U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Constitutes a "Philosophical System"?

As a practicing intellectual historian with the good fortune of having an academic teaching post—with no summer teaching commitments—the last weeks of August can be wrenching in relation to one’s summer work. I’ve spent large chunks the past three months reading, researching, and writing—essentially on one very difficult chapter of my manuscript. Letting that go to get ready for classes has been tough. Poor me, I know. But I’m quite grateful for the privilege. This was my first summer of that kind after many years in the academy.

This wrenching has been especially tough because my ambitions were high: I had hoped to revise two dissertation chapters for my book manuscript. I thought the revision of my prior work was going to be easier—go faster. But it didn’t. So I’m trying to sort through the consequences, and make some hard decisions. What made the summer so tough?

My difficulty consisted of heavy background reading, drafting, redrafting, cutting, and parsing some tedious philosophical work. My human subject is Mortimer J. Adler [right], and I’m trying to understand a philosophical transition that took place in his life in the Sixties and early Seventies. This transition had important effects on how Adler viewed the role of the great books idea in society. My summer reading in his philosophical work from that period has presented a number problems, several of which I’ve been able to distill into a five-word question: What constitutes a philosophical system?

If you’re somewhat familiar with Adler, you might be wondering what was so hard? You probably associate his name with Thomism, neo-Thomism, Aristotelianism, neo-Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, or neo-Scholasticism. Several historians and oppositional contemporaries also called him a Medievalist in philosophy. More advanced observers know that Adler had affinities for realism or common-sense realism. I discussed some of the details of the latter in four posts this summer (began here and continued through July 30). Education researchers often associate Adler’s philosophy of education with a school of thought known as “perennialism.” Most proponents of great books programs, including those at prominent great books school or schools possessing those kinds of programs (Honors, etc.), fall within the perennialist school of educational philosophy.

As I pondered Adler’s thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, however, I found that the extensions of his common sense realism, or what Bennie R. Crockett called his “eclectic epistemology,” branch well beyond education (perennialist adherents are, by definition, restricted to educational thinking). In addition to education, Adler extended tenets of his thought to personal ethics, political philosophy, human rights, economics, social institutions, war and peace, religion, and even futurology.

I use the phrase “great books liberalism” to capture some of this larger thinking in my manuscript. Though I’m happy with that in the context of my book project, I’m unhappy with it in relation to Adler’s biography and his overall philosophical thinking. Indeed, I’m inclined to see the tenets of his thinking, his assumptions and applications, as the components of a larger system. For now I’m content to bounce between a number of shorthands—the “Adler Paradigm,” the “Adlerian System,” or the “Adlerian School”—for lack of any better, more lyrical, phraseology. “Adlerian School” probably has the most appeal, but I don’t want to over-emphasize the well-known educational applications of his thought.

But this raises a number of larger questions: When does someone’s philosophy, or philosophies, reach the quantitative and qualitative breaking point—holding forth sufficient complexity and multiple applications—where it transitions into a school of thought? Or, what constitutes a philosophical system? Must the creator designate her or his thought a system? Must one have followers who are practitioners? What if you build a school that few to no students attend? How much peer recognition must one have to be acknowledged a school of thought? Does eclecticism deny coherence? When can a historian declare the existence of a school?

I’m now convinced, in contrast with some other recent historians and observers, that Adler’s thought had sufficient peer respect, breadth, complexity, and coherence to be called a school of thought. And I’ll briefly argue for this in my manuscript, but I’m still interested in your thoughts. What’s the tipping point between having a philosophy and authoring a system? – TL

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I have been reading this blog as an interested outsider for some time, and I thought I’d chime in on this post as it connects to similar questions I sometimes have.

    Regarding “philosophical school” — In my own (philosophical, not historical) work, I am somewhat reticent about using the expression. For example, in my subfield sometimes philosophers will refer to “the Wittgensteinian school of philosophy of religion”, but I am critical of this classification as it blurs over salient differences among the philosophers in question (and about what the import is of Wittgenstein for philosophy of religion).

