Glossary of Philosophical Terms


Glossary of Philosophical Terms



The Absolute

The opposite of relative, conditioned or dependent. The idea

of the absolute dates back to pre-Socratic times. For Plato,

the Ideal Forms were the absolute. For other philosophers

the idea has been associated with that of the Godhead.

Certain rationalist thinkers, such as Spinoza, held the

absolute to be an all encompassing principle and the true

source of all reality, as did the idealist philosophers (see

Idealism, most notably Hegel.


A priori

Something known to be true or false prior to experience. Its

opposite would be a posteriori, which is knowledge derived

from experience



The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and

expression of beauty, or in Kantian philosophy the branch

of metaphysics concerned with the laws of perception.



The self that acts, chooses, and decides as opposed to the

self that knows.



One who believes that God’s existence cannot be proven,

but doesn’t deny the possibility that God might exist.



The belief that no proof can be given for the existence of

God, since the concept of God, like those of soul,

immortality, and first cause, lies beyond the reach of the

human mind, which can only know the world of natural



Analytic Philosophy

The philosophical approach following from the empiricism

of Locke and Hume, which emphasizes logic, attention to

language and simplicity of argument, and seeks to clarify

concepts, theories, ideas and methods. Many 20th century

American and British philosophers have taken this

approach, rather than pursuing the metaphysical

speculation and system building of Continental Philosophy.


The absolute disbelief in and denial of the existence of a

God or gods.



The theory of Democritus and Epicurus, among others,

which claims that the entire universe is composed of

minute, indivisible and indestructible particles.



The branch of psychology, most radically developed and

advocated by B.F. Skinner, that focuses exclusively on

observable behavior, excluding all subjective phenomenon,

such as emotions, memories and motives.



In philosophy, categories are the most basic group into

which things can be classified. A category, then, would be

an irreducible and fundamental concept that can be applied

to other concepts and objects. Aristotle and Kant each

attempted a definitive list of categories, which included

substance, relation, place, time, passion, and action, among



Causality or causation

The connection between cause and effect, or the

relationship between two things when the first is perceived

as the cause of the second. Ordinarily, the relationship

between cause and effect seems inevitable. Nevertheless,

philosophers have asked why we think in terms of

causation, where the idea comes from, and when it is

correct to apply it.



The forms of knowing and perceiving, such as attention,

memory reasoning, and perception (visual, aural, tactile), ;

through which we synthesize information,



In philosophy, concept can stand for an idea, a thought, the

form of a thought or even the meaning of a term, though

concept is largely used in its most general application. For

example, to have a concept of table means that one might

1) distinguish table from every other thing and 2) reason .

about tables in some way.



The study of the origin and development of the universe.



The study of the whole universe as a totality of phenomena

in time and space.



A member of a school of Ancient Greek philosophy, namely

Cynicism, wherein virtue was seen as the only good and

self-control as the only means of attaining virtue. Cynics

not only showed a complete disregard for pleasure, but also

expressed contempt for human affection, preferring to find

fault with most individuals for their lack of virtue.

Diogenes was perhaps the most renowned Cynic.



A form of argument in which the conclusion logically and

necessarily follows from the premises, with the general

Ieading to the particular. An example would be, “If all

human beings are born, then Plato as a human being, must

have been born.” It is an agreed upon fact that deduction is

valid. Its opposite would be Induction.



The view that whatever happens has to happen, for every

event is the inevitable, hence necessary outcome of its

specific, preceding causes, which themselves were the

necessary result of yet previous causes. The chain of cause

and effect might be seen as determined by God or the laws

of nature. In science, an entirely mechanistic view is

deterministic. In the Ancient World and in the Christian

idea of predestination, the idea of fate is thoroughly

deterministic. See Causality.



A Greek term originally used to describe the Socratic

method, according to which argument and reasoning took

the form of dialogue. For Hegel and Marx, dialectic is an

interpretive method whereby t}re contradiction between a

thesis and its antithesis is resolved into a synthesis that

includes elements from each of the opposing positions.






The view that reality is made up of two fundamental and

fundamentally different elements, as opposed to monism

which perceives reality to be made up of only one

substance. The dualism of Descartes, perhaps the most

famous, advances the view that material substance and the

mind’s activity (thinking, reflecting, etc.) bear upon each

other but are separate, unlike and essentially distinct.



