A Very Short Philosophical Dictionary
This is written as a self-imposed exercise. One entry per letter. Doing so raises some interesting questions, the chief one being what to have for each letter. However, there is an added complication that the entries, while tussling for inclusion, are also often interconnected, and as shown by the actual cross-referencing. One might have done it differently, but this is my best go now, the pressing of the day. That thought may further the dictionary’s value – although the overall idea is meant to be slightly humorous and not taken too seriously – for not only do I hope the entries, albeit limited in number, are genuinely informative, it may raise an interesting debate in the reader’s mind as to what entries they would have, the same or different, and why. In a highly crude and unsatisfactory way, the choice of entries reflects a particular view of philosophy. In short, the exercise throws up all sorts of interesting things. I purposely mention no philosophers by name, except for two entries, as this would have led to inflation. These are my accounts in the entries, deliberately done with no cribbing from other sources except to a very minor degree. – JS
Analysis, from which Analytical Philosophy gets its name, is the process of taking apart, rendering into their constituent parts, ideas, concepts or arguments, to better determine what they mean or their validity. Analysis may also take the form of making distinctions, often by way of conceptual distinctions, that is to say separating one subject into its constituent parts in order to get a clearer understanding.
Belief is an assent to or affirmation of a truth, that is to say, that something is the case. This assent or affirmation may be a matter of degree, which will depend on either how sure one is of what one holds to be the case or how reluctant one is to abandon one’s affirmation. Belief falls short of knowledge in that in the case of belief it is always possible that what one believes may be false; whereas it is usually argued that what one genuinely knows cannot be false.
Consciousness is the capacity for qualitative awareness, most usually of oneself or the world. There is something-it-is-like for the subject of that awareness. This has led some to suggest that the distinctive, perhaps defining, characteristic of consciousness, is intentionality, that is to say, conscious awareness is always of something, it has an intentional object regardless of whether that object exists or not. This is disputed, as it is argued that intentionality is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for consciousness, as moods have no intentional objects and that non-conscious objects may refer beyond themselves. Nevertheless, the qualitative awareness means that the subject is not just reacting unreflectively to stimuli, but that there is a subjective experience or feel to their being in the world. This makes consciousness, which is subjective on most accounts, a hard phenomenon to explain in a universe that is viewed in purely physical objective terms.
This is the view that every event in the world is as it is because of some previous event, and tracing this back in turn through previous events has the result that no event could ever be different from what it is. The main problem this throws up is that of free will, and our capacity to choose and be responsible, including being held morally responsible, for our decisions and actions. Determinism seems to imply that we can act no differently than we do in any given situation, and that deliberate choice is an illusion.
The fact of determinism is undermined in a complex way by indeterminacy in the theory of quantum mechanics, where occurring events appear to be only probabilistic, or knowable as probabilities. But it is generally thought this does little or nothing to solve the free will problem. It still fails to allow for the normative, which may be held as a requirement for responsible choice.
Experience refers generally to our qualitative awareness or consciousness. Derivatively it may be our means of access to the world and our own minds, and to the way it is, insofar as such qualitative awareness grants it. More narrowly this is sometimes called perception. The question then arises as to how much experience can tell us about the nature of the world, or reality – how much of our experience is illusory or misleading as to the nature of reality, and how much we can use it to justify what we know about the way things are.
That experience is a means, or the only means, to having knowledge of the world divides empiricists and rationalists, the former being fundamentally positive about the contribution of experience, the latter contending that experience is inadequate and needs supplementing by reason, or that experience is wholly incapable of giving us fundamental knowledge of reality. Many philosophers propose a combined use of experience and reason in understanding the world. Experience is also viewed as a distinctive feature of consciousness, namely that there-is-something-it-is-like to be a conscious being such as a human, a subjectivity, whereas there is nothing-it-is-like to be a non-conscious thing, such as a rock.
Facts are the way the world is, and they are so independently of whether anyone knows or believes them to be so, or indeed whether they are referred to in any way at all. On one view of truth something is true if and only if it corresponds to the way the world is, and those ways the world is are facts. Facts are sometimes referred to as states of affairs.
This is a very broad term that covers both moral and non-moral matters which attribute some accolade or merit to something. In both cases it refers to an object, or act, or situation, that is either desirable in itself or apt for some result deemed desirable. Thus, a knife that is wide enough and not too sharp may be or is a good butter knife as it facilitates well buttering things. Being kind and helpful to someone in distress may be called good if the result thought right or appropriate is the lessening of suffering.
