Six Great Ideas – Journal 2

“Six Great Ideas,” by Mortimer J. Adler – Chs. 3-4


  • “Precisely because it can be everybody’s business, it should be part of everyone’s general education…Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy-with an introduction to the great ideas.”
  • “If philosophy is everybody’s business, then not only should everyone be able to use these words correctly in a sentence when the standard of correctness is merely grammatical, but also everyone should be able to engage, to some extent, in intelligent discourse about the object of thought under consideration.”
  • “These three ideas [liberty, equality, and justice] are the ones we live by in society. They represent ideas which a considerable portion of the human race has sought to realize for themselves and for posterity.”
  • “I turn now to the other trio: truth, goodness, and beauty. These three ideas are the ones we judge by. Unlike the ideas we live by (liberty, equality, and justice), these three function for us in our private as well as in our public life.”
  • “A great idea is almost always one about which challenging questions have been raised. The great philosophical questions are, for the most parts, questions about the great ideas.


  • On the first quote: I’m encouraged that Adler seems to agree with me (or is it vice versa?) that philosophy should be a required part of the K-12 curriculum. I learned more Thinking Skills and Habits of Mind in my philosophy courses than in all the rest of my education combined. It is utterly necessary to develop such skills just to read philosophy texts, let alone discuss them or write about them. And there is plenty of precedent for the success of philosophy in high schools – look at the International Baccalaureate program, which offers credit for philosophy.
  • Following a discussion on vocabulary and the observation that the six ideas he will discuss are truly simple words, Adler notes something interesting: that the words are simple grammatically, but very complex and layered as “objects of thought.” This seems to be true of so many different words – easy to learn how to use them, but difficult to truly understand what they mean.
  • As Adler concludes the introductory section of the book, he previews his discussion of the two groups of great ideas: the judging ideas (truth, beauty, goodness) and the acting ideas (liberty, equality, justice). Of these, he says that the greater set is actually the former. Truth, beauty, and goodness, according to Adler, are the dominant trio of ideas because they affect the acting ideas. For example, without a concept of goodness, ideas like liberty and equality and justice are just objects of thought. It is the notion that they are good ideas that makes them so valuable to us. Not surprisingly, this is very similar to Plato’s theory that the Form of the Good is the highest of the forms and illuminates all other ideas.
  • On the last quote above, it reminds me of one of my favorite truths about philosophy: Doubt everything. Doubt leads to questions. Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to truth. Without some sort of honest doubt, no great theory (or idea) would ever have been posited. If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t doubted the goodness of segregation, the world would have been a much different place. This is why I continue to advocate doubt as one of the strongest habits of mind (even if it doesn’t get mentioned as such).

One response to “Six Great Ideas – Journal 2

  • Leroy Hurt

    It’s probably not enough to just doubt. The focus should be on identifying the crux of one’s belief that, if proven false, would be enough to cause one to give up that belief. Generally, the crux is the set of foundational assumptions one makes about the world.

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