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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Annotation on Philosophical Dictionaries

Note: I am reviewing a number of philosophical dictionaries and trying to put them into some kind of order. Here is one way to sort out the dictionaries I have used with some thoughts about two that I have consulted over the years, sometimes with delight, more often with consternation. 

Analytic Philosophy

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Second Edition) edited by Robert Audi (1999)
A Dictionary of Philosophy (Revised Second Edition) by Antony Flew (1979)
Key Terms in Philosophy of Mind by Pete Mandik (2010)

Continental Philosophy

Keywords by Raymond Williams (1983)
Dictionary of Critical Theory by David Macey (2001)
Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies: Dictionnaire des Intraduisables edited by Barbara Cassin (2004) *

* This is the most scholary and edifying of the dictionaries I have in my possession. See review: Howard Caygill. From Abstraction to Wunsch: The Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies. Radical Philosophy, 138 (July-August 2006): 10-14.

Particular Philosophers in the Continental Tradition

Dictionnaire Sartre edited by François Noudelmann and Gilles Philippe (2004)
Le Vocabulaire de Sartre by Philippe Cabestan and Arnaud Tomes (2001)
A Derrida Dictionary by Niall Lucy (2004)
The Derrida Dictionary by Simon Morgan Wortham (2010)
The Agamben Dictionary edited by Alex Murray and Jessica Whyte (2011)
“Glossary of Zizekian Terms” in Zizek: A Critical Introduction by Sarah Kay (2003)

Alain Badiou provides his own scholarly definitions in his two-volume magnus opus:
Being and Event (2005) has a substantial “Dictionary”
Logics of Worlds (2009) has a “Dictionary of Concepts”

Special Studies

Plastic Words by Uwe Poerksen (1995)
Annotation and Its Texts edited by Stephen A. Barney (1991)

Philosophical Dictionaries in the Analytic/Scientific Tradition

Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology by PB Medawar and JS Medawar (1983)

Philosophical Dictionary (Enlarged Edition) by Mario Bunge (2003)

There are certain kinds of scientists who believe that their achievements in their domains authorize their pontifications in others. I can formulate a general rule for this in the biological and social sciences: the greater the scientific stance, the more the insistence on correctly understanding and resolving philosophical problems. In psychology, for example, phenomenological and humanistic psychology are not presented as scientific and do not pretend to resolve philosophical problems. Rather, they address philosophical problems or pose new ones. The texts of physiological psychology, behaviorism and later cognitive psychology are filled with pronouncements on the history of science with a similar, well-rehearsed narrative: that the evolution of science is from superstition to philosophy to pseudoscience to scientific psychology. The emblem and avatar of this approach is in Steven Kosslyn’s statement that cognitive psychology had the means to resolve questions that have been “hopelessly metaphysical.” The difference becomes clear by adapting Alain Badiou’s notion of philosophy and its conditions. In this view, philosophy has allowed itself to be “sutured” or subordinated to its four conditions (politics, science, love, art). So the question becomes does psychology (or some other supposed science, from biology to physics) “suture” or subordinate philosophy or does philosophy remain autonomous as “the queen of the sciences”?  

Peter Medawar was a brilliant biologist who made signal contributions to biological research and medicine for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The dictionary he wrote with his partner, JS Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology (1983) which the dust jacket advertises as “in the spirit of Voltaire,” demonstrates the extent to which even accomplished researchers endorse an ideology. In Medawar’s case, he cannot plead ignorance as he was a known polymath, and his dictionary is a canny combination of scientific reasoning at its best along with selective readings of the history of science, philosophy and other areas. What this dictionary does, like all such works, from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary to Diderot’s encyclopaedia, is to propound an ideology. Medawar’s animus against psychology and psychoanalysis in particular, the social sciences in general, and philosophy and theology more broadly, are evident throughout.

The same spirit is evident in Mario Bunge’s Philosophical Dictionary (Enlarged Edition, 2003). Unlike Medawar’s dictionary which mentions Voltaire in his Preface, Bunge appropriates Voltaire’s title and style without so much as a nod. Bunge, whose first training was in physics and mathematics, demonstrates the extent of Badiou’s contention that philosophy has become sutured to its “conditions”—in the case of the Medawar and Bunge dictionary, to science. His brief Foreword offers, nonetheless, the kind of self-referential prose that wooden satire engenders.

Medawar’s mini-essay gems on “Eugenics” and “Form and Mathematics” are offset by fluff pieces on “Missing Links” and “Illness.” On the latter, his thinking is mundane and neither critical nor inspiring. In between are open-minded reappraisals of such notions as “Atavism” and “Behaviorism” and his essay on “Aristotle.” It is undoubtedly useful to have a working scientist read Aristotle and appraise how biologists understand him in our day. Against all expectation that a Nobelist in Medicine would have something of value to say, his essay on “Biology in Medical Education” is typical of his style of citing some arcane sources, hinting at what he considers common knowledge (although I trained in England, I have no idea of the traditions he is referring to) and concluding through an oblique process with a very specific biological example, the relevance of which lesser mortals are to divine.

An antidote to such pretensions is to be found in Karl Jaspers’ reviews of Einstein’s philosophical speculations. However brilliant Einstein was in physics and however much it may interest us to know what and how he thought about other subjects, I endorse Jaspers’ conclusions that no serious philosophy awaits us there.

Conclusion: These two scientists with philosophical inclinations (one the winner of a real Nobel Prize and the other the winner of what he described to me as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in philosophy) demonstrate how science has attempted to suture philosophy into its discourse. In throwing their nets far and wide, both of them indicate that the contemporary attitude of scientists is that they can put the entire house of knowledge in order, from Greek philosophy to Marxism and from psychoanalysis to sociology.


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