A Study in Practical Philosophy

Paul G. Cressey

A Review of Mortimer J. Adler's "Art and Prudence"

DURING the past season a book has been published which will be of interest to many of those concerned about the motion picture. It is entitled Art and Prudence; a Study in Practical Philosophy and is written by Mortimer J. Adler, associate professor of the philosophy of law at the University of Chicago.[1] The book is an outgrowth, apparently, of a report upon "recent empirical investigations" concerning the influence of motion pictures upon human behavior which, as the author says in the Preface, he was asked to make by "representatives of the motion-picture producers." The original report is presented in this book in "a somewhat extended form," as the substance of the tenth and eleventh chapters; and, along with a preceding and a succeeding chapter of epistemological comment and of critical summarization, it constitutes the second of the three sections into which the book is in reality divided. The first section includes a long survey of philosophic thought regarding the arts — especially the drama, a briefer social history of the drama, and a critical philosophical analysis of "The Contemporary Issue" and "The Need for Knowledge." The third section deals with the aesthetics and the techniques of the cinema. To the extent that these three disparate sections have actually a unifying theme throughout the 676 pages of the book, it is found in the author's enthusiasm for Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas and his attempt to apply their philosophy to motion-picture problems.

This book makes a contribution in that it formulates practical suggestions by which one may think out a solution to the issues which often arise in the conflict between autonomous art and the necessities of social control. A body of valuable information regarding the technical and aesthetic aspects of the cinema is also furnished in the last part of the book. But throughout the book, unfortunately, the reader's acceptance or rejection of what the author has to say will be predicated largely upon his willingness to accept the particular absolutist system of philosophy which the author imposes upon his treatment of each problem. Mr. Adler's contribution is further weakened by his lengthy and pompous exposé of philosophic doctrines, his obvious and frequent contradictions, and, mostly, by his unmistakable and vocal prejudice against social science which cannot but make him an unfair

( 320) judge of the work accomplished by social scientists and psychologists. This undoubtedly must be the explanation for the caustic and unphilosophical comments the author makes concerning some of the personalities connected with the "Payne Fund Studies."[2]

The book's title, Art and Prudence, signalizes the point of view with which in the first two hundred pages the author approaches the motion-picture problem. He states that the cinema, though a new art and the product of a modern invention, has inherited the problems of the other arts: the problems of aesthetic values and expression, as well as those ethical problems which are everywhere implicit in the maintenance of an autonomous art as a part of any social or moral order. This conflict between art —here conceived as the fine arts — and "prudence," which at one point he describes as the "habit of commanding action in the light of knowledge," is the vantage point from which he would invite his readers to view motion-picture problems. This approach is further dramatized through his citation and frequent use of Jacques Maritain's conception of prudence and the prudent man. "The prudent man," says Adler, is one who "judges all things from the angle of morality and politics, "who " judges the work of art only in terms of its consequences and not in terms of itself." "Aesthetic and political criticism," he asserts, "are independent of each other; but art is nevertheless properly subject to the extrinsic considerations of morality and politics and religion. These considerations require prudence."[3] In this way Adler is able to construct,. and set in opposition to the artist, ba. b"prudent man;" and it is to this idealization that he refers most of his questions of fact and opinion as to what should be done about the movies.

AT HIS best when he is discussing the importance of prudence in any social action which might be undertaken regarding the motion picture, Mr. Adler stresses the importance of knowledge, especially where the testimony of "the man of experience" as well as "common opinion" is found to be contradictory. "The need for prudence," he says, "depends upon the inadequacy of our knowledge." Following Maritain, he maintains that any regulation of an art which requires a "violating" of the artist's workshop is "clearly unwise," because "it engages the prudent man in matters exceeding his competency." It is better, the author continues, to kill an art than to choke or mangle it. If it is allowed to live, it should be granted the freedom indispensable to its vitality and vigor. But to grant an art freedom in its proper domain . . . does not mean that it should be allowed to run wild in the community. It is proper for the prudent man to supervise the ways in which works of art reach their audience, to say, not what shall be made, but what shall be received and by whom and under what conditions.[4]

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In this way the author successfully resolves his problem in dialectics and finds a philosophic basis for opposing censorship or regulation at the seat of the industry in Hollywood.

