Philosophical Terms

General Information

(Editor's Note:
This is a capsule presentation of many philosophical positions. Most of these positions are closely related to Christianity or are responses to it. In the cases that have Christian or other religious significance, BELIEVE includes thorough presentations of these subjects.)

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The doctrine that there is one explanation of all reality-the absolute-that is unchanging and objectively true. Absolutists (such as G. W. F. Hegel) hold that this absolute, such as God or mind, is eternal and that in it all seeming differences are reconciled.
The belief that it is impossible to know whether God exists, or to have any other theological knowledge. English thinkers T. H. Huxley (1825-95) and Bertrand Russell were influential agnostics.
The ethical theory that morality consists of concern for and the active promotion of the interests of others. Altruists strongly disagree with the doctrine of egoism, which states that individuals act only in their own self-interest.
The thinking and writings of Aristotle, influential until the fall of Rome, when all but his writings on logic were lost to Christian civilization in Europe. However, his works were preserved in Syrian and Arabic cultures and were revived at the end of the twelfth century.
The view that attention to the body's needs is evil, an obstacle to moral and spiritual development, and displeasing to God. According to this view, humans are urged to withdraw into an inner spiritual world to reach the good life.
The rejection of the belief in God. Some atheists have held that there is nothing in the world that requires a God in order to be explained. Atheism is not the same as agnosticism, which holds that we can have knowledge neither of the existence nor of the nonexistence of God.
British idealism (neo-Hegelianism)
The philosophy of Hegel as revived in England and Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. The most prominent members of this school were T. H. Green (1836-82), Bernard Bosanquet (1848 - 1923), and F. H. Bradley (1846 - 1924). They were united in their opposition to empiricism and utilitarianism and in their emphasis on mind and spirit as primary.
Buridan's ass
A story, falsely attributed to the fourteenth-century thinker John Buridan, in which an ass, faced with two equally desirable bales of hay, starves to death because he cannot find a good reason for preferring one bale to the other.
The theory that general ideas, such as the idea of man or of redness, exist as entities produced by the human mind and that they can exist in the minds of all men. This view is typically contrasted with nominalism and realism.
A theory or story about the origin of the universe, either scientific or mythological. Cosmogonies are also called creation myths.
The systematic study of the origin and structure of the universe as a whole. In such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, cosmology was based on metaphysical speculation; today cosmology is a branch of the physical sciences.
A philosophical viewpoint appearing in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in France in the eighteenth century. Deists hold that although God created the universe and its laws, He then removed Himself from any ongoing interaction with the material world.
The ethical philosophy that makes duty the basis of all morality. According to deontological theorists, such as Kant, some acts-such as keeping a promise or telling the truth-are moral obligations regardless of their consequences.
The view that every event has a cause and that everything in the universe is absolutely dependent on and governed by causal laws. Since determinists believe that all events, including human actions, are predetermined, determinism is typically thought to be incompatible with free will.
Any philosophical theory holding that the universe consists of, or can only be explained by, two independent and separate forces, such as matter and spirit, the forces of good and evil, or the supernatural and natural. See also mind-body problem.
According to many ethical theories, the basis of the virtuous life. The Stoics held that man has a duty to live virtuously and according to reason; and Kant held that his categorical imperative is the highest law of duty, no matter what the consequences.
The view that all knowledge of the world derives solely from sensory experience, using observation and experimentation if needed; empiricism also holds that reason on its own can never provide knowledge of reality unless it also utilizes experience. See also British empiricism.
Enlightenment (Age of Reason)
A period that stretched from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, especially in France, England, and Germany. Its thinkers strove to make reason the ruler of human life; they believed that all men could gain knowledge and liberation. Major Enlightenment figures include Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Montesquieu in France; Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke in England; and Leibniz, Lessing (1729-81), and Herder (1744 - 1803) in Germany.
In theology, the study of "final things," such as death, resurrection, immortality, the second coming of Christ, and the day of judgment.
A philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The dogma holds that since there are no universal values, man's essence is not predetermined but is based only on free choice; man is in a state of anxiety because of his realization of free will; and there is no objective truth. Major existentialists were Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969), and the religious existentialists Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel (1889 - 1973).
