A Glossary Of Terms

Below is a list of terms commonly found in philosophy texts and other scholarly works. Some are esoteric and rarely seen ('adscititious,' 'deipnosophist'); others are more frequently employed and contextually significant.

absolute -- 1. that which can exist on its own without depending on other things. 2. in ethics, the view that moral truth exists independently of cultural context and time and place ("moral absolute"); cf. moral relativism.

absolutism -- in political philosophy, the view that absolute rule is the most desirable, or the least inadequate.

adscititious -- not inherent or essential, derivative.

a posteriori -- reasoning from particular facts to general principles or conclusions; inductive, empirical. [ Latin, "from the posterior".]

a priori -- 1. reasoning from general propositions to particular conclusions; deductive. 2. an assertion made before examination or substantiation. [Latin, "from beforehand".] A priori knowledge exists independently of direct experience; e.g., one needn't draw a hundred parallel lines to know that they never intersect one another.

agathism -- the doctrine that all things tend towards ultimate good, as distinguished from optimism, which holds that all things are now for the best. adj., agathistic. [From the Greek agathos, good.]

agnosticism -- the belief that one cannot know whether God exists or does not exist. An agnostic may or may not believe in God, but in any case feels that there is insufficient proof to hold fast to either view. Cf. atheism.

animism -- the belief that objects are inhabited by spirits, and that natural events or processes are caused by spirits.

anthropomorphism -- the ascription of human characteristics or motives to inanimate objects, natural phenomena, or supernatural things. Many major religious systems -- among them Judaism and Christianity -- share anthropomorphic qualities. An example is the belief that human beings are "made in God's image," or that God is a personal deity sensitive and responsive to human need and pain, or more commonly, that God is an elderly man with a long gray beard sitting somewhere in the sky on his celestial throne.

anthropopathism -- the attribution of human feelings and emotions to anything not human; e.g., inanimate objects and animals.

anthroposophy -- a theory advanced by Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) contending that the spiritual realm can be understood through the exercise of human intellectual faculties. Knowledge of "higher worlds" is possible according to this view.

apocalyptic -- of or pertaining to religious revelation or to momentous spiritual occasions. From the Greek, meaning "uncovering".

apodictic -- incontrovertibly true; demonstrably so, certain.

apollonian -- having the classical beauty and strength of Apollo as opposed to the emotionally volatile and romantic attributes of Dionysus. The Apollonian/Dionysian -- or classicist/romanticist -- distinction is one of which many philosophers have made use since Hellenistic times. It was drawn upon by Nietzsche, for instance, in The Birth of Tragedy; the Apollonian was depicted as critical, rational, logical; the Dionysian as intuitive, creative, artistic.

archetypes -- 1. an original model or prototype. 2. the quintessence or ideality of something. 3. in Jungian psychology (Carl Jung, 1875-1961), symbolic representations of established ways of responding to certain types of experience, contained in the collective unconscious.

Arianism -- a heretical doctrine associated with the teachings of Arius, an Alexandrian priest of the fourth century who taught that God created from nothing (ex nihilo) and begot a Son before He created all other things. The Son of God, according to Arius, was divine but not equal to God. This doctrine was condemned as heresy at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). The official Church teaching at Nicaea was that Jesus and God are consubstantial, of one and the same substance.

Aristotelianism -- of or pertaining to the philosophy of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), among the greatest philosophers who ever lived. Aristotle made prodigious contributions to the understanding of biology, epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and politics.

associationism -- a theory of knowledge propounded by thinkers such as Condillac in France and James Mill in England which holds that nearly all thought processes are governed by association (e.g., cause and effect, resemblance and difference, contiguity). Associationism has influenced the modern theory of conditioning and learning; it is opposed by those who believe the mind can freely create arbitrary images.

ataraxia -- a tranquil and calm state of mind.

atheism -- the belief that God does not exist.

Atman -- in Hindu religion, the individual soul, in contrast to Brahman.

atomism -- the theory, as set forth by philosophers such as Democritus, that physical objects consist of minute, indivisible particles moving in a void.

attribute -- in Spinozistic philosophy (Benedict Spinoza, 1632-1677), one of the infinite aspects of Reality, such as matter or thought.

Averroism -- the philosophical system of Averroes, an important medieval philosopher and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas (see Thomism). Averroes denied the immortality of the soul but thought reason to be eternal and transcultural.

axiology -- the study of values and the nature of value judgments.

axiom -- a statement that is true by definition or so obviously true that it needn't be proved. In logic, an assumption used as an unquestioned basis for a theory.

behaviorism -- a psychological theory that stresses the importance of studying overt behavior and denies the legitimacy of introspective reports of consciousness. Behaviorists see mental activities (emotions, dreams, pains) as having no scientific value.

Brahman -- in Hindu religion, the power that sustains the cosmos and the soul (atman).

Buddhism -- a religion of various sects (e.g., Zen, Mahayana) founded sometime in the 6th century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama (the Enlightened One) which teaches that suffering is part of existence and that the extinction of separate consciousness is prerequisite to enlightenment. (Useful commentaries on Buddhism can be found in the highly regarded works of Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts.)

