What's the purpose of philosophical "isms"?

E.g. neoplatonism?

To me it reads that these isms try to "encapsulate" the whole universe or e.g. society to a single encapsulation and then claim validity to it.

However, since reality is so dynamic, then wouldn't it make little sense to try to capture it into an ism? That is, no-one can ever conceive all there is at any particular moment. Why are these isms not thought of as religious belief systems, even if they could have some relation to scientific thought?

  • 1
    To classify: like jazz, pop, R&B for music. Apr 7 '18 at 7:58
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA But they obviously do more than mere classification. They make statements about reality, truth and so on. Music genres don't do that. Particularly, the isms can also take different forms when interpreted. Some may believe in them in a "fundamental" way, some may merely use them in a lighter way as classifiers to categories of philosophical ideas.
    – mavavilj
    Apr 7 '18 at 8:18
  • An "ism" is primarely a school : philosphers following the direct or indirect teaching of Plato, starting from the Ancient academy are Platonists. Apr 7 '18 at 8:47
  • it is simply a taxonomic classification system allowing people to understand the relationship of one idea to another. our minds are always seeing new things and ideas and need a point of reference to understand new ideas and things. if we see something flying in the air, our minds reach for the classification of bird, it does not start reaching for the classification of cows or whales.... Apr 8 '18 at 14:47

'Isms' are labels. They enable us to group theories, ideas, arguments, that have enough in common to be usefully (for some purposes) treated together. So, for example, empiricism is the label for theories &c. which assume that experience is the only source of knowledge, or the major source of knowledge, or the sole source of one kind - or some kinds - of knowledge. There is always this loose commonality, more like Wittgensteinian family resemblance than anything else. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I §§66-8.)

One objection to the use of 'ism' labels is that they readily suggest the opposite - that empiricism, to keep to that example, can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions : X is an empiricist if and only if ..., whereas in fact empiricism has no such nuclear, essentialist definition.

This can lead to unfruitful discussions about whether so-and-so was 'really' an empiricist. The label is not precise enough to make such inquiries helpful.

'Isms' also blot out differences. When I consider Locke, Berkeley and Hume, 'the British empiricists', I am struck by the serious and deeply significant differences between them. Not only do they not agree on what 'experience' is, they exhibit fascinating differences in style of argument, treatment of topics, levels of scepticism and so forth. I'd like to say that the blotting out of differences isn't a reason for using labels but for some folk (not all who use them) they are just that and enable a fast, undiscriminating trip through the history of philosophy.

The example you use is 'neoplatonism'. How can this be characterised ?

One distinguishes Neoplatonism from other philosophical positions (e.g., Aristoteleanism, Stoicism, Middle Platonism, and so on) by its metaphysics- by the primacy it gives to unity: to be real is to be one. It is, in a word, a monism but of a unique sort inasmuch as it does not deny the existence of the multiple - the intelligible, psychic and physical universes - but it does deny their reality. To the extent that individual existents are individual, they are unreal. Each individual is real only insofar as it is the One on a lower level. (Leo Sweeny, review of Neoplatonism and Christian Thought by D. J. O'Meara, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Jun., 1987), pp. 786.)

Now, this is fair enough to 'net', to capture important similarities between, (say) Pltoinus, Porphyry, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Proclus, Eriugena. But when you descend to detail, the smooth surface of 'neoplatonism' cracks into innumerable differences about the nature of 'unity', of the 'individual', of the distinction between 'existence' and 'reality'.

Moral : the deeper one goes into philosophy the keener one is to abandon 'isms' and to look at each thinker in their own right.

  • I have to also say that I dislike the personification of isms. That is, when someone becomes an "ist". To me that's a pretentious "I belong to this school, so I'm cool" -thing. As a strong fan of anarchist philosophies, such distinction could serve as claiming authority of some form ("I'm an -ist, therefore I am right").
    – mavavilj
    Apr 7 '18 at 9:34
  • Fair enough, fair comment, appreciated. I was speaking from my experience of studying & teaching philosophy. I increasingly found labels both unilluminating and obstructive.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 7 '18 at 10:04

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