Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to Think About the Great Ideas: Introduction

There seems to be a consensus among Great Books scholars that Mortimer Adler’s name will always be associated with The Great Ideas, in the context of Western Civilization. For he is not only famous for his  world renowned classic, How to Read a Book,  it was he who first articulated that there are a limited number of Great Ideas which form the core and substance of the Western tradition. He also argued that those Ideas can serve as keys to decoding the genius and wisdom hidden in the Great Books.

Heading a large research staff, Adler spent eight years constructing a reference work entitled Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas, a systematic inventory of the fundamental ideas to be found in the Great Books. At first, the research came up with some seven hundred possible candidates for consideration and inclusion among the Great Ideas; but on closer examination, most of them turned out to be derivatives or fragments or portions of more encompassing ideas, hence arriving at a total of 102 irreducible ones. Over subsequent years of research and debate, Adler’s faith in the fundamental nature of these ideas was further reinforced except that he added just one more--the Great Idea of Equality--bringing the total to 103.

These ideas, according to Adler, "constitute the vocabulary of everyone’s thought. Unlike the concepts of the special sciences, the words that name the Great Ideas are all words of ordinary, everyday speech. They are not technical terms. They do not belong to the private jargon of a specialized branch of knowledge. Everyone uses them in ordinary conversation. But everyone does not understand them as well as they can be understood, nor has everyone pondered sufficiently the questions raised by each of the Great Ideas. To think one’s way through to some resolution of the conflicting answers to these questions is to philosophize."

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk for a interdisciplinary and cross-cultural discussion and contemplation of the Great Ideas and wonder together why they are considered so great.
http://www.thegreatideas.org/greatideas1.html

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

The list of Great Ideas does not have the idea of Identity, which I find rather peculiar. Without the notion of Identity, Dr. Adler cannot even know why he got so fiercely fascinated by his Western Identity and therefore, Western conditioning and civilization. The planet has an East as well which also produced great books and ideas. But if a human child born on the planet shows emotional and cognitive attachments to all things Western only, and yet wants to know the whole truth about the human mind and human existence, how fair and accurate would that be? To feel qualified to give advice to all humanity on how to live, love and think on the basis of only what the West discovered--that to me is some what partial and ironic, not to mention provincial and narcissistic. It seems that the unconscious internalized boundaries of identity become the limits of emotions, thoughts and actions.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know how Mortimer Adler reconciles the fundamental conflict between freedom and equality, in the human condition. See the example of Soviet Union as it tried to enforce equality but created disaster for all. Will Durant in "Lessons of History" said something very pertient on this issue:

"Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically… To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Communism. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way… Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that one can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have the survival advantage in the competition of groups."

Nomi said...

Mortimer Adler would argue that before we can reconcile the perennial conflict between freedom and equality, there is a fundamental distinction which needs to be made--the distinction between person and thing. "Central to the whole moral, political, legal or juridical and religious structure of Western civilization, suggests Adler, "is the distinction which you all know and you all use every day, the distinction between person and thing. And this distinction we recognize as not one of degree, but one of kind. There is a sharp line that divides persons from things. All the rights and liberties we demand from human beings, their natural and legal rights, their natural and legal liberties, these belong to human beings as persons. Only persons have moral responsibility. And being a person is the essence of human equality and of man’s superiority to other animals. When the American Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal, what that means in its deepest understanding is that all human beings equally or alike have the quality, the character, of being persons. Their equality is the equality of persons and all the rights and privileges and liberties that go with being a person. Justice requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally."

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