Calvinism -- a religious offshoot of Protestantism known for its doctrine of predestination (the idea that every individual is predestined to either damnation or salvation).

categorical imperative -- in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a moral law or command not dependent on any conditions; a rule enjoining us to act so that we could will our act as a universal maxim.

Catholic -- the official title of the Western Church after the rift between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches. [from the Greek, meaning "universal"]. 

Catholicism -- the religion of Western Christianity up to the Reformation; the religion also of the Church of Rome.

causality -- the theory that every event has a rational cause. Aristotle identified four causes to everything: material, formal, efficient, and final.

coherence theory of truth -- the theory that a statement is true if and only if it coheres with a given system of statements or beliefs.

collective unconscious -- in Jungian psychology (Carl Jung, 1875-1961), the part of the unconscious that contains symbolic representations, or archetypes, of ancient ways of thought inherited from humanity's past experience. 

contingent -- a proposition whose truth depends on facts about the world, not on the rules of logic. In modal logic, all true propositions that are not necessary are contingent.

contradiction, law of -- first put forth by Aristotle, the axiom that nothing can both have and not have a given property or characteristic.

cosmology -- the study of the origin and structure of the universe.

cynicism -- 1. a Greek school of philosophy originally based on the doctrine that nothing can be known. In the Roman era cynicism became an ethical doctrine emphasizing the need to live an austere, abstemious life. 2. more recently, the view that people act in ways to further their own ends and self-centered ambitions.

deipnosophist -- one who speaks learnedly at the dinner table; from a work by Athenaeus, Deipnosophistai, written in 228 A.D.

deism -- the belief that there is a God whose existence can be apprehended without revelation. Cf. agnosticism, atheism, and theism.

determinism -- the theory that all events (including mental ones) are caused, so that whatever happens cannot happen otherwise. Determinism is opposed to the theory of free will, which holds that human choice is active and unconstrained.

dialectic -- 1. the art of testing whether assertions are valid or not. 2. In Hegelian philosophy, a kind of logic that proceeds from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. [from the Greek, "pertaining to debate".]

dialectical materialism -- in Hegelian and Marxist theory, the view that the world is a material process undergoing stages of unending change.

dogmatism -- a theory or belief system unsusceptible to critical questioning and doubt; a dogmatist is one who holds unflinchingly to an idea in the belief that such an idea is infallible.

dualism -- 1. a theory opposite to monism, holding that reality consists of two substances (e.g., mind and matter, body and soul). 2. in Platonic metaphysics, the belief that human being consists of soul and body, the latter being a prison in which the formerly all-knowing soul resides. 3. a theory running contrary to monotheism, holding that supernatural reality is of two forms, the one good and the other bad; Manichaenism is one such dualistic religious view.

ecumenism -- a movement providing worldwide unity among religions through cooperative understanding. [ecumenical, from the Greek, "of the inhabited world."]

elements -- basic components or constituents of things; Aristotle recognized four: fire, water, earth, air.

empirical -- based on observation and experiment rather than pure reason; inductive.

empiricism -- the epistemological view that all knowledge is grounded in experience and direct observation, and not what's in our mind a priori. Eminent empiricists include Locke, Berkeley (pronounced Barkley), Hume, J.S. Mill and Bertrand Russell.

entelechy -- the inner nature of something which is responsible for its ultimate development and fulfillment. In Aristotelian philosophy, entelechy is seen as form, as distinguished from matter.

Epicureanism -- school of Greek philosophy (Epicurus: 341-270 B.C.) based on the belief that there are no divine laws and that wisdom consists in the pursuit of rational pleasures; the forerunner of modern utilitarian moral philosophy.

ethics -- the theory of good and evil, of conduct which is right and wrong; the branch of philosophy dealing with moral principles and their methods of justification.

fatalism -- the doctrine that each person's destiny lies beyond any individual effort to change it.

first cause -- the beginning of an elaborate series of causes, often identified with God.

free will -- the freedom of conscious choice of moral agents, irrespective of the significant influence of genetic endowment, environment, and cultural circumstance.

hedonism -- in moral philosophy, the doctrine that 'good' is that which contributes to pleasure or diminishes pain. The most influential of classical hedonistic philosophers was Epicurus; more recent hedonistic philosophies include those of the utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill among them).

idealism -- in metaphysics, the view that ideas or thoughts are the chief, organizing reality, as against the views of materialism, which holds that matter is the primary reality of the universe. The most popular and enduring idealistic philosophy is Platonism.

intuitionism -- in ethics, the view that people have an innate sense of right and wrong.

logic -- the study of proper reasoning, of valid and invalid arguments, of fallacies and syllogisms. Usually broken down into formal logic and informal logic.

maieutic -- see the Socratic Method.

materialism -- the doctrine that matter is the only, or primary, reality, as opposed to idealism, which contends that ideas and thoughts of things are the only reality.

