Book Review

Philosophy, History, and the Dream of the Great Books Movement

Welcome to the first installment of the long-awaited roundtable series on S-USIH writer and Loyola University of Chicago Professor Tim Lacy’s book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. Today’s review is by Robert A. Delfino, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City. He is a fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute, a member of the Board of Advisors for the International Etienne Gilson Society, and the editor of Studies in the History of Western Philosophy (SHWP), a special series within the Value Inquiry Book Series (VIBS). Look for more Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday!–Robert Greene II

The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea

by Tim Lacy

324 pages. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

dreamofdemocultureIn this book, Tim Lacy discusses the Great Books Movement from its beginnings in the 1920s in New York City, where Mortimer J. Adler was inspired by John Erskine’s General Honors course at Columbia University, through the Culture Wars of the 1980s to 2001 (when Adler died). There are two main focal points of the book. The first is on the life and work Adler. The second is on, what Lacy calls, the dream of “cultural democratization.” That is, the fostering of a deep-thinking citizenry, which was generally promoted by those who supported the Great Books idea.

With respect to cultural democratization, Lacy integrates the Great Books movement into America’s larger historical context, discussing, albeit briefly, related programs such as the Association for Core Texts and Courses, “One Book, One Chicago” and Earl Shorris’s “Clemente Course in the Humanities.” With respect to Adler, Lacy, wary of extremes in assessment, strives for fairness and objectivity—and in this, generally speaking, he succeeds. While critical of Adler’s “late-life arrogance, vanity, and irrationality,” it is clear that Lacy has some sympathy for Adler’s goal of promoting careful reading and critical thinking about the great questions and ideas contained in the Great Books.[1]

Overall, I think Lacy has produced a fine book—one that gives a good overview of the Great Books Movement and Adler’s important role in it. In my comments below, I want to focus on two aspects of the book, which I believe are related and which demonstrate the relevance of the Great Books to our world today. The first concerns the philosophy of history that animates the Great Books project. The second concerns how the ideas behind the construction of the Great Books set are related to the Culture Wars, especially as they have unfolded in Academia from the 1980s to the present. I will treat them in this order.

As Lacey notes, Adler’s philosophy of history was influenced in part by Arthur O. Lovejoy.[2] Both were philosophical realists, both eschewed relativism, and both held that it was possible for at least some ideas to transcend their historical context. Indeed, the idea of the Syntopicon volumes, which listed 102 great ideas (e.g., Beauty, Being, Cause, Form, God, Good and Evil, Happiness, Justice, Love, Reasoning, Truth, etc.), was to study the great ideas as they existed in the great conversation that took place in the Great Books of the Western World over the last twenty-five centuries. As a fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute, I find the Syntopicon to be a wonderful resource. The introduction, outline of topics, references to passages in the Great Books, and list of additional readings, which accompany each of the 102 great ideas, provides a helpful framework and conceptual map for investigating and contemplating the great questions and ideas in Western history.

Lacy, however, appears somewhat critical of Adler’s Syntopicon and philosophy of history, discussing what appears to be some of his own objections while also mentioning objections raised by other historians. The following excerpt collects the main objections:

[A] key weakness in Britannica’s execution of the great books idea, via the Great Books’ Syntopicon volumes, lies in Adler’s somewhat paradoxical philosophy of history. His philosophy at once celebrated Western tradition and shortchanged the nature of history and the history profession…. By the time he became the editor of Britannica’s Syntopicon, Adler had reduced the historian’s role, when acting philosophically, to finding patterns and inductively constructing limited generalizations. Adler’s arrested philosophical development in this area both explains and foreshadows his failure, when he would act as a historian in tracing the “great conversation” about “great ideas,” to acknowledge that his own dialectical vision of ideas constituted a philosophical system—a philosophy of history…. Adler had long held the position—inherited from John Erskine—that great books were proper fodder for obtaining a liberal education. The fact that Erskine’s reading program devalued “environmentalism” happily coincided with Lovejoy’s belief in really existing, independent “unit ideas” that transcended environment. Both trains of thought came together in Adler, thereby legitimizing his inadequate philosophy of history and self-satisfied dismissal of the concerns of some professional historians…. Adler’s own shifting thought on the philosophy of history brings an essential problem into view. The substance of the argument between great books enthusiasts and critics lies in the problem of the degree of context needed to understand a great book or a great idea…. The most important thing for him [Adler] was to democratize the great books idea—meaning maximizing accessibility for readers of varied intellectual backgrounds. In introducing the masses to the notion of philosophical thinking (not historical thinking, necessarily), the most expedient solution for Adler and his community of discourse was to lessen context. This, in turn, minimized the authority of professional historians in mediating the great books idea…. No matter the years of hard work and degrees of truth present in the Syntopicon’s dialectical vision of ideas, this failure to concede historical choices and assumptions would mar the Great Books’ future. It would be the Achilles’ heel of the Great Ideas Approach, exposed later during the late-twentieth-century Culture Wars.”[3]

From this excerpt we can gather several kinds of objections, all of which focus on the disciplines of history and philosophy and their relation to what Adler was doing in constructing the Syntopicon volumes and the Great Books set. I shall clarify these objections and then discus them one by one.

First, what was Adler attempting to do? Was he attempting to do the work of an historian? Lacy talks of Adler as acting “as a historian” in the excerpt above, and wrote that “Adler consciously anchored Britannica’s Great Books in the field we know today as the history of ideas.” [4]. Second, there is the issue of the amount of context the readers will need to appreciate the Great Books and the great ideas.

In responding to these two objections, let me note the following. Although, in addition to philosophical works, literary, historical, and scientific works are included among the Britannica set of Great Books, I think Adler clearly wanted readers of the Great Books to develop a philosophical habitus of reasoning. Adler was a philosopher, after all, and was quoted in Time magazine as saying “Philosophy is everybody’s business.”[5] So the Syntopicon and the Great Books set were not designed for historians or for historians-in-training. Strictly speaking, they do not cover the great ideas from a historical perspective, but rather from a philosophical perspective. They were designed to help the average person to take part in the great conversation and to develop a philosophical habitus of reasoning.

With this audience and goal in mind, one cannot provide too much context otherwise the result will be a failure to reach a wide audience. On the other hand, some context must be given and, as Lacy admits, Adler did provide some context. According to Lacy, this context is provided “First through mini-biographies situated before each author’s work/s in a volume. Then, as one progresses, through the overlapping time frames of some works. Finally, through each of the Syntopicon’s idea-integrative and chronologically constructed essays.”[6]

Third, we have the issue of bias. In the excerpt above Lacy discusses Adler’s (and his team’s) failure “to acknowledge that his own dialectical vision of ideas constituted a philosophical system—a philosophy of history… [and] to concede historical choices and assumptions.” In answering this objection, I will draw on the work of the philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia, in his book Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography.[7]

In this book Gracia argues for several theses pertinent to our discussion of Adler and his philosophy of history. One thesis is that “the history of philosophy includes descriptive, interpretative, and evaluative propositions and therefore can avoid neither interpretation nor evaluation.”[8] If Gracia is correct about this, and I refer the reader to his book for his arguments which are beyond my scope here, then Adler and his team also had to engage in interpretation and evaluation in constructing both the Syntopicon volumes and the list of Great Books to be included in the set. More to the point, any human being would have to engage in interpretation and evaluation in producing his or her own set of Great Books and great ideas. If that is a fatal flaw then it is a flaw that affects everyone. And that leaves two options: (1) give up on the project or (2) try to minimize bias and succeed as best as one can.

Adler tried to minimize bias by adopting a dialectical approach to the introductions of each idea in the Syntopicon. As he explains, “the Introductions, in their dialectical effort, must fall short of answering the question which is the mind’s fundamental concern. They would be dogmatic, not dialectical, if, on any of the great issues, they asserted or tried to prove the truth or falsity of any view.”[9] Indeed, Adler wants the reader of the Great Books to take part in the great conversation and to conduct his or her own search for the truth.