H: Human Rights
The idea of humans having rights is that they have a set of ways that they should be and should not be treated, and that they be able to do or not do certain things, which in a State are expressed in law and can be enforced. There are those who argue that people have certain rights prior to and independently of the existence of the State, and regardless of whether they can be enforced or not. They are called human rights, not only because they apply only to humans, but crucially because they apply purely in virtue of one’s being human, and for no other reason, such as societal position, power, or wealth, and as such they apply equally to all human beings. Such rights may be divided into inalienable rights and alienable rights. Inalienable rights are such that no-one, including the State, has the authority to remove them. Though it may be contended that it may occur in the case of an extreme emergency and breakdown of order, such as a war – even then that is questionable. Alienable rights are default presumptions which may under certain circumstances be balanced against other considerations, often concerning the rights of others, and may be annulled or restricted, though perhaps only temporarily. The question of which rights are which is open to debate. The right not to be brutally gratuitously beaten and tortured might count as an inalienable right. The right to freely associate with others might regarded as an alienable right, and might be removed if the association is regarded as a threat to peace, or to the state, or to the right of others not to be harmed. A right to do something makes it a presumption that one can do whatever the right allows whether what one does is morally right, correct, or not. Thus, I have a right to tell someone I do not like them even if morally in the circumstances it is cruel and hurtful.
A form of inference whereby one attempts through it to justify a general assertion or proposition amounting to a claim to knowledge on the basis of particular instances that fall under the generality. Usually these particular instances concern occurrences in the world which aim to justify the assertion of knowledge about some general assertion, such as that one can know that the sun will rise tomorrow and every day on the basis that it has done so every day in the past. The inference cannot be deductively logically (see logic) valid, as to assert the premises and deny the conclusion is never a logical contradiction, as it would be if the inference were deductive. Deductive arguments lead to conclusions that must be true if the premises are true, but inductive arguments lead only to conclusions that are supposedly probable if the premises are true.
It may be argued that the validity of the inference is based on causation, that is, that there is a real connection between one thing happening and another such that one has to follow it if the other does. However, the claim of causation would seem to be based on the validity of inductive inference rather than the other way around. Nor can the validity of inductive inference be based on the argument that inductive inference has been shown to work in the past so therefore it will work in the future, for this being itself an inductive inference would beg the question by assuming the validity of inductive inference, the very thing that the argument was meant to justify.
This has led some to conclude that induction can never be justified as a form of inference. However, this clashes in practice with what is often the actual justificatory practice of science and indeed in our everyday life. We form our view of what will happen on the basis of what has happened. When we leave a room and go back into it seconds later, we do not expect all the furniture in the room to have vanished. Some however say that induction is not the proper method of science, which should be falsification. Science should concern itself with testing theories by trying to falsify them, not corroborate them, and do this by finding some instance that fails to fit the theory. Rational credence should be given to the theory best tested in this way and not yet shown to be false.
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This gets applied in various ways, but as a generality to treatment being allotted on the basis of what people, or groups of people, deserve as guided by some set of moral principles. Thus a person may get a certain punishment that is deemed morally to be proportional and appropriate for a crime and someone else might be given the right amount of recompense for harm done to them. Justice is therefore often about balancing – it is traditionally represented by a set of scales – two or more things, and apportioning whatever is in question in a morally defensible manner.
What knowledge is, what counts as knowledge, is sometimes defined by the nature of its objects, sometimes by the nature of the way objects are apprehended, and sometimes by a combination of both. Thus, it is sometimes said that we know only necessary eternal truths, such as those of mathematics, or know only things we are immediately acquainted with in our experience and that involve no inference, such as experiencing a red patch.
However, there is also a traditional tripartite definition of knowledge that analyses a certain relationship we must have to what is known, namely that it is: true, justified, belief. Something cannot be said to be known unless it is true, and if we know something we believe it, and we have some sufficient justification for claiming that what we claim to know is true. The first of these conditions, that of truth, is relatively uncontroversial, though it has been challenged. But it would be odd to say that one knew something that turned out to be false.
The third condition, belief, is more contentious. It makes knowledge tied to a merely factual psychological state, which in addition some regard as irrelevant. It might be said, for example, that books contain knowledge but that no state of belief is involved. However, the thought is that belief is a lesser state of sureness than knowledge, and that if one knows something one must at least believe it.
