U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Almost Always Polemical": Common Sense, Mortimer Adler, and Late Twentieth-Century Liberalism (Part IIIb–The End!)

Two notes: (1) Prior entries to this series include Part I, Part II, and Part IIIa. (2) This is a long post. I could split it into another series entry, but I would like to receive feedback on the whole narrative below—which has a certain coherence I prefer not to disturb.

My last entry in this four-part series included a close examination the various definitions of common sense, a historical look at Scottish common sense philosophy, and an examination of the twentieth-century’s “ordinary language” philosophical school. In concluding that study I wrote that it made “Adler’s advocacy for common sense seem less strange or novel in relation to intellectual history…less simplistic, or reductionist, in terms of the work of academic philosophers…[and] less anachronistic” in relation to both the recent history of philosophy and Adler’s professed neo-Aristotelianism.

How so? The only way to see how is to look at Adler’s philosophy of common sense in detail. Adler offered up that philosophy in three books: The Conditions of Philosophy (COP, 1965), The Time of Our Lives (TOL, 1970), and The Common Sense of Politics (CSP, 1971). Each contributes something to understanding his position, though the first two contribute more than the last.

The Conditions of Philosophy

One of my favorite parts of this book is its audacious subtitle: “The Conditions of Philosophy: Its Checkered Past, Its Present Disorder, and Its Future Promise.” In this work, Adler, after long time away from meta-thinking about the field—having worked in San Francisco for over ten years with his Institute for Philosophical Research and on its mega-work, the two Idea of Freedom volumes—he re-enters the conversation with an overall assessment of the profession and a statement of his place in it. From his new home base in Chicago, where he would remain for most of the rest of his life, Adler laid out staked out a place he would occupy, more and less fruitfully, until he become too feeble to work in the mid-1990s.

This work repeats and expands on a prior claim from Adler, first articulated by him in the late 1940s, that “philosophy is everybody’s business.” This tenet becomes a map that provides Adler with a road toward developing a philosophy of common sense. But it also—as he meanders long dormant backroads of philosophy—begins the process of separating himself from academic intellectual life, whether that be in philosophy as a profession, or the weltenschauung of late twentieth-century theories that dominated higher education. In building on this Lippmann-esque notion of philosophy as a public endeavor, Adler proceeded in the 1960s to build a philosophy that he hoped would have relevant public appeal. This began in COP with the distinction between doxa and episteme, and then is discussions about common experience and common-sense opinion.

As one might expect, the book lays down several “conditions” Adler believes must be met before philosophy will again become a fruitful enterprise, both actually and in the eyes of the public. After stating five essential conditions in chapter two, he offers a corollary that relates to common sense (bolds mine—please pardon the nested quotation):

If technical or professional philosophy is to play the role is should play in liberal education and is to guide and improve the philosophizing done by the layman, it must avoid being esoteric. This, I think, should be added, as a sixth condition, to the other five [discussed in chapter 2]. It can be considered as an addendum…to the fifth condition [namely, “the subject matter of those questions which are purely philosophical…must be primarily questions about that which is and happens in the world or about what men should do and seek, and only secondarily questions about how we know, think, or speak about that which is and happens or about what men do and seek” (p. 42-43)]: not only must philosophy be able to answer first-order questions, but it must also answer them in a way that makes contact with the world of common-sense; in a way that is continuous with common-sense rather than out of communication with it; in a way that makes sense, not nonsense, of common-sense (p. 67-68).

In other words, Adler is constructing a philosophical system for himself in the 1960s that both correlates with the mid-century “ordinary language” movement, and also requires philosophers to avoid over-speculation in the field of language theory, or the philosophy of language. Notice he is doing this precisely when Derrida is about to hit the United States, and the structuralism of de Saussure and Lévi-Strauss was on the cusp of making inroads (Hoeveler, The Postmodernist Turn, 15-18).

