A comparison of three dictionaries of philosophy

A comparison of several dictionaries of philosophy may seem redundant to many. After all, the homo interneticus has no need for a printed dictionary anymore — she could just go and satisfy her curiosity by reading online dictionaries and encyclopedias. I belong to that clan of people who still use printed dictionaries of philosophy. Printed, because I find reading from paper to be more enjoyable than reading from a screen. Dictionary, because sometimes I am interested in a different sort of activity than a serious study of some original work, or reading a lengthy encyclopedia article. Anyone who has not only used but read a dictionary knows the experience. You start with an entry that is somewhat interesting, read it, follow the cross references, and repeat. Unless you are a jaded professor of philosophy who is proficient in several sub-fields, you are bound to learn something interesting. For the people who enjoy this sort of activity, I am going to briefly examine three popular dictionaries of philosophy still in print.

In my examination, I was most sensitive to breadth. I paid special attention to whether non-Western traditions, Continental philosophy, and scientific concepts were included. I also tried to evaluate the strength of particular entries.1 Needless to say, others with different sensibilities and expectations may not agree with these evaluations.

Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn (Revised Second Edition, 2008, Oxford)

This one probably has the most content, thanks to a tiny typeface. In some entries, it gives web links to more content on a companion website, which I never used. It extends well beyond philosophy — not only to science and other areas of inquiry, but also to broader culture: there are entries on Sex and Magic; on Zoroastrianism and Shinto; on Entropy and Gene. It has the greatest number of biographical entries, with figures as diverse as Lev Vygotsky, Nagarjuna, and Dante Alighieri. Continental philosophy gets some coverage — it is not much, but definitely more than the other two dictionaries.

A Dictionary of Philosophy, Antony Flew (Revised Second Edition, 1984, St. Martin’s)

This one has solid content, but it is unacceptably outdated. This means no entries on cognitive science, women philosophers, or animal rights movement. I find this to be a serious drawback, but if we ignore it, the content is pretty strong. I suspect it is still of help to those who are interested in more traditional topics. Its extension beyond philosophy is not too great, but it includes entries on non-Western traditions. In the preface to the first edition, Flew claims that non-Western traditions are not paid much attention in this dictionary because his focus is on the academic discipline of philosophy, which is “characteristically argumentative.” The Chinese classics, says Flew, contain “little argument of any sort.” In the face of such claims, I am just glad that many terms from the non-Western tradition make the final cut. There is some coverage of scientific terms. Continental philosophy does not receive much attention.

The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy, Michael Proudfoot and A. R. Lacey (Fourth Edition, 2010, Routledge)

The Routledge Dictionary is composed more like an encyclopedia, with much longer entries. At the end of some entries, there is a list of suggested readings. I am ambivalent about these suggestions. It is definitely a nice touch, but it also seems out of place in a dictionary (as opposed to an encyclopedia). In terms of content, it is surprisingly narrow. There are almost no entries on non-Western traditions or scientific concepts. Maybe this would not be so much of a problem if its coverage of the narrow realm were superior, but I do not think that this is the case. It is also biased towards some areas of philosophy. For example, the entry for Consciousness is only one-page long whereas the entry for Confirmation is six-pages long. Continental philosophy is covered, but in a similarly narrow fashion.

Conclusion

I find The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy to be the best one. The quality of the articles is quite good, and I think it is important that it makes a special effort to include the traditions that are generally ignored in Anglophone philosophy. If you would not be bothered by its minuscule typeface, this is definitely the one to get.


Notes

1. To gauge the strength of particular entries, I checked each dictionary for the terms on the following list, and extrapolated from there: Animal Rights; Bergson, Henri; Categorical Imperative; Cognitive Science; Darwinism; De Beauvoir, Simone; Dennett, Daniel; Elizabeth of Bohemia; Hedonism; Libertarianism; Lao Tzu/Taoism; Moral Relativism; Pragmatism; Paradox; Vegetarianism.

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