the gap between philosophy as an abstract study of argument and distinctions, and philosophy as a usable, accessible entity that could aid society in overcoming its troubles. My argument is that he engaged in that endeavor as a means to help foster and refine a democratic culture. This is a theoretical structure, with a longer history, I use to make long-term sense of Adler’s work. Yet the idea of a democratic culture is never explicitly discussed by him in his writings. I don’t want to get into all of the details of my theoretical structure here, but will at least offer a brief sketch of how it relates to common sense.

I use democratic culture as a shorthand for a non-authoritarian culture (‘culture’ as understood in the Geertzian tradition) that promotes equal and just citizenship (i.e. human rights at a minimum), as well as a shared public ethics, arrived at through free consensual means. It is a culture that—working properly—supports, permeates, and promotes democracy in political and social structures. A democratic culture the engages the body politic would ideally sustain and enable democratic states. To get there, however, some degree of common experience and sense are necessary in allowing for communication, shared understandings, and consensus building. The existence of a democratic culture implies some degree (thick or thin?) of common sensibilities among the body politic.

In the 1969-1970 period, Adler offered up a theory of ethics, or moral philosophy, that he hoped would help foster a democratic culture. He wanted to help those navigating the intellectual, social, and political turmoil of the Sixties. In this period of crisis and contradiction, he wrote two books aimed at readers seeking to reconcile the emergent ethic of personal liberation (or satisfaction or expression) with a social ethic that respected equality and justice. In so doing, he hoped to protect liberalism—the mixed-economy welfare state, as progressively improved in existing institutions over the twentieth-century—from the plans of revolutionaries and anarchic youthful radicals. Adler sought a third way between the reactionary politics of the left and right.

What were Adler’s credentials for doing this? Why would people attend to his prescriptions?

In the Sixties Adler had added to a reputation built during the prior three decades. A biographical brief is in order. Adler became a public figure in the early 1940s due to the popularity of his super bestselling How to Read a Book (1940), which advocated, ideally, for a liberal education for all as a cure for ills of anti-intellectualism and mindless ideology in democracies. Practically it advocated for great books discussion groups for adults. Adler also wrote on education reform in conjunction with his charismatic, popular friend Robert Hutchins. After a retreat into philosophical work in the 1950s, when he worked extensively on The Idea of Freedom with his Institute for Philosophical Research, Adler re-emerged in the 1960s writing for both academic and popular audiences. He wrote popular and semi-scholarly books on philosophical topics and education. Articles by Adler, on the same topics and others (esp. the great books), appeared in magazines, including Playboy. He made an appearance in 1962 as a lecturer before select members of the Kennedy administration. By the end of the decade Adler had also convinced Britannica to engage in an extensive rewrite of the Encyclopedia Britannica (think Propaedia, Micropaedia, and Macropaedia—the 15th edition of the set, or Britannica 3). By 1970, then, Adler was a well-known, well-respected, and established public intellectual.

Despite his name recognition and propensity to write on relevant topics, Adler was not at all an activist in the mold of those outlined by Kevin Mattson in Intellectuals in Action (2002). The closest Adler came in his career to being activist “liberal” intellectual was during late 1940s and 1950s, when he gave numerous speeches in support of world federal government. Even so, he never contributed any of those writings, for example, to left-leaning publications like Alfred Bingham’s Common Sense magazine. By the late 1960s Adler was living a quiet life in Chicago. He worked heavily for Britannica, spent his summers in Aspen, lectured at the University of Chicago (via the “Britannica Lectures” subsidized by William Benton), raised a family with his new wife Caroline, and fostered various intellectual projects through his Institute for Philosophical Research. In other words, his activism was restricted to reading, writing, philosophizing, avoiding paper cuts, and wrestling with his young children (no small feat for a man who was 67 in 1970).

Despite his then sedate, practical commitments, Adler clearly stayed on top of the news. He was painfully aware of the injustices of the decade. References to well-known problems of the Sixties are all over his 1970 book, The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense and, to a lesser extent, his 1971 book The Common Sense of Politics (hereafter TOL and CSP).[1] Both grew out of his Britannica Lectures; TOL from those given in 1969, and CSP in 1970. The text and notes of the former convey knowledge of its intellectual, political, and social context. In TOL Adler makes mention of the generation gap, military drafts, angst, the popularity of existentialism, the atomic age, the New Left, civil disobedience, free love, the sexual revolution, and the problem of playboys.