The second condition of justification is the most difficult as it is hard to determine what degree or sort of justification is required for it to be sufficient to claim knowledge. Indeed, some argue that nothing will do, and that we may always find cases of true, justified, belief being satisfied which we would nevertheless not count as knowledge. However, the idea behind the justification requirement is that a state of knowing should not be a matter of mere chance – but even here, if one thinks of someone who gets the right answer to something every time, say the winner of a horse race, without knowing why, one would surely be tempted to say they know the winner. There are those who therefore say that knowledge cannot be defined, and that knowledge is luminous and thus we just intuit, or know, that one is in a state of knowledge when one is in it.
There are also others who say that even if we had a definition of knowledge we could never know it was correct. If the aim of the definition is to tell us what is or is not knowledge, then we cannot without circularity use it to determine if the definition is correct. Alternatively, it is hard to delineate any other way of claiming to know what knowledge is that could be used to assess the correctness of the definition.
Logic is a discipline which aims to formalise, if one prefers, generalise, what counts as a good and a bad argument. It does this by leaving behind the particular content of arguments – what the argument is about – and abstracting its form (or shape). In that way we may know that any argument with that form will be a good argument, or as it is termed in logic, a valid argument, regardless of the particular content. All arguments with that form will be valid. This leads, although it is not essential except for greater clarity, to the symbolization of argument forms where letters, such p and q, stand in for whole propositions (see proposition). Dealing with propositions in that way is called Propositional Logic.
Taking this further, one may look inside propositions, an analysis of their constituent parts. That is called Predicate Logic (see quantifier) and has its own internal technical problems and interests that are not only important to logicians, but also to philosophers of language.
Logical inferences fall into two sorts, deductive and inductive (see induction). Valid deductive inferences are such that to assert the premises and deny the conclusion would be a logical contradiction, which is not permitted because a contradiction is the assertion of and denial of the same proposition. Arguably this would result in the breakdown of all rational thinking (see reason). If the premises of a valid deductive argument are true, then the conclusion must be true also. A valid deductive argument with true premises is called a sound argument. In this way it may be said that valid deductive arguments with true premises are truth-preserving, or hypothetically, they are truth-preserving if the premises are true. The criterion for a valid inductive argument is more controversial, but is allegedly based on making a conclusion more probable on the basis of an accumulation of related instances.
This, or morality, often gets used interchangeably with ethics, though sometimes ethics is used to refer to the most theoretical reflection on what we are or may take to be guides to our conduct concerning our attitudes to, behaviour towards, and treatment of, others.
The moral concerns a particular form of values, it assigns a certain kind of meaning to some things, the understanding or judging that some things stand out and are more significant or important or have greater worth than others, and among those things they have it to a greater or lesser degree.
The three main theories of ethics or morals are deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. However, this is not exhaustive, not to mention that within each of the previously mentioned moral theories there are nuances and sub-theories.
The first, deontology, emphasises moral rules that must apply equally to all, and that these rules alone should guide our moral decisions, through which we set up the right moral intentions.
The second, utilitarianism, emphasises the consequences of our actions, and the maximisation of the overall good, determined in some way, in calculating our moral decisions.
The third, virtue ethics, concerns itself with moral virtues with which we should imbue our characters if we want to be in a position to increase the likelihood that we will act morally well.
The basis of any moral theory is highly contentious, as in a universe conceived as having its full description in physical laws, it is hard to see how normative values essential to moral thinking and action (as opposed to a mere description of what we do) can have a place (see will).
Normative, or normativity, denotes the capacity to follow a rule, as opposed to merely acting in accord with a rule. A falling rock will fall in accord with the rule, or law, governing free falling bodies subject to gravitation, but the rock is not following the rule or law. However, a person may be said to be following a rule when they do so in respect of, say, the rule never to tell lies, or not to walk on the grass, or to write 4 after the sum 2+2=.
Following a rule involves an understanding or grasping of the rule, what it means, and a decision to act in accord with it. Essential is that one may choose to follow or not to follow the rule. Creatures that are capable of following a rule are generally picked out by our being able to say of them that they have done something correctly or made a mistake. A rock cannot make a mistake, as a rock does what a rock does, and if counterfactually a rock did not fall according to the law governing falling bodies, it would be the law that was wrong, not the rock making a mistake. Thus, we attribute the capacity for moral (see morals) mistakes, responsibility, and culpability to human beings (or persons), whereas we might say ‘bad dog’ when it fails to act in accord with its training rule, but we do not really mean it, as a dog cannot be said to be following a rule but merely acting or not acting in accord with a rule. Normativity allows us properly to apply the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ in the sense of something required whether it factually occurs or not. Otherwise, without the normative, things merely happen or do not happen.
How far does our responsibility extend? What can we rightly be regarded as responsible for?