    As for use of the expression, two possibilities come immediately to mind: (1) a “philosophical school” is a traceable line of influence among philosophers, and (2) a “philosophical school” is a group of philosophers who possess a clearly demarcated common frame of reference about a particular subject matter. I am inclined to go with some iteration of (1) in my own work, but I can imagine possible uses of (2), especially in teaching.

    Regarding “philosophical system”, my inclination would be to say that only philosophers who explicitly include being systematic as one of their philosophical aims, or who belong to philosophical schools that aspire to systematic philosophy, should be interpreted as systematic. One might derive a system from a philosopher’s work, but I would hold that to be a creative endeavor on the part of the interpreter.

    I don’t have a sense as to how this interfaces with your own exploration of these issues, but this would be how I would approach these issues.

  2. “What’s the tipping point between having a philosophy and authoring a system?”

    Students? That’s a glib answer, I know, but I’ll elaborate by asking another question: Did Adler have students or acolytes to carry on his system. You pose the question in general terms by asking does a school require students, but you don’t answer it with regard to Adler (at least not here; perhaps you did in the series on Adler).

    I do think that’s necessary, if not sufficient. The big philosophical traditions live on because they reach beyond their creators, indeed are great traditions because they do that. Kantianism, Marxism, Platonism, Thomism, Cartesianism, Hegelianism. Of course, there are schools which get their names from the approach as opposed to their founder, but again, you can think of more than one practitioner who does it, for example, empiricism (Locke, Hume, Berkeley), logical positivism (Carnap, Ayer, Schlick), and ordinary language philosophy (Austin, Wisdom, Ryle).

    Beyond that, I think your question is interesting in philosophical terms, excuse the pun. I’m far from a historian of philosophy, but because of the sort of work I do I deal with a lot of philosophy and philosophers. From that perspective it seems to me that a lot of modern philosophy (and by that I mean philosophy since Descartes) has been founded on a conscious reaction against “systems,” especially of the sort of grand metaphysical apparatuses erected by the scholastics, which came to be seen as the Platonic Form of a philsophical system.

    Coincidentally enough I’m currently reading Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic and he goes on and on about how metaphysics is nonsense. Granted his book was a manifesto for logical positivism, and granted also that nearly everything he says (as he himself admitted later) was wrong, but that bias against “systems,” especially metaphysical ones, persists even now, I think. I’d say it’s one of the reasons for the antipathy “analytic” philosophy displays towards its “continental” rivals.

    So one thing I suggest you do, Tim, is think about whether you can or should use the terms “school” and “system” as synonymous. I’m not sure it’s a trivial distinction, and it may actually make a difference to how you wind up conceptualizing what sort of coherence you wind up imputing to the totality of Adler’s thought.

  3. Crap, I forgot to remove the second “wind up” from “imputing” after I added it to “conceptualizing.” I fail at writing school, and need a new system of editing.

  4. Thomas,

    Thanks for helping advance the conversation. I particularly appreciate the distinction between “philosophical school” and “philosophical system”—a distinction I was obviously blurring.

    I’m with you on (1) in relation to schools because, well, someone has to found the school; there has to be a first mover or movers. So I’m inclined to the “traceable line of influence” that your articulate. It’s easy to see this with my subject, though he clearly sets himself apart from his predecessors—and those predecessors are, in the main, 130-140 years out of vogue when he picks up their thought.

    I’m less with you on intentional vs. non-intentional systems. Though I agree that piecing together a system is a creative endeavor, I disagree in that that creativity lies _solely_ in the historian (or philosopher) looking retrospectively. My subject created a system, he just didn’t give it a name. And his system has concrete, if eclectic, historical roots. Indeed, that eclecticism inclines—nay necessitates—the giving of a name to that system. One can be unconsciously systematic, yes?