Adler’s next tenet involves the role of philosophy in judging common sense, as well as the twentieth-century history of the development of common sense. Read on (bolds mine):

In judging common-sense beliefs, philosophy may discriminate between those which are sound and those which are unsound and may correct the latter; but it is also the case that any philosophical theory which rejects all common-sense beliefs as unsound, or reduces the whole world of common-sense to the status of an illusion, has two strikes against it, or maybe three. It is with regard to this last point that some of the analytic philosophers seem to me to be moving in the right direction, even though they do not yet go the whole way (p. 68).

This last sentence to be a reference to G.E. Moore and the Ordinary Language School that followed his work. But Adler’s overall point is that any philosophical movement, either then in existence or that would arise, must acknowledge the legitimacy of ordinary, common-sense experience of risk irrelance.

Returning to Adler’s introduction above (p. 42-43, nested quote)—meaning to the issue of “first” and “second-order questions”—he offers the following clarification in relation to common experience: “A non-investigative first-order discipline, having the respectability of science and history” is possible (p. 118). By this he means a respectable philosophical discipline can be achieved by focusing real issues, meaning “that which is and happens in the world or about what men should do and seek.” But isn’t philosophy the discipline that steps in when common-sense breaks down? Then what does Adler mean? He goes on:

Common experience is available, and common experience can function in its own way, exactly as special experience does in its, to provide a basis for conceptual development, the materials relevant to which questions can be formulated, and the evidence by which answers can be tested. …Acceptance of this conclusion depends on two things principally: (i) on acceptance of the distinction between special and common experience …and (ii) on acceptance of the proposition that common experience can function for first-order philosophy as special experience functions for science (p. 118-119).

So Adler’s bridge between philosophy as critical faculty and philosophy’s role in the common sense world is “common experience.” He explains that the latter involves two points: “It consists of all the experiences we have without asking a single question that calls for steps of observation especially contrived for the purpose.” And, “it includes experiences which are the same for all men everywhere at all times” (p. 120).

The last is the hardest pill to swallow. So Adler immediately adds caveats: “I did not say that everything which belongs to the common experience of a particular man is shared by all the rest of his fellow men. …I am contending, however, that the ordinary day-to-day experiences of these persons do not differ in all respects. There are a certain number of things about which they could immediately communicate with one another if they were to meet and engage in conversation” (p. 120).

Another caveat followed—one that is partially dangerous (philosophically) in terms of the twentieth century where education is on the rise. Adler’s system of common-sense philosophy assumes “these communicators to be persons of no special learning—persons whose minds have been untouched by science and philosophy” (p. 121). This is confusing. Is Adler saying that common experience and sense involves an inability to communicate well about science, or is he meaning really “untouched” by the subject? If the latter, the works and spectacle of twentieth-century science (i.e. 1960s Space Race) were so pervasive, and linked to progress, that one should at least expect respect, if not some deference, to science in the 1960s. Of course we know today, in the midst of debates about climate science and creationism (still), that one should probably assume “no special learning” about the subject. Let’s interpret this passage as Adler saying that common experience involves the inability to communicate well about science, as well as a general disconnect with the special experiences of science (e.g. working knowledge of scientific practice and the habits of the scientific method).

Adler then elaborates more on questions of cultural differences in light of common sense. He wrote: “Ordinary persons of such widely different location of time and space, and cultural background, could, I say, immediately communicate (with the aid of an interpreter) about the things common to their ordinary experience” (p. 121). These “things”: included seasonal changes, day-to-night shifts, living, dying, eating, sleeping, losing, finding, getting, giving, standing and moving in space, etc. (p. 120-121).

To ground these assertions about common experience and communication in established philosophical thought, Adler calls on A.J Ayer, in his Clarity is Not Enough (1963), and C.I. Lewis, in his Mind and the World-Order (1929) to add the following about cross-cultural exchange (bolds mine, underline Adler): “The core of common experience…consists of those things about which communication is universally possible and with regard to which it is possible to translate certain of the statements made in any human language into equivalent statements in any other” (p. 121).

Adler also turns to professional philosophy, again utilizing Ayer, particularly his The Problem of Knowledge (1956), to buttress the accessibility of common experience. Adler wrote, in communion with Ayer, “that philosophy does not discover new facts about the world, and does not test its conclusions by appealing to the data of special observation.” (p. 122).

