BY MORTIMER J. ADLER, PH.D.
I.We live in a culture in which science, along with its applications in ever more powerful technology, predominates. That is, perhaps, the most distinctive mark of the twentieth century. The glorification and adulation of science give the word “scientific” its eulogistic connotation. Other forms of intellectual endeavor call themselves “scientific” when, in fact, their mode of inquiry, which may be investigative, is not scientific at all in method or aim. The adjective “scientific” has almost become a synonym for “excellent” — for “trustworthy” and “reliable.”
Under these pervasive cultural circumstances, philosophy takes a back seat. It either does not try to compete with scientific knowledge in the sphere of first-order questions, occupying itself with the processes of logical and linguistic analyses in the sphere of second- order questions; or it weakly claims for itself the eminence it once had in antiquity and the Middle Ages, an eminence that it no longer deserves in view of the numerous grave mistakes made by philosophers since the seventeenth century. A telling sign of philosophy’s great disrepute at present is the fact that, of the 8,730 philanthropic foundations in the United States, not one lists philosophy among the guidelines for its giving.
In this chapter I am going to defend philosophy against the charges that are usually brought against it by those who unfairly compare it with the achievements of science since early modern times.
I am going to ignore the fact that, in this epoch in which science has advanced steadily, philosophy has declined steadily. I am going to proceed on the assumption that the ten or twelve grave errors made by modern philosophers can be and have been corrected; that philosophy has regained the courage to seek knowledge — both descriptive and prescriptive — about reality, returning from analytic work in the second order to metaphysical and moral philosophy in the first order; and that philosophy has a future in which its decline in the last three centuries can be reversed.
Even with these assumptions, it is necessary for us to consider the charges against philosophy that are currently rampant, not only in the academic mind, but in the popular mind as well. In my view, all or most of these charges overlook the differences between science and philosophy as distinct modes of inquiry. They remind one of the song of complaint in the musical comedy My Fair Lady in which the refrain is: “Why can’t a woman be like me?”
Those infatuated with science are forever singing the same complaint: “Why can’t philosophy be like science?” — in all those respects in which we admire the achievement of science. The answer, of course, is simply because philosophy differs remarkably from science in its mode of inquiry and in its noninvestigative method of thought. It has its own virtues, and they are different from the virtues of science.
To make this clear, I will first state the four generally acknowledged praiseworthy traits of scientific work. I will then try to explain why philosophers should never expect to emulate science in these respects, but instead should point out the quite different respects in which philosophy can claim merit for itself, and even clear superiority over science certain accomplishments.
II.Here are the four praiseworthy traits of science.
1. Scientists are able to reach substantial agreement in the judgment of those regarded as competent to judge at a given time.
- The major disagreements in the realm of science are those between scientists at a later period and scientists at an earlier period.
- The resolution of these disagreements in favor of the later scientists involves steps in the advance of science from knowing less about reality to knowing more, or from knowing reality less accurately to knowing it more accurately.
2. It follows from what has just been said that science can rightly claim to make progress in the course of time, and to make it more and more quickly as more individuals are engaged in scientific work.
3. Science is useful in ways that enable it to claim that it showers great benefits upon human life and human society. The application of scientific knowledge in the production of technological devices to produce goods and services that are unrealizable without science is, perhaps, in many minds, the biggest feather in the hat of scientific success.
4. Science has become in modern times a public enterprise; scientists cooperate with one another; they engage in teamwork; they interact. Numbers of scientists can pool their efforts in trying to solve the same problem. In this respect, scientific work stands at the opposite extreme to the painter, the composer, or the poet. The work of the individual artist is a private enterprise; rarely is this the case in science; and when it happens, it seldom remains that way.
In all of these four respects, the current attitude toward philosophy is generally negative.
1. Philosophers at a given time do not reach agreement on the solution of problems. They do not resolve the issues on which they differ.
2. Philosophy does not appear to make progress from epoch to epoch, or from century to century. The retirement of philosophy in recent times to the sphere of second-order questions may have been prudent in view of the failures of philosophers to reach agreement on first-order questions, but that can hardly be regarded as progress.
