I am not in university for philosophy, so my reading of, say, Timaeus is only assisted by things like SEP.

Reading original texts can already be challenging in terms of jargon--e.g., epistemological, ontological, teleological, a priori, a posteriori, absolutism, existentialism, cosmological, anthropomorphism, determinism, etc.--but it is made even more challenging when reading secondary texts. Sometimes I'll have to look up 30 words in a single secondary text, words so unintuitive and unused that I'm surprised to see they exist. Often times these words are literally created just to represent a very small part of philosophical theory.

So, what is the best way to go about learning these terms? One can't just keep popping open the dictionary every couple of paragraphs.

  • 2
    The Philosopher's Toolkit is a good resource.
    – E...
    Oct 27, 2018 at 3:25
  • 1
    Do you have access to a University library, or good public library? If so, the reference section should contain Encyclopedias of philosophy. Example: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopedia_of_Philosophy These books will not solve all your problems, but sometimes you will strike gold with a particular entry and it can be very useful.
    – Gordon
    Oct 27, 2018 at 3:46
  • 3
    "One can't just keep popping open the dictionary every couple of paragraphs." Why not? Oct 27, 2018 at 10:47
  • In German, there is "Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophy" - Historical Dictionary of Philosophy - where the various technical uses of a term through the history of philosophy are described and referenced. It has twelve volumes, 6,000 entries and costs a whopping 1,500 Euros. In short: I'm afraid you simply have to read. Like a lot. There are no shortcuts. Like a former lecturer of mine put it: Six hours per day at a minimum and you have good chances to prevail in academia. Maybe a bit extreme, but I guess four hours sounds about right.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 27, 2018 at 18:09

5 Answers 5


Definitely get an introductory text. It's good to get some history, something like Bertrand Russell's History Of Western Philosoohy is very readable, and in bite-size chapters. Then terms like teleology, theodicy, ontology and phenomenology make proper sense, because they were developed at particular times for specific topics and frameworks.

It's great if you can find something with some philosophy of science, of mind, and of politics, too. Ethics and epistemology are givens in a general book. Not sure what to recommend for overview of all, but could suggest books for each.

  • 2
    Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy is famously inaccurate because Russell himself knew little about it and didn't care to learn. That doesn't mean this answer is wrong... you could learn a lot about how the terminology is used, at least in 20th c. analytic philosophy, from Russell. But you might also learn some things that aren't even true at the same time.
    – guest1806
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:47

Here is a link to a website that has gathered a lot of the vocabulary of the various rooms in the house of philosophy: https://www.philosophybasics.com.

I would like to try, however, to change your perspective a little on the study, pursuit, and practice of philosophy. I would like to suggest that it is a way of life more than it is an interest or a study.

From an etymological standpoint, "philosophy" is the love of wisdom, but from a practical standpoint it is the relentless, systematic, impassioned, and kaleidoscopic catalogue of the attempts of humans to answer Thales' question: "What is all of this really?"

The study has been long, but fortunately, about two centuries after Thales began it, Socrates embodied it, and died for it, and Plato wrote a beautiful and brilliant series of dialogues that recorded and systematized Socrates' philosophy and much more.

Some of us think of philosophy as an umbrella for the inquiries of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Others have different inquiries under the umbrella, perhaps ethics, theology, or physics.

I put all serious inquiry under the umbrella of philosophy and think of it as the inquiry into inquiry itself.

Philosophy is our way of trying to understand understanding, and everything else. Philosophy is the thing that homo sapiens sapiens do that no other species can.

Unless one is a committed mystic, who believes that everything can be understood in one insight, be it nirvana, Christ's Kingdom of Heaven, or a true view of Tao (the way), the path to real knowledge of this cosmos is long and very challenging. And words are the means by which we navigate that path, chronicle our navigation of it, and guide others along it. They are not impediments or obstacles in the path.

For us non-mystics, it takes a lot of words to express an understanding of the magnitude required to slake our intellectual thirst. Start a love affair with your dictionary and keep it by you as you explore the cosmos.