Others are brought on board in support of this contention. In addition to Ayer and Lewis, Adler also cites George Santayana (Skepticism and Animal Faith, 1923, “public experiences”), Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality, 1929, “immediate experience”) and Dewey (Experience and Nature, 1925, “macroscopic experience”) to support the view that common experience is, to some degree, even a necessity for the philosophical profession in a scientific age (p. 123, 124n4). Philosophers show their worth, to Adler, by their ability to bridge the gap between special and common experience.

While the philosophers Adler marshaled do not support a common sense philosophy, they all agree that humans have some accessibility to a core of common experience from which they can operate—build arguments—in a public fashion.

Once Adler comfortably established the notion of common experience in light of twentieth-century philosophers, he moved on to assess the degrees of truth possible in the realm of common sense. First, common sense is clearly not indisputable: “The fact that common-sense opinions [doxa, but not “mere/sheer opinion”] have their basis in common experience must not be construed to mean that they are all ipso facto true or beyond criticism. Like other opinions, they are corrigible and subject to criticism” (p. 131).

Adler also made it clear that common-sense was “not a self-critical faculty. It is not a methodical mode of inquiry” (p. 133). Common sense required philosophy for this repair-like function. He continued: “Criticism and correction of common-sense opinions or beliefs…come from those branches of knowledge or modes of inquiry which are by their very nature self-critical—that is, which involve procedures for testing and refining the theories and conclusions they themselves develop” (p. 133).

Returning to the degrees and strength of truths that could arise from common sense, Adler asserted (underlines Adler, bolds mine):

If there are axioms or self-evident propositions, as I think there are, they have the status of indemonstrable and incorrigible truths; that is, they are knowledge in the sense of episteme, not in the sense of doxa. Such truths are based on common experience alone and are part of our common-sense knowledge, for they belong to no organized body of knowledge; they do not belong to philosophy or mathematics any more than they belong to science or history. …If the truth of axioms or self-evident propositions is challenged, or if the effort is made to reduce them to tautologies or to statements of verbal usage, philosophy has the task of defining their status as first-order knowledge (p. 139).

Though Adler does not make this connection, these assertions about the validity of axioms and self-evident truths is clearly related to Thomas Reid and Scottish common sense realism.

Adler also asserted that philosophers—meaning all of them—have some obligation to defend these kinds of truths and axioms (small in number) because “first order” philosophical knowledge does depend on common sense. Not defending those truths counted as a kind of traitorous act with respect to philosophy’s validity as a worldly endeavor. Adler noted, however, that this defense is not easy: “Since they are indemonstrable, the defense must take the form of pointing to the common experience from which they are learned by intuitive induction” (p. 139-40).

In other words, philosophers can only point toward empirical evidence (by parallel or direct analogy?)—but not scientific evidence gathered under special experience—to show how a common sense truth is obvious or self-evident. No syllogisms will work.

Defenders of common-sense we called “empirical philosophers” by Adler. They included Jacques Maritain (evident in his An Introduction to Philosophy, 1930, chapter 8) and G.E. Moore [right], evident in his aforementioned 1924 “Defence of Common Sense” essay (p. 141). Rationalist opponents include Descartes, Spinoza, Fichte, Schopenhauer, and Hegel.

What of everything else in the realm of common sense knowledge beyond the small number of self-evident truths and axioms? Adler concluded: “The rest of common-sense knowledge consists of doxai—opinions that are intrinsically corrigible because they do not assert that which it is impossible to deny or that about which it is impossible to think the opposite. …Some of the things we know by common-sense in the light of common experience concern matters about which investigation is simply impossible; in other cases, it may be possible but it is quite unnecessary.” (p. 140).

Adler further concluded (bolds mine): “The proper method of philosophy calls for reliance upon common experience, but not for reliance on common-sense. The philosopher who adopted the empirical method would naturally respect the common-sense beliefs that have arisen from the same experiences to which he himself appeals; but he would not, in consequence, appeal to the authority of common-sense opinions in order to establish or defend his own theories or conclusions” (p. 143-144).