The view that sense experience is the only basis for true

knowledge. An Empiricist would doubt any statement

claiming truth regardless of experience.



Named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus, this strain

moral philosophy advances the claim that pleasure, main

understood as the avoidance of pain by opting for

intellectual pleasure, needs to be understood as the basis:

leading an ethical life.



The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of

Knowledge – with what and how we know and the limits of

human understanding.



The fundamental qualities that make something what it is

and not something else are what constitute its essence. In

other words, the essence of a dog is what makes it a dog

and not a cat or a horse. See also Universal.


Ethics or Moral Philosophy

The branch of philosophy that examines human values,

beginning with questions about how we should live and

act. Hence its focus on questions of conduct, duty,

responsibility, good and bad, right and wrong.



The modern philosophical view which takes the individual

human being, possessing free will and standing in an

absurd and meaningless world, as its starting point.

Existentialists argue for human responsibility and

Judgment in ethical matters, seeing the individual as the

Sole judge of his/her own actions, with human freedom

Understood precisely as the freedom to choose.

Free Will

The doctrine that human beings are free to control their

own actions, which are not determined by cause and effect,

God or fate. Its opposite is Determinism.



A theory that is held to be true and seems like it might be

true until confirmed or proven wrong by empirical testing

or experience. An element belonging to the scientific




The philosophical view that the empirical world does not

exist independently of the human mind and hence can

be known according to our conceptions of it. Its opposite is




The opposite of deduction, induction moves from

individual instances to general principle. Unlike deduction,

induction does not lead to necessarily true results.



A pragmatic theory in which ideas, such as scientific

theories, are instruments that function as guides to action,

and serve to deal with problems in the real world. As such,

ideas do not give a true account of reality. Rather, their

validity and value are determined by their success in

enabling us to act, problem-solve, and predict outcomes.



A form of direct, conceptual knowing that does not rely on

reason or derive directly from the senses. For example, as

human beings, we might be said to have an intuitive or

innate idea of God, the beautiful, or justice.



The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of

rational argument, focusing on the principles of reasoning,

the structure of propositions, and the methods and validity

of deductive reasoning.






Logical Positivism

The view that philosophy should be based on observation

and testing and that propositions are only meaningful to

the extent that they can be verified empirically’ It is

opposed to any type of metaphysical speculation.



The view that only matter or material things actually exist.

In other words, there is nothing in existence other than

matter, one of the consequences of which is the

nullification of the possible existence of a God or gods.

Materialism is opposed to idealism, which holds the mind

to be generative of objective reality.



The branch of philosophy concerned with first principles,

particularly being {ontology} and knowing (epistemology),

as well as with the ultimate nature of what exists. Central

to metaphysical speculation are all the traditional questions

of philosophy, such as: the origin of life, the nature of mind

and of reality, and the meaning of concepts such as time,

space, causation and free will, among others.



The system of principles, practices and procedures that are

employed within a specific branch of knowledge. For

instance, while historical, philosophical and scientific

methodologies might converge, they largely differ from one




The view that reality is a unified whole and that all existing

things follow from or can be described by a single concept

or system. As regards human beings and the relationship

between mind and body, in this view both would be seen

like entities, formed from the same substance. Its opposite

is dualism.



A belief in the existence of realities beyond intellectual or

perceptual apprehension that are germane to “being” and

directly accessibly through subjective experience. The

“One” of Plotinus would be an example of such a reality.




Natural Law

Laws considered “natural” in the sense of being derived

from nature and therefore seen as providing universal

moral standards that are binding. Natural law is often

associated with divine law with reason as arbiter. It’s

opposite is positive law, namely, the laws established by

particular societies. A good example of the concept of

natural law is given by the opening of “The Declaration of

Independence” of the United States of America:


“When in the Course of human events, it becomes

necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands

which have connected them with another, and to assume

among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal

station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind

requires that they should declare the causes which impel

them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident. that all men are

created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with

certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,

Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”



The view that reality can be understood without resorting

to anything outside of or beyond nature to serve as an

explanatory principle.



The theory that universals are not real and existing in

world, but rather are words and names for phenomena.



The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being.



Open Society

This term was first proposed by French philosopher Henri

Bergson and further developed by the Austrian philosopher

Karl Popper. Philosophically speaking, the concept of an

open societ5r is based on the recognition that people act on

imperfect knowledge and that no one possesses the ultimate

truth. Consequently, the best form of social organization

and government, as advanced by Popper, is a pluralistic

democracy characterized by the rule of law, a diversity of

opinion, a division of power and a market economy.