The author recognizes, however, that situations may develop which require some degree of regulation, and that these may call for action even though only inadequate or uncertain knowledge is available for guidance. In such circumstances the author argues not only that the regulation should be applied exclusively at the point where the art reaches its audience, but that it should proceed in such a way as to provide as satisfactorily as possible a balancing of "negative and positive values." "If opinion is conflicting and uncertain, and if scientific evidence is either not available or no more certain and unambiguous than opinion . . . the prudent man should seek to do what he can to increase the benefits of a particular art and to minimize the undesirable consequences." For, as Adler observes, "action rather than inaction could only be prudently desirable if it promised a favorable balance of benefit, that is, if the prudent man felt assured that by some type of regulation he could minimize the unfortunate influences of the art without impairing or destroying its contribution to human welfare."[5]

It is in some of these simple yet practical suggestions for thinking out such problems as the balancing of the beneficial and the presumedly detrimental in the motion pictures that Adler will be found by active workers

in community programs for better movies to have made some contribution. Thus, in this instance, Adler continues with the questions which a prudent man must answer as follows:

Is the given plan of action expedient in the sense that it will accomplish the end desired? ... Is the plan expedient in the sense that it will not at the same time defeat other ends, by impairing or destroying, for instance, the moral and social benefits of the art being considered? . . . Is the plan expedient in the sense that it does not have other undesirable consequences, political or economic, even though it would be profitable to pursue with regard to the balance of positive and negative values to be derived from the art in question for example, the undue increase of bureaucracy?[6]

These formulations, though simple enough in themselves, do add something to the available literature upon the cinema, and have the added advantage of being among the few points made by the author in the first half of the book which may be found of value by those not willing to accept in toto Adler's special interpretation of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and of Aristotle.

THE book also contains the only extended exposition of the popular theory that the cinema serves as catharsis, as a "purging"of the spectator's emotions. The author's account of "purgation" through the cinema is given as a part of his lengthy development in the early chapters of the thesis that, stemming from Plato and Aristotle, respectively,

(322) there have been evolved through the centuries two opposing schools of thought regarding the drama, one repressive and "puritanic" and the other "liberal," and that this cleavage is now reflected in the controversy over the motion picture. In support of the "liberal" position regarding the drama, Aristotle's views upon purgation and catharsis, as reported in his Poetics, are cited and interpreted in the light of recent scholarship;[7] and, in a later chapter, their significance for the motion picture today is considered. The drama is seen as an "imitation of human actions"; and this "imitation" is viewed as existing "in proportion as a maximum of similarity is combined with a maximum of difference." Concerning purgation, the author is uncertain and finally concludes that the mystery of "how art purges the passions" is "the mystery of imitation itself." Adler is no more convincing regarding the evidence upon "purgation" at the cinema. He offers no objective evidence or data of any kind. He concedes that purgation may fail if there is "too much" or "too little" excitement; that children, because of insufficient "psychic distance," may have their passions aroused rather than assuaged by the movies; and that the motion pictures "are much more likely to fail in their purgative function for children" than for adults. At the end Adler appears to conclude that the efficacy of purgation is a "difficult question of fact," and that its effectiveness can be neither proved nor disproved. We are left with our theory very much as we found it, but with the knowledge that Adler as well as Aristotle has speculated upon it.

IT IS, however, to the author's critical examination of recent motion-picture research, made by him at the request of representatives of the motion-picture producers, that attention is inevitably directed. It must be noted, first of all, that Mr. Adler in fulfilling this assignment has allowed himself certain extraordinary privileges. Instead of assuming in these chapters the scientific role of objectivity, detachment, of dispassionate search after truth, it must be recorded that frequently his appraisal departs from this standard, and, instead, becomes wroth and exceedingly personal —even abusive. Instead of maintaining consistently and exclusively the ideal of scientific objectivity, it must be reported that time after time he steps out of this role of scientific inquiry to cite Aristotle or St. Thomas as a basis for criticism of a specific study; or to condemn the moral havoc wrought by sociologists upon college campuses and to inveigh against some as "anti-religious," "anti-moral," or "anti-Christian." In a preparatory chapter of epistemological comment which immediately precedes his critical examination of research, the author's tendency to use classical authorities as irrefutable evidence in evaluating research is more fully revealed. Here he cites St. Thomas– line and chapter – upon freedom of the will and the existence of human reason as ipso facto evidence – incontrovertible in itself – that social science must always be

( 323) "much more like opinion than natural science," and that any voluntary and "rational" act can only be caused by Divinity. "Inhuman behavior," Adler writes, "reason is the first cause, and . .. operation of the will as rational appetite is uncaused except by God. Only Divine Providence is compatible with the freedom of the will."[8] An energetic exponent of neo-classicism in philosophy, the author has not been able to refrain from its advocacy even while undertaking what was presumed to have been an objective and dispassionate evaluation of research work.