3. Philosophy is not useful. It has no applications in technology. It bakes no bread and builds no bridges. If it is not at all useful, what good is it?
4. Philosophy has seldom been carried on as a public enterprise in which philosophers interact and work together as a team to solve their problems. It is much more like the individual and private work of the creative artist than it is like the pooled contributions of many scientists working together on the same problem.
III.What follows are responses to the foregoing challenges to the worth of philosophy. In my judgment these responses are quite satisfactory, though they are rarely given. They are sound because they stem from understanding the great difference between science and philosophy, a difference as great as that between mathematics and empirical science. I am going to deal with the question of progress first and then turn to the question of agreement and disagreement in philosophy.
With respect to progress in philosophy:
The history of science in the West and the history of philosophy do not run parallel courses, in which empirical science advances more and more rapidly as it uses more and more powerful instruments of observation and philosophy progresses, if at all, much more slowly from epoch to epoch. One should not expect in philosophy anything like the progress that has occurred in the history of science, in view of the fact that philosophy is noninvestigative, has its empirical base in common human experience, and is continuous with common sense.
Philosophy flowered at its birth in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. The philosophical insights and wisdom it attained in those early centuries were preserved and passed on after the Dark Ages in the mediaeval universities. The great teachers there were excellent students of Plato and Aristotle, and, as their followers, they made advances in detail, refinements in analysis, and here and there formulated new arguments for truths they received from antiquity.
Then, beginning in the seventeenth century, with the attempts by Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, each trying to start philosophical thought anew, largely ignoring or rejecting the accumulated wisdom of the past, philosophy started its decline, which has continued to the present day. This decline was caused by making philosophical mistakes that could have been avoided had they been as docile students of antiquity as their predecessors in the Middle Ages. [See my book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, especially the Epilogue, “Modern Science and Ancient Wisdom,” which, I think, explains the decline of philosophical thought in modern times.]
Two factors are mainly responsible for the progress that has been made in scientific knowledge. On the one hand, advances in observational techniques and their employment to explore new fields of phenomena result in the steady accumulation of more and more data of special experience. On the other, new theoretical insights are achieved by the development of better and more comprehensive theories. These two factors interact. The discovery of new data by investigation occasions or stimulates advances in theorizing; and new theoretical constructions often call forth experimental or investigative ingenuity in the search for supporting or refuting data. Furthermore, as we have seen, increasing specialization and ever more intensive division of labor occur in science; and this, in turn, is related to the ever-growing number of scientists at work which, in purely quantitative terms, accounts for cumulative progress at an accelerating rate.
In philosophy, there is no accumulation of new data; there are no advances in observational techniques and no new observational discoveries; there is no specialization and no division of labor. Since common experience at its core always remains the same, it does not by itself occasion or stimulate advances in theorizing. Since these things are impossible in philosophy, precisely because it is noninvestigative, it has made no progress, or less progress and at a much slower rate.
If the same kind, amount, or rate of progress could be expected of philosophy, then it would be fair to say that science is vastly superior to philosophy in making progress. It is clearly wrong, however, to expect the same kind of progress — or the same rate of progress — from a noninvestigative as from an investigative mode of inquiry, especially in view of the bearing of its investigative procedure on the main factor responsible for progress in science. To say that philosophy is inferior to science in regard to progress is like saying that a fish is inferior to a bird in locomotion. Both can move forward to an objective, each with a certain velocity, but the difference in the manner and the rate of their movement reflects the difference in the media through which they move.
What I have just said should not be interpreted as condoning philosophy’s failure to make greater progress than it has so far. Common experience being a constant factor, progress in philosophy must be made on the side of theorizing rather than on the empirical side — that is, in the development of new theoretical insights, improvements in analysis, the formulation of more precise questions, the construction of more comprehensive theories, and the removal of the inconsistencies, embarrassments, paradoxes, and puzzles that have long beset philosophical thought. Some progress of this sort has been made in the past, and some has occurred quite recently, but it must nevertheless be admitted that the total extent of it falls far short of what might be reasonably expected.