The belief that "what will be will be," since all past, present, and future events have already been predetermined by God or another all-powerful force. In religion, this view may be called predestination; it holds that whether our souls go to Heaven or Hell is determined before we are born and is independent of our good deeds.
free will
The theory that human beings have freedom of choice or self-determination; that is, that given a situation, a person could have done other than what he did. Philosophers have argued that free will is incompatible with determinism. See also indeterminism.
golden rule
The fundamental moral rule of most religions, especially Christianity, that states, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."
Hegelianism (neo-Hegelianism)
A school of thought associated with Hegel in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in England, America, France, and Italy. F. G. Bradley (1846 - 1924), Josiah Royce (1855 - 1916), and Benedetto Croce (1866 - 1952) were prominent members; they emphasized the importance of spirit and the belief that ideas and moral ideals are fundamental.
Hobson's choice
A choice offered without any real alternative- therefore, not really a choice at all.
Any philosophic view that holds that mankind's well-being and happiness in this lifetime are primary and that the good of all humanity is the highest ethical goal. Twentieth-century humanists tend to reject all beliefs in the supernatural, relying instead on scientific methods and reason. The term is also used to refer to Renaissance thinkers, especially in the fifteenth century in Italy, who emphasized knowledge and learning not based on religious sources.
A term applied to any philosophy holding that mind or spiritual values, rather than material things or matter, are primary in the universe. See also British idealism.
The view that the individual soul is eternal, and thus survives the death of the body it resides in. See also transmigration of souls.
The view that there are events that do not have any cause; many proponents of free will believe that acts of choice are capable of not being determined by any physiological or psychological cause.
According to most philosophers, starting with Plato, the harmonious balance between the rights of the various members of a society. Justice is usually understood as including such social virtues as fairness, equality, and correct and impartial treatment.
logical positivism
A twentieth-century school founded in the 1920s in Europe that was extremely influential for American and English philosophers. It advocated the principle of verifiability, according to which all statements that could not be validated empirically were meaningless. Logical positivism held that this principle showed that all of metaphysics, religion, and ethics was incapable of being proved either true or false. See also Vienna Circle.
A religious-philosophical doctrine that originated in Persia in the third century and reappeared throughout the next 1300 years. It holds that the entire universe, especially human life, is a struggle between the opposing forces of good and evil (light and darkness).
The political, economic, and philosophical theories developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the second half of the nineteenth century. The philosophical side of Marxism is called dialectical materialism; it emphasizes economic determinism. See also dialectical materialism.
The theory that holds that the nature of the world is dependent on matter, or that matter is the only fundamental substance; thus, spirit and mind either do not exist or are manifestations of matter.
A branch of philosophy that analyzes ethics. It is concerned with such issues as, How are moral decisions justified? What is the foundation of any ethical view? What language is used to state moral beliefs?
The branch of philosophy concerned with the ultimate nature of reality and existence as a whole. Metaphysics also includes the study of cosmology and philosophical theology. Aristotle produced the first "system" of metaphysics.
According to Leibniz, the ultimate and indivisible units of all existence. Monads are not material, like atoms; each monad is self-activating, a unique center of force. All monads are in a "pre-established harmony" with each other and with God, the supreme monad.
The theory that everything in the universe is composed of, or can be explained by or reduced to, one fundamental substance, energy, or force.
Any philosophy whose roots are in mystical experiences, intuitions, or direct experiences of the divine. In such experiences, the mystic believes that his or her soul has temporarily achieved union with God. Mystics believe reality can be known only in this manner, not through reasoning or everyday experience.
myth of Er
A parable at the end of Plato's Republic about the fate of souls after bodily death; according to Plato, the soul must choose wisdom in the afterlife to guarantee a good life in its next cycle of incarnation.
