Rule 9 for history of philosophy: learn the terminology

Posted on 29 September 2014

Rule 9: Learn the terminology

Another obvious one, perhaps, but also worth mentioning. Not all philosophers develop their own technical or semi-technical vocabulary, but many do. (Sometimes even those who officially make a big deal out of not worrying about terminology, like Plato.) When reading any philosopher, you need to know which words have a technical meaning and what they mean – this obviously requires knowing at least enough of the primary language to track the terms in question. (I actually considered having a more general rule to the effect of “learn the primary language,” but I worry that this could be discouraging: please do read Plato, even if you can’t read Greek! Still, it really does go without saying that there is a significant sense in which you can’t in fact read Plato if you can’t read Greek.)

This is another rule that has to do with avoiding anachronism. The more we know about a philosopher’s language, including not only the way terms were generally used at his or her time but also the way that this philosopher in particular uses terms, the less likely we are to import our own assumptions about what these terms must mean. There are many examples where scholars have pointed out that interpreters have mistakenly been taking a given word to mean what we now today would mean by it, whereas actually it meant something different – one that comes to mind is “cause” in Aristotle. The best way to guard against such mistakes is to track the use of a word across the philosopher’s works, using context (both in these works and in other works of the time) to get a better grip on exactly what the word means.

Tina Lee 30 September 2014

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I had the hardest time figuring out Kant's terminology in The Critique of Pure Reason. I found that in the end, I simply had to ask the professor! Now I'm feeling like a cheater...

Well, I vaguely remember Kant himself giving a verbal spanking to anyone who used the word 'idea' in a broad sense. I presume he was thinking of his contemporary German audience and people who use the word casually to mean any thought whatsoever. So maybe I won't feel so bad if his contemporaries were as loose with language as I am.

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Yes, Kant's terminology is difficult (for Germans too, I believe). Hopefully I can do something to decode it for you and other listeners when I get to him!

Philipp Wagner 9 October 2014

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One of the problems with Kant is that he - would you belive it - sometimes isn't very strict with his terminology. Personally I love Eislers's Kant Lexikon. It gives lenghty definitions for the terms from within Kant's work making extensive use of quotations from his books. It helped me a great deal when I first had to come to terms with Kant.

Tina 12 October 2014

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I actually do believe it. I came across a passage in which two contrary definitions of time or space (I can't remember which one at the moment) were given in the same paragraph! I believe I threw the book across the room at this point because I blamed myself for not understanding rather than Kant for being confusing.

I wish I had had that Lexikon when I took the course! That would have been very useful. Well, if I ever decide to trudge through the Critique of Pure Reason again, I'll make sure I have that at hand.

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