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.