Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon

This photo cracks me up:

It’s from this NY Times book review:

In “A Great Idea at the Time,” Alex Beam presents Hutchins and Adler as a double act: Hutchins the tall, suave one with a gift for leadership; Adler “a troll next to the godlike Hutchins,” with a talent for putting students to sleep. Making the acquaintance of Hutchins through his works was, to Beam, “like falling in love.” By contrast, “to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” As an appendix to the Great Books, Adler insisted on compiling a two-volume index of essential ideas, the easily misspelled Syntopicon. A photograph in “A Great Idea at the Time” shows Adler surrounded by filing-cabinet drawers, each packed with index cards pertaining to a separate “idea”: Aristocracy, Chance, Cause, Form, Induction, Language, Life and so on. The cards registered the expression of those ideas — Adler arrived at the figure of 102 — in the Great Books of the Western World.

Ah, the Great Books and the Great Ideas.  I like the Great Books myself, some of them anyway, and have a residual respect for freshmen core curricula (I did a program of that sort myself), but the photo could not be more perfect as a representation of self-satisfied mid-20th-century academic pomposity.

The review also cites Joseph Epstein as commenting that Adler “did not suffer subtlety gladly.”

I just saw an interesting presentation on Digital Humanities and text tagging, and Adler’s cards struck me as a early manifestation of a similar urge; you have to figure this guy would’ve killed to be able to create a searchable/mappable online database of the 102 Great Ideas.

Here’s a funny clip from a t.v. interview with Adler explaining how he can read 10 books in one day — if by “read,” you mean “inspect them” and “put them on [your] bookshelf for future reference”:

3 thoughts on “Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon”

  1. Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins’ pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy

  2. That’s just not a fair comment, because he clearly explains the distinction between going through 10 books quickly to note their general substance and, on the other hand, spending 10 days on one book to absorb it thoroughly. I’ve bone both, of course, as have many others. Adler’s range of thought was very wide and impressive, and Hutchins and Adler were two complementary friends, and while I agree Hutchins had more wit and charisma, Adler was quixotically wide-angle and systematically analytic.

  3. One might argue that arriving at 102 topics as central to Western thought shows a neurotic need to categorize (and thereby control) the external world. (There is an obvious parallel with Disney’s career, especially towards the end). It is also my understanding that Adler selected particular works in part because readers would return for further study. They aren’t supposed to be read “all the way through”.

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