On the recommended works by this author:
The Great Books [of the Western World] too will soon be available in e-book format, searchable and linked to the Syntopicon. They will be available through most libraries, we hope, as well as from from EB, by the end of the year.
Rather than a scheme to make a buck, a notion belied by Adler’s dependence on a book-a-minute publishing schedule and the enormous $60 million profits going to the non-profit University of Chicago, the Great Books were an extension of Adler and Hutchins’s life mission.
The DVD includes thirteen programs, each of them fourteen minutes in length, for a total of three hours of video. Each section includes Adler and Van Doren in a lively, candid discussion of the chapters of How to Read a Book, in which they discuss the importance of each concept and give examples of how it works in their own reading.
...Adler’s own risible contribution, the “Synopticon,” an absurd index to 102 “great ideas” that filled 2,248 pages and two entire volumes of the set...
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.
the publishers [of Great Books of the Western World] tried to make the set useful to buyers who didn’t really want to read it, devoting two volumes to the Syntopicon, a 2,428-page index listing the works’ allusions to 102 Great Ideas, from Angel to World. The ideas, like the texts, had some curious omissions: Hutchins testily complained to Adler, “[M]ost of my friends are interested in money, fame, power, and sex--I don’t see those in the 102 ideas. What are we going to do about those?” (In Adler’s defense, Wealth, Honor, Tyranny, and Desire were among the topical umbrellas.)
I think their results are respectable enough to use as a launchpad for further work, so I'm transcribing the topical breakdowns below. For example, although Dwight Macdonald criticised the Syntopicon as unreadable due to its condensed info-design, the economies of Internet publishing now make it practical to unpack all the references, which should be a big improvement. And Adler was strictly pre-cybernetic, so the whole system needs to be tweaked to accommodate that new model of mind.
Adler devised the idea of a grand index of the Great Ideas contained in the Great Books to make the set an educational force. [Robert] Hutchins was persuaded, and he allotted $60,000 dollars to the project that he hoped would be completed in two years.
The production of the Great Books of the Western World proved to be a much more labor-intensive task than Adler, Hutchins or [William] Benton anticipated. The two years lapsed into eight years and the $60,000 ballooned to over $2,000,000.
Complete with an introductory essay describing the history of each term, the Syntopicon alone took over seven years to produce at a cost of nearly $1,000,000.
The Syntopicon, writes Dr. Adler, is "a unified reference library in the realm of thought and opinion," and he compares it to a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Words and facts, however, can be so ordered because they are definite, concrete, distinguishable entities, and because each one means more or less the same thing to everyone. Looking them up in the dictionary or encyclopedia is not a major problem. But an idea is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people. There is a strong family resemblance between the dictionaries of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Webster, and Messrs. Funk & Wagnalls, but every man makes his own Syntopicon, God forbid, and this one is Dr. Adler's, not mine or yours.
On this author:
The press jumped at the novelty of young President [Robert] Hutchins acting as "Mr. Adler's straight man" in a course for freshmen. Visiting dignitaries often sat in on the class: actors Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Orson Wells attended sessions, as did Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post, but none caused quite the stir that Gertrude Stein did in 1934. Skeptical of the entire endeavor to teach the Great Books (she insisted that the classics could not be understood when read in translation), Stein led a session on Homer's Odyssey. Alice B. Toklas remembered that Stein gave the students more freedom than Hutchins and Adler normally allowed, enabling the students to "formulate their own ideas." But, according to Adler, Stein abandoned the Socratic method and "harangued [the students] with extempore remarks about epic poetry which she thought up on the spot, but which none of us, including Gertrude, could understand, then or in the years to come."
This certainty that one possesses such truths and that they can be demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction reminds me of a brief encounter with Mortimer Adler. He had compared me unfavorably to Justice Blackmun on the ground that I was a legal positivist while Blackmun was a natural law judge. I asked Adler why he thought judges were entitled to enforce the natural law. He said, “It doesn’t take long to learn.”
Mortimer Adler, president of the Institute for Philosophical Research, former professor of the philosophy of law at the University of Chicago, and author of The Idea of Freedom, talks to Wallace about conceptions of freedom, capitalism, socialism, and the American worker.
Memento Mortimer, by Ralph McInerny, First Things, November 2001
The Great Bookie: Mortimer Adler, 1902--2001, by Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard, July 23, 2001
Fusilier, Time, March 17, 1952
Other works online:
Reminiscences of Mortimer J. Adler on Jacques Barzun, by Max Weismann, The Jacques Barzun Centennial
How to Mark a Book by Mortimer Adler, Teaching Great Books, No. 1, 1999-2000
Mortimer J. Adler On The Constitution, interview by Bill Moyers, 1987
Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits (1977, 1987), Cambridge Study Center
Schooling Is Not Education, Cambridge Study Center
Invitation to the Pain of Learning (1941), Cambridge Study Center