Philosophy TerminologyWriter's Web
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Defining Terms

Providing a list of philosophical terms that is both brief and comprehensive often seems like a contradiction of terms, but a few terms that routinely crop up in introductory courses are:Confucius

  • A priori - something is knowable "a priori" if it can be learned independently of experience, or solely through reason; whether such a thing as an a priori thought exists is heavily debated
  • A posteriori - knowledge learned through the senses or experience; a thought that is not a priori
  • Deduction - an argument that has a conclusion that, if valid, necessarily follows from its premises; ex. All bachelors are unmarried men./Socrates is a bachelor./Thus, Socrates is an unmarried man.
  • (Substance) Dualism - the belief that the mind and body are distinct, cooperating entities; the mind has "mental functions" associated with--but distinct from--"bodily" functions; "dualism" can connote the belief in two separate entities in any branch of philosophy
  • Epistemology - the study of the nature and extent men can possess and understand knowledge
  • Induction - an argument that has a conclusion that is suggested as strong or weak by observations made in the premises; inductive reasoning is considered necessary, but never as strong as deductive reasoning; ex. I have observed many white swans./Thus, All swans are white.
  • Metaphysics - the study of the nature of reality beyond the non-physical or empirical existence; includes ethics, religion, and the purpose of existence
  • (Substance) Monism - the belief that the body is a single, complete entity; "monism" can connote the belief in a single/unified entity in any branch of philosophy
  • Ockham's razor - the principle that one should reduce theories, explanations and thoughts to their simplest states; alternatively, that one should favor the simplest explanation of events over the more complex one.
  • Ontological problem (mind-body problem) - the debate concerning the relationship between physical and mental processes
  • Prima facie - "first appearance"; a claim or piece of evidence that appears valid without any counter-claim or evidence; often used to indicate that the evidence is weak

A Philosophical Glossary for Beginners provides additional definitions of terms that may be unfamiliar to an individual unused to reading philosophical texts, particularly some of the common Latin terminology. A Non-Philosopher's Guide to Philosophical Terms is another, humorous way to expand one's philosophical vocabulary (current list loosely based on Washington and Lee University's Rough Glossary).

Schools of Thought

Philosophers can typically be associated with different movements, or schools of thought, that gained momentum during different parts of its history. While this is far from exhaustive list, here is a brief overview of some of the major divisions:

  • Realism versus Idealism: Rationalists hold the belief that things (chairs, colors, people, etc.) and the characteristics they possess exist independently of the mind. Like most branches of philosophy, one can be a certain "type" of realist. For example, a moral realist would believe that something is in essence "right" or "wrong," it is not determined by any individual's opinion. Idealists hold that the limits of knowledge lie solely in the mind, and that part--and, depending on the idealist, all--knowledge lies within thought and metaphysics. They hold that the "thing" one perceives is not its full reality.
  • Rationalism versus Empiricism: Rationalists tend to base as much knowledge as possible--if not all knowledge--on reason. They hold that many truths can be obtained independently of one's sense experience. Empiricists, on the other hand, claim that most knowledge stems from one's sense experience. The core of their argument rests on how much of knowledge, if any knowledge, is innate, and the how one learns truths that are not immediately associated with sense experience, particularly mathematics.
  • Skepticism versus Pragmatism: Skeptics doubt the existence of any "right answer." An extreme skeptic will hold that nothing, not even oneself, can be known. Thus, the only truth one can ascertain depends on what conditions one assumes to be true, but one can never expect to come to any definitive answer. Skepticism never assumes anything to be true. Pragmatists, in contrast, will accept a claim as true so long as its practical application does not refute it. Thus, it judges a theory's truth or validity on the consequences of accepting that truth, but, unlike skepticism, does not reject a claim's truth unless given a practical reason for rejecting it.
  • Existentialism: Existentialists are fundamentally concerned with the existence of human beings and their relationship with the world outside themselves. Existentialists focus on how man attempts to make sense of the world in which he or she lives, and disagree on how much or little humans beings can succeed in finding order in the universe beyond themselves.
  • Structuralism: Structuralists and post-structuralists believe that language, as it appears in symbolic logic and ordinary discourse, determine the limits of one's conception of reality. While structuralism sought to understand the system of language that determines man's thought, post-structuralists hold that the limits of language also limit one's ability to fully understand how language is used, limited, and otherwise manipulated.

More thorough explanations of these schools of philosophy, the philosophers who supported or objected to them, as well as their main arguments and common terminology are available at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Seeking Clarity

As emphasized in Writing a Draft, Philosophy essays are meant to be worded thoughtfully and concisely. One should never use any word or phrase within a philosophical piece of writing without a thorough understanding of its meaning. Clarity is just as important as correct terminology. Remember that searching for synonyms in a paper that feels redundant can be dangerous. One should be careful, particularly when analyzing another philosopher's text, to use the same terms in one's sources.

Imagine if someone who was interested in the material but had yet to take the class was reading your paper. Would he or she understand the content? The line of thought in the essay should be clear, and unfamiliar terms need to be briefly explained to the reader. However, "writing clearly" does not mean forsaking philosophical terms that might be unclear to someone outside the language. Clear writing is when one utilizes those terms in a way that makes their meaning and the author's intentions as transparent as possible. The best papers are those that can be validate the author's intention to be legible (Eubanks & Schaeffer 386).

Effective language often announces its intentions. A few examples include:

  • I will begin by. . .
  • I will now defend the claim. . .
  • It follows that. . .
  • Given this argument. . .
  • The passage suggests. . .
  • I will now refute/explain. . .
  • Consequently. . .


Works cited

Eubanks, P and Schaeffer, J. "A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing." College Composition and Communication 59.3 (Feb. 2008): 372-388.

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