ISMspeak - Beginners Guide to Philosophy

An "ism" is a philosophical tool for identifying (and promoting) particular ways of looking at the world. These could identify a particular theory, cause, explanation, explication, belief, dogma, doctrine, or a particular system of logical statements. Here we provide a simple dictionary of philosophy: a list of "isms" with definitions and links to interesting uses of the "ism" across the world.
absolutism an unconditional reality transcends the relative, limited, conditional, everyday existence (compare reductionism; could be a form of monism or pantheism, etc. )

agnosticism because of the inherent differences between man and God, it is impossible for man to know if God exists (compare atheism)

altruism because of the importance of the social there is an overriding importance in ethics of doing things for others, even if it appears to disadvantage the self; (the opposite of egoism)

animism all natural things (like the earth, rocks, plants, animals, thunder and lightning, rain, earthquakes, etc.) have a spirit which can influence human life; (see panpsychism and pantheism)

anthroposophy the key to knowledge lies not in science itself but in man's associated spiritual perceptions (see Rudolf Steiner) (compare theosophy)

atheism God does not exist (compare agnosticism); the concept of 'god' is meaningful but false (compare logical positivism); applies to someone who rejects the concept of 'god' in all senses

atomism matter is made up of small basic elements (atoms) (Leucippus, Democritus) that possess fundamental form (spatial extension, shape, solidity, weight) but not quality (colour, warmth, smell)

behaviorism because of the importance of the sub-conscious and the unconscious, the study of the human mind needs to be based on the study of behaviour, and not on the product of the conscious mind; the mind can be understood entirely from visible, measurable events (see J.B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, Gilbert Ryle)

conceptualism theory of universals (see Pierre Abelard); (compare nominalism) universals do not exist independently of the mind but have an existence in the mind as a concept which are not arbitrary inventions but are reflections of actual similarities between particular things

configurationism parts are determined by their relationship to the whole (in contrast to the atomism of empiricism) (see Gestalt) (see Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka)

consequentialism something is good or bad, right or wrong, depending upon the result or the impact of the actions that it promotes; as opposed to deontologism; (compare utilitarianism); (compare existenialism)

constructivism (pure) mathematical concepts, relationships or models exist or are true only after they have been proven to be true and have no meaning outside human cognition

constructivism (social) the cultural groups of which one is a part has a central and critical impact on cognition (Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner)

contextualism (special form of constructivism) artistic licence only makes sense in the historical context in which it is produced; to properly understand it we need to understand this context

conventionalism conventions govern the use of language and also the formulation of systems in mathematics and science; therefore what appears to be scientific laws are merely disguised conventions where certain concepts, relationships or meanings are preferred over others (Poincare, Mach, Duhem)

deism God exists but this existence does not influence events and has no connection with religions, which are all man-made. Belief in God commends itself to the human mind on its own reasonableness (Voltaire) or is known by the heart without reason (Rousseau)

deontologism something is good or bad, right or wrong, not because of the result or the impact of the actions that it promotes but because of the character of the action itself (a deontology) ; as opposed to consequentialism; (compare utilitarianism); (compare existentialism)

descriptivism moral judgements have a descriptive not a prescriptive meaning (R.M. Hare) (compare prescriptivism)

determinism everything which happens (including human cognition and action) is pre-determined according to God's plan and could not have happened in any other way (compare free will)

dialectic discovering what is true through a discourse of two (or more) opposing theories. This may take an interrogative form (Socrates) (compare the FAQ form in use today), a dialogue with God (Plato), reasoning from generally accepted or probable premises (Aristotle), an exposure of sophistry (Kant), a formal pattern of thought (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) (Hegel), or a means for determining the objective (materialism) from the subjective (idealism) (Marx). See

dialectical materialism the laws that govern nature are not mechanical but dialectic; these laws include the unity and conflict of opposites, the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, and the negation of the negation (Engels) See


dualism things that exist consist of two very different or opposing types, such as mind and matter, good and evil, neither type being reducible to the other (compare monism and pluralism)

egoism ethics can be explained ultimately through self interest; the apparent conflict between self and other in moral terms is really competition between different aspects of self interest (indirect/direct; long-term/short-term); (the opposite of altruism)

egocentric predicament a uniquely difficult problem: usually when determining the truth of "a is a function of b", we compare situations in which b is and is not present, but where b is "I know," it is impossible to obtain a situation in which it is not present without destroying the conditions of observation. See See

emanationism reality results from the spontaneous, consistent emanation from God or some transcendent principle of God (Plotinus) (compare gnosticism)

emotivism moral statements are but a statement of emotion (Ayer) or an attempt to influence the actions of others (Stevenson)

