Philosopher at Large

It is not surprising that someone whose life’s ambition had been to organize, categorize, and interpret the whole of human knowledge in the West should decide to look back over his own life in the same interpretive, ordering fashion. Philosopher at Large is one man’s life story particularly, but because its subject is a philosopher, it is also concerned more generally with the human search for truth and the need for communication.

The peculiar power of the book is that, while it arouses human interest throughout, as the author re-creates the exciting years he spent at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, the reader is also caught up in the discussion of basic philosophical questions. Four concerns emerge above all others in Mortimer Adler’s autobiography—education, communication, the essence of truth, and the nature of philosophy.

Adler was motivated from the very beginning of his career by the conviction that philosophy is for everyone. This belief in the necessity to communicate the values of philosophical reflection to every man provided Adler’s life with its most basic and creative tension. It was an ideal which saved Adler from the two pitfalls to which modern academic philosopher/professors are so often prone: the kind of specialization so necessary in science but so disastrous in philosophy; and the insulation from life’s realities that is frequently the mark of abstract thinkers.

This autobiography takes us first behind the scenes of the General Honors program at Columbia University, where Adler’s philosophical viewpoints first took shape, and then depicts the author’s later struggles to define and defend liberal education amid the growing encroachments of the empirical disciplines and specialization at the University of Chicago. We learn that Adler’s ideas were born not so much of any academic program as of chance readings, first of John Stuart Mill and later of St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps most importantly, we follow the idea of the Great Books program from its inception, through the countless seminars the author conducted throughout the country, to its effects on the field of adult education. Throughout the book, the concern for liberal education and communication is the unifying factor. This concern arose from a need...

(The entire section is 942 words.)


Best Sellers. XXXVII, September, 1977, p. 162.

Business Week. November 21, 1977, p. 21.

Commonweal. CIV, October 14, 1977, p. 661.

Library Journal. CII, July, 1977, p. 1486.

New York Times Book Review. August 14, 1977, p. 12.

Saturday Review. IV, September 3, 1977, p. 25.