Thursday, May 14, 2009


Six great ideas. Mortimer J. Adler, Simon and Schuster : 1981
Reviewed by :
Prof. Dr. Syed Hamid Aljunid
Universiti Tun Abdul Razak

The chapters in the book entitled Six Great Ideas deal with just six of the one hundred and two ideas found in the ‘syntopicom’* a collection of two volumes on the great ideas which was co-edited by Adler. These ideas were essentially significant ideas developed, discussed and refined during the course of Western history and thought. His in-depth understanding of these ideas explicating their shades of meaning, inner complexity and their inter-connectedness is a major contribution to philosophy especially the kind that is accessible to ordinary thinking individuals who believe in the role of active citizenship. He strongly believed that good citizens and thoughtful human beings should be conversant with at least the most important of all these ideas. Guided by the ideas expressed explicitly or implicitly, Adler chose the six ideas found in this book called Six Great Ideas. Without a modicum of understanding of these ideas, it is unlikely that loyalty to the ideals of nationhood can be exercised in its true spirit as opposed to mere lip service.
A great idea according to Adler is one about which challenging questions have been raised, discussed and reflected. Answers to these questions are sometimes elusive, but the responsibility and ability to frame the right questions are not to be taken for granted. Adler constantly reminds us that the difference between human beings and other living things is not a question of degree but that of kind. Though we belong to different cultures and traditions, we are common in terms of out potentialities and our intellectual capacity to actualize our potentialities even in differing circumstances. Our nature to seek happiness and live in an environment that support the attainment of a good life requires an understanding of ideas such as goodness, truth, beauty, justice, liberty and equality. The first three are ideas we “judge by”. The latter three are ideas we “act on”. According to Adler, the ideas of Goodness Truth and Beauty are both private and public whereas the ideas of Justice, Liberty and Equality are public.
The cognitive and intellectual capacity to understand ideas of truth goodness, beauty, justice, liberty and equality is too often relegated to others (such as elected representatives) as though that kind of thinking and asking questions belong solely to these leaders. After all, despite the discourses and dialog, these delegators of thinking seem resigned to the futility of philosophisizing when might is right and when self interest is the only rational and pragmatic mode of thinking.
To most people, truth is as elusive as ever and there are as many ‘truths’ as there are religions, cultures, traditions, etc. So it goes with goodness, beauty as well as justice. What is real and what is apparent are subjective to different experiences and perceptions and relative to the different practices or paradigms or to different periods of history. It therefore appears there is no unequivocal and universal basis upon which these ideas can have widespread-acceptance not only among communities of people, but also among different practitioners of knowledge within a society.
It is in the context of this refusal to engage others in discussing these basic ideas due to their subjectivity and relatively that the understanding of Adler’s perspective is valuable. Although his views are reflective of Western thinking and practices, his approach has universal import. We may not be precise and perfect in knowledge of things, but comparing opinions based on evidence and justification is far superior to the absence of engagement especially if diversity pervades our lives in this global environment. The courses taught in universities are designed to train students to ask probing and meaningful questions on how ideas originate, their connection with related ideas and their role in valuations and decision making such that we can engage in dialog and discourses to discover common grounds of progress and tolerate differences based on mutual respects. Aristotle’s dimensions of human thinking and knowledge viz productive and practical knowledge are strengthened by the third dimension viz is theoretical thinking. It is within this theoretical thinking process that ideas are conceived, understood and judged as to their usefulness and relevance in most human activities. The ideas of right versus wrong are dependent on goodness and its opposite which are in turn dependent on our understanding of truth and reality. Standards or principles of ethics based on true premises and supported by facts (implicitly the idea of truth) provide consistency and meaning to human actions. Understanding the essence of justice and its manifestations in politics and economics are necessary in exercising our roles as participants in the political process. More importantly, the inculcation of such values is critical when leadership role is entrusted with greater power over the public at large.
Adler’s presentation of significant issues pertaining to truth, goodness and justice are by far the most important of the six ideas covered in the book. Those who need to ‘philosophize’ (probe common sensical ideas with rigor and reason) in a fruitful and productive way about the basis upon which knowledge is acquired will agree that there are very limited assertions that are self evidently true. These indubitable statements are essentially analytical or synthetic a priori. The rest are anchored on the possibility of getting closer to the truth such as generalized claims based on observations of particulars which are falsifiable when at least one case is found to contradict the generalized claim. Although truth is not achievable, the quest for truth is unending and seekers of knowledge should persevere and engage in ‘profitable’ disputes. This process differentiates science from non-science and it prevents the slide to relativism or subjectivism.
Another anchor used by Adler on the question of truth, goodness and justice is the concept of human nature. He is of the opinion that human beings are a kind of living things that is distinct and separate from other species of living things. According to Adler, the difference lies in the ability of human intellect to not only apprehend objects of perception and thoughts but also have certain knowledge that what is desirable is good. Adler is of the view that desires befitting human nature are of the same categories and that the intellect can discriminate between different kinds of ‘good’ that are normally desired. What is really good ought to be desired to evidently true such that the negation of it goes contrary to human nature and is therefore false. According to this logic, the claim that we ought to ‘desire what is good’ is indubitable and can be regarded as certain knowledge. The notion of inalienable right based on the natural prescription that all human beings ought to desire what is really good to achieve happiness. This is known as the principle of humanity which is based on the ‘belief in the unity of human nature’ – a belief that people in different cultures with different norms and beliefs are essentially similar. Whatever differences that exist among people of different cultures are circumstantial rather than inherent in human nature. But it is only a next logical step of this principle that most behavioral scientists would claim that rationality is part of human nature. If they appear irrational, it is because they do not have access to the ‘knowledge’ available to others. Additionally, they appear to behave differently as manifested by differing behavior of groups and societies by virtue of nurture or circumstantial forces as opposed to human nature viz. potentialities. In other words the actualization of potentialities differs with the state of nurture in different customs and traditions, etc. For example, the potentiality of achieving a good life rather than just living is actualized by the formation of families, and groupings as a natural need which is also rational. This need to form groupings is unlike the ‘social contract’ theories of Hobbes where the human individual originally lived as individual in a state of nature that is ‘nasty, short and brutish’.
This concept of human nature posited by Adler is clearer understood when he dove tailed on natural desires innately endowed in human nature (whether or not it is consciously known) rather than the desires that are acquired through nurturing. This difference is critical to Adler’s position with regard to goodness, justice and even truth. What man ought to desire is not the same as what he desires, according to Adler. The former refers to real goods or needs inherent in human nature as opposed to apparent goods or wants. ‘Wants’ or desires to acquire goods and services in the field of economics reflect subjective taste as reality that must be accepted as true by virtue of behavior in action. But the failure to realize that apparent goods are only considered ‘good’ at the point of it being desired and may not be good for man or his grouping in the future is one important point that is somehow left unmentioned in any theoretical model or principles of economics. It seems to be given emphasis in the discussion of morality and human rights but not the critical issue for economics textbooks or mainstream literature. This market based paradigm of wants determines the boundaries of its truth, its goodness and its sense of justice through the axiomatic and positivist concept of utility as satisfaction or desire fulfillment.
In the sphere of political philosophy, the difference between the libertarian perspective to justice and the Marxian perspective of justice rests solely on this lack of understanding of human nature viz the role of natural desires as opposed to acquired desires. The former emphasizes equality of opportunity to fulfill desires that cover both needs and wants whereas the latter looks at equality of attainment of needs. The former fails to address rights to basic human needs which reflect equality in our humanity, while the latter fails to address inequality due to inequality of conditions and abilities. According to Adler, the failure to recognize equality in kind co-existing with inequality in degree is the cause of conflicting views posted by different ideologies. The right approach should be guided by the maxim that inequalities are acceptable and justified subject to the condition that all are economically equal in kind on the base line. The obligation of society is to provide its members with this minimum for decent livelihood as members of the human kind. Beyond this obligation is the obligation to guarantee that those who have more are entitled to their wealth in so far as they contribute more to the production of societal wealth. Therein lays the principle of a just economy anchored on the prescriptive truth posited by Adler.
Again at the risk of being repetitious, it is necessary to restate Adler’s indubitable prescriptive claim that one ought to desire what is really good. And what is really good refers to goods that are also means to achieving the ultimate good. This truth is supported by his contention of human nature as invariant despite historical progress and changes in lifestyles. However, what appear basic needs to some may be wants to others. Also what used to be wants may now be basic needs. What is acquired may be considered natural in the context of human behavior. Adler’s position is tenuous as long as this relativity is not convincingly addressed. In short it will appear that Adler’s argument tends to be circular.
As long as what ought ‘to be desired’ or what is really good remains ambiguous or ‘without strong foundation, then his common sense approach to truth and goodness and therefore justice remains contentious. Besides, one aspect of justice that is not explicitly considered by Adler is justice to the ‘self’ which for all intents and purpose means the soul. It may not be too presumptuous to posit that matters of the self or the soul and its nature may be too spiritual for Adler and most Western philosophers that it has been neglected as an important aspect of truth, goodness and justice. Adler himself tends to be ambivalent on this issue based on my reading of his writings till the time this book was first published.
The other area of discourse that has been problematic for Adler is in the notion of social reality as opposed to things as objects of perception. The existence of such objects of thoughts outside of the mind is still a contentious issue. Unlike things as objects that are considered by Adler to really exist independent of the mind, it is unlikely that such social objects exist when no one is thinking about them. This is one area were the debate is still active. The proponents of existentialism phenomenology, the structuralism, hermeneutics and ethno methodology have demonstrated the limitations of Adler’s position on the issue of social reality as well as its role in determining what is right and wrong, good or bad, just or unjust in dealing with social phenomena.
Scientific thinking since Descartes has advertently or inadvertently marginalized Aristotelian (and religious) ‘explanations’ of nature and has since substituted them with causal and deterministic explanations. It is quite uncommon nowadays to find strong proponents of Aristotelian philosophy especially with regards to the analysis of human nature in explaining behavior. Despite this inexorable wave of deterministic explanations, it is heartening to find a ‘dissenting voice’ against the mainstream philosophy of the West. Being labeled only as common sense thinker by the fraternity, and not a ‘thorough-bred’ philosopher, Adler persevered in all his writings not only to promote Aristotelian philosophy in educating future citizens, but he even managed to convincingly demonstrate the fundamental errors of thinking committed by the precursors of these contemporary western philosophers. True to his view, we are all engaged in discourses giving our opinions in the ‘sphere of truth’ where disputes are ‘fruitful’. This should be among others the focus of our fond memory of the late Professor Adler.

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