Eight Confusing Philosophical Terms Explained

Jeff Carreira Popular Posts 29 Comments

I want to go on to introduce Emerson’s Idealism, but before I do I need to get a few things straight, namely the distinction between Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Realism, Nominalism, Dualism and Monism. In the study of philosophy these words come up often and it can be challenging at times to keep them all straight. That is partly because some of their meanings are separated by subtle distinctions and partly because some of them have both a technical philosophical meaning and a more common meaning that seem to conflict.

So for all of our sake lets walk through them slowly.

First of all they are all generally related to one of the most foundational philosophical dualisms there is – mind and matter. At least since the ancient Greeks the problem of mind and matter, thought and thing, the spiritual and the material, has existed. And as long as that dualism exists – and it has, for the record dramatically fallen out of favor – the fundamental question that needs to be tackled is, “Which is more real? Mind or matter?”

Idealism is the belief that the mind and ideas is the primary structure of reality and that physical or material reality is secondary.

Materialism is the opposite of Idealism and sees matter as the primary reality and all other things including thoughts as the product of interactions of matter.

Rationalism is the belief that the rational mind is the best way to know something. If you are a rationalist you believe that your mind is more trustworthy than your sense. A stick in the water might look bent, but you know rationally that it only looks that way because it is in the water.

Empiricism is the opposite of rationalism and it is the belief that the senses are the best way to know something. You might think something is true, but you only know it is true if your senses confirm it.

In consideration of the above it is good to keep in mind that you can’t be an Idealist and a Materialist and you can’t be a Rationalist and an Empiricist. On the other hand, you can be an Idealist and a Rationalist or an Idealist and an Empiricist. You can also be Materialist and a Rationalist or you can be a Materialist and an Empiricist.

That is because Idealism and Materialism are statements of ontology which means they are statements about what you believe is real. Rationalism and Empiricism are statements of epistemology which means statements about what is the best way to know what is real.

As if this were not confusing enough we also have Realism and Nominalism.

Realism is the belief that there are real existing entities behind universal or general ideas. For instance there is a “thing” called justice. Nominalism on the other hand is the opposite and it is a belief that there are no real existing entities behind universals. There is no “justice” per se, there are just individual instances of justice. Only the individual instances of justice are real.

Now for our last two terms we have Dualism and Monism. Dualism is the belief that mind and matter represent two different and distinct types of being. Monism is the belief that there is ultimately only one type of being. If you are a Monist you could also be an Idealist which means that you believe that everything is made up of mind or ideas, so even matter is ultimately made up of ideas. A monist could also be a Materialist believing that all ideas are ultimately products of matter.

OK, that should be enough to get us started.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Helpful, thanks!

Sue
Sue
10 years ago

Extremely helpful.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hello all, Hoping not to appear contradicting or claiming to know more than what’s been presented above, I’m merely thinking aloud and expressing my reservations. I feel discomfited to be pigeon-holing all the different categories which I believe presents the situation where it precludes that the synthesis of every view of reality is probably what is where it’s at. It seems that the duality of Science and Belief is not necessarily actual though it’s often very strictly observed. Entertaining a suspension of belief and disbelief and accepting the paradox seems to me OK, to accept that what is true may… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

So, if I understand you correctly, materialism and idealism are both inherently dualistic because they distinguish between “matter” and “form” as did Plato — an often-cited source of dualistic thinking in western thought. I know that the definition of materialism from your link says that “the ONLY thing that exists is matter,” but if that were true, then how could we distinguish between matter and anything else? What would the concept mean? Is an idea matter? Or does it not exist? How can we deny its existence? If it does not exist, then how can we “have” it or how… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I very much endorse the Eastern symbol of Yin Yang, that the division of the circle between black and white may appear dualistic but they are enjoined in the unity of a circle, yet each color has a dot of the other component within it, symbolizing the presence of the other in itself.

Western thought usually is not as holistic or embracing of contradiction. Though black and white certainty is reassuring, I believe truth is actually more nuanced and holistic.

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Frank…for example?

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Brian: As symbolized by the Yin Yang symbol, that speck of the other side’s color is a brilliant acknowlegement that truth is not absolute. If you examine and ponder any absolute comment, I wonder if you’ll be shown as I am that there aren’t any absolutes, that there’s usually an upside and a down side to any issue. In the matter of science, the truths it discloses may not be disproved until ages later so their discoveries may seem absolute. Then along comes some brilliant person who upsets the status quo. This sets up a new standard of truth… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Not at all. No examples given.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Not only I but other thinkers recognize that absolutes don’t exist and any truth can be seen to have the opposite within it. Yin Yang expresses that there are no absolute blacks or whites if you are perceptive enough to see and recognize it. That inclusion of the opposite may be only a speck but the truth is not absolute without recognizing it. Of course some things are true enough for all intents.