The actual effect of this has been to multiply Adler's resources for an apparent criticism of the Payne Fund research. For, when legitimate means for unfavorable criticism have failed him at any point he has been able, by a quick change of rôles, to appear with other arguments which, though convincing to some of his readers, are founded not at all upon the canons of either experimental or descriptive social research and are, in fact, totally irrelevant. Thus, by adopting momentarily his own Thomistic premises, he has seemed to put the research men of the "Payne Fund Studies" at a disadvantage by condemning them for not having done what they never claimed to do—follow unequivocally in the philosophic teachings of St. Thomas. Or, in still a different rôle, he has been able to divert attention from the weakness of his criticisms by sudden blasts of invective and insult against certain of these men. In this the author has found it possible to do something entirely out of keeping with the spirit of St. Thomas and, actually, to substitute the devices of the courtroom advocate for a critical and dispassionate evaluation of the research, based exclusively upon commonly accepted tenets of scientific method.

Illustrations of this extraordinary lapse upon the part of Mr. Adler are to be found throughout his chapters devoted to a review of motion-picture research, but space will permit but one citation, this taken from the midst of a critical review of one of the "Payne Fund Studies." In this there is revealed both his disposition to divert the issue and an astonishing ignorance of what sociologists seek to connote by the term mores.

The attempt to equate the mores with morality is merely one expression of the rebellious anti-moral teaching of contemporary sociology and anthropology. ... But the failure of a great tradition to sustain its intellectual posture is disheartening. . . . Christianity facing the current instance of the traditional problem of the arts in society is unembarrassed to cite researches that rest upon assumptions utterly opposed to its most fundamental truths. '. . . Yet in their preoccupation with what is comparatively a minor practical problem, contemporary church-men, moralists and reformers have found heretics congenial and have tolerated sophists. . . . If the truths of Christianity and the truths of Greek philosophy, which gave rational articulation to Christian doctrine, are to be defended against contemporary liberals . . . how much more important it is to defend philosophy and Christianity from sociologists and educators like Dr ____ I do not know whether the movies through influences more or less indirect corrupt youth . . . but I do know, without the aid of research, that the profoundly anti-

( 324) moral and anti-Christian teaching of Professor _____ does corrupt youths.... The sophistical teachings of social science are terribly successful, if we can judge by the prevalence of the point of view .. . in social science.. . No art, no matter how bad, could be so directly evil in influence as the kind of thinking and, ... teaching which Dr. ______ represents.[9]

MANY of the inconsistencies and contradictions which are to be found throughout this book are to be explained not only by the author's disposition to interchange his roles but also by his amazing ignorance of the social sciences, especially sociology, and by his very evident prejudice against them. The following is excerpted from but one of the six or seven points in the book where the author departs from his discussion to level his guns at the social scientists.

One further comment must be made in regard to the charge that the movies are a source of misinformation and distorted notions of reality. The educators who say this are obsessed by a naïve realism which leads them to suppose that the sole aim of education is to bring the child into contact with the "realities" of the contemporary world. . . . They advocate an early introduction of courses in social science. . . It is unfortunately true that the intellectual content in such studies is slight and that their imaginative flights are crippled by a naïve adherence to the facts and nothing but the facts. But it is just as unfortunately true that there is as much untruth, as much distortion and unreality, in the history and social science which is taught as in the fairy stories and highly fanciful fiction which children will always read and love unless they are corrupted by schools into becoming social scientists at an early age. The proponents of this type of education are unable to understand that poetry is more philosophical than history, that fairy tales are more philosophical than social science. Should they ever get this insight, they would probably be even more insistent upon the elimination of literature, or would further debase it as a source of "factual" materials. . . . One might hazard the guess that Plato would be even less happy about the teaching of history and social science than he was about the poets. Such influence is more insidiously an obstacle ... because it is more deceitful . . . better able to fool the immature mind by its counterfeit of knowledge. . . . There was a rivalry in Greece between poets and philosophers; there is a rivalry today between the novel, the movie, fiction in general, and social science.[10]

And all of this diatribe and misrepresentation, it should be noted, is included not in a tract against social science, but as a part of what purports to be a critical and objective evaluation of the motion-picture situation and of recent research, in which a certain few sociologists, educators, and psychologists chanced to play a part.