A philosophic view stating that all there is in reality is what the physical and human sciences (for example, physics or psychology) study and that there is no need to posit any supernatural forces or being, such as God, mind, or spirit.
naturalistic fallacy
A belief of many twentieth-century philosophers in England and America that it is invalid to infer any statements of morality (for example, "Men ought to act kindly") from factual statements (for example, "Kindness is a natural quality"). The notion tries to derive ought from is and was first described by Hume.
natural law
The theory that there is a higher law than the manmade laws put forth by specific governments. This law is universal, unchanging, and a fundamental part of human nature. Advocates of this view believe that natural law can be discovered by reason alone. The theory originated with the Stoics and was elaborated on by St. Thomas Aquinas, among others.
natural rights
Certain freedoms or privileges that are held to be an innate part of the nature of being a human being and that cannot be denied by society. These are different from civil rights, which are granted by a specific nation or government. Philosophers have differed on which rights are natural, but usually included are life, liberty, equality, equal treatment under the law, the pursuit of happiness, and equality of opportunity. Locke's influential views on natural rights inspired the writers of the American Constitution.
A school of philosophy that flourished from the second to the fifth centuries A.D. It was founded by Plotinus and was influential for the next thousand years.
A term first used in Fathers and Sons (1862) by the Russian novelist Turgenev. Ethical nihilism is the theory that morality cannot be justified in any way and that all moral values are, therefore, meaningless and irrational. Political nihilism is the social philosophy that society and its institutions are so corrupt that their complete destruction is desirable. Nihilists may, therefore, advocate violence and even terrorism in the name of overthrowing what they believe to be a corrupt social order.
The view that general terms, such as "table," do not refer to essences, concepts, abstract ideas, or anything else; "table" makes sense only because all tables resemble each other. According to this view, such general terms do not have any independent existence.
The view that there are moral truths that are valid universally and that it is wrong to knowingly gain pleasure from causing another pain.
In ethics, a moral necessity to do a specific deed. Some ethicists, following Kant, hold that moral obligations are absolute.
Ockham's razor
A principle attributed to the fourteenth-century English philosopher William of Ockham. It states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, or that one should choose the simplest explanation, the one requiring the fewest assumptions and principles.
A branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or reality, as such, as opposed to specific types of existing entities.
operationalism (operationism)
A philosophy of science according to which any scientific concept must be definable in terms of concrete, observable activities or the operations to which it refers.
The belief that God and the universe are identical; among modern philosophers, Spinoza is considered to be a pantheist.
Pascal's wager
An argument made by Blaise Pascal for believing in God. Pascal said that either the tenets of Roman Catholicism are true or they are not. If they are true, and we wager that they are true, then we have won an eternity of bliss; if they are false, and death is final, what has the bettor lost? On the other hand, if one wagers against God's existence and turns out to be wrong, there is eternal damnation.
A term applied to any philosophy that makes personality (whether of people, God, or spirit) the supreme value or the source of reality. Personalism as a movement flourished in England and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Personalists are usually idealists.
The philosophic attitude holding that hope is unreasonable, that man is born to sorrow, and that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Schopenhauer's philosophy is an example of extreme pessimism.
philosopher king
In Plato's Republic, a philosopher trained by formal study in disciplines including mathematics and philosophy. Plato emphasized that philosopher kings' leadership would be shown by their ability to see the Forms, or universal ideals.
philosophy of mind
The area of philosophy that studies the mind, consciousness, and mental functions such as thinking, intention, imagination, and emotion. It is not one specific branch of philosophy, but rather an aspect of most traditional branches, such as metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics.
philosophy of religion
A branch of philosophy concerned with such questions as, What is religion? What is God? Can God's existence be proved? Is there immortality? What is the relationship between faith, reason, and revelation? Is there a divine purpose in the world?
philosophy of science
The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of science. It is particularly concerned with the methods, concepts, and assumptions of science, as well as with analyzing scientific concepts such as space, time, cause, scientific law, and verification.
Thoughts and writings developed in the fifth century B.C. in Athens by Plato, the greatest student of Socrates. Platonism's chief tenet is that the ultimate reality consists of unchanging, absolute, eternal entities called Ideas or Forms; all earthly objects are not truly real but merely partake in the Forms.
Plato's cave
An analogy in Plato's Republic between reality and illusion. The main image is of men who see on the walls of a cave only the shadows of the real objects moving around outside the cave. When these men leave the cave and see the real objects, they cannot, upon returning to the cave, convince those who have never left of the reality of the objects.
