Philosophical Terms

Philosophical Definitions: Short and Practical

Below in alphabetical order are some short and easy to read definitions of philosophical terms. Nobody is going to learn philosophy by just reading them, but if you have already come across a term – or the field of inquiry in which the term is used - you may find the thumbnail definition useful as a summary of an idea, or for provoking thought.

Abstraction is the process in thought in which information is extracted from a source, e.g. sense perceptions, and is then usually expressed, or re-expressed, in language. Abstraction involves the selection and exclusion of information.

Analysis is the detailed examination of the elements and structure of something. The analytic process selects a phenomenon, concept or proposition and looks inside it. For example if we take the statement “The cheese is on the table.” we can examine its elements such as cheese and table and see what each means and how they structured in relation to one another. If - to take a completely different example - we analyse the concept of law, we would ask what law meant, what types of law there were, etc. In the process of producing knowledge, analysis is a necessary but insufficient step in examining something. Analysis, which looks into a thing, needs to be supplemented with synthesis which examines a thing in relation to other things external to it.

Angst refers to the fear, anxiety and mental unease in human beings which is a universal and unavoidable feature of the human condition. The sensation of angst springs from the fact that for all individuals their future is, at least some degree, uncertain and will inevitably terminate in death, while in life people have - or at least believe they have - choices which will impact on their life. Secularisation and diverse ethical values in modern society have broken down the religious and social certainties that existed in, say, feudal society and have so increased angst. Angst is not necessarily a negative feature of life: for many to recognise and explore our angst is what life is about. The majority, though, seek to flee angst by escaping into inauthenticity: i.e. unquestioningly doing what others do, simply because it is what one does. Mass culture (e.g. junk movies) is often seen as an escape from angst.

Dialectics refers to a process which explains change in the world (nature, social affairs and/or ways of thinking). The theory holds that any complex situation (such as society at a given point in time) contains within it tensions, conflicts and contradictions, which bring about change. Once a new situation is established that too is subject to tensions, conflicts and contradictions, and so on.

Empirical knowledge is information the veracity of which can be tested by enquiring whether it corresponds to the external world. Empirical knowledge may be primary; i.e. the thinking subject has gained the information by using his own senses; e.g. a person knows that the cheese is on the table because he has seen it there. Or the the knowledge may be secondary; ie. it has come indirectly by language, pictures, etc.

A theory of factors holds that in the explanation of the existence of something or of an event, it is possible to draw up a list of causes. For example, if we want to explain why Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, we can identify economic, political and ideological causes. However this approach may be limited in two ways. First, though there may be a range of factors which bring about an event, the mere identification of factors tells us nothing about the importance or weight of different factors. Some may be trivial compared with others. Second, the factors that we identify are not independent of one another, but are all connected in a complex way, thus forming a complex whole. Nevertheless, identifying factors is usually a valid step in any analysis.

Geworfenheit (having-been-thrown-ness) refers to that aspect of the human condition in which a person, repeatedly and inevitably, finds him/herself in an already pre-created situation. When in childhood, for instance, a child first becomes conscious of its own existence, it is already in a particular place and time, has a language, ideas in its head, relationships to other people, etc. The fact that human beings are inevitably thrown into an already constituted environment in itself makes no judgement on the existence of free will. Geworfenheit is also consistent with sociological notions of socialisation, in so far as socialisation is recognised as an inevitable aspect of human existence. The methodological importance of Geworfenheit is that it makes no sense to study the human subject and its thought as existing prior to or separate from the world.

Historical materialism is a theory for explaining human society and its history. The starting point is to see human history and society as the result of men and woman working within and against nature in complex forms of social organisation to produce and reproduce their lives.

Historicism is a theory which maintains that any thing, thought, event or situation came about as a result of historical development and can only be understood in its historical context. Strong versions of historicism further maintain that the subject (i.e. the knowledge seeker) is himself embedded, through education and upbringing in a particular, in a historical context, which affects and limits how he sees the world. Historicism, though a useful tool in social analysis, has two shortcomings, if its strong version is not qualified in some way. First, if every mode of thinking, including scientific thinking, is a product of its age, then objective (i.e. non epoch-dependent) knowledge is impossible. Second, historicism ignores the fact that the past is always understood with the conceptual tools of the present, and therefore a fully historicist analysis is impossible.

