Mortimer J. Adler


Mortimer J. Adler : biography

December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001

Adler found this explanation to be a complete contradiction. To say that we can apply words to a number of individuals indifferently amounts to saying that there is a certain sameness in the individual thing that the speaker or writer recognizes. He argued that if human beings enjoy the powers of conceptual, as opposed to perceptual thought, there would be no difficulty in explaining how words signify universals or generalities. They would derive their significance from concepts that give us our understanding of classes or kinds.

As for the challenge that man’s understanding is derived only from sense, and to the denial of "abstract" or "general ideas, Adler cites the following quote:

Adler responded to this challenge in his book "Ten Philosophical Mistakes":

Free will

In Adler’s two-volume survey on freedom – The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (1958) and its sequel The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Controversies about Freedom (1961) – he produced an exhaustive study of the concepts involved in debates about free will and the positions of hundreds of philosophers.

In volume I, Adler classified all freedoms into three categories:

  • The Circumstantial Freedom of Self-Realization
  • The Acquired Freedom of Self-Perfection
  • The Natural Freedom of Self-Determination

Self-realization Adler defined as freedom from external coercion, political and economic freedom, etc. This is the kind of freedom that Thomas Hobbes and David Hume thought was compatible with determinism.

Self-perfection is the idea from Plato to Kant that we are only free when our decisions are for reasons and we are not slaves to our passions (making moral choices rather than satisfying desires).

This is the acquired or learned knowledge to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, true from false, etc. Adler also includes many theologically minded philosophers who argue that man is only free when following a divine moral law. Sinners, they say, do not have free will, which is odd because sinners are presumably responsible for evil in the world despite an omniscient and omnipotent God.

Self-determination covers the classic problem of free will. Are our actions "up to us," could we have done otherwise, are there alternative possibilities, or is everything simply part of a great causal chain leading to a single possible future?

Adler defines the natural freedom of self-determination as that which is not either circumstantial or acquired.

A few years later, Adler revisits in Volume II the idea of a natural freedom of self-determination, which explicitly includes alternative possibilities and the uncaused self as a cause so our actions are "up to us." The uncaused self decides by choosing from prior alternative possibilities.

In points (i) and (ii) Adler has defined a two-stage model of free will like that of William James and a dozen other philosophers and scientists.


In his 1981 book How to Think About God, Adler attempts to demonstrate God as the exnihilator [the creator of something from nothing] of the cosmos. The steps taken to demonstrate this are as follows:

  1. The existence of an effect requiring the concurrent existence and action of an efficient cause implies the existence and action of that cause
  2. The cosmos as a whole exists
  3. The existence of the cosmos as a whole is radically contingent (meaning that it needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence to preserve it in being, and prevent it from being annihilated, or reduced to nothing)
  4. If the cosmos needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence, then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused, in other words, the Supreme Being, or God

The reason we can conceive the cosmos as being radically rather than superficially contingent is due to the fact that the cosmos which now exists is only one of many possible universes that might have in fact existed in the past, and might still exist in the future. This is not to say that any cosmos other than this one ever did exist in the past, or ever will exist in the future. It is not necessary to go that far in order to say that other universes might have existed in the past and might exist in the future. If other universes are possible, than this one also is merely possible, not necessary.