Philosophy: Terms, Concepts, and Places

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Philosophy: Terms, Concepts, and Places


Academy . Plato’s school was located in the Academy, a park outside Athens near a shrine sacred to the hero Academus. The Academy was organized as a thiasos (cult dedicated to the Muses) and continued as a philosophical school from its founding by Plato in the fourth century b.c.e. until it was closed by the Emperor Justinian in 529 c.e. Plato’s followers, therefore, were referred to as Academics. Plato’s Academy has sometimes been called the first university, but there were major differences between its structure and that of modern universities. The Academy did not collect fees from students (they considered demanding fees for knowledge immoral), did not offer degrees, diplomas, or other credentials, and did not have any fixed course of instruction (people would join or leave at any age and might remain members for their entire lives). In certain ways the closest modern institution might be a monastery. Plato himself did not give lectures, although his successors and followers sometimes held formal lectures or discussions. Much of the work of the Academy, which included major discoveries in mathematics, science, and philosophy, seemed to be the outcome of informal discussions. There were, however, regular symposia (drinking parties) at the Academy, during which members celebrated special occasions and engaged in discussions.

Arche (Greek: Arkhê) . The First Cause or Origin was called the arkhê. Aristotle attributed to the Presocratics the notion that all substances were caused or created from a single substance (water for Thales; air for Anaximenes; fire for Heraclitus; and the Unlimited for Anaximander) which he identified with his own notion of the material cause. Aristotle’s account of the Presocratics was probably overly simplistic, but, nonetheless, influential.

Atom . According to the atomic theories of Democritus and Leucippus, the universe is composed of atoms and void. (An atom is the smallest indivisible unit of matter and comes from the Greek term atomon, meaning uncut or indivisible.) Atoms consist of uniform and indivisible “being,” are of different sizes and shapes, but not substance. The apparent multiplicity of substances perceived with the senses are the result of differing shapes of atoms in different combinations, moving at different speeds.

Cosmos . The cosmos is the ordered universe, as opposed to the chaos from which some poets and philosophers considered it to have evolved.

Divine . Greek thought distinguishes between the divine (to theion) and the individual gods (hoi theoi). Material or impersonal substances can be considered divine, i.e. greater than the merely human or than other parts of nature, without being considered actual gods. When kings, emperors, or heroes were given divine honors, they were not considered actual gods in the manner of Zeus, but rather they were considered more powerful or capable than ordinary people, much in the way the gods are superior to even the greatest humans.

Ethics . The Greeks developed a type of philosophy concerned with individual conduct. Moral philosophy was divided into three parts: ethics (concerned with the individual); oeconomics (modern economics, concerned with the household or extended family); and politics (concerned with the polis or city-state).

Form (Platonic) . In several of the Platonic dialogues, characters, especially Socrates, discuss the “forms” or “ideas.” What these concepts are, precisely, is something that has been debated widely for over two millennia. In Plato’s early dialogues (prior to 387 b.c.e.), Socrates and his interlocutors often are presented as arguing over the correct definition of general and abstract terms (beauty, courage, holiness, virtue, justice, etc.). The essence, or Form, of some abstract concept, X, is sometimes presented in a phrase of the pattern “the (form of) X that makes all X things X” (for example, the Beautiful which makes all beautiful things beautiful) and sometimes as “the X in itself.” Whether a Form is an abstract criterion, something with some sort of non-corporeal independent existence, or a divine idea and the relationship of the forms to the particulars, is explored but never definitively answered in the Platonic dialogues.

Fragment . Many early thinker’s exact words (ipsissima verba) survive today in the works of later authors. For most of the Presocratics and Older Sophists, scholars now possess only fragments (often only one or two clauses) rather than extensive continuous excerpts from their works.

Ipsissima Verba . In discussing Presocratics and Older Sophists, historians distinguish ipsissima verba, the thinker’s exact words as quoted by later authors, from testimonia, summaries or paraphrases of an earlier thinker.

Physics . For the ancient Greeks, physics was the study of the nature (phusis) of the sensible world. The Stoics divided philosophy into physics, ethics, and logic.

Recollection . The theory of recollection, advanced in Plato’s Meno (circa 387-380 b.c.e.), states that since one cannot derive knowledge of the Forms from the particulars, one must have known them before souls descended into bodies. All learning, therefore, is recollection of things we have forgotten, and teaching is a matter of getting rid of false impressions in order to facilitate recollection. Thus Socrates, especially in Plato’s Theaetetus (circa 360-355 b.c.e.), claims he does not know or teach anything, but merely acts as a midwife to knowledge.

Testimonia. Unlike ipsissima verba (verbatim quotations), testimonia consisted of summaries, paraphrases, or discussions of an author’s work.

Theology . The term theologia was first coined by Plato. It refers to systematic scientific reasoning about the gods, as opposed to popular belief or poetic tradition.


W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, volumes I-VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962-1981).

A. A. Long, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Francis E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (New York: New York University Press, 1967).

H. D. Rankin, Sophists, Socratics& Cynics (London: Croom Helm, 1983).

Giovanni Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy, volumes I & II (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

J. O. Urmson, The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary (London: Duckworth, 1990).

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Philosophy: Terms, Concepts, and Places

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