As a practicing intellectual historian with the good fortune of having an academic teaching post—with no summer teaching commitments—the last weeks of August can be wrenching in relation to one’s summer work. I’ve spent large chunks the past three months reading, researching, and writing—essentially on one very difficult chapter of my manuscript. Letting that go to get ready for classes has been tough. Poor me, I know. But I’m quite grateful for the privilege. This was my first summer of that kind after many years in the academy.
This wrenching has been especially tough because my ambitions were high: I had hoped to revise two dissertation chapters for my book manuscript. I thought the revision of my prior work was going to be easier—go faster. But it didn’t. So I’m trying to sort through the consequences, and make some hard decisions. What made the summer so tough?
My difficulty consisted of heavy background reading, drafting, redrafting, cutting, and parsing some tedious philosophical work. My human subject is Mortimer J. Adler [right], and I’m trying to understand a philosophical transition that took place in his life in the Sixties and early Seventies. This transition had important effects on how Adler viewed the role of the great books idea in society. My summer reading in his philosophical work from that period has presented a number problems, several of which I’ve been able to distill into a five-word question: What constitutes a philosophical system?
If you’re somewhat familiar with Adler, you might be wondering what was so hard? You probably associate his name with Thomism, neo-Thomism, Aristotelianism, neo-Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, or neo-Scholasticism. Several historians and oppositional contemporaries also called him a Medievalist in philosophy. More advanced observers know that Adler had affinities for realism or common-sense realism. I discussed some of the details of the latter in four posts this summer (began here and continued through July 30). Education researchers often associate Adler’s philosophy of education with a school of thought known as “perennialism.” Most proponents of great books programs, including those at prominent great books school or schools possessing those kinds of programs (Honors, etc.), fall within the perennialist school of educational philosophy.
As I pondered Adler’s thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, however, I found that the extensions of his common sense realism, or what Bennie R. Crockett called his “eclectic epistemology,” branch well beyond education (perennialist adherents are, by definition, restricted to educational thinking). In addition to education, Adler extended tenets of his thought to personal ethics, political philosophy, human rights, economics, social institutions, war and peace, religion, and even futurology.
I use the phrase “great books liberalism” to capture some of this larger thinking in my manuscript. Though I’m happy with that in the context of my book project, I’m unhappy with it in relation to Adler’s biography and his overall philosophical thinking. Indeed, I’m inclined to see the tenets of his thinking, his assumptions and applications, as the components of a larger system. For now I’m content to bounce between a number of shorthands—the “Adler Paradigm,” the “Adlerian System,” or the “Adlerian School”—for lack of any better, more lyrical, phraseology. “Adlerian School” probably has the most appeal, but I don’t want to over-emphasize the well-known educational applications of his thought.
But this raises a number of larger questions: When does someone’s philosophy, or philosophies, reach the quantitative and qualitative breaking point—holding forth sufficient complexity and multiple applications—where it transitions into a school of thought? Or, what constitutes a philosophical system? Must the creator designate her or his thought a system? Must one have followers who are practitioners? What if you build a school that few to no students attend? How much peer recognition must one have to be acknowledged a school of thought? Does eclecticism deny coherence? When can a historian declare the existence of a school?
I’m now convinced, in contrast with some other recent historians and observers, that Adler’s thought had sufficient peer respect, breadth, complexity, and coherence to be called a school of thought. And I’ll briefly argue for this in my manuscript, but I’m still interested in your thoughts. What’s the tipping point between having a philosophy and authoring a system? – TL