Still, it could be argued that, perhaps, Adler and his team were biased in the sense that they brought with them from the outset unfair opinions of certain thinkers and ideas. To his credit Adler addresses this objection noting, “Partiality can intrude itself in a variety of subtler ways—by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various positions are presented…. Only the writer’s firm intention to avoid them can be relied on to prevent other sorts of defection from dialectical objectivity.”[10]

By noting all of this I am not trying to suggest that every choice Adler and his team made in writing the Syntopicon volumes and selecting the texts to include in the Great Books set was perfect. The set is far from perfect. As Lacy discusses there were economic factors that had some influence over what was included and what was left out. But that does not mean that the set was not good. Indeed, 1952 was a time without the internet, and without—perish the thought—amazon.com. As such, the Great Books set helped make available texts that were often difficult to obtain. While not perfect, I believe the Syntopicon volumes and the primary texts included in the Great Books set were good enough to help a person who read them to take part in the great conversation.

A fourth objection, concerns the issue of transcendence, and it involves the topics of historicism and cultural relativism. Can we legitimately study the great ideas from a philosophical perspective? Or is it that every time we engage in philosophy we are actually engaging in the history of philosophy because all thoughts are historical? This is what I call the historicist objection. Can some ideas transcend their history and culture? Or are all ideas, including “truth” culturally bound because they are products of human experience at a particular time and in a particular culture? This is what I call the culturalist objection.

In answering these objections, briefly, I will also draw on Gracia’s work. Gracia argues against historicism by distinguishing between extensional and intensional historicity. He explains:

Extensional historicity is the type of historicity that applies to events and entities in the world, including the statements we make and the thoughts we think. Intensional historicity, by contrast, is the type of historicity that applies to the content of our thought and the meaning of the statements we make…. [H]istoricists confuse these two types of historicities, arguing that all philosophy is history of philosophy because all our thoughts are historical, but they are wrong, because the historicity that applies to our thoughts is only extensional. And, although all our thoughts are extensionally historical, since they occur at a particular time and in a particular context, the content of many of those thoughts need not be historical even though many of them may be so. Thus, for example, although the thought I have when I write “2 + 2 = 4” is historical, the content of that thought, namely that 2 + 2 = 4, is not historical. On the other hand, both the thought I have and the content of the thought are historical when I think that I was in Paris two weeks ago.[11]

Gracia uses the distinction between extensional and intensional historicity, along with other arguments, to argue that not all propositions or ideas in philosophy are relative to an individual’s point of view or to a particular time or culture. Arguing against those who would defend total cultural relativism, he notes:

[I]f the culturalist position were true, translations from one language into another and transcultural communication would be impossible. And yet, they are not. It is true that both procedures involve enormous difficulties, but it is also true that they are carried out effectively. Such successes, even if partial, point to the fact that, although the signs we use to communicate have a cultural origin and many of the concepts they are meant to communicate do so as well, some concepts transcend cultural parameters. We may find cultures in which Mary’s pregnancy is referred to as a swelling, for example. But we can be sure that the swelling in question is distinguishable from the swelling of a finger and carries with it the expectation of the birth of a child at some later time.[12]

I have only given the briefest of sketches of some of Gracia’s views, but if his arguments above are correct then Adler’s view that some ideas transcend history and culture is not mistaken; and Adler’s goal of a dialectical approach to studying the great questions and ideas in Western thought is not folly. Gracia gives additional arguments against the view that philosophy is “relative to culture and dependent for its truth value on particular circumstances” but I cannot discuss them here.[13] However, clearly, the search for objective truth is something that was very dear to Adler. As Lacy notes, Adler said that cultural diversity should be tolerated “only in those areas in which the criteria of truth and falsity and the principle of non-contradiction do not apply.”[14] It was partially his unshakeable commitment to objective truth that got Adler in trouble during the Culture Wars, which I will discuss next.adler3