The author's ill-mannered personal attacks upon certain of the research men and his gratuitous slaps at social science make it difficult to believe that his criticisms were not motivated by personal animosity and vindictiveness. At the same time it is possible to believe that some of his unmeasured Comments arise from his own inability or unwillingness to understand or to appreciate the sociological and the social psychological approach to human behavior and personality.

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This is strongly suggested in the fact that his elaborate classification of the various scholarly disciplines and their fields nowhere provides clearly for that point of approach to society and to human personality which we have come to know as sociology and as nonexperimental social psychology. Neither as a part of philosophy, nor as science, nor as one of his marginal disciplines does Adler entirely find a place for these points of view. Among his own marginal disciplines he sees psychology as "common to both philosophy and science" because in it uniquely man is "at once the subject and the object of knowing." Yet Adler is apparently unable to see that the study of man in those social experiences, through which —among other things— he gains humanity and cognition, has also its subjective and its objective aspects. And failing in perceiving this, he is unable to understand that a sociological or a social psychological study of the motion picture in its subjective aspects could justifiably be something other than an objective study of motion-picture effects and that it could appropriately include procedures other than those used in experimentation and mensuration.

It is partially for this reason, no doubt, that the author finds himself unable to perceive even a legitimate research interest in adventuring into a field of inquiry where it may be necessary for the investigator from time to time to report his "conclusions" as only "tentative" and "inferential." And for such a person the explanation that one's work is "exploratory" or "purely descriptive" can be little more than meaningless. Careful and critical qualification of one's inferences and tentative conclusions to such a mind can seem only additional evidence that the research in question was in some way unsound, mishandled, or misrepresented, and, in any event, that it, too, merited a full-rounded denunciation. It is also because of this same lapse on the part of the author that he is able so glibly to dismiss with a gesture the sociological conception of "the social rôle." This conception and all that is implicit in it, in this reviewer's judgment, has perhaps greater significance than any single contribution for an understanding of the fundamental nature of the motion-picture experience. Such a perspective when it is developed may not furnish Adler's prudent man with the precise information he would want him to have, but it will do something else: It will provide the author's prudent man with a conceptualization of the motion-picture experience which is in accord with all of the existing information and which, at the same time, is adequate in scope to make it possible for him to find in it an appropriate place for each unit of the mass of findings experimentalists and statisticians may later bring him.

ALTHOUGH space does not permit a detailed analysis of Adler's specific criticisms of the "Payne Fund Studies," it is necessary, in the interests of fairness, to point out that his attack is not so devastating actually as the tone of his writing and as some.

( 326) popular reports of his attack would seem to convey. Especially if it is remembered that these studies were undertaken as an extremely difficult type of investigation, in which some research procedures would necessarily be unperfected; and that some of these research men, knowing the difficulties, nevertheless adventured into problems of investigation for which only nonspecific methods of appraisal were available, these reports as a whole will not be found to have come out so badly— even at the hands of so obtuse a critic as Mr. Adler. As a matter of fact, a surprising proportion of space is devoted to his own particular kind of philosophic utterances, to moral condemnation of individual contributors, to petty quibbling over unimportant points which Adler himself later admits have little influence upon the ultimate finding of the study in question. But the most serious misrepresentation by the author is his attempt to discredit the scholarly work of certain men by citing their very words of cautious qualification and limitation as evidence of their incompetence. To cite these extensively as evidences of a miscarriage of the scientific ideal and method is the clearest case of misrepresentation. Actually, these words of qualification can serve only to demonstrate the critical caution of the research men — and so, in this particular, to disprove Mr. Adler's contentions.

If due allowance is made for the peculiarities in the personality and point of view of Mr. Adler, it will be noted that, despite his readiness to criticize, a majority of the published "Payne Fund Studies" have come out rather well. Indeed, if the author's criticisms are but limited to those which are founded exclusively upon accepted precepts of the scientific method — if all comments made in the role of a scholastic or a Jeremiah are excluded — three studies remain unassailed and two others at least are attacked only upon incidental points —points which do not fundamentally affect the nature of the conclusions. Thus, five out of the ten published studies are in no fundamental way challenged by Adler; where criticism of these is attempted his resort is to Thomism, his own special philosophic system, or to personal denunciation.