empiricism knowledge can be arrived at only through the senses (a posteriori); knowledge cannot be based on theoretical analysis but only on experience (Locke) (Hume) (compare idealism) (compare rationalism) (compare logical positivism)

empiriocriticism philosophy is concerned with developing a natural concept of the world based on pure experience; science is concerned with facts, which are just a formal way of recording sensation (Mach) (Avenarius) (compare, Lenin, Einstein)

epiphenomenalism consciousness is a secondary and unimportant response to physical events (Huxley)

essentialism everything has a true essence that can be discovered by reason; there is an abstract form or essence of which the real is an imperfect copy (Plato); certain objects contain an essence without which they could not be what they are (Aristotle) (compare de re modality); objects have a nominal essence and a real essence (Locke); (compare Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam)

existentialism it is not possible to conduct objective enquiry into the concept of being which is only revealed to an individual upon reflection into his own unique, concrete existence in time and space. This makes the world a meaningless place, provided meaning only by the need for purpose and a complete freedom of choice. (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre et al)

fallibilism there is no infallible knowledge; knowledge brings with it a state of unease; science can only progress by continually reacting to this unease, seeking to falsify its original findings, to admit its mistakes; to correct itself with new findings (Peirce) See (compare foundationalism)

fatalism a pessimistic form of determinism; life consists of events that people cannot change and these events are fundamentally bad

fideism reason is irrelevant to faith; arguments for the existence of God are fallacious and irrelevant (Søren Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, William James, and Wittgenstein) See

finitism a mathematical object does not exist unless it can be constructed from natural numbers in a finite number of steps (compare constructivism) (Leopold Kronecker, Hilbert)

formalism mathematics can be reduced to a series of formalisations and logical proofs of these (Hilbert); (compare Godel)

foundationalism knowledge exists only of those statements for which we have absolute certainty; there is a set or foundation of basic beliefs, not dependant upon other beliefs, which constitute knowledge (compare rationalism, empiricism, fallibilism)

hedonism the sole aim of human action is human happiness and pleasure; furtherance of pleasure underlies all human action; the object of maximising pleasures of the senses and the intellect (Cyrenaics); the object of maximising pleasure and minimising pain (Epicureans); (compare Bentham, utilitarianism) (compare Butler, Moore) See

historical materialism the development of human society is materially determined; "it is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness"; a determinist relationship between the economic base and social superstructure in which contradictions between the forces and means of production provide the impetus for change; (Marx)

historicism knowledge exists in a process of historical change and development; this process is governed by laws of development that can be discovered by science and used for understanding the present and predicting the future (Kuhn, Lukatos, Laudan) (compare Popper)

holism each thing that exists has a nature or a character as a whole that is more important than the sum of the parts that make it up (compare holism in physics); human life, mind and conscience only arise in systems (Capra); knowledge of human life is focused on the broad societal factors, laws, disposition, movements, etc. not on individual manifestations (compare reductionism)

humanism the human context, the universe or nature, is all that exists or is real; focus therefore must be on human potential and achievement (Thomas Moore) (Erasmus); without the need for a god; a rejection of supernaturalism or theism See

hylomorphism natural objects consist of both matter and form (Aristotle); there is a universal hylomorphism and a plurality of forms (compare Thomas Aquinas) See

hylozoism all matter has life; life is a property or derivative of matter (compare animism) (compare panpsychism)

idealism the reality or truth of the external world exists solely in the mind; (of God) (Berkeley); idealism is the realisation that transcendentalism (absolute, indifferent, identity) and naturalism (Schelling) are virtually identical, nature & spirit differing only in their 'quantity'; certain knowledge can be arrived at by reason alone, a priori, (critical idealism) (Kant); compare objective idealism (Marx) - idealism versus materialism

instrumentalism thought is a genetic interaction between man and his environment, knowledge is an instrument for change in this process; cognition is a process of new and better instruments; ideals and values are either inhibitors or instruments for social progress (Dewey); scientific theories are tools or instruments which are not true or false, but more or less useful (Berkeley)

intellectualism God's reason (not God's will) is central to the true nature of life (compare voluntarism); knowledge is derived from the intellect or pure reason (Socrates) (compare rationalism) (compare voluntarism)

interactionism humans are pragmatic actors who continually must adjust their behavior to the actions of other actors (Mead) See

intersubjectivity objectivity that comes from the joint observation and reasoning of many persons

intuitionism moral declarations of right and wrong are self-evident, axiomatic, known to be true or false by intuition (Rawls) (compare Sidgwick on the role of intuition in utilitarianism); mathematics is a free creation of the human mind; an object exists if and only if it can be (mentally) constructed (Brouwer)