If can present any absolutes, I’ll discuss that with you.

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff: Nice explanation. It’s difficult to be succinct on such a topic but you did it. One comment on Rationalism. You wrote: “A stick in the water might look bent, but you know rationally that it only looks that way because it is in the water.” True, but you can “know” that rationally only if you have actually previously witnessed such refraction of light by the water’s surface, which brings us back to Empiricism. [Or, perhaps, you need a different example.] Empiricism and Rationalism perhaps should be seen as two ends of a continuum, with many (infinite?) practical locations in… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Carl: 1). You wrote: “It seems to me that, following the Aristotelian tradition, we have swallowed dualism so deeply with language and concepts that have us trapped in it.” Great point. Dualism is one of the background supporting struts of our western world-view model, and we unconsciously permit it to push us into either/or situations. General Semantics uses the “multi-valued orientation” (see my comment to Jeff immediately above) rather than the “two-valued orientation” as a fundamental in its “non-Aristotelian” system, which you might find interesting. In the view of cognitive psychologists (& MDs) Newberg & D’Aquili, the Binary Cognitive Operator… Read more »

Lulu
Lulu
10 years ago

Carl, you wrote: “The distinction between rationalism and empiricism seems to preclude natural science as I understand it because in science we gather empirical evidence and we use rational thinking to make sense out of our observations, e.g., inferring causal relationships when one observation seems to predict another. But I’m guessing that in your view science fits into one of these, not both. Which is it?” I’m a bit late coming to this discussion, so I’m not sure you’ll see this, but here’s another way to think about the distinction. Empiricists and rationalists have different answers to the question: What… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

The rational mind has held the intellectual community in its grip for a long time and I note there’s a pushback with some of the comments I pick up on EN and other places. To extoll and champion reason and make light if not disrespect our human spiritual component is enforcing a dualism that is now seeming to be acknowledged as a fault in thinking. Rational minds would of course have that bias in their outlook but I think in the long term, a holistic balance that can incorporate reason and metaphysics, maybe with a whole lot of suspension of… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
10 years ago

Frank Luke,
you say absolutes don’t exist. Are you certain? In saying it are you not establishing an absolute? I like what you say regarding the Yin Yang symbol, and I think of many instances from everyday life where it seems true and relevant … but I can’t find a way to hold it in place. I’m not able to form a consistent world view with it.

Manohar Tilak
10 years ago

I do not have a website though I have published REALITY related thoughts on existence as a totally interrelated *sort of Buddhistic Evolutionary Reality that Physicists acknowledge as the Strong Anthropocentric Principle! Infact Murray Gellman in his book entreats human intuition to reveal what indeed is Complexity cause physics itself is simplistic dualism based on Equals and Opposits such as found in Photon defined as the *Anti particle of itself* — merging in to Singularity of it’s own reality. Humbly opines, Manohar Tilak the originator of the pre 1970 Evoluon Theory of Cosmic Evolition discussed with Professor Dr. Johnny Washington… Read more »

Qizill
8 years ago

grt work

seiko lk
7 years ago

casio 直営店

Tony George
7 years ago

Thanks ! I have been looking for a simple yet accurate description of philosophical terms and i found this blog very useful.

mlibrahim
6 years ago
durgesh
durgesh
5 years ago

i am short of words to thank you. thanks a ton

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4 years ago

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Ariana
Ariana
4 years ago

This was so helpful! Thanks a lot!

Steph
Steph
4 years ago

As a new philosophy teacher, I found this concise explanation really helpful! Thank you so much.

I’m with Frank Luke (2010) regarding the possibility of “paradoxical” monism that is two sides of the same coin (like Spinoza, I believe). It’s all kind of murky and confusing, though.

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 years ago

Thank you so much!

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MR
MR
2 years ago

Could you please connect these following concepts such as functionalism, pluralism, positivism, post-positivism, constructivism? Also, how do all these relate with critical theory?

Pushkal Kumar Pandey
Pushkal Kumar Pandey
1 year ago

Great stuff. Explained with utmost clarity.