Why a Dictionary of Philosophy,
and How Do You Make One?


Robert Audi '63

You might think we need a dictionary of philosophy because the field has so many technical terms -- `a priori', `bare particular', `bracketing', `illocutionary', `personal identity', `privileged access', `substratum', and countless others. We do need a dictionary for these. Some of them -- like `a priori', which is common in some other fields, and `privileged access', which sounds all too familiar -- don't mean in philosophy what they mean outside the field. Others don't seem familiar at all, and still others, such as `bare particular' (which designates what is left of a thing after all its properties are stripped away), can be mystifying even when explained.

There are even more quite ordinary words that have acquired special uses in the hands of philosophers. Not just people but also propositions can (in a very different way) be analytical; knowledge can fail to exhibit closure -- though fortunately not in the way unending discussions can. Beliefs can be incorrigible -- in a way that indicates merit! The phenomenal need not be large or unusual. A valid argument (unlike a sound one) can be composed entirely of falsehoods. The golden mean is not an economic concept.

The author in May 1995 on a cruise in Finland celebrating the University of Helsinki's commencement during which Professor Audi was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Social Science.

There are also the myriad isms of philosophy -- behavorism, empiricism, existentialism, holism, mysticism, organicism, Platonism, rationalism, and Thomism, to name a few; there are the subfields -- for instance, aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, modal logic, and philosophy of mind; and there are the numerous special symbols of logic: circles and squares, arrows and anchors, operators and punctuation marks, tables, diagrams, Greek letters, and intriguing characters with names like `double turnstile', `Sheffer stroke', and `shriek operator'. For those whose reading or thinking is wide or deep (and doubtless for crossword puzzlers, too), we need a dictionary just for browsing through these focal points of thought and culture.

All the items I've mentioned except Platonism and Thomism are represented by common nouns, and even those two are not personal nouns: their capitalization represents historical connections but hardly biographical contents. Yet a truly comprehensive dictionary of philosophy must also include entries headed by proper names and devoted to thinkers. Can proper names, then, be defined, as opposed to just biographically identified? In a way, yes: Descartes has been called "the father of modern philosophy," and this is what -- historically speaking -- the name means to some people. To others (more initiated) it means, say, the leading mind-body dualist; to still others, the guy who said "I think, therefore I am."

A good dictionary entry on a philosopher provides an intellectual portrait that conveys what the name of that thinker "means." Even if we omitted personal names, we would have to include proper adjectives, such as `Platonic', `Cartesian', `Humean', `Kantian', `Nietzschean', and `Peircean'. The best way to define these is usually to present an account of the philosopher's thought which enables readers to see the meaning of the adjective in the various contexts of its use.

So far, so good, perhaps, but now one may ask why not an encyclopedia -- or at least, why isn't a dictionary just a mini-encyclopedia? Some works labeled dictionaries are. But whatever their sizes, dictionaries and encyclopedias differ: a dictionary is primarily definitional -- capturing, in one way or another, what the terms heading its entries mean (though it may do far more than that); encyclopedias, companions, and similar works do not necessarily define these terms, and their main purposes tend to be informational, historical, and bibliographical. There is no sharp distinction here: a definition may be informative beyond the characterization of meaning, and the right kind of encyclopedic information on a topic can define the concept in question. But in practice a good definition captures what is conceptually central to its target subject in a way that an encyclopedia article sometimes doesn't, and quite commonly doesn't in the kind of brief formulation we expect in a typical dictionary entry.

A dictionary should be readable without the aid of an encyclopedia, however much an encyclopedia may provide context for a dictionary entry; an encyclopedia may well not be readable without a dictionary. Even when it is, its stock in trade is the article, not the definition. For major items, at least in philosophy, a standard encyclopedia article, if readable in a sitting, is too extensive to understand without major interruption of the text that may send one to it. But even with major items, most dictionary entries can be read in the midst of perusing the writings that demand them. A dictionary of philosophy should be a resource at your elbow; an encyclopedia worthy of the name needs a shelf.

The need for a dictionary of philosophy is one thing; producing one is another. The product has to meet the need, but the need provides no how-to manual for the editor. There are at least two ways to start -- with what and who. To my mind what you need should determine who should do it; but without good authors, you can't get what you need, and there are some authors any discerning dictionary editor will want. For me, a sense of the categories comes first: technical terms, field names, major theories such as the (mind-brain) identity theory, isms, significant thinkers, special symbols, and terms at the intersection of philosophy with other fields, say `connectionism' in relation to cognitive science, `legal positivism' in relation to jurisprudence, and `deconstruction' in relation to literary theory.

