Tag Archives: lexicography

“Philosophy”, East and West

Like all terms in any language there is no full presence of meaning.

Here are the three definitions of “philosophy” from LDOCE. They are distinct but related as all polysemy are.

1 [uncountable] the study of the nature and meaning of existence, truth, good and evil etc
2 [countable] the views of a particular philosopher or group of philosophers
3 [countable] the attitude or set of ideas that guides the behaviour of a person or organization

I think the first two terms are fairly straightforward (the first one at least) but it is the third which is of interest here.

One often uses the third meaning in sentences like, “my philosophy on life is …” or “his philosophy on the matter is that …”.

Interestingly this does not translate across languages.

When learners try to ask a question like “what is your philosophy on X” they often fail by literally translating the words.

In Japanese, for example, “X in taisuru anata no tetsugaku wa nan desu ka” sounds strange and unnatural. More natural would be “X ni kanshite wa dou omoimasu ka“, which would be literally close to “what do you think of X“, which would sound like asking for an opinion.

The term philosophy then entails some degree of objectivity, whatever that may be. This is not true of what do you think of X. The point being the possible structure of the language and the influence of it upon you must be taken into consideration.

Going back to the other two meanings too it would be hard to use the same structure as “the philosophy of Confucius” or “his management philosophy”. Different words would replace philosophy for this usage in Japanese and Chinese, and presumably in many other languages as well.