This is the part of philosophy that concerns itself with what and how things exist. Many of the disputes over ontology centre on three kinds of ways of being or existence: the physical, the mental, the transcendental, and whether one or some combination of them exists. This is often being dealt with by arguing for the reducibility of one kind of being to another doing away with the need to suppose that that the reduced form of existence need be actual. Another alternative supposed way of viewing existence is monism, wherein all apparent modes of existence, such as those just cited, are reduced to one underlying mode from which their appearance to us derives.
A proposition is the meaning of a sentence. This common meaning can be extended across different languages, so they are said to express the same proposition even though their mode of expression is different. Thus the same proposition is expressed by the sentences ‘Il pleut’, ‘Es regnet’ and ‘It is raining’. A proposition may also be said to be the meaning of a complete thought. Propositions are declarative, that is they declare, or state, that something is the case. They are also intentional in that they may be said to express intentional thought, that is, one that is about something (see consciousness). It is therefore said that propositions have the general form (see logic) of f(x), where x is an object and f some property or feature the object is said to have. ‘The ball (x) is blue (f).’
This refers to a symbol in logic. It takes two forms: the universal (∀) and existential (∃) quantifier. Respectively ‘all’ and ‘some’, where some means at least one. Quantifiers allow one to break a proposition down into its constituent parts, to look inside a proposition. This significantly increases the ability to assess with more detailed formal analysis the validity of arguments. Logic that involves quantifiers is called Predicate Logic, and the part of logic that deals with whole propositions Propositional Logic. In this way one can symbolise not only that an object or entity has a certain property, but also whether all or some of such objects or entities have that property. Thus one may express the proposition ‘All frogs are green’ as (∀x)Gx and ‘Some frogs are green’ as (∃x)Gx, where ‘x’ stands for ‘frog’ and ‘G’ stands for green.
Reason indicates a way of coming to a conclusion about what is the case or what one should think about something through it being based on premises – beginning statements – and a correct process of inference, moving through other statements, that leads to that conclusion in such a way that the conclusion is genuinely supported as true. Most simply put, one does the best one can to be sure the premises are correct and is as careful as one can be in drawing only conclusions that actually follow from those premises.
Reason is a normative process. In addition, reason involves the willingness to change one’s view or conclusion, admit one is wrong, should the arguments or evidence alter and indicate that one should. One might add that it also involves a certain open-mindedness to get to the point of changing one’s mind, even seeking out the possibility. This as opposed to sticking to a view or conclusion come what may. The rational contrasts with the irrational – coming to conclusions on the basis of premises and processes of inference that make no sense as ways of coming to the conclusions, with an expectation of showing them to be true.
It also contrasts with the arational (non-rational) – a causal process in which no inferential process is involved, or is not the decisive feature of the process that leads one to the conclusion. In certain circumstances, nevertheless, this may be the best or only way to reach the conclusion.
The arational should not be confused with the irrational. An example of the irrational would be the argument that the sun shines because ducks can quack. An example of the arational would be coming to the realisation that one loves someone.
This refers to doubts about our ability to know (see knowledge). Scepticism may be narrow or wide, and vary in degree of depth. We might be sceptical about the extent to which through our senses we can have knowledge of the world – how much our senses deceive us and how much they give us a true picture of reality. Plainly our senses do deceive us sometimes and in some respects – the mirage in the desert – but scepticism would extend this, and extreme scepticism would take it to the point that our senses can never give us knowledge of the external world. In this instance scepticism might coincide with solipsism, the view that all we can really know is the contents of our own thoughts. However, scepticism need not only apply to the senses and may be applied to anything we claim to know, including mathematical and logical truths. Indeed, it is hard to find anything that we could not in principle doubt the truth of. This in turn leads to the question of how we could ever know anything to be true, as we have no sure starting place. A degree of scepticism is by most thought to be perfectly justifiable as it evokes questioning and testing of claims and idea, whereas very extensive or absolute scepticism is said to be more difficult to justify – or indeed sustain – and is ultimately stultifying to any claims to knowledge.
One way of thinking about and getting an understanding of Kant’s Categories is to draw an analogy with the Stevenson Screen. This article sheds light on what Kant’s Categories are and how they function in our understanding of the world.
An idea or set of ideas about why and how something is the case. Thus we might have a theory about why and how rainbows form, or why and how the earth tracks a particular orbit around the sun. The word is sometimes used interchangeably with hypothesis, though theory tends to refer to views that have been more tested and established – those that are even less so than either in testing and being established are sometimes called conjectures. Theories can simply come from a stroke of inspiration, or grow from sets of repeated observations, and it matters not which, for the main thing is that the theory, especially if it is a scientific theory, is tested against reality. This is done by inferring observations from the theory which should, if the theory is sound, turn out to be true, by some mode of verification. There may be various theories concerning a common matter, and it is argued that the only rational (see reason) way to proceed is to believe, at least for the time being, the theory that is best tested and not refuted.
