Six Great Ideas

Mortimer J. Adler

It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody's business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.

Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why this is so and what philosophy's business is.

The answer in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great ideas--the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live.

These ideas constitute the vocabulary of everyone's thought. Unlike the concepts of the special sciences, the words that name the great ideas are all of them 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 they can be understood, nor has everyone pondered sufficiently the questions raised by each of the great ideas. To do that and to think one's way through to some resolution of the conflicting answers to these questions is to philosophize.

When mathematics is applied to observable phenomena, its application is mediated by measurements made in other sciences, such as physics and economics. Philosophy's application to reality needs no such mediation. It is direct, without intervention by or dependence on quantified data that are required for the application of mathematics and that can be gathered only by the special observational techniques employed by the investigative sciences.

This explains why philosophy can be everybody's business, as the special sciences, including those that apply mathematics, are not. Precisely because it can be everybody's business, it should be part of everyone's general education.

Becoming acquainted and conversant with the great ideas will not prepare the individual for any special career--in business, the learned professions, or highly skilled occupations of one technical sort or another. Specialized schooling is required for that. But everyone is called to one common human vocation--that of being a good citizen and a thoughtful human being.

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.

The words that name the great ideas--none of them technical terms in any special science, all of them terms of common speech--constitute the basic vocabulary of philosophical thought, which is also to say the basic vocabulary of human thought. 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.

How much can the individual say, sequentially and coherently, when he is asked to consider one or another great idea? What answers can be given to these questions? Which answers hang together and which are opposed? What practical difference does it make whether we adopt one or another of the opposed answers? And how is one great idea related to others?

My purpose now is to list the words that are not only in everyone's vocabulary, but that also name great ideas that everyone who has completed a basic, humanistic schooling should be reasonably conversant with. Only a few of the ideas I am going to name have emerged into prominence in modern times or have taken on special significance in the twentieth century. As Mark Twain correctly quipped, "The ancients stole all our ideas from us." Here, in alphabetical order, are the ones that should be in the possession of human beings at all times, but, perhaps, not in all places, because it must be acknowledged that they are characteristically Western ideas.

Animal Art Beauty Being Cause Chance Change Citizen Constitution Democracy Desire Duty Education Emotion Equality Evolution Experience Family God Good and Evil Government Habit Happiness Honor Imagination Judgment Justice Knowledge Labor Language Law Liberty-Freedom Life and Death Love Man Matter Memory Mind Nature Opinion Pleasure and Pain Poetry Progress Punishment Reasoning Relation Religion Revolution Sense Sin Slavery Soul Space State Time Truth Tyranny Violence Virtue and Vice War and Peace Wealth Will Wisdom World

Readers can cross-examine themselves--or, perhaps, members of their family or their friends--by asking, about each of the great ideas listed above, the kind of questions I suggested a little earlier.