In both books Adler cites relevant, contemporary thinkers and figures, established and otherwise, such as Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, Irving Kristol, David Riesman, Christopher Jencks, Leo Strauss, Harry V. Jaffa, Jean-Paul Sartre, Justice Abraham Fortas, and even Allan Bloom. Mention of these people and contextual factors does not imply a full understanding of all that they represent, but both books relay enough signals about contemporary society to give the reader some confidence of the Adler’s relevance.

Without yet delving into Adler’s philosophy of common sense, as offered and utilized in TOL and CSP, I will at least introduce Adler’s goals in both books. The “Preface” to TOL, written in October 1969, explains the purpose of the book and its relation to CSP (bolds mine):

In [TOL], ethics and politics are treated as related branches of moral philosophy; but the present book deals with the shape of the good society [i.e. politics] only to the extent that it bears on the external conditions required for the pursuit of happiness to give every individual the opportunity he should have to make a really good life for himself. It does not address itself primarily or directly to questions about the nature of the state, the necessity of government, the realization through political means of the fullest possible measures of liberty, equality, and peace, and the progressive development of the constitution that makes democracy the only perfectly just form of government. I plan to devote the next series of…Britannica Lectures to these basic questions of political philosophy, which I hope subsequently to publish as…The Common Sense of Politics (p. xiv).

And here is what Adler added in CSP (bolds mine):

[TOL and CSP] dovetail as reciprocally interdependent parts of a single whole—moral philosophy, of which the part that is ethics deals with the problems of the good life, and the part that is politics deals with the problems of the good society. Distinct in substance by virtue of the quite different problems with which they deal, they are alike in method and approach: both offer themselves as philosophical refinements of common-sense wisdom, and both are normative rather than descriptive—both attempt to prescribe ideals that ought to be pursued and the steps that ought to be taken toward their realization (p. xxiii).

Now that Adler’s topics and goals for each book are stated, and I’ve hopefully intrigued you on their contents in relation to common sense, I am instead going to take a potentially strange narrative step. At this point we can learn something more about _why_ the two books were written by looking at their reception—at what happened after publication. This tactic is legitimated, in part, because Adler himself offered an opinion on the potential reception of CSP in its “Preface.” Here is is prediction (bolds mine):

If the political theory here set forth is rejected, as I think it will be, by both the old right and the new left, that will confirm my judgment of its soundness. To the professed or unwitting anarchist of the new left, its controlling principles will appear to bespeak reactionary conservatism. To the reactionary conservative of the old right [or paleoconservatives], the ideal of the classless establishment that it projects will appear to be revolutionary, and may even evoke such epithets as ‘anarchistic’ or communistic.’ That is, perhaps, as it should be, for the doctrine of this book is both conservative and revolutionary (p. xxiv)

Put another way, Adler’s normative and prescriptive common sense liberalism leads one to maintain mid-century institutions; so it’s conservative relative to New Left. But Adler’s plans in TOL and CSP also maintain the progressive ideal of endless governmental refinement (practical and pragmatic, though Adler would’ve rejected the latter philosophical label). In CSP, then, Adler articulates a philosophy that reinforces slow, patient institutional change, or reform, and rejects any revolutionary philosophy that would destroy or deregulate existing institutions. As such, you can see why he made his prediction.

Truth be told, however, these books provoked little response—in spite of Adler’s sometimes reactionary tone with regard to New Left and countercultural excesses. Indeed, both books seem to have either gone unread or been swallowed up in the events of the period. Based on the mid-1990s reprints and introductions from intellectuals, the books were clearly not forgotten. And contemporary reviews of both books were either relatively sparse, or positive in a perfunctory fashion. Two exceptions, both for CSP, come from recognizable names. The aforementioned Alfred Bingham, a moderate Democrat by the early 1970s, praised Adler’s call for a world community while recognizing that the book targeted “student anarchists.” One-time William F. Buckley-protege-come-liberal journalist Gary Wills dismissed CSP as having “minatory usefulness.”[2]

Excepting the then-left-wing convert Wills, most reactions to Adler’s common-sense liberalism were tepid. Why? I think there are four reasons for this—the last and most important being actually related to his philosophy of common sense. And all four reasons speak somewhat to why Adler wrote the books.