All the philosophers Adler referenced—Maritain, Moore, Santayana, Whitehead, and Lewis—understood this divide. And Adler would think a great deal about this divide in his future efforts to understand the relationship between common sense and individual ethics, social ethics, and political philosophy.

The Time of Our Lives

In this book Adler sought to answer questions surrounding two themes: (1) [Does] “a good life consist in having a good time?” Or, “is there ever a conflict between having a good time and leading a good life?” and (2) Is this “a good time to be alive? Is it better to be alive in this century than at any earlier period of human life on earth? …Is ours a good society to be alive in?” (p. 3-4). As you can see, these questions involve normative considerations in relation to both individuals and individuals in society.

How does common sense fit in? Adler explicitly used his COP work on common sense in chapter eight of TOL, titled “The Philosophical Objections Stated,” which led of the section of TOL titled, obviously enough, “Defending Common Sense Against the Objections of the Philosophers.” This arises because, in the prior seven chapters, Adler uses common sense as a basis for proposing a public, secular ethics that avoids both religion and the behavioral prescriptions that rely on revealed truths inaccessible to all humankind.

Before we dive into that book and chapter, a clarification about Aristotle’s role is necessary. I stated before that TOL was an effort to update Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for late twentieth-century American (and Western) readers. I have also called Adler a “neo-Aristotelian.” On this first, that effort is made clear in a thirty-page “Postscript.” However, Adler’s application of Aristotle’s thought in TOL does not also mean that Adler saw Aristotle as having an explicit philosophy of common sense. Indeed, we covered classical and medieval meanings of “sensus communis” in Part IIIa of this series. What’s happening in TOL, rather, is the application of the thoughts Adler outlined in COP to the field of ethics. That application puts on full display Adler’s neo-Aristotelian common-sense realism.

In spite of that “neo-Aristotelian” label, one that is unavoidable due to Adler’s own writings, in fact he was less committed to any one “system” than it might appear. Bennie R. Crockett, who has written the most complete analysis yet of Adler’s self-proclaimed “common sense realism,” observes that so many philosophical views come together in Adler’s philosophical thought that he should be classified as a philosophical eclectic. [Aside: No system of “eclecticism” is associated with modern philosophy or any recent philosophers, only the ancients). I agree with Crockett, in contradistinction to all the pervasive, dated characterizations of Adler as Aristotelian, Thomist, or neo-Scholastic—though my selection and explication of sources of Adler’s philosophy differ substantially. My work and Crockett’s should definitively put to bed those characterizations, and move the labeling of Adler’s work to either “eclecticism” or “common sense realism.”

Little changed in Adler’s beliefs about common sense between 1965 and 1970, when TOL was published. The major difference now lay in Adler’s desire to make applications. To that end, TOL involved exploring and explaining the intersections of common sense and moral philosophy, both in relation to an individual’s actions and that individual’s action in relation to society. The sections below will discuss both, but only to introduce Adler’s applications.

A. Common Sense and the Individual in TOL

Adler felt it was his duty, in part, in TOL to put philosophical claims of common sense in opposition to the “moral relativism and skepticism of the social sciences” (p. 70-71). He had been an opponent of extreme philosophical relativism since the 1930s, so this renews a prior Adler thread. He began by trying to answer questions like these: Is the belief in common sense foolish? Is it anti-intellectual? Can common sense be philosophical? These questions have clear roots in COP, but Adler offers different formulations in TOL. His goal now is to show his audience that thoughtful common sense to battle anti-intellectualism, be it in the form of leftist cultural anarchy or right-wing hyper-anti-communist ideology.