No one edits in a vacuum, and there are older works to consider: existing dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, and of course scholarly books and journals. Then come more personal factors: one's own perplexity -- what is existentialism, really, and can self-deception be understood without paradox? -- and observations made in reading, hearing talks, and even speaking with friends on non-philosophical topics.

Once my entry list approached completion, I became an almost haunted man: with every unfamiliar philosophical term or minor thinker I encountered, unless I was sure we had it I wondered, "Do we?", "Should we?" "If we should, can we still get a good author?" There is no end to this. Fortunately, one can nourish well without providing every dish in the world.

Even with the entry list determined, there is the question of consolidation: should foundational-ism and justification, for instance, have their own entries or be covered only under epistemology? The former (which says in part that knowledge divides into foundations and superstructure) is so widely mentioned, and the latter

is so pervasive in philosophy, that each is best treated separately. There is also the question of when it is a disservice to readers to cover too much in one entry and when it would produce inefficiency or conceptual fragmentation to separate notions that operate together, like justification by faith and justification by works, deep and surface structure, externalism and internalism, and the contingent and the necessary.

Quite apart from the daunting task of constructing an adequate entry list, there is the matter of finding authors. I thought of leading people in the various fields, asked advice of an international editorial board, and invited suggestions from scholars and from authors preparing entries. Thus came formal learnability theory, erotetic logic, the Oxford Calculators, and hundreds more. The computer theory expert noted a need to explain self-reproducing automata, and the resulting entry can be viewed variously as demystifying some science fiction, as outlining a possible future we might dread -- or as expressing a most unflattering assessment of certain human beings.

In commissioning entries, one tries to present authors with an appropriate selection of entries, but quickly finds that many will write only some of them. The contributor list grows, often with the addition of "subspecialists" one might not have found without first approaching someone in the general field. The list can also shrink -- or threaten to: one distinguished author delayed so many times after increasingly urgent reminders that in desperation I sent this message: "You have dangled attractive fruit before my eyes. Let me have it soon -- it will not keep more than a fortnight." The entry was mailed just at the final deadline and proved to be worth waiting for.

There are also literary challenges. If entries are signed or initialed, as is appropriate if distinguished authors are contributing, then individuality of style should be respected. Who could edit out "As with chicken sexing, it is relatively easy to identify analytic philosophy . . . though extremely difficult to say with any precision what the criteria are."? But some uniformity is also needed. If writing authors' guidelines for a dictionary of philosophy is difficult, editing the manuscripts for clarity and format is a literary tightrope walk: in philosophy, and especially with definitions, the smallest change in style may alter meaning, yet for dictionary writing even the best writers tend to need some editing.

Once the volume as a whole takes shape, the cross-referencing problem comes to the fore. Internal cross-references -- the "see also" ones -- can distract readers, and if embedded within the entry will interrupt the text. But in many cases these are needed at the ends of entries. One tries for an Aristotelian mean between excess and deficiency. Too few cross-references and the reader gets no help -- though where it seems obvious what sorts of other entries might be consulted, cross-reference is not needed. Too many cross-references will diffuse the reader's efforts. There is also the task of selecting external cross-references, the "see" ones that occur by themselves on the headword list. Not every philosophically interesting term treated in an entry is characterized adequately to warrant a cross-reference to it; but if we are too strict about this we deprive readers of easy access to explanations they would find satisfying.

Producing a dictionary of philosophy takes far more than I can describe. I wouldn't do it without a major press with a truly professional staff -- or without an understanding family. Can it be done even then, at a high level, with comprehensive coverage of the entire field, and in a single if sizable volume? I think so. Has it been done? I hope so -- in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. If, for Colgate readers, this volume brings back the philosophy and religion course or other elements in that venerable basic curriculum -- taught to me in the '60s by Gene Adams, Jerry Balmuth, Bruce Berlind, Herman Brautigam, Steve Hartshorne, Jonathan Kistler, Ted Mischel, John Morris, Joe Slater, Russ Speirs, Hunt Terrell, and other luminaries -- I'll be pleased. The felt need for a dictionary of philosophy, and a conception of many of its contents, started some three decades ago right there.

Robert Audi, the general editor of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, published by Cambridge University Press in September, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.