Adler, Mortimer Jerome, 1902-2001

Alternative names
Birth 1902-12-28
Death 2001-06-28

Biographical notes:

American philosopher, educator, author.

From the description of Papers, 1939-1944. (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC); University of Texas at Austin). WorldCat record id: 80110800

Mortimer Jerome Adler, philosopher, educator, writer. The Mortimer J. Adler Papers include information on his work with the Great Books, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the Institute for Philosophical Research as well as material relating to his many publications. The collection consists of articles, correspondence, manuscripts, memoranda, newspaper clippings, notes, reading lists, reprints, and other materials relating to the career of Mortimer J. Adler.

From the description of Mortimer J. Adler papers, 1914-1995 (inclusive) (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 603544564

Mortimer Jerome Adler, born 1902 in New York City, is an American philosopher, educator, and author. He began his career as a secretary and copywriter for the New York Sun and through a program of formal and self education was awarded a PhD from Columbia University (1928). Adler, who became associate professor there in 1930, continued to participate in the Honors program, instituted by John Erskine, which focused on the reading of the classics. His tenure at Columbia included study with such eminent thinkers as Erskine and John Dewey. This kind of environment inspired not only his interest in reading and the study of the great books of Western Civilization, but his insistence on the establishment of an integrated philosophy of science, literature, and religion.

It was this combination of interests that dominated his career at schools and research institutions such as the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Institute for Philosophical Research, and the Aspen Institute, the last two of which he helped establish. Adler was also a board member of the Ford Foundation and the Encyclopedia Britannica, whose policies and programs he helped guide and significantly influence.

In 1930 he was appointed to the Philosophy faculty at the University of Chicago. Because of the innovations he proposed for the curriculum, his appointment led to a conflict with the faculty. These changes were based on Adler's central interests in the reading, discussion and analysis of classic literature and an integrated philosophical approach to the study of separate disciplines. By 1931 these interdepartmental wars resulted in Adler's reassignment to the Law School as Professor of Philosophy of Law. While he continued his educational reforms on a more conservative basis, the concept of seminars on great books and great ideas continued to gain inroads at other universities. In 1952, his work culminated in the publication by Britannica of the Great Books and Great Ideas series.

His earliest work resulted in the publication of Dialectic (1927), which focused on a summation of the great philosophical and religious ideas of Western Civilization -- ideas influenced by his fascination with medieval thought and sensibility. The work on which he had concentrated since his Columbia University days, together with a lecture series and essays produced in Chicago, resulted in several publications: The Higher Learning in America (1936), What Man Has Made of Man: A Study of the Consequences of Platonism and Positivism in Psychology (1937), Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy (1937) and, in December 1940, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting A Liberal Education. His interest in the liberal education of the common man came to fruition in How to Read a Book.

How to Think About War and Peace (1943), written in the political and social climate of the Second World War, continued his advocacy of a popular, yet intelligent approach to public education. Adler met life-long friend Clifton Kip Fadiman in a great books seminar taught by Adler at Columbia University. Fadiman later became an editor at Simon and Schuster, a literary critic for The New Yorker as well as the author of numerous essays and books. While corresponding with Adler throughout the writing of the book, he supplied, in 1943, the preface, A Plea to the Reader, for How to Think about War and Peace.

Adler has written voluminously throughout his career, consistently focusing on a cross-disciplinary and integrated philosophy of law, politics, religion, and education. Other books that reflect this theme include: The Common Sense of Politics (1971), Six Great Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Justice, Liberty: Ideas We Judge By, Ideas We Act On (1981), and The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984). More recently he has been involved in creating video programs with Bill Moyers which focus on the subject of the Constitution and biographies of the justices of the Supreme Court. In 1992 he published a continuation of his autobiography Philosopher at Large (1977) entitled A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large. In 1993 he published The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical, Moral, Objective, Categorical. The main criticism of his work remains the narrow focus and definition (Anglo-American, European and male) that he gives to greatness.

The Mortimer J. Adler Papers were donated by Adler and Fadiman to the Harry Ransom Center in two parts: the How to Read a Book papers in 1962 and the How to Think about War and Peace papers in 1963.