Adler observed that many “contemporary philosophers…have become experts in challenging common-sense discourse, experts in suspecting that common sense does not understand what it is saying or know what it is talking about” (p. 69). But, for his part, Adler believed that common sense did not leave the ultimate question of his book (i.e. How can one make a good life for one’s self?) in “hypothetical form.” Rather, “common sense…impl[ied]…that everyone should or ought to try to make a good life for himself.” Answers to this question, Adler believed, implied a categorical imperative (i.e. all should), or “normative judgments, prescriptive” of behavior (p. 69). So, in spite of professional contemporary philosophical opposition, common sense retained relevance as an explanatory and prescriptive-normative mechanism

Because of this baseline belief, Adler again reiterated his fundamental assertions about common sense to a new, different set of readers. In so doing he outlined five basic tenets to build a bridge to moral philosophy. Here is his preface: “I think the following claims, that even an educated man of common sense would have unhesitatingly made a century ago, can all be defended—and defended with every philosophical objection in mind [related to the question at hand about making a good life for one’s self].” He followed with the five points:

(1) that the common-sense answer is knowledge, not opinion, knowledge as objective as the knowledge we have in the empirical sciences, and with a validity as open to inspection;
(2) that being objective knowledge, rather than private or personal opinion, the common-sense answer applies to all men at all times and places, not just to men living under the influence of a certain set of cultural circumstances;
(3) that the knowledge includes knowledge of values as well as knowledge of facts, and is expressed in true normative judgments as well as true statements of facts;
(4) that the value judgments and the normative prescriptions involved, though related to statements of fact and descriptive statements, cannot be reduced to the latter, nor wholly derived from the latter;
(5) that these judgments of value and normative prescriptions have a truth of their own, a truth that is not the same kind of truth that is to be found and tested in statements of fact or descriptive statements, yet is nevertheless a kind of truth that can be tested by reference to appropriate criteria
(p. 70-71).

Later on in TOL Adler pithily summarizes his philosophy of common sense in relation to his ethical project:

The ethics of common sense involves the cautionary consideration of circumstances, the pragmatic calculation of the utility of means, and the regard for individual differences which are to be found in utilitarianism, while at the same time it is a moral philosophy that has autonomous principles and normative truths capable of unrestricted universalization (p. 152).

Common sense makes another entry in rhetorical circumstances not unlike those posed by the eighteenth-century Scottish common sense philosopher, Thomas Reid [right]. Adler brings some of Reid’s points, however, into conversation with the aforementioned G.E. Moore. Showing an awareness of Moore’s post “Defence of Common Sense” work (1925), Adler addresses Moore’s work in analytic philosophy and demonstrates how, paradoxically, it doesn’t correlate with the latter’s enthusiasm for common sense. In sum, Adler accuses Moore of holding a contradiction.

In TOL, Adler brings these historical philosophers into conversation over the topics of “real” versus “apparent” goods, as well as the idea of self-evident notions (also called “common notions” or “commensurate universals”). The former distinction was important to Aristotle in writing the Nicomachean Ethics, but Adler felt it was lost on philosophers after Hobbes. I won’t explain it here as Adler did in his text, but suffice it to say that part of Adler’s connection between real-versus-apparent goods and common sense rested on the fact that twentieth-century economists used and understood the distinction, even if philosophers ignored it.

That said, how did Adler view self-evident propositions, in the light of common sense, as having individual ethical applications? His complex answer went like this:

First, “certain primitive terms transcend the categories which make definition possible. …Among them are such basic philosophical terms as being and non-being, one and many, same and other. These terms are predicable of any subject…in an analogical, not a univocal, sense; any term that is thus predicable must be indefinable” (p. 87).

Yet, to Adler “the indefinables are, of all terms, the most intelligible, even though we cannot state their meaning in definitions.” How is this so? “The ancient answer to this question is: in axioms or self-evident propositions—propositions that were called ‘common notions’ because they do not belong to any particular discipline, propositions that Aristotle spoke of as correlating ‘commensurate universals’ because their constituent terms are of equal scope as universal predicates. Such equi-valence makes theses propositions convertible. …One example…[is the] proposition…that a whole is greater than any of its parts” (p. 87-88).