The Culture Wars are a large topic and I cannot say much about them here. However, I want to discuss how the ideas behind the construction of the Great Books set are related to the Culture Wars. It was and is well known that Adler had a love for Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. As Lacy discusses in chapter five, Adler was a common sense realist and was strongly opposed to relativism. Adler is a member of what Gracia calls the “mainstream tradition” in philosophy. As Gracia explains, members of the mainstream hold that “the primary function of philosophy is to know and describe what there is, and they believed that for the most part the natural faculties possessed by human beings, namely reason and perception, were effective for the accomplishment of their task.”[15]

According to Gracia, the mainstream tradition was dominant until Immanuel Kant’s attack on the efficacy of reason itself. As Gracia notes, in the wake of Kant, “The only road open to philosophers who were persuaded by Kant’s criticism of reason was either to continue believing that philosophy yields knowledge of reality but through means other than our natural powers (poets) or to reject the knowledge of reality as a legitimate function of philosophy (critics), either because such is the province of science only (positivists) or because such knowledge is impossible (skeptics).”[16]

Adler clearly wanted readers of the Syntopicon volumes and the Great Books to learn to develop a philosophical habitus of reasoning, not only for the sake of a healthy democracy, but also with the hope the set would help readers to find the truth.[17] But this puts Adler at odds with the positivists and skeptics whose voices grew louder during the Culture Wars as they rejected with increasing passion the remnants of the mainstream tradition. Adler was supporting the efficacy of categorization and rational argument—he thinks some ideas can transcend culture, and that objective truth exists. For many in the Academy this was a platform that had to be attacked. And this platform also explains why other groups sympathetic to the mainstream tradition, as described above, were and currently are sympathetic to Adler and the Great Books program.

The story is of course more complex than this, and I am not saying there were no other reasons for the attacks, but I do think the changing nature of the Academy from 1952 to 1990—especially the fights over what, how, and why it should teach students—is an important part of the story.

[1] Tim Lacy, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. (New York, NY.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 226.

[2] Ibid., 46-47.

[3] Ibid., 43; 47; 57-58; 61.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Time magazine, March 17, 1952.

[6] Lacy, 58.

[7] Jorge J. E. Gracia, Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Great Books, vol. 3, Appendix II: The Principles and Methods of Syntopical Construction, 1260.

[10] Ibid., 1261.

[11] Gracia, 165-6.

[12] Ibid., 167.

[13] Ibid., 165.

[14] Lacy, 173.

[15] Gracia, 2.

[16] Ibid., 19.

[17] Great Books, vol. 3, Appendix II, especially, 1259.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’d like to thank Professor Delfino for this wonderful contribution to the roundtable. And he makes some excellent points about Professor Lacy’s book. I think, in particular, Delfino’s focus on Adler’s philosophical underpinnings is intriguing, and very important to the overall story Lacy tells in “Dreams of a Democratic Culture”.

    I’m going to our library to get my hands on the book once more–I was actually the person who requested our library order it in the first place! I was already intrigued by the book’s premise, but after reading this (and the other roundtable entries) my interest has definitely been peaked.

  2. Thanks to Prof. Delfino for joining our conversation here at the blog. It is always interesting to see how philosophers handle history, and vice versa.

    In that connection, I would push back (for now) on one point. You write: “As Lacey notes, Adler’s philosophy of history was influenced in part by Arthur O. Lovejoy.[2] Both were philosophical realists, both eschewed relativism, and both held that it was possible for at least some ideas to transcend their historical context.”