First, the non-revolutionary program, or at best targeted radical program (in education—an explanation of this is coming in my next post), outlined in both books excited neither left nor right-wing intellectual-activists of the day. His rational program for reform missed the emotional notes of the New Left and emerging New Right. Adler wrote both TOL and CSP precisely to counteract what he perceived as shrill, sometimes irrational calls for cultural, social, and political revolution.

Second, readers on the left and right perhaps felt Adler’s philosophy did not adequately account for, or address, liberalism’s failings in relation to justice, liberty, and equality. Adler did address the fact that justice had to rule over equality and liberty to create (CSP, p. xiv-xv, 122). In this way Adler foreshadowed, in a much-less detailed way, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.[3] But Adler was writing, in the eyes of some, to celebrate the very institutions responsible for oppression. He was, to a certain set of readers, avoiding hard truths about injustice and inequality in American society. Adler was able to write both books because he was not presently on the receiving end of social, cultural, and political injustices.

Third, Adler wrote as a public intellectual ensconced in “the Establishment.” This is of course related to my second point. Though Adler titled his 1977 autobiography Philosopher at Large, he was only just free the University of Chicago (by association) at that point; he remained employed by Britannica through the 1970s. Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research, despite being unconnected with the academy, functioned more as a personal research group than an effective marketing tool for his work. Even so, Adler’s connections to the Establishment—meaning the Aspen Institute, Britannica, and the University of Chicago—allowed him to be the patient advocate of change he was in both TOL and CSP. For his part, in CSP Adler wrote objectively about “the [dyslogistic] Establishment” as if he were not in some way a part of it (p. xxv, 161-162, 235n9).

Finally, neither Adler’s philosophy of common sense nor his expression of it held much appeal for intellectuals, academic or otherwise. As such, he had to write these books, in a particular tone, to find an audience for his solutions to the era’s problems. There are two reasons for this lack of intellectual appeal, one essential and the other historical. It is essential to being an intellectual, of her habits and tendencies, that she will either heavily caveat or reject common sense as an explanatory trope for phenomena. Intellectuals look for and see complexity, which by definition is not necessary to common sense explanations—which seek simplicity first (simplicity being easier to share).

The historical-contextual reason is that philosophers in the period about which I am writing were deeply engaged in either analytic philosophy or structuralist/poststructuralist language theories. In either case, practitioners in both arenas were generally employed by the academy and wrote for each other. The findings of those language theorists, however, explicitly weakened–or even denied—the possibility of anchors between the sign, signifier, and “reality”; this clearly lessened the possibility of shared senses of experience.[4]

At this point in his career, Adler’s connections to the academy were also waning. He maintained contacts with Thomistic philosophers at Catholic institutions; they did not reject the “common sense realism” Adler had developed in relation to Arthur Lovejoy and Jacques Maritain.[5] In addition, Adler’s explicit claim on Aristotle as influential, though Adler was in fact neo-Aristotelian in his extensions and applications, narrowed his potential for influence in an academy that valued up-to-date, novel thinking. These factors kept Adler’s common-sense philosophy, as well as his liberalism, from obtaining significant traffic with academic intellectuals.

As a minor digression, or counterpoint, in relation to Adler’s historical appeal, I should say that he was not completely ignored by philosophers. Despite his eclectic and apparently anachronistic influences, as well as a lack of trusted philosophical credentials (though it came from Columbia University, Adler’s PhD was in psychology), several noteworthy twentieth-century philosophers and intellectuals saw Adler as a significant legitimate force—or at least an intriguing thinker and philosopher. Examples include Paul Weiss [right], Charles Hartshorne, Anthony Quinton, Arthur Lovejoy, Jacques Maritain, Vergilius Ferm, and even an oppositional figure, Morris R. Cohen.[6] Despite their respect, or even admiration, these figures were not a part of Adler’s immediate community of discourse in the writing of TOL and CSP. That group was composed of significant, but less eminent, thinkers like Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Rubin, Otto Bird, Robert Hutchins, Charles Van Doren, and John Van Doren. Maritain and Hutchins (to whom CSP is dedicated), while still friends with Adler as of the early 1970s, were not active participants in the discourse that formed these books.