The doctrine that identifies God or gods with the forces and

workings of nature.



The philosophical view introduced by Edmund Husserl

according to which objects are objects of experience rather

than independently existing entities. This approach aims to

explore the ways in which people conceive of and interpret

the world as they experience it. In this view, reality is

relative and subjective.



For Plato, things as perceived by the senses (versus

noumena, which are things as reflected upon by thought).

For Kant, the distinction between phenomena and noumena

was that between things as objects of experience and things

as they are in themselves, a state of being not accessible to

human reason.



Literally, “the Love of wisdom.” Traditionally, philosophy

was comprised of Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Logic.

Modern philosophy also encompasses political theory

ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophies of religion, science

and law. Most generally, philosophy might be described as

the rigorous, systematic analysis and critical examination

of such topics as reality, nature, time, causation, free will,

human beingness, reason, moral judgments, and

perception, among others.



The theory introduced by Auguste Comte that limits

knowledge to what can be derived from observation and

comprehended within the bounds of science.



A strain of empiricism, this view, founded by CS Pierce,

interprets truth in terms of its practical effects, and as such

might be seen as a theory of truth. When applied to science,

this view holds that the “truth” of a theory depends on

whether or not it works. William James took this approach

to ethical judgments and religious beliefs, measuring

“truth” in terms of the usefulness or benefit of a belief or

judgment to a person’s life.




The theory that reason is the fundamental source of

Knowledge and spiritual truth and that the exercise of

reason, rather than empiricism {sense-perception), authority

or revelation, provides the only valid basis for action and




Philosophically, the theory that universals exist

independently of the human mind and that the essences of

things are objectively given in nature.



The view that it is impossible to know anything with

certainty. Hence, absolute knowledge is unattainable and

doubt is central to human knowledge and experience.



The theological and philosophical methods and systems of

Medieval Europe (12-l4th centuries), which aimed to

reconcile Christian thought with Aristotelianism.



The theory that the investigative methods used in the

natural sciences should be applied in all fields of inquiry.



The study of signs and symbols.



The view that only the self can be known to exist.



The Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium

around 308 BC. The Stoics believed that happiness lay in

accepting the law of the universe and advised equanimity

in the face of good and bad fortune alike. They held that

human beings would be happiest if they freed themselves

from passion and calmly accepted all occurrences as the

result of divine will.









The 20th century philosophical movement that has had a

great influence on anthropology, Linguistics and literary

criticism. Following Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in

linguistics, structuralists hold the view that objects should

not be investigated as independent entities, but rather as

systems of relations.




A necessarily true statement, such as “red is red.”



The study of final ends, from the perspective that there is a

purpose to life and the universe, and hence also some sort

of blueprint or overall design that makes all development

purposive and meaningful.



Most specifically the belief that a single personal God is

present in the world as well as transcendent.



The study of God and the nature of religious truth. Though

philosophy does not posit the existence of God, its

arguments and methods have nevertheless had a significant

influence on both natural and revealed theologies over the




Something outside the world of sense experience. Neither

empiricists, nor pragmatists, nor existentialists believe in

anything transcendental, such as God or a separate sphere

of moral ideas.



A property belonging to each individual of a specific class

or a general concept that can be applied to all the members

of a group: for example, since all cold things instantiate

“coldness,” “coldness” would be the universal property of

all cold things. In the Middle Ages, philosophers who

believed that “coldness” existed in and of itself were called

“realists” (see Realism). Those who argued that such a

property did not actually exists were called ..nominalists”

[see Nominalism).



The ethical theory sketched out by Bentham and elaborated

by J.S. Mill, which argues for a morality based on actions

that lead to happiness. In this framework, an action that

leads to unhappiness would be morally wrong. What

follows from this is the view that society should aim for the

happiness of the greatest number.



A property of arguments. An argument is valid if its

conclusion is the necessary outcome of its premises, even if

the conclusion is false on account of a false premise. In

other words, an argument may be logically valid even if

conclusion is wrong.



The properly of a statement or proposition that allows us to

test, using empirical evidence, whether it is true or false. In

the 20th century many Logical Positivists and Empiricists

made verification a requirement of knowledge. However,

since few statements or even scientific laws are verifiable,

there were others who argued against verifiability as a

theory of proof and meaning.