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The philosophical words you don’t know you’re using

When most of us think about philosophy it will be the Ancient Greeks, the French works of Descartes or the German heavyweight Friedrich Nietzsche that spring to mind. But what about English as a language for philosophy?

Well actually, from Wordsworth’s daffodils to modern corporate slogans, our language is full of it.

The words that philosophy has given us

Originally, the great philosophical classics were in Latin, translated from the Greek. However, in the 16th century there were increasing numbers of individuals who were literate, but not in Latin. So, in the 1550s people started thinking about translating philosophy from the Latin language into English, and printers started producing philosophy books in our native tongue.

For this to happen, many Latin words had to be (rather clumsily at times) translated into English. We got words like alphabet, anarchy, alternative, anniversary and antidote – and that’s just the As!

Some other examples include:

  • Apathy - In the 17th century ‘apathy’ entered English from Greek via Latin and French. It meant ‘lack of passion’, and in terms of philosophy this could sometimes be a positive thing, synonymous with tranquility. Of course, that’s not how we use it today: to be apathetic is universally considered a negative trait.

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  • Axiom – This comes from the Greek for ‘that which is thought worthy’. In the 16th century it came to mean a proposition that was thought worthy or that had gained general acceptance. But then it developed to mean any established proposition, whether true or false.

  • Academy is from the name of a grove of trees near Athens where the Greek philosopher Plato taught. We can actually still visit it today. It’s in a suburb of the capital city, in a small park surrounded by blocks of flats.

Taking the ‘philosophical’ approach

From the 18th century, to take something philosophically or to be philosophical about something meant to take it calmly in the face of adversity – and it’s a concept that is still widely used today. For example, you might feel philosophical about your football team getting royally beaten by a rival club, or be philosophical about not getting the promotion you were gunning for.

Remaining ‘stoical’

These days, we describe someone as stoical if they are able to endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. But the word stoic was actually attached to a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics believed that staying clear-headed and being an unbiased thinker allowed a person to understand the ‘logos’ – the natural law of the universe – which in turn allowed one to overcome destructive emotions and be free of suffering.

Philosophy in poetry

The Romantic poets did a lot to help introduce philosophical ideas to the masses. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were very keen on translating pure philosophy into ‘real’ language in order to popularise it.

In Wordsworth’s most famous poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, he describes seeing,

‘a host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’

He goes on to describe how the happiness they gave him was far from fleeting:

‘when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’

With these words Wordsworth is conveying that beauty in the natural world not only gives pleasure at the time but provides feelings of joy that far outlast the experience itself. Who knew that one of the most famous poems in the English language was tackling philosophical concepts?

Philosophy in literature, from Austen to Dickens

We may not realise it, but we’re also absorbing philosophical ideas when we read the works of some of our favourite authors:

  • A common theme in the work of Jane Austen is that appearances are never the whole truth. The author often plays with ideas of falsity through the irony in her narration and the power her characters words have to deceive the reader.

  • In Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy talks about providence. Is it fate or awkward coincidence? His characters are quite often in control of what they’re doing until this thing called providence strikes.

  • Charles Dickens, on the other hand, rejects determinism. Pip in Great Expectations comes from a very poor background but, somehow or other, despite of all his hubris and failings, he comes good. There’s a sense that Dickens believes that, if you play your cards right, you can overcome your circumstances.

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Philosophy in business and marketing

Philosophy has meant a lot of things over the ages but in the 19th century it came to mean (amongst other things) a system of ideas on a subject, synonymous with a mission. This is why you often find an ‘Our Philosophy’ button on corporate websites. For example, BT’s ‘Philosophy and Culture’ page states: ‘We put the customer at the centre of everything we do, with a commitment to constantly seek ways to help our customers achieve their financial goals.’

The word philosophy is regularly used within the marketing industry. There’s management philosophy, corporate philosophy, business philosophy, core philosophy, investment philosophy. And the list goes on…

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