To finish off this last point about Adler’s philosophy of common sense, a word must be said about his expression of that philosophy in the context of his philosophical biography. His lack of appeal to intellectuals and academics in the 1980s and onward went beyond mere philosophical eclecticism. It was in the period discussed in this post, the Sixties and Seventies that is, that he began a slow shift to writing for non-academic audiences. Though Adler had long maintained that philosophy should be “everybody’s business” (since the late 1940s), he only explicitly abandoned academics as an audience in the late Seventies. That said, TOL and CSP feature lengthy discursive notes, as well as notes using contemporary literature and Great Books authors beyond just Aristotle. And the prose in both books is neither overly simplistic nor in the jargon of a specialist. Like his old-school philosophical influences, Adler’s accessibility likely made his books less-than-useful to academic scholars seeking to obtain cultural capital for advancement and peer recognition. Adler expressed his philosophy of common sense in a way that he hoped would appeal to the common person.

Having now covered _why_ Adler moved in the direction of common sense, or common sense realism, in my next (and final) post I will discuss _how_ he did it—the nuts, bolts, and concrete merits of his philosophy as presented in TOL and CSP. Stay tuned! I promise to lead you on no further. – TL


[1] Here are the full citations of the editions of TOL and CSP used in this post: (a) The Common Sense of Politics, with an Introduction by John Van Doren (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1971; reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 1996); (b) The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense, with an Introduction by Deal W. Hudson (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1970; reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 1996)

[2] Alfred M. Bingham, review of The Common Sense of Politics, by Mortimer J. Adler, Saturday Review 54 (May 8, 1971): 30; Gary Wills, review of The Common Sense of Politics, by Mortimer J. Adler, The New York Times Book Review (May 8, 1971): 27; John B. Judis, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of Conservatives (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 158, 272-73, 322, 325-26; Gary Wills, Confessions of a Conservative (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), chapter two passim; Howard Brick, Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 176.

[3] As far as I know, Adler’s only encounter with Rawls, in writing, was in the former’s 1981 book, Six Great Ideas (NY: Macmillan). Here are the relevant passages (p.188). I’ve never heard of Rawls being tweaked for defining down justice as “solely…fairness.” Can anyone verify that for me? Adler also called A Theory of Justice “a widely discussed and overpraised book.” Bennie Crockett’s dissertation (full citation below) attempts, in a few spots, to address Adler’s work in relation to Rawls.

[4] J. David Hoeveler, Jr., The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s (New York: Simon & Schuster/Twayne Publishers, 1996), 16-22; Bruce Kuklick, A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 246-47.

[5] Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 238-246; Bennie R. Crockett, ‘Mortimer Adler: An Analysis and Critique of His Eclectic Epistemology’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Wales, 2000), 9-11, 51n153, 83, 85; Tim Lacy, “The Lovejovian Roots of Adler’s Philosophy of History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 71, no. 1 (January 2010): 124-127.

[6] Crockett, 9n6; Adler, Second Look, 238n5.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, this is a long and complicated post, and I don’t have the breadth of reference to offer much in the way of critique or commentary. But I do want to say thanks for this: “Like his old-school philosophical influences, Adler’s accessibility likely made his books less-than-useful to academic scholars seeking to obtain cultural capital for advancement and peer recognition.” As you know, the whole matter of “intellectual capital” and the connection between the university and the market economy is something I find intriguing and important and, usually, under-discussed.

  2. LD: Thanks for the comment. This post got out of hand, obviously, in terms of length. As for that specific line, I’m not strictly opposed to “obtaining cultural capital” insofar as the effort encompasses things like understanding the current debates out there, knowing the players, and referencing the debates and players ~where one should~ in her/his own work. Being current has its uses; you can’t change someone’s mind if you’re not speaking on their terms. Adler was still doing that at this point in his career (by the early 1970s). When the 1980s roll around, however, he had for the most part given up on trying to change minds in the academy—which is a shame. He kept up with the news and current events, and wrote books aimed at current issues for the common reader, but he stopped trying to change the minds of academic intellectuals. Furthermore, his decreased engagement with that portion of the intelligentsia (or New Class or whatever) caused his past works—which are worthy of study and reflection—to also be ignored. Is the lesson for academics here that we just can’t simultaneously write for those inside and outside the academy? Or, has the internet eroded that either/or proposition for intellectuals? In other words, did Adler pay a time-and-place price for choosing to be a public intellectual (i.e. right when intellectuals were moving into the academy—per Russell Jacoby’s story in The Last Intellectuals)? – TL

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