The author's major criticisms of a sixth study are based really upon an assumption that children as well as adults find their chief satisfaction in cinema attendance in "purgation," an assumption which this reviewer after some study of the problem seriously doubts and which even Adler at another place in his book admits is not so clearly revealed to speculative analysis. The two studies based upon the use of laboratory instruments in psychology are not basically criticized as to procedure, and fundamental disagreement is found only with the interpretation of their findings by the scholars sponsoring them. Since these psychologists in lectures and writings have often pointed to the problems entailed in correctly interpreting laboratory findings in the light of the subject's real experience at the time, Adler's criticisms or his championship of a different interpretation is neither surprising nor disconcerting. But here

( 327) the cautious and modest conclusions of the psychologists, in addition to the fact that these findings are strongly supported by the "expert opinion" which Adler has frequently extolled, puts the burden of argument upon the author. That children have sometimes been excessively excited by certain films or by a certain type of film, and that restless sleep has sometimes followed upon their seeing some movies, will not seem a surprising or an unexpected conclusion to most parents, teachers, or to other "men of experience." In the end, the critical and prudent public in interpreting these two studies is forced to choose between the construction given them by their sponsors, recognized scholars-specialists in these fields of psychological research, and the theoretic problems raised by a "neo-classicist" in philosophy who can be in no way a comparable authority in experimental psychology. Finally, the author's review of the two remaining studies is clearly disqualified by his demonstrated prejudice and enmity toward sociology, and by his amazing ignorance as to what would today be considered a sociological approach to the study of the cinema.

AFTER reading Adler's praise of Peterson and Thurstone's Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children, and Holaday and Stoddard's Getting Ideas from the Movies, one is not a little surprised to find the author concluding that the "scientific work that has been done is of little or no practical value to the prudent man" (p. 426). Admittedly, the three studies which the author does not criticize and the others to which he gives conditional approval do not furnish all the scientific knowledge which his prudent man would undoubtedly like to have. But, as the author has indicated, the prudent man is also a man of action and must often proceed with incomplete knowledge. In this instance he is not too meagerly equipped, even if his knowledge is limited to those "Payne Fund Studies" which Adler has conditionally accepted.

The prudent man knows now that the cinema is necessarily an agent of communication, supplying its patrons with a wide variety of ideas and general information — correct or incorrect — and that these tend to be retained to a surprising extent by both the mature and the immature. He also knows that attitudes of young people —at least high-school young people sampled in midwestern towns — tend to be affected by the motion pictures seen; that these changes in social attitudes tend to be in the direction of the values and stereotypes presented in recent films and that they tend to be retained over a considerable length of time. To be sure, the prudent man does not know with certainty the ultimate effect in social attitudes and information of the continuous impact of Hollywood photoplays upon either the immature or the mature. Contradictory social values presented frequently upon the screen, as Blumer has pointed out, make the ultimate effect uncertain —an inference which would seem to be supported by the inconclusiveness of the Shuttleworth

( 328) and May comparison of the social attitudes and conduct of groups of young people who attend the movies either frequently or infrequently; yet the fact remains that, no matter how selective and contingent its effect, the theatrical motion picture has, to some extent, been demonstrated to be an agency of informal education of rather high potency.

To argue that the theatrical film's incidental educational contribution cannot yet be admitted because these studies have so far failed to evaluate the effect of the motion picture in relation to the influence of home, school, and church, and because they did not establish a "simple cause and effect relationship " in character formation is simply to confuse the issue. These would be very valuable facts to know. In fact the social rôle of the motion picture, its interrelation with all other community forces in the individual's life is a point of approach which promises much and is one upon which much research is yet needed. But mensurable data upon the cinema's relative "influence" under various social situations are not required to establish the simple fact that for a large share of our people the cinema —whether it wishes to be or not —is an agency of informal education. Its educational impact may be found to be conditional upon each individual's special interests and values at the time; it may later be found to be greatest when certain other community forces are absent or when certain inadequacies are felt most keenly by the individual. But these could not nullify, but could only make more explicit the cinema's function in providing visual information as well as entertainment. This much, at least, Adler's prudent man has had established for him more incontrovertibly by the "Payne Fund Studies."


  1. New York: Longmans, Green and Company.
  2. New York: Macmillan Company.
  3. Adler, op. cit., p. 90. See Maritain, Jacques, Art and Scholasticism. (New York. Scribners, 1930, Chap. IX, Sec. 6). For other writing of this Roman Catholic philosopher, to whom Adler makes frequent reference, see also, Freedom in the Modern World (Scribners, 1936) and The Degrees of Knowledge (New York, Scribners, 1938).
  4. Ibid, pp, 449-50.
  5. Ibid., pp. 223 and 450.
  6. Ibid., p. 223-24.
  7. Alain, Jacques E. C. System des Beaux Arts.
  8. Adler, op. cit., p. 252
  9. Ibid., pp. 300-302.
  10. Ibid., pp. 175-77.

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