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QUESTION OF THE DAY

Can every philosophical word or term listed in peer-reviewed philosophy dictionaries be explained with a real-life example? If not, how can we know that it's not just BS?

A not-really-relevant aside: most philosophers don't own philosophical dictionaries, but let that pass.

Here's a non-philosophical word: unicorn. It's easy to explain what it means, but there aren't any real-life examples. Whether a term can be clearly explained and whether there are actual examples are quite different questions.

If it's controversial whether something exists then a philosopher shouldn't pretend otherwise, but the question of whether something exists (God, for instance) might be an interesting one. And sometimes the best way to understand a notion is a philosophical question. The notion of free will is like that. In that case, there's no one meaning for the term, but it's possible to have a perfectly reasonable discussion of what might count as free will and why some answers might be better than others. In fact that sort of discussion comes up in many disciplines. Philosophers are unusual in that they're trained to notice this kind of unclarity and to reason about it carefully.

I suppose your reference to when a term is used in a BS fashion, the term is used either without serious intent or it involves some fabrication or pretense to meaning or clarity that is undeserved. I could be wrong, but probably using "a real life example" might not be a guarantee that a term is being used seriously or without BS, partly because there are interesting disputes about when an example is a matter of "real life" or a strange interpretation of real life. For example, an extreme philosophical behaviorist who denies the existence of occurrent experiential states might claim that she can completely describe and explain our exchange right now, but (from my point of view) this would involve completely ignoring an evident feature of real life. Even so, I would not want to accuse the extreme behaviorist as promoting BS. She is seriously committed to a position and methodology that (it may be argued) is powerfully supported by a certain philosophy of science and meaning.

In any case, I share your aversion to BS and your desire for philosophical terms to be explained or employed with plausible (or real life) examples. I think that some pretty abstract philosophical terminology (as found, for example, in Rawls' veil of ignorance, David Lewis's modal realism, four-dimensionalist approaches to time, absolute idealism, a philosophical account of religious terms like the Trinity, etc) can be filled out with using concrete cases and everyday intuitions. I have heard Rawls' veil of ignorance explained in terms of a concrete case of slicing up a cookie. Imagine you and I want to split a cookie and we do not have precise instruments to divide it evenly. One solution would be for me to cut the cookie and you to choose. Not knowing which part of the cookie I will get, I will be highly motivated to cut it as evenly as possible. OK, much more is involved than this humble matter, but I suggest there is always (or at least often) to take ostensibly abstract philosophical concepts or terms and flesh them out in terms we can readily understand (and then perhaps to challenge).