In my judgment, the central reason for this lies in the fact that, for the most part, philosophical work has been carried on by thinkers working in isolation, and not as a public enterprise in which thinkers make serious efforts to cooperate with one another. A little earlier I pointed out that the ever-growing number of scientists at work accounted, in part, for accelerating, cumulative progress. The creation of departments of philosophy in our institutions of higher learning, it could be said, has greatly increased the number of philosophers at work. If this has not produced the same kind of result that the same phenomenon has produced in science — and certainly it has not — the reason, I submit, lies in the failure of the participants in the philosophical enterprise to cooperate as scientists do in their ventures.
What does this all come to? First, philosophy by its very nature cannot make the same kind and rate of progress that is made in science; to expect it to do so is to make a false demand; to denigrate philosophy for not doing so is unjustified. Second, because of the difference in the factors operative in the two disciplines, it is more difficult to make progress — and more difficult to make it steadily and at an ever-accelerating pace — in philosophy than in science. [In the mid-nineteenth century, William Whewell, head of Trinity College, Cambridge University, and himself an eminent philosopher of science, proposed a reform in the curriculum for the undergraduate degree. One of its guiding principles was his distinction between permanent and progressive studies. In the category of permanent studies, Whewell placed portions of science and mathematics, but it mainly comprised the classics of imaginative literature and philosophy. In his view, the category of progressive studies consisted largely of science and mathematics.] Philosophy is inferior to science now not because it falls to make the same kind or rate of progress, but because it fails to advance in a way and at a pace that is as appropriate to its noninvestigative character as the manner and pace of scientific progress is appropriate to a discipline that is investigative in method. If philosophy were to do as well in its medium as science does in its, the correct statement of the case would not be that philosophy is inferior to science in progress, but only that it is distinctly different in this respect.
With respect to agreement and disagreement in philosophy:
One of the most common complaints about philosophy is that philosophers always disagree. This complaint is given added force by pointing out that, in contrast to philosophy, there is a large area of agreement among scientists. Furthermore, when scientists disagree, we expect them to work at and succeed in settling their differences. They have at their disposal and they employ effective implements of decision whereby they can resolve their disagreements and obtain a concurrence of opinion among those qualified to judge the matters under dispute.
Philosophical disagreements persist; or, to speak more accurately, since there is so little genuine disagreement or joining of issues in philosophy, differences of opinion remain unclarified, undebated, and unresolved. It is frequently far from clear that philosophers who appear to differ are even addressing themselves to the same subject or trying to answer the same question.
This state of affairs gives rise to the widely prevalent judgment that, in this matter of agreement and disagreement, philosophy is plainly inferior to science. Nevertheless, as in the matter of progress, the comparison of science and philosophy with respect to agreement is falsely drawn and the judgment based on it is unfairly made.
One difference between science and philosophy, already pointed out, helps us to rectify the erroneous impression that agreement generally obtains in science while disagreement is rife in philosophy. Because philosophy relies solely on common experience in dealing with first-order questions, philosophers widely separated in time can be treated as contemporaries, whereas with the everchanging state of the data acquired by ongoing investigation, only scientists working at the same time can function as contemporaries. This basic difference between science and philosophy results in a different temporal pattern of agreement and disagreement in each, to whatever extent genuine agreements and disagreements do, in fact, exist.
The scientists of a given century or time tend to disagree with and reject the formulations of earlier scientists, largely because the latter are based on insufficient data. Disagreement in science occurs vertically across the centuries; and most of the agreements in science occur along the same horizontal time line among scientists at work during the same period. By contrast, there is considerable and often unnoticed agreement across the centuries among philosophers living at different times; the striking disagreements — or differences of opinion — occur mainly among philosophers alive at the same time. In short, we find some measure of agreement and of disagreement in both science and philosophy, but we find the temporal pattern of it quite different in each case.
The judgment that philosophy is inferior to science with respect to agreement focuses entirely on the horizontal time line, where we find the maximum degree of agreement among scientists and the minimum degree of it among philosophers. If we shift our attention to the vertical time line, there is some ground for the opposite judgment. Looking at the opinions of scientists in an earlier century, we come away with the impression of substantial and extensive disagreement, whereas we find a considerable measure of agreement among philosophers across the centuries.