An inference results from the combination of three elements. The first is a piece of information (e.g. The cheese is on the table) which the mind receives through sense data – or, if secondary, when somebody else has given us the information. The second is a rule, either absolute or probabilistic, which we apply to the situation (e.g. Household objects are in the place they are because a human being has put them there). The third is the deployment of logic to the situation. Using logic we combine the rule and the information to draw an inferential conclusion, (e.g. A human being put the cheese on the table.). Interestingly, both the rule and logic are wholly separate from the observation which prompts the inference.

Kantian (neo-Kantian) is the belief that all knowledge is by necessity subject dependent; i.e. dependent on what the knower has in his or her head. What we know about the world depends, not only on sense data from objects in the world, but also on our sensory faculties (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) and our means of comprehending what we see, read, hear, etc.

Mattering (die Sorge, care, concern) refers to the fact that something has to matter in some way before we think about it or have some kind of mental orientation towards it. If we think about something (e.g. try to identify it, analyse it, synthesise it), plan some action, have some feeling about something, etc., we do so because the target of our mental activity matters to us in some way. All consciousness is consciousness of something, so what we have consciousness of has to matter to us. And what matters to us depends on the mood (i.e. mental state) we are in. Our mood can change, but the human being can never be moodless.

Mood is the affective (i.e. of feeling) relationship which a person possesses towards a thing or state of affairs. For instance, the fact, the cheese is on the table, may cause the subject to be happy, disgusted, outraged, depressed, amused, etc. Moods are important as they endow facts and situations with significance and meaning. The mood of the subject will affect his/her behaviour and may impact on others, thus altering a situation.

phenomenon (plural phenomena) is how a thing, process or event appears in our minds. These appearances result from sense data gained through sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. In using the term phenomenon, we imply a distinction between the phenomenon of a thing (how something appears) and the thing itself (how it actually is). Yet on closer examination this distinction is one of necessity: the phenomenon of a chair, to take an example, is a concept or activity in the brain, which relates to, but it not the same thing as, the chair itself. Human beings can only have direct experience of the phenomena of things, never the thing itself.

postulate is an assertion which the author of a text states without providing evidence or justification for it. Every text necessarily involves postulates, as any attempt to provide evidence for them would in turn require and involve further postulates. One common postulate in philosophical discourse is the so-called materialist postulate, namely the assumption that the world of physical objects exists independently of the mind of the thinking subject. (Note: A postulate refers to statements but a similar situation applies to terms: some terms must always be left undefined because defining a term in turn involves mentioning new terms)

Science is the rigorous inquiry into a subject matter using reason and information garnered from the world. Problems arise concerning the delimitation and definition of what constitutes a subject matter, as well as the correct procedures for using reason and collecting valid information.

Sense data are the pieces of information which enter the mind when we experience objects in the world. The mind receives the information through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, and then “digests” it: i.e. by recognising the object as that object, separating the object from other things, etc. Understanding thus has two inseparable sources: (i) the sense data provided by the object and (ii) the pre-existing concepts of the mind which identify, and organise that raw material into something sensible.

Synthesis is the consideration of something (phenomenon, concept, proposition) in relation to other things in its environment, and is based on the recognition that anything has the qualities it does because of its environment. For example cheese exists and has the properties it does on account of range of factors: temperature in the room, the fact that it is edible and for that reason it is made, etc. The examination of the functions of things (cheese, families, umbrellas) involves synthetic consideration. Thought about phenomena involves a process of analysis and synthesis. The analysis of something (e.g. law) will prompt synthetic consideration (e.g. what is the function of law), and conversely synthesis will raise issues for analysis.

term is a word (or sometimes a group of words) in a language which corresponds to a concept in the mind. For example, the term table connects to the non-linguistic concepttable in our head. The phenomenon (i.e. appearance) of a table, resulting from our perception of a particular table in the world, connects with the concept table in the mind. Thus, in talking about objects in the world, three words are used: (i) the phenomenon – what we see when we look at the table, (ii) the concept of a table in the mind, and (iii) the term table, which we use to talk about it.

Understanding is the process in which sense data coming from the world is brought under pre-existing concepts in the mind, so that something can be made sensible and comprehensible.

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