From the guide to the Mortimer Jerome Adler Papers TXRC93-A97., 1939-1944, (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Mortimer Jerome Adler was born on December 28, 1902 in New York City. His father, Ignatz, an immigrant from Bavaria, worked as a jeweler and his mother, Clarissa, was a former teacher. When he was fourteen, Adler dropped out of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and went to work as a secretary and a copy boy for the New York Sun. He later enrolled in evening extension courses at Columbia University where he read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography and decided to become a philosopher. In 1920, a teacher who noticed his promise secured him a scholarship to Columbia University. He completed his degree in three years, but was denied a diploma because he refused to take physical education classes or the required swim test. Nevertheless Adler continued his graduate studies at Columbia where he studied with John Erskine and John Dewey. In 1983 Adler received an honorary B.A. from Columbia.

His earliest research resulted in the publication of Dialectic in 1927, which focused on a summation of the great philosophical and religious ideas of Western Civilization, ideas influenced by his fascination with medieval thought and sensibility. One year later, Adler received his PhD in philosophy from Columbia. In addition to his doctoral studies, Adler worked as in instructor in the psychology department at Columbia from 1923-1930 as well as City College and the People's Institute. University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins recruited Adler to the faculty in 1930, where he first joined then department of philosophy and later joined the Law School as an associate professor. He became a full professor in 1942. In 1945 Adler took a leave of absence in order to complete his work on the Synopticon (an index of 102 "great ideas" contained in the books) and on editing the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World Series (with Hutchins).

Adler joined the Board of Directors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1947 and became director of planning (1966) and chairman (1974) of the editorial executive committee. He was the force behind the first major revision of the encyclopedia in over 200 years, published in 1974 as The New Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In 1952 Adler resigned from teaching and moved to San Francisco to found the Institute for Philosophical Research with a grant from the Ford Foundation. The Institute was devoted to the study of Western thought and produced books such as the two-volume Idea of Freedom (1958, 1961). He married his second wife, Carline Sage Pring, in 1962. Adler had four sons; Mark, Michael, Douglas, and Philip.

In 1979, the Institute for Philosophical Research, under Adler's leadership, launched the Paideia Project (the name comes from a classical Greek word for education), which advocated for the reintroduction of great books and the Socratic method in the public schools. In 1982 Adler published The Paideia Proposal; An Educational Manifesto.

Throughout his career as a philosopher and educator, Adler has written voluminously, consistently focusing on a multi-disciplinary and integrated approach to philosophy, politics, religion, law, and education. Such works include Problems for Thomists; The Problem of Species (1940), How To Think About War and Peace (1944), How To Read A Book (1972, with Charles van Doren), Aristotle For Everybody ; Difficult Thought Made Easy (1978), How To Think About God, A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan (1980), and Reforming Education, The Opening of the American Mind (1988).

Adler co-founded the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas with Max Weismann, and Editor in Chief of its journal Philosophy is Everybody's Business. He also was co-Founder and Honorary Trustee of The Aspen Institute

Adler, a self-described pagan for most of his life, converted to Christianity in 1984 and was baptized by an Episcopalian priest on April 21 of that year. In December of 1999, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Mortimer Jerome Adler died on June 28, 2001 in San Mateo, California.

From the guide to the Adler, Mortimer J.. Papers, 1914-1995, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Mortimer J. Adler was born in New York City in 1902. He attended public schools in the city but dropped out at age 14 to work as a copy boy for the New York Sun . Eventually he returned to school and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. He taught at Columbia from 1923 until 1930 when, at the invitation of Robert Hutchins, he went to the University of Chicago. There he taught philosophy and helped to establish the great books program as well as the Great Books Foundation. Adler left his post as professor in 1952 to found and direct the Institute for Philosophical Research. The Institute went on to sponsor many publications, its first major one being The Idea of Freedom .

Adler introduced the Paideia Proposal which resulted in his founding the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of challenging works at all grade levels, and with Max Weismann he founded The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas.

As associate editor of Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World and co-editor of Great Ideas Today, Adler contributed over one hundred essays on the great ideas of Western Civilization. He authored many philosophical books, beginning with Dialectic in 1927 and including Art and Prudence, St. Thomas and the Gentiles, What Man Has Made of Man, a best seller called How To Read a Book, and The Conditions of Philosophy . He lectured extensively on the problems and questions of philosophy throughout his career.

From the guide to the Mortimer J. Adler Papers, 1937-1966, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)


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