    – TL

  5. Varad,

    Thanks for the additions, as always. I like your energy and willingness to go the extra mile in a comment—as well as the occasional propensity for well-placed snark (or a pun). 🙂

    I’m with you, as you’ll notice in my reply to Thomas above, that I need to use ‘system’ and ‘school of thought’ more carefully. I think, in fact, that Adler’s thought comprised a system.

    On your “reaction to systems” thread, I agree with you—and Copleston and others (though you might not know you agree with Copleston). Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century realism, as well as the “ordinary language” movement within analytic philosophy, are both seen as reactions against the great (or flawed or over-rated) systematic idealisms of the nineteenth century (think Hegel’s dialectic—other examples will occur to you).

    In that sense, Adler’s propensity (to make this conversation more empirical, per your request) for common language and common sense is part of that larger movement against systems. You see the irony, however: I’m calling Adler’s eclectic neo-Aristotelian common-sense realism a system, “Adlerian thinking,” if you will, even as it reacted against the excesses of earlier systems.

    This matters to me, I guess…I think, because I like the idea of conveying a real sense of coherence and application across many different fields—applications Adler made, within his special thinking about common sense and common experience. And, it was all in conjunction with the American mid-century liberalism that respected individual freedoms, supported a mixed economy (i.e. welfare state), believed in a common culture, and advocated for continuous political reform with respect to the ideals of equality.

    – Tim

  6. Tim,

    Thanks for your response. The main thing that I want to allow for in my interpretive thinking is the fact that some philosophers are not systematic in their work while others are. My claim about when interpreters should or should not make such claims looks like it needs fine tuning. Perhaps alongside (a) explicit adoption by the philosopher of systematicity as an aim or (b) participation by the philosopher within a school of philosophy that has systematicity as an aim, (c) very strong textual evidence that the philosopher in question thought systematically would suffice. In the case of (c), the interpreter is describing explicitly what is implicit in the philosopher’s corpus (yet the system is there).

    Implicit systematicity may then be a result of unstated intentional effort on the part of the philosopher to achieve coherence across a body of work or unconscious motivation driving philosophical output; it leaves open the question regarding where the systematicity comes from. Claims deriving from (c) will be hypothetical, in a way that (a) and (b) will not be, but so long as the evidence for implicit systematicity is very strong, that should not tell against the claim.

  7. Tim,

    Clearly the “school” vs. “system” dynamic is important, given that you received two responses that both highlighted it.

    It’s possible I agree with Copleston, but if I do, I don’t know it, as you say. All I know about Copleston is that he was a Jesuit who wrote a long history of philosophy. I actually had more in mind the Cartesian reaction against scholasticism, and the Enlightenment repudiation of the “esprit de systeme” in favor of an “esprit systematique,” which had some of the same roots. That attitude is definitely there in the reaction againt Hegelianism, but how the earlier and later reactions connect, if at all, I can’t say. It’s funny, therefore, to watch Jonathan Israel try to establish Spinoza as the father of the Enlightenment when, even in Israel’s own depiction, Spinoza was the kind of system builder of the kind of systems the Enlightenment rejected.

    The lesson for me in all this is that I need to learn more about twentieth-century anglophone philosophy. I’ve encountered enough of the continental stuff, but the analytical stuff has never come my way. I’ve tried not to delve into philosophy proper as I get more into the philosophy of history, but I suspect that’s not going to work much longer.

    p.s. You’re welcome for the snark. As Andrew will attest, it’s one of my specialties.

  8. A suggestion from George Cotkin (he had trouble posting): “Take a look at the bulky volume by Randall Collins, THE SOCIOLOGY OF PHILOSOPHIES: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF INTELLECTUAL CHANGE. It is quite brilliant and wide ranging, but his notions about networks, coalitions and the like might help to explain why Adler is viewed in such a manner.”