  • This is a great suggestion. Consider following what prompted your interest in reading philosophical texts to begin with. It wasn't the words, but the ideas, and each idea has specific distinctions that build off of previous ideas and distinctions. Anchor your knowledge on one form of philosophical nuances and integrate what you wish to learn about from there. I think that videos can also help you. Books do not always replace the spoken words. And, good luck. :) Oct 31, 2018 at 2:10

Be aware that terminology changes over time, furthermore different philosophers may intend slightly different things with the same term. Also a word may have a standardized use within Philosophy, that is different from the contemporary colloquial use. Additionally a term's use may be standardized within a particular school of thought, while in another (contemporary)school there may be disagreement. And finally: not all translations are equal...

It is in this landscape that that you will find secondary works very useful. Of course the background and intent of the secondary writer is also important, some will write a critique from the perspective of one school, others will attempt an objective and neutral presentation. Reading the introduction to, and reviews about, a secondary work should help settle these questions.

For a start I would suggest secondary works by the most current and ostensibly neutral writers.


If you really want to be systematic about this you have two different approaches available to you:

(1) Learn Greek, Latin, and perhaps (if you're feeling very ambitious) French and German. Most philosophical terminology is just ordinary terminology in some ancient language, which we continue to use in the ancient language to flag that we're talking about something specific. For example "epistēmē" = knowledge in Greek. Once you know the root-words that are used to construct the jargon it's a lot easier to guess at what people mean.

(2) Start from the beginning and go slowly. Plato defines the words he's using in a special sense. Aristotle defines the words he's using in a special sense, except for a few that Plato already used in a special way. Diogenes Laertius "Lives of the Eminent Philosophers" is especially important, since it contains a lot of the classic terminology for "talking about how people talk about the answers to philosophical questions".

Now - thirty words in a secondary text is not a lot, especially if you're talking about a book of 100-300 pages and you're just getting into the field. At some level you may have to resign yourself to the possibility that philosophy requires focus and hard work.

  • I am a bit offended by your leaving out German as an integral language for learning (still commonly used) technical terminology. I guess a lot of contemporary literature and terminology is easier to understand if you understand what Kant, Hegel, and others have really written, especially considering the various distinctions glossed over in translations (representation = Vorstellung or Representation or Bild? Transcendental = transzendent or transzendental? Intuition = Anschauung or Intuition? Object = Objekt or Gegenstand? - to name but a few central ones).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:38
  • Sorry you'll see that I wrote "Greek Latin and maybe French and Greek" - the second Greek was of course meant to be German. Now by "integral" maybe you mean German should rank with Greek and Latin...
    – guest1806
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:43
  • I think this would be adequate, yes. These days, a lot of the commonly used "philosophy slang" (I should add Carnap and Frege to the list) is based in literature originally written in German. But I agree that you have to be very ambitious to learn Latin and Greek and "Life is too short to learn German" (Richard Porson). So no worries, I basically just wanted to add/emphasise that when it comes to certain terms of modern philosophy originating in German, even if commonly used, there are quite a few misconceptions around.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:53
  • Right - all I would say is that if you are trying to learn what "hermeneutics" means in English, then before worry about what Hermeneutik means in Heidegger or Schleiermacher or whatever I think you need to worry about the Greek original. — In fact, it seems the logic of what you're saying is that German philosophy is important (and that, I agree with!) whereas German language isn't. E.g. how Hegel uses Begriff vs. Frege vs. Koselleck shows that none of them are using a specifically German definition...
    – guest1806
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:56
  • 1
    I think we broadly agree (and Heidegger is a very special topic with his wordplays). It is simply an observation of mine that many misunderstandings (and problematic technical usages) of terms - especially those of Kant and Hegel - are based on a lack of distinctions immanent to the original but omitted in most if not all translations (examples given above). In other words: Without knowing German, you might miss technicalities that are essential. This is a bit different from the common case where technical terms are correctly translated "with their definitions", i.e. there is nothing unusual.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 29, 2018 at 16:03

Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable part of philosophy. Since philosophy, by nature, deals with concepts and ideas outside the pre-existing discourse, new coinages, redefinitions, nonce usages, and deliberate or unintentional abuses of existing terminology are a core and functional part of philosophical writings.

Reading with a dictionary --or Google --in one hand, is probably a necessity. But you also need to be able to read past the surface meaning of words to discern what ineffable concept is being denoted.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .