Ideas are the Vocabulary of Thought

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 the 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 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 well as they can be understood, nor has everyone pondered sufficiently the questions raised by each of the Great Ideas. To think one’s way to some resolution of the conflicting answers to these questions is to philosophize.

How to Think About the Great Ideas aims to do no more than to provide some guidance in this process. We have limited the consideration of these ideas to an outline that will try to achieve three results for you.

First, it should give you a surer grasp of the various meanings of the word you use when you talk about the idea.

Second, the delineation of each idea should make you more aware than you normally are of questions or issues that you cannot avoid confronting if you are willing to think a little further about the idea, – basic ones, ones that human beings have been arguing about over the centuries.

Third, in the consideration of each idea, we are led to the consideration of other ideas. How does our understanding of truth affect our understanding of goodness or beauty? How does our understanding of what is good and bad carry us not only to an understanding of what is right and wrong, but also to an understanding of justice, and how does that affect our understanding of liberty and equality as well?

If we have succeeded in these aims, we will have helped you engage in the business of philosophy, which is everybody’s business not only because nobody can do much thinking, if any at all, without using The Great Ideas, but also because no special, technical competence of the kind that is imperative for the particular science and other special disciplines is required for thinking about The Great Ideas. Everybody does it, wittingly of unwittingly.

Mortimer Adler
How to Think About the Great Ideas
from the Great Books of Western Civilization


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