  9. The Collins book, at least I found, is at first really exciting, and then comes to seem kind of unsatisfying. although i agree that it would help in thinking about what might constitute a school. It is at once a bit circular and, I think, is not very interested in what counts as philosophy, which is after all kind of big issue in precisely the sort of analysis he’s doing (although these are maybe issues that i’m going to have with lots of sociology). I do not mean to sound, or to be, dismissive, but i’m not sure that his framing of any given milieu would survive contact with specialists, never mind be productive for them.

    randomly, french philosopher jacques bouveresse lectured on this topic (what is a philosophical system) in 2007-2008 at the college de france. the recordings are available:

    i wonder if system, and systematicity, might usefully be described in terms of continuity in vocabulary? as opposed to ‘coherence’ or something. this would maybe be useful given, as has been mentioned, the degree to which ‘system’ became a term of abuse in 20th century anglophone philosophy.

  10. There is a distinction to be made between “ideology” and “philosophy.” Most people mean the former but use the latter. I really do not mean this to be pedantry, but I do think it is a bit of a problem. Ideology ideology deals with the beliefs and faiths of a the members of a society, whereas philosophy has more to do with exploring meaning, truths, and the values that might underlie beliefs. I also think there is less room for discussion in “ideology,” because it is more of a doctrine, more dogmatic, and therefore less democratic. Philosophy welcomes input and arguments. Ideology? You wind up in Siberia.

  11. @Eric: Understood on the Collins book. I’m still intrigued, but it sounds like a history of intellectual work rather than a history of philosophy. Thanks for the Bouveresse reference. I checked it out, but the lectures are in French and, well, I can only _read_ that language in a rudimentary fashion. Finally, the term you might be looking for is systematism (“adherence to a system or systems,” according to my handy *American Heritage College dictionary). Systematism is, in my opinion, a combination of continuity of vocabulary and some kind of minimal coherence across the fields about which the philosopher speculates (some common tenets, not just words, that inform her/his basis of systematizing).

    @Rachel: Are saying that a ‘philosophical system’ is really an ‘ideology’ (e.g. “just” an ideology—a dishonest, incomplete system that lacks nuance)?

    – TL

  12. has anyone yet suggested that you’ve got a philosophical system when all, or at least most, the main bits, depend on one another? i’ve been reading benedetto croce, and this is how he treats it: you either agree or not, quibbling with the details is dangerous, and tends to destabilize everything?

    the bouveresse was possibly gratuitous, but the title at least is *perfect*.

  13. Eric: Not yet. But I’m not sure I agree with that (from Croce). A system might have a hierarchy of tenets, assumptions, and axioms. A system constructed in such a way could take multiple hits, destroying sections, but still remain a valid system if its core, base tenets remained intact. In other words, only a weak system would suffer a mortal wound from quibbling with any one tenet. In other words, it would be a house made of sand. – TL

  14. At the risk of suffering the same fate as Thersites, I humbly engage in this discussion over one of my favorite thinkers. I am excited to hear that Dr. Adler is the subject of your studies and look forward to the end product. I am a high school history and philosophy teacher who has used many of Dr. Adler’s essays. I am particularly fond of two – An Invitation to the Pain of Learning and Education and the Pursuit of Happiness, both of which I have used with my students to engage in conversation over the importance and role of education in their lives and society in general. I am very interested in your systematizing of Dr. Adler’s philosophy and agree with your statement above that though he may never have set out directly to do so himself, he still articulated a system that many of his adherents have pushed forward, though nameless it may be. I am not as familiar with his works outside of education so I am unable to respond intelligently to anything beyond Dr. Adler’s perennialism. Good luck with your endeavor – I look forward to possibly using it as a source in my classes.

  15. Robert: Welcome aboard! There are no (literal) Thersites here (nor Agamemnons nor Odysseuses); only those that might exist as a metaphor in our writings. Even a claim on Adler’s education works is not insignificant—especially when you factor his Paideia-related writings from the 1980s. All in all, the familiarity you mention spans five decades, with some lulls between the high points. Here’s a post of mine from here you might find provocative. You will see that I am something of a revisionist in relation to the “popular” memory of Adler’s work. – TL

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