The view that there are more than two kinds of fundamental, irreducible realities in the universe, or that there are many separate and independent levels of reality.
A theory originated by French philosopher Auguste Comte. It holds that all knowledge is defined by the limits of scientific investigation; thus, philosophy must abandon any quest for knowledge of an ultimate reality or any knowledge beyond that offered by science. See also logical positivism.
An American philosophy developed in the nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 - 1914) and William James, and elaborated on in the twentieth century by John Dewey. Its central precepts are that thinking is primarily a guide to action and that the truth of any idea lies in its practical consequences.
principle (or law) of noncontradiction
Dating back to Aristotle, this universally accepted "law of thought" has two parts: a statement cannot be both true and false; nothing can both have a quality, like red, and not have it, at the same time.
The philosophic approach that holds that reality is knowable by the use of reason or thinking alone, without recourse to observation or experience. See also seventeenth-century rationalists.
The major medieval and modern view on the problem of universals other than nominalism. Extreme realism, which is close to Plato's theory of Forms, holds that universals exist independently of both particular things and the human mind; moderate realism holds that they exist as ideas in God's mind, through which He creates things.
The precept that people's ideas of right and wrong vary considerably from place to place and time to time; therefore, there are no universally valid ethical standards.
A general term referring to the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages, especially at the medieval universities. The Scholastics basically followed Aristotle's empiricism, using highly analytical logical and linguistic methods of argumentation, especially with respect to the problem of universals.
The theory that one cannot know anything other than his or her own thoughts, feelings, or perceptions; therefore, other people and the real world must be projections of one's own mind with no existence in and of themselves. See also egocentric predicament.
A term referring to the belief that spirits of the dead communicate with the living, for instance, at seances or through a medium.
The view that the ultimate reality in the universe is the spirit. Advocates of this view may disagree about the nature of the spirit.
A Greek school founded by Zeno in the third century B.C. Stoics held that men should submit to natural law and that a man's chief duty is to conform to his destiny. They also believed the soul to be another form of matter, and thus not immortal.
The belief that there are forces, energies, or beings beyond the material world-such as God, spirit, or occult forces-that affect events in our world.
A kind of deductive reasoning or argument. As defined by Aristotle, it was considered the basis of reasoning for over two thousand years. In every syllogism, there are two statements (premises) from which a conclusion follows necessarily. Syllogisms are of three basic logical types, as illustrated by these examples:
tabula rasa
A Latin phrase meaning "blank slate," used by Locke to describe the state of the human mind at birth. Locke believed there are no innate ideas and that the mind gets all of its ideas from experience.
teleological ethics
In contrast with deontological ethics, this moral theory holds that whether an action is morally right depends solely on its expected consequences. See also utilitarianism.
The philosophical and theological system developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. One of its chief principles is that philosophy seeks truth through reason while theology seeks it through revelation from God; therefore, the two are compatible.
Beyond the realm of sense experience. In many religious views, God is held to be transcendent.
A nineteenth-century movement developed in New England and expounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 82) and Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 62). It maintains that beyond our material world of experience is an ideal spiritual reality that can be grasped intuitively.
transmigration of souls
The belief that the same soul can, in different lifetimes (incarnations), reside in different bodies, human or animal. While typically a part of most Eastern religions, the doctrine came into Western philosophy from Pythagoras and his contemporaries in the sixth century B.C. and especially through Plato.
A theory of morality holding that all actions should be judged for rightness or wrongness in terms of their consequences; thus, the amount of pleasure people derive from those consequences becomes the measure of moral goodness. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in the nineteenth century, were the chief proponents of this view. See also principle of utility.
The belief in the possibility or desirability of not just a better but a perfect society. The term derives from Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), which depicts an ideal state. Utopian states also appear in the writings of Plato and Bacon.
Young Hegelians
A group of thinkers in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century whose views strongly influenced Karl Marx. They were followers of Hegel who believed that the political conditions under which they lived were irrational. They held that the goal of philosophy should be to promote a revolution of ideas and critical thinking about the world. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 - 72) was the most important of the Young Hegelians.

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Major World Philosophers

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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