    It’s probably fair to say that Adler believed that ideas could transcend their historical context — I’m not so sure it’s fair to say that Lovejoy thought so. It seems to me that there’s a world of difference between “transcendence” — soaring above and beyond times/contexts — and “endurance” — passing through (or, more accurately, being passed down through) times/contexts. Just because one idea or another outlasts its time doesn’t make it “timeless,” and pointing out that a particular idea passed from one hand/time to another but remained still pretty much intact — though that assertion of Lovejoy’s may be arguable — is an argument about that idea in those contexts, not all (or all “great”) ideas in all contexts. If an idea “outlives” its time, that just means that it was found to be useful by people in a later time/context. I’ve put the argument in Pragmatic terms, which might chap Lovejoy’s hide — but I don’t think that’s an unfair reading of the work Lovejoy is actually doing in, say, The Great Chain of Being. Indeed, one of the things he’s historicizing in that work is the idea of timelessness itself — an idea that is still plenty useful to a lot of people, which is why it’s still around.

    In that connection, I wanted to comment on your (admittedly brief) take on the Culture Wars — a topic about which some of us here have very much to say indeed. So kudos to you for wading into the middle of it all.

    I don’t think the conflict within the academy — say, the ruckus over Western Civ at Stanford — is best explained, or even adequately explained, as a battle between epistemic absolutists and epistemic relativists. That’s not a very useful way to view the conflict, it seems to me — it’s too abstract a view, too removed from the context. One can’t boil it all down to realism v. relativism. But it is certainly true that these ideas were in the mix, and it’s worth pointing out their presence in the debates as one factor among many. More generally, it’s worth pointing out, as you seem to want to do in this review, that ideas have mattered to people, that they are not always a front/cover for “real” interests, but are very often themselves what is at stake.

    However, there’s something in the way you’ve framed your assessment of cultural conflict here that suggests you might not afford to Adler’s opponents the same philosophical agency that you afford to Adler. That is, you’ve said that Adler contended for a particular epistemology, a particular understanding of truth as enduring and transcendent, etc. And you follow that observation with this statement: “For many in the Academy this was a platform that had to be attacked.” The language of necessity is strange here. You seem to be implying that Adler’s vision of truth was somehow threatening to (some) academics’ identity or livelihood or — or what? You don’t spell it out, but you do seem to be suggesting that Adler had philosophical reasons for his views — reasons that you wish us to understand as somehow disinterested — while those who opposed him had other than a purely philosophical interest for doing so. The problem may not be your view of Adler’s opponents, but your view — and maybe Tim’s view? — of Adler.

    In any case, thanks for the review and the opportunity for dialog.

    • Brief intervention: That’s not my view. If anything, Adler’s opponents had deep and relevant philosophical reasons for opposing him. – TL

    • Dear L.D. Burnett,

      Thanks for your comments and for the opportunity for dialogue. Let me make a few comments concerning the culture wars. As I believe you are aware, I was not focusing specifically on the Western Civ controversy at Stanford. Instead, I was talking more generally, namely about the “Culture Wars, especially as they have unfolded in Academia from the 1980s to the present.”

      Speaking of my own experience over the last twenty years, which is still, admittedly, limited, I have encountered many professors who have attacked either the efficacy of reason, or categorization/essentialism, or the notion of objective truths that transcend history and culture. To the extent that these professors think the above views are mistaken they “have” to attack them if they want to defend what they consider to be the correct view of things. This is the reason for the “language of necessity” as you put it.

      What I did not want to do in my comments on Lacy’s book was to get into a big discussion about the different kinds of motivations of those who oppose the above views, though I am sure there are many. I am sure some have theoretical/philosophical reasons for opposing the above views and others may have more political or personal reasons for opposing the above views. But, again, that was outside of the scope of my discussion. However, let me say that to the extent that many professors in Academia disagree about the above views, they cannot all be correct. That is, unless one rejects the incompatibility of contrary and contradictory opposites and the idea of objective truth. But, alas, these topics too are at the heart of the controversy, which is why there is a kind of necessary opposition between the various camps in Academia.

      Finally, concerning Adler, I wrote nothing to suggest that Adler was disinterested. In fact, I argued that “any human being would have to engage in interpretation and evaluation in producing his or her own set of Great Books and great ideas.”

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