In relation to G.E. Moore, when he spoke of analytic propositions he did so, Adler asserted, in terms of Locke and Kant—-not Aristotle or medieval philosophers. Moore and Locke discuss ” ‘trifling’ or ‘uninstructive’ propositions,” such as (1) “simple identities” and (2) “propositions in which the predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject.” Kant called the latter “analytic” (p. 88). In other words, Moore, Locke, and Kant thought of these as tautologies, not as having the potential for “self-evident or necessary truths.” (p. 89).

But Adler believed Aristotle’s ‘commensurate universals’ allowed for self-evident truths. Indeed, one of the most important—one contained in the Nicomachean Ethics—goes like this: “The good is the desirable and the desirable is the good” (p. 90). Or, ” ‘The good is that which satisfies desire,’ and ‘Desire is that which aims at the good.’ ” (p. 89).

It is upon these base truths in TOL that Adler, in alliance with Arisotle but Against Locke, Kant, and Moore, believed that one could construct a secular moral philosophy—a philosophy that rested on an assumption accessible to all, without syllogistic reason, by its clear necessity. Who could deny, subjectively at least, that for individuals desire is that which is aimed at some good? The argument comes in the interpretation of “good,” which is why the real-versus-apparent good enters. But you can read TOL for Adler’s resolution of that.

B. Common Sense in Relations Between Individuals in TOL

Adler perceived, and argued that honest persons also perceived, that a system of necessary obligations existed between individuals with a common human nature (minimally conceived), and that this arose from each individual’s obligation to pursue a good life for her/himself. Those obligations were both negative and positive, and common community required some degree of common sensibility (chapter 16). I won’t get into all of the maxims with fairly clear political consequences (which Adler himself made clear, but not in a polemical fashion). What I will offer here are a few general “common sense” tenets of person-to-person obligations, as well as Adler’s thinking on how that relates to cultural differences. But I will keep each brief in order to wrap up this explication of Adler’s philosophy of common sense.

On pluralism, cultural differences, and common culture, Adler began with the following observation (bolds mine): “The shape of a good life is the same for all men. Since the needs to which all real goods correspond are needs inherent in the specific nature of man, they are common to all men, and so whatever is really good for one man is really good for everyone else” (p. 110). The bolds reach back above to the distinction between real and apparent goods.

Furthermore, “Each of us is not only this unique human being, individually differing from all the rest; each of us is also an individual instance of the human nature we share with all the rest. This fact is as obvious and undeniable as the fact of individual differences, thought it is often ignored and even explicitly denied—by philosophers and social scientists, if not by men of common sense” (p. 111). Here Adler is building on observations of human uniqueness he explicated in The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes (1965, cover right).

Even so, that pluralism breaks down in relation to the relatively small set of real goods (needs as opposed to wants): “The human good, the good for man as man, is a whole life made good by the possession of all the real goods toward which the common human nature of each individual tends for the satisfaction of its inherent goods” (p. 111).

Those real goods also had implications in terms of natural rights. Those natural rights seem to bump up, in Adler’s description, with human rights in society. Adler began (bolds mine):

What about other men and their happiness? What about the individual’s duties or moral obligations toward them? If the common-sense view cannot be philosophically developed to cover the individual’s moral obligations to other men, it is seriously defective. The man of common sense[, however,] knows this without the benefit of philosophical construction; he recognizes…that he has duties to others and expects others to discharge their obligations toward him (p. 137-138).

Adler is clearly laying down the rudiments of a common-senses social-moral philosophy. He continued: “From the obligation that each individual has to make a really good life for himself come all the natural rights he has vis-a-vis other individuals and the organized society in which he lives; …those natural rights are, in turn, the basis of an individual’s duties to other men” (p. 139).

And here’s the grand summary—the key principle in The Time of Our Lives—in terms an ethics of common sense as it transitions from the individual to the social (underlines Adler, bolds mine):

The teleological and utilitarian ethics of common sense has only one basic normative principle, only one ultimate end, and only one primary moral obligation; and precisely because that one end, the totum bonum which is the same for all men, is a common good, and not the greatest good for the greatest number, common sense is able to pass from the obligations an individual has in the conduct of his own life, aiming at happiness, to the obligations he has in his conduct toward others, who are also aiming at the same happiness he seeks for himself (p. 153-154).

