Philosopher Mortimer Adler Dies at 98

A Key Figure Behind the Great Books Program

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CHICAGO, JUNE 29, 2001 ( J. Adler, the philosopher behind the Great Books program, and a late convert to Catholicism, died of natural causes Thursday in his San Mateo, California, home. He was 98.

From the time Adler and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins created the Great Books program in 1946, Adler´s name has been essential to conversation about American thought, said the Chicago Tribune.

He organized what would become the Aspen Institute for the Humanities in the early 1950s and authored more than 100 publications, including his 1940 work «How to Read a Book.»

As the longtime chairman of the board of editors at Encyclopaedia Britannica, he oversaw that publication´s content overhaul in the 1970s and organized all of human knowledge into a single 1,000-page volume called the Propaedia, said Aspen Institute President Elmer Johnson.

In the July-August 2000 issue of Crisis magazine, editor Deal Hudson wrote of Adler: «The most influential American philosopher of the 20th century was received into the Church this past December. Those familiar with the trajectory of Mortimer Adler’s work, not just the Great Books Program, should not be surprised. Born December 28, 1902, Mortimer has been a catholic philosopher all his long life, and now he will spend his final years in the arms of the Church.»

Hudson continued: «Mortimer had been a practicing Episcopalian since 1986, when he was baptized in a Chicago hospital room. … Mortimer became very active in his Aspen parish and started writing more explicitly about religion, even risking his longtime friendship with Bill Moyers by criticizing his interviews with myth-guru Joseph Campbell. Mortimer was a man of prayer, to the one true God, and a reader of Scripture, about the revelation of His only Son, Jesus Christ, and made no bones about it.»

Mortimer Jerome Adler may have been the only person in the United States to have earned a Ph.D. without having a master´s, a bachelor´s or a high school diploma, the Tribune said.

Born in New York City, Adler attended Columbia University on a scholarship even after dropping out of high school, and he finished his undergraduate work in three years. He did not receive his bachelor´s degree until 1983, however, when Columbia dropped its requirement that undergraduates pass a swimming test.

Adler had refused long ago to take the test on principle and was given an honorary master´s degree so he could teach psychology classes anyway. He received his doctorate in 1928, the year following his marriage to Helen Boyton. They divorced in 1961, after having two children.

Adler had made his mark academically as an undergraduate, charging that pragmatism — with its view that a scientific approach to thought was the only useful kind — created moral and intellectual chaos. He pointed to progressive education efforts as an example.

He left Columbia for the University of Chicago in 1930 at Hutchins´ urging and was an associate professor in philosophy until his freewheeling style offended colleagues there. He moved to the law department and remained until 1952, expounding all the while on his notion that moral and intellectual discipline allow one to think clearly and exercise free will wisely.

It was during this time that he and Hutchins developed their Great Books program, designed originally for students but later expanded to accommodate teachers, trustees and the public.

Adler resigned from the University of Chicago to found the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago in 1952 and remained its president and director until 1995. He married Caroline Pring in 1963, and they had two children. His second wife died in 1998.

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