isolationism only one's own immediate world is of any interest and the world external to this immediate world is of no interest

logical positivism analytic-synthetic distinction of truth, the only genuine propositions (that are strictly true or false about the world) are those that are verifiable by the methods of science; the propositions of logic and mathematics are meaningful but their truth is discovered by analysis and simply verified by experiment and observation (Mach); (compare Quine: it is impossible to distinguish between analytic and synthetic truths because a presumed analytic statement cannot be declared free from experience of our particular world); it is neither true nor false to say that God does not exist but meaningless because it is unverifiable (compare atheism)

logicism mathematics is simply a different way of expressing logical truths (Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell) See

materialism whatever exists is either matter or a derivative of matter or entirely dependent upon matter for its existence (Democritus, Epicurus); (compare animism, hylozoism, panpsychism) mind is a derivative of matter (Descartes) (compare dualism); only physical matter exists and the spiritual world does not (Galileo, Newton, Hobbes); materialism can explain the whole of existence (La Mettrie, Holbach); but only with additional understanding of process, contradiction and change (Engels) (compare dialectical materialism)

mechanism matter consists of mechanics (quantitative) not purpose (qualitative) (Descartes); (compare atomism) (compare teleology)


monism matter consists of only one substance, to which everything can be reduced (Spinoza, Schelling, Hegel); (compare idealism); mind and body are made up of the same fundamental matter which has a myriad of forms (William James, Bertrand Russell)

naturalism matter and life can be explained completely by study of the natural without reference to the supernatural (Darwin); compare supernaturalism

nihilism human existence is fundamentally bad because there are no principles or beliefs which have any meaning or can be true; morality and relations of authority are based on falsehood; (compare Friedrich Nietzsche) (compare anarchism)

nominalism a universal or a descriptor has no existence separate from the things that it denotes or describes; it is simply a name associated with a set of like occurrences (Plato, Ockham, Hobbes); (compare realism); (compare logical positivism)

objectivism certain moral statements can be proven to be true a priori regardless of what people agreed or desired (compare subjectivism)

occasionalism mind and body have no relationship, save through God; the apparent relationship between mind and body relies upon the occasional intervention of God's will (Arnold Geulincx, Nicolas Malebranche, al-Ghazali (theological occasionalism)) (compare dualism)

operationalism a variant of empiricism; the meaning of scientific terms and concepts is fully captured by a description of the process that determines their truth or falsehood; the key concept of temperature is our measurement of temperature; (Lundberg, Blalock & Blalock)

optimism good predominates over evil; because of the nature of God (Leibniz); only the existence of radical evil prevents man from a life of goodness (Kant)

organicism the organic is both unitary (spiritual) and pluralistic (material) (compare holism)

organism the organic is both unitary (mind) and pluralistic (matter) (Whitehead); See

panpsychism mind exists in every object in the universe (Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Whitehead) (compare materialism) See (compare hylozoism)

pantheism man and nature are not independent of God but are simply elements of His being (Spinoza); (compare theism, atheism) See

parallelism the mind and the body exist in parallel universes that have no direct causal relationship or interaction (Leibniz); (compare interactionism) (compare dualism)

personalism the concept of person is a key concept in understanding the universe; person is present in man and in God, and (through God) in all things; (compare idealism)

perspectivism different systems of thought can be used for interpreting the world; and each system provides a perspective on the world that is independent of the other; there is no overriding legitimacy for a system of truth; all have similar value (Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset)

pessimism evil predominates over good; human life inevitably involves pain and boredom (Arthur Schopenhauer)

phenomenalism reality completely independent of the mind is an impossibility; certainty can only be established in science by reducing matter to mind (Mach, Ayer) (compare logical positivism)

physicalism the mind can be reduced to the physical; statements of truth are based on publicly observable physical objects and events (Vienna Circle (logical positivists), J.J.C. Smart) (compare Carnap) See (compare materialism)

pluralism the existence of difference represented by groups of people with different characteristics, such as background, culture, beliefs and opinions; the existence of these different groups within a society is a good thing

positivism the source of all knowledge is natural science, based on observation or empirical induction (Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer) (compare logical positivism) (compare theology, metaphysics)

pragmaticism the concept of matter is concomitant with its effects (C.S. Peirce) (see also pragmatism)

pragmatism ideas are true if they assist us to understand other aspects of our being and false if they don't (William James, F.C.S. Schiller, John Dewey) (opposed by Bertrand Russell)

prescriptivism moral judgements have a prescriptive not a descriptive meaning (R.M. Hare) (compare descriptivism)

rationalism knowledge can be attained by reason alone --a priori; only reason adequately justifies knowledge; beliefs, actions and opinions should be based on reason rather than on emotion or religion See (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) (compare empiricism)

realism knowledge is based on both reason and experience (Aristotle, Aquinas); objects continue to exist in the world even when there is no one there to see them; any statement of idealism, fully explicated, rests upon realists assumptions (G.E. Moore) (refutation of idealism)

reductionism the mind (human behaviour) can be reduced to the same physical laws that are used to interpret matter; physics explains everything (Max Meyer) (compare Pavlov, Skinner, Lorenz) (compare behaviorism) See

reductivism See reductionism

reism only things exist; existence (ontology) is based on a category of things and abstract categories can be reduced to the category of things or are meaningless (F. Brentano, Tadeusz Kotarbiński) See

relativism there is no knowledge of truth independent of the knower; moral right and wrong is relative to the society in which it is practiced (compare subjectivism, idealism)

representationalism the mind has no direct knowledge of its object except through the medium of ideas that represent these objects; (Descartes)

representationism see representationalism

romanticism nature contains an inherent beauty in tune with human emotion (Schelling, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelly, Geothe) (compare idealism, transcendentalism)

scepticism no knowledge is beyond doubt; the need for formal doubts about the truth or value of an idea or belief is universal; (Pyrrho, Antiochus, Agrippa) See

sensationalism heightened human sensation leads to knowledge; knowledge is based on sensation; facts are the relations between observable sensations (Mach); (compare monism, phenomenalism)

sensationism see sensationalism

solipsism only I exist, the external world is an object of my consciousness; (See Descartes, Locke, Wittgenstein) See


structuralism things that exist contain basic structures and relationships that must be understood if we are to have knowledge

subjectivism moral truths rely on human taste or desire as the basis of value and are therefore subject to argument and changing agreed values (compare objectivism)


syllogism two general statements leading to a more particular statement; a process important to the understanding of the true nature of things


theism God exists and is separate from those things he has created (compare deism, pantheism)



utilitarianism actions are right if they promote happiness, wrong if they promote unhappiness; the need to act in any particular situation in a way which most benefits the most people; (Jeremy Bentham, John Stewart Mill, Henry Sidgwick)

utopianism (usually a term of abuse describing those accused of holding it) a perfect society is possible in which everyone co-operates and is happy; (compare Marx, Popper)

vitalism something non-material exists in living things that differentiates them from material objects; (Hans Driesch)

voluntarism God's will (not God's reason) is central to the true nature of life (William of Ockham) (compare intellectualism); primacy of the practical over pure reason, which is human (Kant); rational voluntarism - will is the ultimate and incomprehensible source of all being (Fichte) vs irrational voluntarism - will is prior to intellect (Schopenhauer); (compare intellectualism) See

Note: there are other "isms" that are not dealt with here. In particular, those that identify a broader philosphical school of thought (such as 'scholasticism', 'stoicism', 'theosophy', etc.) that contain a number of related philosophical concepts or "-isms" or an historical era (such as 'feudalism', 'colonialism', 'imperialism', 'capitalism', etc.), or a broad world view adopted by many under the name of a key proponent, (such as 'Aristotelianism', 'Buddhism'; 'Confucianism', 'Epicureanism', 'Keynesianism', 'Leninism', 'Marxism', 'Maoism', 'Pelagianism', 'Platonism', 'Pythagoreanism', 'Taoism'), etc. are not dealt with here (neither are the newer versions such as 'Neoconfucianism', 'Neokantianism', 'Neoplatonism', etc.) although many of the "isms" that these important philosophers employed, are. Also "isms" that relate to religions (such as 'catholicism', 'gnosticism', 'hermeticism', 'hinduism'; 'judaism', 'orphism', 'protestantism', etc.), or to political movements, campaigns or parties (such as 'anarchism', 'conservationism', 'conservatism', 'liberalism', 'liberationism', 'nazism', 'syndicalism', etc.), or to how society is organised (such as 'absolutism', 'communism', 'legalism', 'legalism', 'socialism', etc.) are not dealt with here.

Note: More pragmatic introductions as to how society is organised and who is in control are dealt with in Ethics Online Dictionary: These include aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, despotism, gynecocracy, kakistocracy, kleptocracy, meritocracy, monarchy, monocracy, oligarchy, plantocracy, plutocracy, stratocracy, technocracy, theocracy.

Note: Because this is an historical review we have used 'man' in the style used by the philosophers in the last few centuries of modern philosophical thought, now discredited = read person, or (wo)man, or humanity.