Mortimer Jerome Adler was an American educator, philosopher, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. He lived for the longest stretches in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and San Mateo. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler's own Institute for Philosophical Research.
Adler was born in New York City on December 28, 1902, to Jewish immigrants. He dropped out of school at age 14 to become a copy boy for the New York Sun, with the ultimate aspiration to become a journalist. Adler soon returned to school to take writing classes at night where he discovered the works of men he would come to call heroes: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and others. He went on to study at Columbia University and contributed to the student literary magazine, The Morningside
, (a poem "Choice" in 1922 when Charles A. Wagner was editor-in-chief and Whittaker Chambers an associate editor). Though he failed to pass the required swimming test for a bachelor's degree (a matter that was rectified when Columbia gave him an honorary degree in 1983), he stayed at the university and eventually received an instructorship and finally a doctorate in psychology. While at Columbia University, Adler wrote his first book: Dialectic
, published in 1927.
In 1930 Robert Hutchins, the newly appointed president of the University of Chicago, whom Adler had befriended some years earlier, arranged for Chicago’s law school to hire him as a professor of the philosophy of law; the philosophers at Chicago (who included James H. Tufts, E.A. Burtt, and George H. Mead) had "entertained grave doubts as to Mr. Adler's competence in the field [of philosophy]" and resisted Adler's appointment to the University's Department of Philosophy. Adler was the first "non-lawyer" to join the law school faculty. Adler also taught philosophy to business executives at the Aspen Institute.
Adler and Hutchins went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. Adler founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in 1952. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica since its inception in 1949, and succeeded Hutchins as its chairman from 1974. As the director of editorial planning for the fifteenth edition of Britannica from 1965, he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He introduced the Paideia Proposal which resulted in his founding 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.
Adler long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works (such as How to Read a Book
) became popular bestsellers. He was also an advocate of economic democracy and wrote an influential preface to Louis Kelso's The Capitalist Manifesto. Adler was often aided in his thinking and writing by Arthur Rubin, an old friend from his Columbia undergraduate days. In his own words:Unlike many of my contemporaries, I never write books for my fellow professors to read. I have no interest in the academic audience at all. I'm interested in Joe Doakes. A general audience can read any book I write—and they do.
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