To judge philosophy inferior by expecting or demanding that its pattern of agreement and disagreement should conform to the pattern exhibited by science is to judge it by reference to a model or standard that is as inapplicable as the model of scientific progress is inapplicable to philosophy. To dismiss this judgment as wrongly made, however, is not to condone philosophy for its failure to achieve what might be reasonably expected of it on its own terms.
The most crucial failure of philosophy so far is the failure of philosophers to face each other in clear and genuine disagreements, to join issue and engage in the debate of disputed questions. Only when this defect is overcome will philosophers be able to settle their differences by rational means and achieve the measure of agreement that can be reasonably expected of them.
Here, as with respect to progress, the difficulties are greater for philosophy. The decision between competing scientific formulations by reference to crucial data obtained by investigation is easier than the resolution of philosophical issues by rational debate. Nevertheless, the difficulties that confront philosophy with respect to agreement and disagreement can be surmounted in the same way that the difficulties it faces with respect to progress can be overcome — namely, by the conduct of philosophy as a public, rather than a private enterprise.
When philosophy is properly conducted as a public enterprise and philosophers work cooperatively, they will succeed to a much greater extent than they do now in addressing themselves to the same problems, clearly joining issue where they differ in their answers, and carrying on rational debate of the issues in a way that holds some promise of their eventual resolution. [For a discussion of the propaedeutic service performed for philosophy by dialectical work, which cannot be done except as a public and cooperative enterprise, see my book The Idea of Freedom, Vol. 1, Part III, especially Chapter 8. Such work should help philosophers to agree about the issues on which they differ and to argue more relevantly with one another, thus increasing the degree to which they cooperate and interact. This was the point of Professor Arthur Lovejoy’s presidential address in 1916 before the American Philosophical Association on some conditions of progress in philosophy.]
It is, therefore, fair to say that philosophy is at present inferior to science with respect to agreement and disagreement, but only if one means that philosophy has not yet achieved what can reasonably be expected of it — a measure and a pattern of agreement and disagreement appropriate to its character as a noninvestigative discipline and hence distinctly different from the measure and pattern of these things in science.
I reiterate that philosophy, like science, can be conducted as a public enterprise, wherein philosophers work cooperatively. In the very nature of the case that is possible, even though little has been done to move philosophy in that direction. Nevertheless, should philosophy ever fully realize what is inherently possible, its achievement with respect to agreement and disagreement will be as commendable as the achievement of science in the same respect, for each will then have done all it can do within the limitations of its method as a mode of inquiry and appropriate to its character as a type of knowledge.
With respect to the use of philosophy:
Knowledge is useful. What is known may not always be put to use in the management or conduct of human affairs or in the control of man’s environment, but it always can be. If it is not, its latent usefulness remains to be exploited in the future. Intrinsically useless knowledge is a contradiction in terms.
We often speak of knowledge in use as applied knowledge. The Greek philosophers laid down a basic division in the use or application of knowledge, which is worth recalling. In the sphere of the practical they distinguished between production and action — between the sphere of man’s efforts to make things or to control the forces of nature in order to achieve certain results, and the sphere of human conduct, both individual and social. They also distinguished between knowledge itself, as capable of being used or applied, and a special type of knowledge which they said must be added in order to put knowledge to use.
The latter — the special knowledge that is operative when knowledge is put to use — the Greeks called techne. The English equivalent of that word is, of course, “technique,” but I prefer the more colloquial “know-how.”
Distinguishing between the spheres of application or use, we can speak of productive and practical know-how — that is, the know-how that is involved in the business of making things or achieving desired effects and results and the know-how that is involved in applying knowledge to the affairs of action, the problems of individual conduct and the conduct of society.
Practical know-how, particularly that form of it which is involved in applying scientific knowledge, concerns the means for achieving whatever ends of individual or social action we set up for ourselves. It does not, and cannot, tell us what ends we ought to pursue, but it may tell us what ends are, or are not, practicable to pursue because adequate means are, or are not, available; it often gives us knowledge of the diverse means that are available for achieving a particular goal; and, with respect to alternative means, it often enables us to make a judgment about their relative efficiency or effectiveness.
Productive know-how, again especially that form of it which is involved in applying scientific knowledge, concerns the steps to be taken in making useful tools and machines, improving their efficiency, and shaping or controlling nature to serve our purposes. It does not, and cannot, tell us what our purposes ought to be; it merely helps us to realize whatever purposes we may have, so far as their realization depends upon instrumentalities that we can devise or controls that we can exercise over natural processes. Currently, such productive know-how, based on science, is called technology. [The word “technology,” which, according to its Greek roots, should mean “know-that about know-how,” is thus currently used as if it had the same meaning as “technique” (i.e., skill or know-how).]
IV.It would be reasonable to expect each different branch of knowledge to have a kind of usefulness or application distinctively and characteristically its own. What is the usefulness of philosophical knowledge? With regard to productive know-how it is generally recognized that philosophy is totally useless; it has no technological applications whatsoever. As William James said, it “bakes no bread”; it builds no bridges, makes no bombs, invents no instruments, concocts no poisons, harnesses no power, and so forth. Francis Bacon’s famous remark that knowledge is power (that is, that knowledge gives us mastery over nature and an ability to produce or control effects according to our wishes) is as false in the case of philosophical knowledge as it is true in the case of scientific knowledge.
With regard to practical know-how, philosophy is just as deficient, though this is not as generally recognized as its deficiency with regard to productive know-how. Philosophical knowledge does not instruct us concerning the means available for achieving whatever results we desire, or whatever goals or objectives we may set ourselves. By itself (without the addition of scientific knowledge), it does not tell us whether our practical purposes are or are not practicable, because there are or are not adequate means for achieving them. Nor does it enable us to judge the relative efficiency or effectiveness of competing means for achieving the same ends.
Is philosophy, then, totally useless?
The answer must be in the affirmative if the usefulness of knowledge is exhaustively represented by the kinds of productive and practical know-how that have their basis in scientific knowledge. But that is not the whole story.
As I pointed out earlier, science does not and cannot tell us what ends we ought to pursue; it does not and cannot tell us what our purposes ought to be. However useful it is productively, it does not tell us whether we ought or ought not to produce certain things (such as thermonuclear bombs or supersonic transport planes); it does not tell us whether we ought or ought not to exercise certain controls over natural processes (such as human procreation or changes in weather). However useful it is practically, it does not tell us whether we ought or ought not to employ certain means to achieve our ends, on any basis other than their relative efficiency; it does not tell us whether one goal ought or ought not to be preferred to another. It does not tell us, in short, what we ought or ought not to do and what we ought or ought not to seek.
In Chapter 5 [Ed. note: the present essay is Chapter 7 of the book], where I dealt with the tests of truth in philosophy, I pointed out that there were two distinct modes of truth, not one. The first is the correspondence theory of truth, according to which our thinking about reality is true if it agrees with the way things really are or are not. We called this mode of truth descriptive. It is expressed in statements that contain “is” and “is not.” The other mode of truth is prescriptive, and is expressed in statements that contain the words “ought” or “ought not.”
Philosophical knowledge of the first order is the dimension of philosophy in which we find descriptive truth. It is in the second dimension of philosophy that we find the prescriptive truths of ethical and political philosophy.
These truths state the categorical moral obligations that govern the conduct of our lives and the institutions of our societies. In this second dimension, we find the use that philosophy uniquely confers on us.
The difference in the usefulness of science and philosophy corresponds to the difference in their methods as modes of inquiry. No question properly belongs to science which cannot be answered or elucidated by investigation. That is precisely why no ought question is scientific and why, therefore, science includes no prescriptive or normative branch, no ought knowledge.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, the natural sciences gradually separated themselves from speculative philosophy. More recently, the social sciences have declared their independence of philosophy in its prescriptive or normative dimensions. In order to establish themselves as subdivisions of science, such disciplines as economics, politics, and sociology had to eschew all normative considerations (that is, all ought questions or, as they are sometimes called, questions of value). They had to become purely descriptive, in this respect exactly like the natural sciences. They had to restrict themselves to questions of how men do, in fact, behave, individually and socially, and forego all attempts to say how they ought in principle to behave.
Science and philosophy as public enterprises:
There is no question that it is advantageous for each to be conducted as a public rather than a private enterprise. But the differences in their modes of inquiry and their methods make it impossible for them to be public enterprises in the same way, and also make it more difficult for philosophy than for science to be thus conducted.
If philosophy and science were as much alike as two subdivisions of science (for example, physics and chemistry or zoology and botany), the expectation of similar performance would be justified. That, however, is not the case. All the subdivisions of science involve essentially the same type of method: they are all investigative as well as empirical disciplines. Philosophy is noninvestigative. Hence, the comparability of science and philosophy as modes of inquiry that seek knowledge in the form of doxa must be qualified by the essential difference between an investigative and noninvestigative procedure in acquiring knowledge and testing theories or conclusions.
Three consequences follow from this essential difference. I call attention to them, not only because they help understanding the divergent characteristics of science and philosophy as comparable disciplines, but also because they enable us to modify the prevailing judgments about philosophy’s inferiority to science with respect to agreement and progress. The comparison — and evaluation — of science and philosophy in these respects must be made with an eye on the difference between them and with due account taken of the implications of that difference.
Because science is investigative and philosophy is not, specialization and division of labor are possible in science as they are not in philosophy — at least not to the same extent.
The multiplicity of the major subdivisions of science, and the further subsectioning of the major subdivisions, is closely related to the multiplicity of specific techniques for carrying on the investigation of nature or society, each a technique for exploring a special field of phenomena. Men become specialists in science through mastering one or more of these techniques. No one can master all of them. The ideal of the generalist in science may, in the remote past, have had the appearance of attainability, but it does so no longer. To be a scientist now is to be a specialist in science. The total work of science is thus accomplished by the specialization of its workers and by an intensive division of labor, not only on the side of investigation, but also on the side of theoretical developments or constructions relevant to the data of investigation in a particular field.
Turning to philosophy, we find an opposite state of affairs. The core of common experience to which the empirical philosopher appeals is the same for all; and common or ordinary experience involves no specialized techniques. Hence, there is and can be no basis for specialization or for division of labor in philosophy on the empirical side. These things naturally pertain to the work of men when they investigate, just as naturally they play no part in the work of men when they do not.
On the theoretical side, there is some possibility of a division of labor in philosophy — as between logic and metaphysics, or between metaphysics and ethics. In fact, specialization has occurred both in the university teaching of philosophy and in the concentration of this or that professor of philosophy upon this or that sector of philosophical inquiry. Nevertheless, it remains possible for one man to make contributions in all the major sectors of philosophical thought. [It may be that under the prevailing conditions of academic life, professors of philosophy have to become specialists in one philosophical area or another. But, ideally, philosophers should not be specialists as scientists and mathematicians are, but generalists, working in all of philosophy’s four dimensions.] The great philosophers of the past have certainly been generalists in philosophy; and in our own century the writings of Dewey, Russell, Whitehead, Bergson, Santayana, and Maritain touch on all the major questions of philosophy. This sufficiently makes the point of contrast between science and philosophy, for, though in antiquity, before specialization took place, Aristotle could make contributions to the major fields of science, that is no longer possible. In fact, specialization and division of labor have now reached the point at which it is almost impossible for one man to do outstanding theoretical work in more than a single field of scientific research.
Because there is so much specialization and division of labor in science, and so little in philosophy, as a consequence of the fact that one is and the other is not investigative, it follows as a further consequence that the authority of experts must be relied on in science and cannot be relied on in philosophy.
The individual scientist accepts the findings of other scientists — both in his own and other fields — without redoing the investigations on which those findings are based. He may, in rare instances, check the data by repeating the experiment, but for the most part, especially with regard to matters not immediately within his own special field of research, he proceeds by accepting the findings of reputable experts. He cannot do otherwise and get his own work done.
In many cases, though not in all, the individual scientist also accepts the theoretical conclusions reached by other scientists, if these have the authority of recognized experts, without checking all the steps by which those conclusions were originally reached or tested. In other words, a highly specialized scientist, working in some narrow corner of the whole scientific enterprise, accepts a large body of scientific opinions on the authority of other scientists. It would be impossible for him or her to do otherwise.
Since philosophers proceed entirely in terms of common experience to which all have equal access, and since it is by reference to common experience that philosophical theories or conclusions must be tested, philosophers need never accept a single philosophical opinion on the authority of other philosophers. On the contrary, whatever theories a philosopher holds and whatever conclusions he reaches he can and should arrive at them by judgments he himself makes in light of the very same evidence that is available to all others, including all other philosophers. Where, in the case of scientific work, the individual cannot dispense with the authority of his fellow workers, he cannot, in the case of philosophical work, rely on it. One might go further and say that the person who accepts any philosophical opinions whatsoever simply on the authority of their spokesmen, no matter how eminent, is no philosopher.
Because science depends on special experience acquired by investigation, whereas philosophy relies on and appeals only to the common experience of mankind which, at its core, is the same for all individuals at all times and places, philosophers have a contemporaneity that scientists cannot have.
Philosophical questions that arise from and relate to common experience can make contemporaries of philosophers as far apart in time and place as Plato and Bradley, Aristotle and Dewey, Augustine and William James. Another way of saying this is that there is no purely philosophical question that concerns us today to which it would be impossible to find an answer given by a philosopher who lived at some prior time. Earlier philosophers may not have actually considered all the questions with which we are concerned, but in many cases they did, and in all cases they could have. Hence, in dealing with controversies about philosophical matters, the disputants may be drawn from centuries far apart.
Not all philosophical questions have the timelessness just indicated. This characteristic pertains only to those purely philosophical problems that depend exclusively on common experience for their solution and involve no admixture of scientific knowledge. What I have called mixed questions in philosophy — especially those that depend, both for their formulation and solution, on the state of scientific knowledge — vary from time to time. Those that confront philosophers today are certainly not the same as those faced by Aristotle or Descartes. The same holds true of those mixed questions in philosophy which depend on special historical knowledge, and of those which lie athwart the border that separates philosophy from revealed religion.
With these exceptions noted, let me repeat the point: purely philosophical problems are of such a nature that the philosophers who tackle them can have the character of contemporaries despite their wide separation in time and place. The accidents of their immersion in different cultural milieus may affect their vocabularies and their notional idioms, but this does not prevent them from being construed as addressing themselves to the same problems and as engaging in debate concerning the merits of competing solutions.
The very opposite is the case in science. A scientific dispute usually, if not always, involves individuals living at the same time. At any time, the current scientific problems to be solved are conditioned by the state of the data currently in hand or the state of the research currently being carried forward. Competing theories are sponsored by individuals who take account of the latest findings of research and of the directions taken by investigations going on. Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein cannot function as contemporaries in the way in which Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and William James can.
Let me state this point in still another way: the whole record of past philosophical thought can have critical relevance to current philosophical problems, whereas the whole record of past scientific work is not as relevant to current research and theorizing. A much larger portion of the scientific past has only antiquarian interest for scientists today. if there are philosophers today who would say that an equally large portion of the philosophical past can be similarly regarded, their view of this matter, I submit, stems from their relegation of philosophy to the plane of second-order questions, or to their not recognizing the role of common experience in the formulation and solution of first-order questions that are purely philosophical.
Furthermore, when there is an apparent conflict between science and philosophy, it is to philosophy that we must turn for the resolution. Science cannot provide it. When scientists such as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg become involved with mixed questions, they must philosophize. They cannot discuss these questions merely as scientists; the principles for the statement and solution of such problems come from philosophy, not from science.
For all these reasons, I think we are compelled to regard the contributions of philosophy as having greater value for us than the contributions of science. I say this even though we must all gratefully acknowledge the benefits that science and its technological applications confer upon us. The power that science gives us over our environment, health, and lives can, as we all know, be either misused and misdirected, or used with good purpose and results. Without the prescriptive knowledge given us by ethical and political philosophy, we have no guidance in the use of that power, directing it to the ends of a good life and a good society. The more power science and technology confer upon us, the more dangerous and malevolent that power may become unless its use is checked and guided by moral obligations stemming from our philosophical knowledge of how we ought to conduct our lives and our society.
The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought
All Mortimer J. Adler articles courtesy of The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas.
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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.