Sunday, 25 June 2017

Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer Adler

Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy
Mortimer J. Adler
Touchstone, (Reprint Edition, 1997) 

Mortimer J. Adler is superb at expressing complicated philosophical concepts in an uncomplicated language. His book Aristotle for Everybody is indeed for “everybody”—even those who are uninitiated in philosophy will benefit from his systematic and cogent presentation of all the major points in Aristotelian thought.

In his Introduction to the book, Adler says that it is important for people to learn to think philosophically because philosophy “helps us understand things we already know, understand them better than we now understand them.” He goes on to recommend Aristotle as the best teacher for learning philosophy. The book’s focus is not only on the major points in Aristotelian philosophy, but also on the process or the method by which Aristotle developed his ideas.

Adler provides a snapshot of Aristotle’s life in the Introduction itself, and devotes rest of the book to Aristotle’s ideas and method. Here’s an interesting paragraph from the Introduction:

“Aristotle’s thinking began with common sense, but it did not end there. It went much further. It added to and surrounded common sense with insights and understandings that are not common at all. His understanding of things goes deeper than ours and sometimes soars higher. It is, in a word, uncommon common sense.”

The book of 206 pages is divided into five parts, each containing several bite-sized easy-to-read chapters which touch upon the different segments of Aristotle’s thinking. The titles that Adler has given to the book’s five parts point towards Aristotle’s critical role in development of the foundational principles of a philosophical system which examines the nature of man and his place in the world: “Man the Philosophical Animal,” “Man the Maker,” “Man the Doer,” “Man the Knower,” and “Difficult Philosophical Questions.”

To give readers a glimpse of Adler’s way of explaining concepts, here’s a view of the method by which he explains Aristotle’s “theory of four causes” in chapter 6. He begins the chapter by saying that the “four causes” are the answers that Aristotle gives to four questions that can and should be asked about the changes with which we are acquainted in our common experience.

The four questions are:

1. What is it going to be made of?
2. Who made it?
3. What is it that is being made?
4. What is it being made for?

After a description of the background and significance of the four questions, he summarizes the four causes in these simple terms:

1. Material cause: that out of which something is made.
2. Efficient cause: that by which something is made.
3. Formal cause: that into which something is made.
4. Final cause: that for the sake of which something is made.

Adler uses examples throughout the book to explain the specific philosophical points that he is talking about. But he completely avoids the use of technical language—even a common Greek word like “eudaimonia” does not feature in the book. In the Epilogue, Adler, who is well known as an indexer of great ideas, offers a lengthy list of sources in Aristotelian corpus from which he has drawn for his book.

In my view, reading Adler's Aristotle for Everybody is worth the effort that one may put into it.


Roger Bissell said...

Anoop, there are various ways to do a four-cause analysis. What you have cited here is Adler's doing a four-cause analysis of the EFFECT of a change, the RESULT of a process. My own understanding of causality is that it is the relationship between an entity and its actions, rather than the results of an entity's actions. So, I like to think of Efficient cause as that which is doing something, Material cause of those conditions within which it is doing something, Formal cause as the powers/attributes by virtue of which it is doing something, and Final cause as that for the sake of which it is doing something.

Anoop Verma said...

Roger, I think your explanation of the four causes is very pertinent in the article on Free Will: Where There’s a Will, There’s a “Why”

The entire section on the four causes in your article is very interesting.