Overview of Adams' Thought


E. M. Adams was an original thinker who broke with the conventional wisdom of his discipline, and, in many ways, his times.   He ranged widely over the many sub-fields of philosophy in critiquing modern Western civilization and developing a new conception of the philosophical foundations of civilization that has been regarded as profound and prophetic.

While at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1948, Adams became convinced of the truth of scientific naturalism, the idea that the modern, scientific worldview is adequate to account for all of reality, and for close to a decade he worked within a naturalistic framework to develop a philosophically adequate account of the mind and morality. 

By the end of the 1950s, however, he had come to believe that scientific naturalism led to inescapable intellectual problemsNaturalism couldn’t make sense of the mind and, even more important, it couldn’t make sense of morality.  Indeed, from within the worldview of scientific naturalism, life seemed drained of its meaning.  Confirmation of this conclusion seemed evident in the art and culture of the twentieth century for, as modern, Western civilization was shaped more and more by a naturalistic understanding of reality, the optimism, the spirit, the morale of our civilization dissipated.

As Adams saw it, the worldview of modern scientific naturalism makes reality one-dimensional.   For modern science, reality has the dimension of factuality, but it has no dimensions of value or meaning.   Modern science tells us what is the case and how it came to be in terms of naturalistic causes, but it eliminates the older humanistic idea that nature and history involve the working out of what ought-to-be, that there is a normative or teleological causality at work in the world.  (For Adams, as for many scholars, “humanistic” is not a synonym for “atheistic”, though the word is sometimes used this way in popular culture; rather, humanistic ways of thinking are grounded in a much richer conception of the powers found in the humanities.)  No longer do nature and history have an inherent meaning (as does a book).  Science has no need for God, the “author” whose meaning is written into the “texts” of nature and history.  How- and why-questions are no longer to be answered in terms of values, purposes, or meaning, but in the value-neutral terms of modern science.

Once Western Civilization accepted the naturalistic view of knowledge and the world, Adams argued, culture was “disturbed in its very foundations.”  Indeed, this constituted “the most radical revolution that has ever occurred in any society.”  The consequences of this change in worldview have been devastating: moral skepticism; a growing reliance on self-interest in guiding our private and public lives; the dissolution of community and fragmentation of our social life; alienation from nature; a declining faith in progress; and a threatening sense of the ultimate meaningless life—among others. 

Adams negative agenda was to demonstrate the incoherence of the one-dimensional, purely factual, world of scientific naturalism—which he believed to be both incoherent and culturally destructive.  His positive agenda was to work out the philosophical foundations of a three-dimensional humanistic world of factuality, meaning, and value that would intellectually support the human enterprise and nurture the human spirit.  This was the task that occupied him for a half century.  It proved to be a radical undertaking.

While Adams wanted to restore the legitimacy of humanistic civilization, he acknowledged that premodern cultures were often unjust and oppressive; he also recognized the tremendous scientific, economic, educational and moral progress of past several centuries.  He was an advocate of the major liberal causes of his day (civil rights, women’s rights, greater economic equality, and stronger international institutions).  He defended the right and responsibility of individuals to live their own lives; and he very much believed that progress comes about through education and reasoned reflection on the human condition. Indeed, he argued, in effect, for a kind of postmodern civilization: “What I advocate is not a return to any golden age of the past, but a dialectical movement toward some new humanistic cultural synthesis that will recognize and stabilize the real achievements of modern Western civilization, including our genuine materialistic and humanistic accomplishments, within a supporting unified world-view that will make possible continuing progress in human well-being.” 

Adams was too out-of-step with his discipline to be taken seriously by many philosophers, and he was too out-of-step with the temper of his times to gain a wide cultural voice.  He belonged to no official school of philosophical thought (though there is some resonance with process philosophy).   His originality, the sweep of his philosophical work, and the depth of his critique of modern Western civilization have led some to feel that he is a landmark figure in Western thought.  History, of course, will have the last word on that.  But his work deserves wide dissemination and careful study. 

A number of themes run through Adams’ philosophical work.  Here are very brief treatments of those themes, with links to more thorough treatments.

1) Civilization.  Adams argued that Western Civilization underwent a revolution between 1200 and 1700.  Classical Greek, Hebraic, and Christian cultures were essentially humanisticThe dominant way of making sense of the world in these cultures was to learn what reality required of us, what we ought to do.  Reality was understood to have a moral and religious dimension in terms of which people’s lives acquired meaning.  Modernity came about as a result of the great transformation that took place when materialistic needs (for power, wealth, and the material conditions of our lives) began to take priority over humanistic needs (for meaningful lives understood in moral, social, and religious categories).  Instead of “What ought I to do?” the dominant questions became: How can I get what I want?  How can I impose my will upon the world?  How can I manipulate, control, and exploit it for my own purposes?  In time this led to the cultural authority of scientific naturalism.  Adams argued, in turn, for a postmodern synthesis that incorporates the great advances of modernity, but within a humanistic philosophical framework.

2) Philosophy.  The task of philosophy, Adams argued, is to expose and critically analyze the presuppositions of lived experience, developing a comprehensive and integrated understanding of persons, culture, and world.  He contended that even the practice of science presupposes a conception of reason and knowledge that makes sense only within a humanistic understanding of reality.

3) Mind and Meaning.  Much of Adams early work in epistemology was directed toward showing that the mind cannot be understood in the categories of modern science.  The simple fact that we can make claims about the world, claims that may be true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, presents an unsolvable problem for scientific naturalism.  Science cannot make sense of minds or the dimension of meaning in reality.  The intentionality of sensory experience and our ability to reason both presuppose that there is a semantic (or meaning) dimension to reality.  Moreover, mental causality is normative; to reason is to be moved by the pull of the ought.

4) Values and Morality.  Perhaps Adams most striking contribution to philosophy was his claim that emotive experiences are perceptions of the normative state of reality.  For example, a pain is a perception that some part of our body is not as it ought to be; a desire is the perception that something is normatively required.  Of course, our emotive perceptions may be mistaken, just as our sensory experiences may be.  Morality is the reasoned assessment of our (often conflicting, sometimes mistaken) experiences of normative reality.  We are by nature moral beings, responsible for critically assessing our emotive or value experiences.  Adams was a value and moral realist; moral judgments can be (objectively) right or wrong.

5) Society.  Adams wrote extensively about moral, social and political issues—abortion, sexuality, the family, the military, war and peace, justice, democracy, human rights, and capitalism among them—often taking provocative positions.  He was particularly concerned to provide an adequate philosophical foundation for human rights; he was highly critical of the one-dimensional materialism that characterizes capitalism; and he argued that it is impossible to reconcile the military profession with moral autonomy.

6) God.   On a naturalistic view of the world, there is no way to explain how meaning and value came into existence.  Adams argued that they must be eternal properties of reality. To say that God exists is to say that reality has a normative structure, that there is purpose and meaning built into the universe. This is not an empirical claim, but a presupposition of the fact that we must make sense of the world in terms of meaning and value.  This is the foundation of his three-dimensional humanistic worldview.

7) The Humanities and Education.  Adams’s philosophical commitment to the categories of meaning and value led him to be a staunch supporter of the humanities as providing our most complete understanding of reality.  Unlike the sciences and much social science, the humanities employ the categories of meaning and value.  Consequently, they are of critical importance—not just for their contribution to personal enrichment, but because of their utility value in creating and nurturing a humanistic civilization within which persons can thrive.  Not surprisingly, Adams made higher education, the humanities, and philosophy, the points of leverage for creating a new postmodern, humanistic civilization.