Mortimer Adler

Mortimer and Language (Part 1)

Adler, Mortimer, J.  Some Questions about Language: A Theory of Human Discourse and Its Objects.  La Salle, IL: Open Court Books, 1993.

It may seem weird that I’m reading a Mortimer Adler book.  Who speaks of Adler nowadays?  Not many people.  However, that is a foolish reason to avoid someone.  In any case, this text was brought to my attention by John Deely of late.  John had a massive and fiery falling out with Adler over this text.  They were collaborators, but (per John’s side of the story, at least) Mortimer would not listen to him on some critical issues pertaining to relation.  The fallout was fiery and brutal, as the letters between them provide ample evidence for nuclear disaster.  There are some limitations to the book, but I am going to post some passages that I mark (for the ol’ documentary / note trail).  You can feel John’s presence in many of these passages (though sometimes one also senses slight things that are “off”, given John’s work on Poinsot, which would have led him to greater precisions).  There are some excellent passages before what I am quoting here too.  The enemy of behaviorism is partially fought well here—though one would need to go further into the receptivity proper to knowledge in order to fill out Adler’s vocabulary.

You'll likely note that the language-specific quotations are a little thin in this section of citations; most of those points are better read in context, as they need long citations; however, some of the issues raised there are solved by remarks cited here below. 

“Hence, it follows that, whatever mode of being we assign to the objects which we apprehend by means of our ideas, it cannot be the kind of subjective existence that belongs to the ideas which are the products of our mind’s activity.  Nor can it be the mode of being which we speak of as existence in reality, for that which really exists is that which exists whether or not it is in any way apprehended or known by us.  Real existence is totally independent of the acts of the human mind; as, at the opposite extreme, the kind of subjective existence that belongs to ideas is totally dependent upon the acts of individual minds, the ideas that each individual has, existing in his individual mind and only there.

In between these two extremes of real existence and subjective existence, of existence totally independent of the acts of the human mind and existence totally dependent on the acts of an individual mind, what middle ground is there?  The answer which, though stated here, cannot be fully explicated until later (see Chapter IV, Question 3), employs an analytical term that has a certain currency in modern philosophical thought; namely, intersubjectivity.  [Deely wrote an article against him on this.  Ultimately, it would be better to make proper distinctions between intersubjectivity and supra-subjectivity.]  To say that the objects we apprehend and name are intersubjective is to say that they are one and the same object for two or more individuals, even though each individual apprehends them by means of his own subjective ideas, products of the acts of his own individual mind” (58).

“Here, suffice it to say that the germ of the solution lies in this: while a particular idea in the mind of one individual and a particular idea in the mind of another are, as existentially distinct, always two in number, they can be one in intention; that is, they can intend one and the same object, and make it present to the mind of two individuals” (59).

“Nothing should be called an object or regarded as having objectivity which is not capable of being an object common to two or more individuals.  There are no private objects, only public ones.  To speak of the ideas that each individual has privately in his own mind as the objects that he apprehends is a contradiction in terms, since ideas are subjective rather than intersubjective.  It is also a contradiction in terms to speak of the thing-as-such (the thing as it exists unapprehended) as an object” (60).  This latter point is important; he makes some important observations on how brute individuals are not what is meant by terms.

On 62-63, he makes some important points about the essentially relative nature of meaning / ideas.  However, he doesn’t parse all of this as well as the Baroque Thomist tradition did by carefully discussing the subjective/entitative conditions of knowing and the intentional nature of knowledge. 

An interesting way of remarking on syncategorematic words (e.g. “all”, “the”, “of”, “or”, “and”, etc.): “Another way of making the same point is to say that categorematic words name, signify, or refer to objects that we are able to apprehend, whereas syncategorematic words or linguistic operators signify the grammatical operations that we perform when we construct phrases or sentences and the logical operations that we perform when we construct propositions.  It is through our understanding of these operations that we understand the meaning of syncategorematic words.  To understand these operations is to understand how syncategorematic words are used, grammatically and logically.  Their meaning (or, more precisely, their syntactical significance) derives from an understanding of their use as linguistic operators” (72).

See 74 for a summary of his investigations regarding how meaningless notations acquire a meaning (the point of the chapter in question).

Very important: “The words ‘object’ and ‘thing’ are often used interchangeably, as when ordinary men or philosophers speak of this or that physical thing as a physical object…” (82)

It is interesting on p.83 to see him state that “entity” in a manner that is almost supertranscendental (applying to whatever can be thought of); Also, I recall Deely’s rage against all Thomists who speak only of the principium quo (principle by which) knowledge occurs—only the species impressa; Adler falls into this same manner of expressing himself.

Regarding intentional existence—Here, a full theory of relation, extrinsic causality, etc., would clarify matters even better: “It is a mode of existence that depends on there being some minds at work, but not on the acts of any particular mind.  If there were no minds at all in the universe, there would still be things having real existence, but there would be no apprehended objects.  If this or that particular mind were not in existence and operative, its subjective ideas would not exist, but there would still be objects apprehended by other minds” (88)  (Even better: related to a knower as known, i.e. as measure to measured.)

Here again is where his terminology is a little weak; if you lack a theory of relation, you could end up in nominalism right here.  Still, if we read him charitably, there is some importance in what is said; just add this caveat—“To exist intentionally means nothing other than to exist as the measuring terminus of a relation of measured to measure in the union of knowledge.” Okay, now Adler: “In view of the fact that ideas are natural signs which signify, refer to, or intend objects as their natural referents or significates, it would seem appropriate to speak of the mode of existence possessed by objects as intentional existence.  What was said earlier about subjective ideas (that they are meanings; that their very nature is to signify) can now be restated by saying that ideas are intentions of the mind.  Their intentionality consists in their having significates or objects.  Objects, as intended or signified, have intentional existence” (90).

Throughout, note that he also does make space for the relations of intentionality proper to the senses and the internal senses; he is not overly strong on the points, but it is clearly there at play.