metaphysics -- the study of being in its largest sense; an inquiry into the ultimate reality. [Literally, "beyond physics".]

monism -- 1. In Greek philosophy, the theory that everything is made out of the same basic stuff (e.g., the atomistic philosophy of the Ionians); the theory that there is literally only one thing (the Eleatic monism of Parmenides and his disciples). 2. The rejection of dichotomies, such as those of 'mind' and 'matter'. Examples of monist theories are materialism and idealism.

moral relativism -- The view that values differ across cultures and societies and are not universally "true" in all places and for all time. The opposite of moral absolutism

naturalism -- the doctrine that reality is governed by certain laws, including those of cause and effect.

nihilism -- 1. the view that nothing can be known, that knowledge is illusory, meaningless, or irrelevant; the denial of any objective ground of truth. 2. the view that moral values and perspectives are groundless and cannot be justified, either by appeal to God and tradition or by appeal to the human conscience, intuition, or the laws of a state. 3. the belief (e.g., of Nietzsche) that the universe has no ultimate aim or purpose, that human life is insignificant. [From the Latin nihil, "nothing".] 

nirvana -- in Buddhist religion, a state of mystical wisdom achieved after all fleshy desires have been surmounted. In Hindu religion, the renunciation of all material attachments and achievement of ultimate happiness.

noumenon: in Kantian philosophy, the thing-in-itself which cannot be perceived in experience.

objective -- independent of individual apperception or feeling; cf. subjective.

Ockham's Razor (or Occam's Razor) -- a principle developed by William of Ockham (1285-1349) which holds that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable, and that entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem ("entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity"). The principle is often referred to as the law of parsimony.

ontology -- the study of being, of the ultimate nature of things.

ousia -- a Greek term meaning essence, the essential nature of a thing.

panentheism -- the view that God is both "in" all things and outside of all things at the same time; the idea that God is both immanent and transcendent.

panpsychism -- the theory that all objects in the universe -- "inanimate" as well as "animate" -- have an inner being or psychological nature. 

pantheism -- the doctrine that God is inherent in all things, that every particular thing in the universe is a manifestation of God's essence. The doctrine was most influentially and cogently advanced by Spinoza.

Peripatetic -- a follower or disciple of Aristotle. The word comes from the Greek verb "to walk about"; while holding discussions with students, Aristotle would frequently walk around.

pluralism -- the doctrine that the world is composed of many things, the source of contrary processes. Cf. monism.

positivism -- a philosophical view which recognizes only those things that can be empirically verified, or known directly by observation.

pragmatism -- the notion that truth is the practical application of an idea; a theory which emphasizes the instrumental nature of the intellect and which sees the consummation of truth in direct, successful action. The earliest pragmatist philosophers were Americans: C.S. Peirce and William James among them.

prolegomenon (plural: prolegomena): a critical introduction to a thesis or work; prefatory remarks.

realism -- 1. The doctrine in epistemology that the external world exists independently of perception. 2. The view that universal ideas correspond to objective realities.

relativism -- See moral relativism.

scholasticism -- a philosophical movement of medieval times characterized chiefly by speculative thought, the merging of theological conceptions with metaphysical ones (as, say, in the work of Aquinas).

Socratic Method -- An approach to teaching and philosophizing pioneered by Socrates (470-399 B.C.) which consists of asking a succession of questions. The aim is to expose some weakness or inadequacy in the thinking of the interrogated. The questions serve as an impetus for further study and reflection.

specious -- an argument that seems plausible but is in fact fallacious.

subjective -- existing in thought as opposed to the "external" world.

theism -- 1. belief in a God or Gods. 2. the view that God transcends the universe but is also, in some way, immanent in it.

transcendental -- that which is beyond the reach of the senses, of ordinary experience. [literally, "to climb over".]

transcendentalism -- 1. The philosophical disposition to look for truth within oneself, as against the conventions of culture or society. 2. A form of realist metaphysical thought, esp. in Plato, which sees Truth beyond the phenomenal, material world. 3. A part of Kantian philosophy in which real knowledge is achievable when one can transcend mere empiricism and ascertain the a priori. 4. A New England movement, associated most often with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that sought to express spiritual reality and the ideal, relying exclusively on intuition.

utilitarianism -- the moral philosphy of Epicurus, and much later, of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, according to which actions are considered moral which contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. "Good" is tantamount to "pleasure," "bad" with "pain".  Contrast this view with deontological ethics.

voluntarism -- the doctrine that the will is the supreme force or factor in human conduct and in the universe; this perspective received its most influential articulation in Schopenhauer's philsophy.

Weltanschauung -- German word meaning "worldview," a way of looking at and understanding the external world.

yang -- in Chinese philosophy, a universal principle which manifests itself as a male force, as spirit and heaven.

yin -- in Chinese philosophy, a universal principle which manifests itself as a female force, as body and earth.

Zen -- a system of Buddhist meditation intended to transcend the normal categories and strictures of human rationality, whose ultimate goal is the achievement of satori, or deep revelation and insight.


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