This refers to what it is that makes several instances of something the same kind of thing, sort, or type. Thus ‘red’ is a universal, and it is what all instances of red have in common. The next question is what the ontological (see ontology) status or nature of these universals is. Some suppose that they must exist independently, perhaps transcendentally, of all the particular instances which instantiate them. Others however contend that such positing of transcendental universals is extravagant and unnecessary, and the reference to a universal is only another way of referring to the collection of its instances.
The process of showing or determining something to be true. If something is true whatever is said to be true is the case. Something can be true without being verified. So a truth might be unverified. A truth may further be regarded as unverifiable, but things become more complicated as this splits into two senses of unverifiable. One sense is that something is unverifiable in practice. For example, there might be a small pink stone balanced on a green stone on a planet millions of light-years away. This is way beyond what is possible for us to verify, but not logically impossible to do so and there is no logical contradiction (see logic) involved. The second sense is that something may be unverifiable in principle – for this comes with contentions as to what verifying something would have to involve that may be judged impossible.
Being unverifiable in principle has led some philosophers to argue that there cannot be such truths, and that any putative assertion of such truths is meaningless nonsense, as the meaning of the truth, if it is meaningful, must be fully fleshed out in what its verification would be.
Will is said by some to be a force that brings about change and movement. It can be thought to be all-pervasive or localized. In the former case it can be either blind and purposeless or guided by some putative higher power to some end or ends. If localized, often it is argued that only humans – or perhaps persons – possess will. It is through the harnessing of it within themselves that they can guide their lives, their thoughts and actions, and do so freely in a way that means they have genuine choice and responsibility for what they think, do, and who they are. In which case they are said to possess free will. Plainly inanimate objects, and it is sometimes supposed non-human animals, possess no such free will, but are simply determined to do what they do by causal forces acting upon and within them, determining an inevitable outcome. It is controversial, however, how human beings can possess free will and somehow, as might seem to be required, stand aside from the strict causal necessity, or determinism, of the rest of the universe, or how alternatively they can possess free will in some meaningful sense while still being fully within the realm of causal determination.
Xenophon of Colophon (fl. 504 BC). He made his most important contribution to epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and seems to have been an early empiricist of a strict sort, in that he argued that we should not claim knowledge beyond that which we immediately and directly experience, and all beyond that we should merely claim to have opinions that are true taken or inferred from what we may immediately and directly experience.
This is the idea in Chinese thought that there are two great opposite but complementary – that is to say, completing – forces, that combine into chi that govern all aspects of the entire universe. Thus there is male/female, black/white, dark/light, soft/hard, and so on.
Zeno of Elea (fl. 464 BC) is best known for his so-called paradoxes. He was one of the so-called Eleatic philosophers, a number of philosophers who predate Socrates, also known as Presocratics. Zeno’s paradoxes fall into two groups, those of plurality and those of motion. The motivation for the paradoxes is to show that there are inherent contradictions in the way we think about reality. Plurality: if we take any object, it must either have size or be nothing. But any parts with size must be divisible into further parts. In that case we must end with an infinite number of parts. If the parts are nothing, then the whole would be nothing, and if the parts have size because they are infinite in number any whole they form would be infinitely large. So either nothing exists or everything is infinitely large. Motion: the most famous case is that of Achilles and the Tortoise. They are in a race, and Achilles being very quick gives the Tortoise a head start. The paradox is that it seems as though Achilles can never pass the Tortoise for however quickly he runs, by the time he gets to where the Tortoise was, when he has covered the distance between them, the Tortoise will have moved on. A similar paradox arises in walking across a room, which becomes impossible because each step may be divided into an infinite number of smaller steps, and it is impossible to complete an infinite number of steps in a finite time – it is impossible therefore even to take the first step. It has been argued that the mathematics of differential and integral calculus dispel these paradoxes, but not everyone agrees that is so.
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Dr John Shand is a Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the Open University. He studied philosophy at the University of Manchester and King’s College, University of Cambridge. He has taught at Cambridge, Manchester and the Open University. The author of numerous articles, reviews, and edited books, his own books include, Arguing Well (London: Routledge, 2000) and Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014).
- Dr John Shand, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom.
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Cover image: The Voynich manuscript (15th century, public domain).