Building on this key pivot, Part III of book is titled “The Ethics of Common Sense.” In that part, here are the questions Adler identifies as important to solve: 1. Why should the individual “be just toward others”? 2. What possible conflicts exist “between the pursuit of an individual’s happiness in relation to one’s moral obligation to others”? 3. “Does the individual have a moral obligation to serve the welfare of the state, to act for the good of the community…as well as the moral obligation to not act against the good of other individual[s]”? (p. 154).

You can see, now, how TOL must necessarily tackle questions in relation to equality, inequality, justice, injustice, economics, the American Constitution, psychology, education, reform, revolution, etc. The only thing not covered is politics and political philosophy—which are saved for his next book

The Common Sense of Politics

Thought CSP might be best, most brief summary of all the points above, with the added benefit of being connected to the practical, on-the-ground policies of politics, my discussion of CSP here will be brief. Suffice it to say, CSP makes the connection between Adler’s philosophy of common sense, his political liberalism, and his advocacy for a deep engagement with the liberal arts at all levels of schooling (which necessarily involves his promotion of the great books idea). All the tenets for my arguments about Adler and fostering a “democratic culture” are in CSP.You can see why I’m going save the best of that discussion for my book.

What of CSP? Chapters one and two summarize points from COP and TOL, respectively. This is why the end of chapter two contains a plan for what will be covered in the rest of the book. Adler will spend subsequent chapters on the relation of politics to history, the limits of our political imagination. So much for Part I. Parts II and III cover cover the big issues—issues still under debate as of 2011: the “necessity of government,” the “goodness of the state,” what democracy rectifies, the importance of justice and equality, and, finally, the issues of “economic equality and welfare,” as well as socialism. The final chapter is titled “The Classless Establishment and the World Community.” If you haven’t guessed the direction of the text, I won’t ruin it for you.


The title of this series contains something of an irony. While Adler used common sense to lay the groundwork for his cultural and social criticisms of the 1960s and early 1970s, in relation to perceived excesses of the era—i.e. the rise of the personal satisfaction ethic and cultural anarchy of some youth—he did not use common sense to critique politics directly. This is especially true in TOL, but also holds for CSP. The latter was about political philosophy, not the practice an sport of American politics. The irony of my title then—which is a quote from, and key proposition in, Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History—is that Adler’s discussion of common sense was most certainly not meant to be polemical in any primary sense of the term. Adler did not use common sense to attempt to redirect political discourse in relation parties or particular political candidates. Even when Adler criticized New Left intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, it was about their cultural politics rather than their political culture.

Still, Adler’s beliefs about common sense created problems from him in his relationship with liberalism. The political liberalism that emerged during the 1970s, as traditional liberal Democrats moved away from liberal economic issues and their focus on economic equality, gradually become a politics that focused more cultural issues and the security of individual freedoms. Because Adler had criticized the excessive focus on personal satisfaction and individualism, his cultural politics appeared to have sympathies with the New Right. This is why Deal Hudson could feel comfortable writing an introduction for the 1996 reprint of The Time of Our Lives. But Adler’s prioritization of equality and economic issues, as well as his clear belief in the possibilities of good government and democratic socialism, also explain why Hudson couldn’t also write the introduction for the 1996 reprint of The Common Sense of Politics. Adler’s confidant and long-time intellectual associate John Van Doren did that—with enthusiasm.


If you’ve followed all four parts of this series, or just made it through today’s post, thanks for your attention. I’d love to hear your feedback—on this post or any of the others. All of your criticisms and comments will help as I refine my intellectual history of Adler’s philosophy of common sense. These four long-hand posts will, in the end, be crafted into a brief but crucial part of my forthcoming book on the history of the great books idea.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

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  2. Max,

    This is a fine non-profit sales plug for the DVD, but I was hoping for some real debate about this post or my series—something about common sense (philosophically or otherwise), Adler’s liberalism, or comparisons with other mid-century historical actors. Or, what does my series tell us about the present—culturally, socially, politically, philosophically, etc.?

    – TL

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