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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ten Philosophical Mistakes Which Plague Modern Philosophy

Ten Philosophical Mistakes
Mortimer J. Adler
Touchstone [1996]

In Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer J. Adler identifies the ten critical mistakes which plague modern philosophy. He examines the origins of these mistakes, the pernicious impact that they are having on contemporary politics and culture, and offers his ideas for offsetting these mistakes.

The book’s Prologue begins with a quote from Aristotle: “The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Adler informs that this observation has also been echoed by Aquinas who came sixteen centuries after Aristotle.

But Aristotle, Aquinas and other philosophers of antiquity are not responsible for most of the ills in modern philosophy. According to Adler, “these mistakes are typically, if not wholly, modern in origin and in the serious consequences to which they have led in modern thought.” He holds thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant and their modern followers liable for these mistakes.

In Chapter 4, “Knowledge and Opinion,” Adler has this to say about Immanuel Kant: “How anyone in the twentieth century can take Kant’s transcendental philosophy seriously is baffling, even though it may always remain admirable in certain respects as an extraordinarily elaborate and ingenious intellectual invention.”

The book has 10 chapters, and a prologue and an epilogue. The ten philosophical mistakes are dealt with in the ten separate chapters. Here’s a description of the ten philosophical mistakes that Adler has identified:

1. The failure to understand the relationship between consciousness and reality
2. The failure to distinguish between perceptual and conceptual thought
3. The failure to recognize that concepts have an exact definition in any given context
4. The failure to understand the difference between knowledge and opinion, and to recognize that the contributions of philosophy are as important as that of science.
5. The mistake of putting all judgements about moral values on the side of mere opinion
6. The failure in identifying the nature of happiness
7. The failure to counter the ideas of the determinists, and understand the grounds on which the case for free will and free choice rests.
8. The failure to recognize man’s nature.
9. The failure to recognize that the basic forms of human association are both natural and conventional.
10. The metaphysical mistake of reductionism

Adler, with his impressively lucid style of writing, makes it easy for a general reader to understand the technical issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. I think, there are two kinds of benefits that people look for in philosophy books—some intellectual enlightenment and some practical ideas about how to be wise in one’s own life. Adler offers both in his book.

But the book also has some problems. Adler’s treatment of the philosophical mistakes is superficial—he does not offer complete arguments while investigating the nature of the philosophical mistakes and their solutions.

For instance, in the chapter 10, “Human Existence,” he talks about the mistake that philosophers make when they indulge in reductionism. He points out that the reductionist thinkers claim that solid objects are not quite solid because they are made out of numerous atoms.

He tries to counter the reductionist argument by proposing that “the physical constituents of a physical body cannot be the same when these constituents exist in isolation and when they enter into the constitution of an actual body. Thus, when the chair exists actually as one body, the multitude of atoms and elementary particles which constitute it exist only virtually.”

But Adler’s arguments against reductionism are not convincing. By his logic it can be deduced that the leg of a table is a virtual table leg when it is attached to a table, and it becomes a "real" table leg only when it is broken off and separated. But that is not the case in reality—the leg of a table is what it is whether it is attached to the table or separated from it.

In the book’s final paragraph, Adler talks about the necessity of revisiting the philosophers of antiquity. “To make a fresh start, it is only necessary to open the great philosophical books of the past (especially those written by Aristotle and in his tradition) and to read them with the effort of understanding that they deserve. The recovery of basic truths, long hidden from view, would eradicate errors that have had such disastrous consequences in modern times.”

As the book is too short for this kind of a subject, it is possible that Adler may have left out a few critical observations. In a number of instances he refers readers to his other works for having more detailed treatment. But overall, I found Adler’s polemical survey of philosophy quite rewarding. He provides lot important information on the issues that modern philosophy faces.

1 comment:

Grant W. Jones said...

A very good book. Thanks for the reminder, I must reread it.