Philosophical Concepts and Related Terminology

Aesthetics=study of the principles of art, the concepts of beauty, style, genre, principles of evaluation of art works, ontological status of art works, and the like.

Aesthetic life= in Kierkegaard, a life lived for enjoyment.  The truly refined aesthete tries to control his experience and make his life beautiful, like a work of art (thus the connection to aesthetics, q.v.).  But even the crudest and least reflective person who basically lives for pleasure would be classified as an "aesthete" or as the liver of an "aesthetic life" by Kierkegaard.

A priori= known to be true independently of (or "prior" to) experience.  I know that 2+2=4 without doing experiments or making observations, so I know it a priori. An a priori statement is one that can be known in this way.

A posteriori= known on the basis of or after ("posterior" to) experience.  I know it is raining by looking, standing outside, or consulting other reliable indicators. An a posteriori statement is one that can be known in this way.

Determinism - The idea that everything that happens, from the motions of the planets to the decay of dead plants to the actions of human beings, is determined by prior conditions. Thus there can be no free will on the part of human beings, nor can outside agents (God or the Gods) have an effect upon the course of events. The atomists were determinists in the ancient world.  Many modern thinkers, under the influence of science, adopted a similar view.  Determinism in this sense should probably be distinguished from fatalism, the idea that everything that happens happens because it was fated to be so, and from the idea that everything happens according the plan of God.

Dialectic, Dialectical - Dialectic is a process of argument in which contradictory or opposing views are pitted against one another so as to "fight it out" and arrive at the truth. In a sense all thought might be considered dialectical, given that the aim of thought is truth, and truth can only be discovered by showing how any given claim survives challenges from opposing claims.

Empiricism - The view that knowledge is gained primarily or entirely through the five senses.  Empiricists thus emphasize the importance of observation and "fact gathering." Since neither God nor the soul could be observed by the use of the five senses, a strict empiricist would have to deny that we can have knowledge of such things.

Epistemology - That part of philosophical inquiry which focuses on the nature and sources of knowledge.  What is knowledge?  can there be knowledge? and if there can be, is it acquired primarily through the senses (as "empiricists" say) or through "reason"(as rationalists claim)?

Enlightenment= that historical period in which the source of "enlightenment" (that is, true knowledge, as opposed to ignorance and superstition) was thought to be reason operating independently of tradition, religion, etc. Strongest in 18th century France, where it culminated in the revolution of 1789 when the the "traditional" monarchy and many other traditions were cast aside and an attempt was made to base society on pure reason.

Immediacy, the immediate= what is unmediated by, for example, thought.  If I am simply immersed in the pure experience of enjoying a hot fudge sundae, and do not think about, for example, whether this is soft serve or real ice cream, then my experience is immediate, I am passive in relation to it, it just happens to me (the gustatory sensations  just take place).  My visual experience of the color of a book cover is "immediate."  Some philosophers have questioned whether this any such thing as pure immediacy, unaffected by training, the acquisition of concepts, etc. The concept can be extended to cover other conditions which I inherit or suffer.  For example, many of the moral and religious beliefs I had as child may have been "immediate" in the sense that I did not think about them, but simply accepted them, lived in them, without thought or criticism or any attempt to consider alternative beliefs (cf. "dialectic" in this connection.  Immediate beliefs are "undialectical" in one sense).

Metaphysics - That part of philosophical inquiry which attempts to answer such questions as "what is real?", "what really exists?" or "what are the ultimate, irreducible constitutents of reality?"  Some typical metaphysical discussions center on such issues as whether or not the mind is distinct from something physical (for example, the brain), whether there are "universals"(q.v.) and if so what kind of being they have, whether there is or could be such a being as God.

Monism - The metaphysical position that there is only one reality, or one kind of underlying reality.  Parmenides was a strict monist when he declared that reality is one, indivisible, etc.  Physicalists are monists in that they claim there is only one kind of reality, i.e. physical reality (so, there are no non-physical aspects to thought, no spirits or Gods or ghosts on their view).

Nomos - Literally, law, or custom.  Ancient philosophers debated whether particular conceptions of justice, certain views of human nature, etc. were simply conventional, a matter of nomos, or rather a matter of nature, Physis.  A modern version of this dispute might be the following: some people argue that women are meant for child rearing and home making "by nature", whereas others regard such gender specific roles as merely a matter of convention or custom (nomos), or another words, ideas which have grown up in particular societies and could be changed.

Physis - see Nomos.

 Pluralism - A metaphysical position opposed to Monism.  The idea that ultimate reality is constituted by more than one thing or kind of thing. Most people are pluralists, since most people believe that there are many basic kinds, or at any rate more than one (for example, some would claim there are at least two kinds, matter and mind. cf. "Cartesian Dualism."

Rationalism - The view that knowledge is aquired through reason, without the aid of the senses.  Perhaps the best example of such knowledge would be mathematical knowledge, but rationalists typically argue that many other important truths can also be grasped by reason.  Plato and Descartes are two of the main representatives of this position.

Relativism - The view that there is no absolute truth.  A truth is "absolute" if it does not depend upon particular people at particular times and places. Thus a relativist holds that all truths are "relative to" particular cultures, particular times and places, or even particular individuals. A MORAL relativist holds that moral truths (e.g. lying is wrong) are "relative." By this he apparently means that 'lying is wrong' could be true in one culture but false in another, or even that 'lying is wrong' might be true for me but false for you, even though there is no pertinent difference between your situation and mine. Obviously the words 'true' and 'false' are being used in some unusual way in these claims.  Relativist thinking is often expressed in such remarks as 'what's right for you is right for you but not for me' or 'everyone's truth is as good as everyone elses' and similar remarks.

Teleology - An account of something in terms of goals or purposes or aims or functions.  An explanation of why a plant's leaves turn towards light in terms of the PURPOSE SERVED (e.g. 'they turn for the purpose of photosynthesizing') would be a TELEOLOGICAL EXPLANATION. Common sense explanations of human actions are typically teleological (see if you can provide your own example).  Since about the 17th century scientists have tended to shun teleological explanations.

Universals  General terms, terms which apply to more than one thing, such as 'dog' or 'black.'  At least from Plato on philosophers have argued about the status of universals.  Are they mere words, are they concepts in the mind, or are they independent of the mind, are they in any way "in" the things which instantiate them (e.g. particular dogs like fido, or particular black things)?

Utilitarianism  The view, in ethics, that the morally right action is that action which promotes or tends to produce the best overall consequences.  Which consequences count as "best" may vary between utilitarian systems, but one typical idea, which can be found in one of the first and most influential utilitarians, J.S.Mill, is that the best consequences of acts are those in which happiness or pleasure (or at least reduction of pain) are maximized for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is usually a consequentialist view and tends towards optimism about the human condition provided the calculative aspects of reason are developed and used.