Ethical Realism

October 5, 2010

Corruption of Philosophical Language

Filed under: outreach,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:02 pm
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The vocabulary of philosophy is being corrupted to the point that thinking philosophically is now difficult and considered offensive, which contributes to the marginalization of philosophy and assures us that philosophy will have a negligible impact on society. I will discuss the history of philosophical language, why thinking philosophically is so difficult without the appropriate language, and how exactly the philosophical language is being corrupted.

1. The history of philosophical language

There was a time when we knew little to nothing about logic or philosophy, and the mere idea of philosophy was misunderstood to the point that people worried that it was a form of deception. Eventually Plato and Aristotle established a strong understanding of these subjects, which eventually developed a change in vocabulary that made thinking philosophically become much easier to the point that it could seem natural.1 This helped philosophy spread like wildfire. Many people were very interested in learning how to think for themselves and they hoped to discover the truth about reality.

At one point logic and philosophy were educational requirements. All educated people knew at least something about these subjects, and the philosophical language started to become part of language as a whole. That is no longer the case, and higher philosophy education has become a very strange and unusual.

2. Why thinking philosophically is difficult without the language

We still have the philosophical vocabulary, but the meanings of the words within everyday language is being corrupted.2 Philosophers know what these words are supposed to mean, but most people associate the wrong ideas to these words. Although thinking philosophically is natural for human beings, it is now widely considered to be “offensive,” and thinking philosophically is much more difficult and strange when the philosophical vocabulary is missing. We have a hard time thinking about something if it lacks a word. Imagine if we didn’t have a word for germs. A culture without that word would never see germs and they probably wouldn’t think about germs. They might not wash their hands as often and get sick.

What about a culture that lacks a word for “logic?” Such a culture would have a hard time understanding that some arguments are better than others. Arguments might not be thought to be effective tools because they can be used to come up with false assertions. There’s no reason to trust a tool if it doesn’t provide us with the right results.

The result is that the lack of philosophical words has contributed in making philosophy nearly non-existent in public life. Philosophy now exists primarily among the very few eccentric professional philosophers (and to some extent scientists).

In a bizarre twist of events, philosophical words do retain some of their original meaning. Consider how the word “criticism” is taken to mean something like “insult,” but a philosophical objection is also taken to be an insult. People realize that arguments intended to prove something false are “criticisms” but they mix the two words together. People equivocate the philosophical word “criticism” with insults. If you present an argument to prove a person’s beliefs false, you are believed to be insulting that person. The result is that philosophy has become increasingly objectionable and offensive.

3. How philosophical language is being corrupted.

How exactly are philosophical words being distorted over time? Here are some examples:

Word Distorted definition Philosophical definition
philosophy Personal policy or belief. Method to try to answer difficult questions in the most reasonable way possible.
logical What “sounds good” to you. An argument that contains no formal errors and requires no unjustified assumptions.
argument A hostile interaction or verbal attack. A reason to believe something in the form of a string of statements.
criticism An insult. An argument presented to show a belief to be (probably) false.
questioning To imply an insult. The beginning process of research and knowledge formation, and an inquiry into someone’s reasoning process.
debate A hostile disagreement. A disagreement being presented in the form of arguments.
Rational belief A belief that “sounds good” to you. A belief that’s sufficiently justified.
valid What “sounds good” to you. An argument that contains no formal errors. If a certain string of statements are true, then the argument’s conclusion must be true.
dialectic N/A A series of arguments that lead to higher forms of knowledge.


The language of philosophy is being corrupted to the point that philosophy as philosophers understand it “simply can’t exist.” Instead, philosophy, when it enters the public sphere, is often seen as offensive and insulting.

However, there is good news. Philosophy is possible despite the attitudes people have. We don’t have to merely rely on religious and scientific authority to tell us what to believe. We can learn to think for ourselves and figure out which arguments are well reasoned and which ones aren’t.

Update (10/8/2010): I added an endnote to refer to Monty Python’s sketch, The Argument Clinic.


1 Of course, the language for philosophy might have already been developed to some extent by certain professional lawyers or sophists. Such people could have helped make way for philosophy and helped people think philosophically.

2 One example of this is well illustrated by Monty Python’s sketch, “The Argument Clinic” This sketch makes fun of the way many people understand the word “argument.” You can watch the sketch on youtube here or read the transcript here.


  1. […] Words, such as “logic,” “philosophy,” “argument,” “criticism,” and “questioning,” are being corrupted to the point that actual philosophical thinking is very difficult. Philosophical thoughts are nearly impossible without the existence of philosophical language. […]

    Pingback by The Marginalization of Philosophy « Ethical Realism — October 5, 2010 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  2. I can see that. It is like the whole Evolution is a Theory dilemma. When I had a blog, I wrote a post stating it would be a lot easier to change the scientific name, than to explain forever what it really means. With our language ever evolving, I think there is no easy fix.

    Comment by Mike — October 5, 2010 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

    • That’s right. The word “theory” has been equivocated similar to the other words above.

      Also, I must admit that science is a “philosophical” institution that is respected in our culture, but “scientists” are trained to know something about good reasoning while non-scientists usually just use scientists as an “authority” without much reasoning involved. (That’s usually how I use science as well.)

      Comment by James Gray — October 5, 2010 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  3. I can’t tell you how often I’ve used the word “argument” to the shock of my friends, only to have to explain that I’m not about to start shouting and tipping over tables.

    On the whole, I agree with you James. But philosophy is also its own worst enemy. Particularly the last century of philosophy has yielded little of visible benefit to humanity – although, granted, the impact of a particular idea can take over a century to manifest. But I do believe that many of the questions in philosophy today are either pointless non-questions or are self-indulgent meaningless wordplay.

    That’s why I’m a proponent of applied philosophy – to attempt to drag some of the worthwhile realisations from philosophy and apply them to the real world. Leave philosophers to continue exploring ideas unimpeded, but also have an arm that looks outward and thinks practically.

    That said, science has also struggled with similar perception and misperception issues. It’s only in the last decade or so that science institutions acknowledged the need for science outreach; there are now full degrees in ‘science communication’ that attempt to bridge the gap between the academy and the general public. It’s an uphill battle, but one philosophy hasn’t even acknowledged it needs to fight yet.

    Comment by Tim Dean — October 5, 2010 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

    • I discussed some of these same issues in the past. I think that non-practical philosophy is great. If people want to know the ultimate nature of mathematics, that’s great.

      However, you are right that philosophy is totally irrelevant to society right now. That is partially the fault of philosophers, but the corruption of language and marginalization of philosophy doesn’t help either.

      I would love to see more practical philosophy as well. Everyone needs to apply philosophy to their life. This is part of being a real philosopher. Imagine if good reasoning was a prerequisite to being a politician. That would be pretty nice.

      The fact is that philosophers are hidden away; but (a) people don’t know anything about philosophy, and (b) even if they knew more about philosophy, they wouldn’t necessarily be happy with it.

      Many philosophers are “impractical” just because they have no chance of making changes to our society anyway. Philosophers are not welcome.

      It should also be mentioned that philosophers are highly discouraged from getting too involved with the rest of society. They are encouraged to live in secrecy. Why? Because they need to be worked to death. Having a life means spending less time writing books. More time away from the office can mean not getting hired, not getting a raise, not getting tenure, etc.

      You might want to take a look at my professor’s experience with trying to have a family and be a philosophy professor simultaneously: (You can find links to part 2-4 on left hand side of the page.)

      Philosophy outreach? Good idea. I have suggested a philosophy community, which seems similar to your idea.

      Comment by James Gray — October 5, 2010 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

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