You Can Look It Up

“Woe,” thought I. Our esteemed founder and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, Bob Royal, had asked me to review a . . . dictionary. Who needs another dictionary on the long shelf of dictionaries? The pressures of the job have robbed him of his wits.

But St. Francis and other saints are rumored to have said that everything is a gift, and so too this assignmentWords of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition, by Creighton University philosophy professor John W. Carlson, is an extremely useful tool for the student or home philosopher whose schooling and memory need constant refreshing and sharpening. 

And it’s apparently a welcome addition for the professionals as well: Aidan Nichols, author of The Shape of Catholic Theology and other masterpieces, called Carlson’s new reference “an invaluable resource.” Why such praise for a dictionary?

Although we do not think of philosophy, at least in the last few centuries, as a “hard” or empirical science, it is nevertheless a rigorous field where words have meanings that count. When those meanings are obscured or lost, either through intentional distortion or careless usage, the search for truth becomes muddled, and the reason side of “faith and reason” suffers. 

Correcting this muddle has long been understood to be an urgent task by thoughtful scholars working in the classical and Catholic traditions, not least Pope John Paul II, whom Carlson quotes to open the book.

E. F. Schumacher, the author of the 1970s hits Small is Beautiful and A Guide for the Perplexed was much more than some new age guru fascinated by Buddhism and ecology, as he is sometimes falsely remembered. He was also an orthodox Catholic who worried about the demise of metaphysics, and believed the foremost task of his age was a reconstruction of traditional metaphysical truths, a project where a correct understanding of vocabulary would be critical.  

Schumacher wrote:

In ethics, as in so many other fields, we have recklessly and willfully          abandoned our great classical-Christian heritage. We have even degraded the very words without which ethical discourse cannot carry on, words like “virtue,” “love,” and “temperance.” The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction. 

The distinguished philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his 1981 classic After Virtue, traced the catastrophic decline of the understanding of essential vocabulary in philosophy after the Enlightenment, rendering much contemporary philosophy and culture meaningless or dangerously wrong: “the language of morality is in [a] state of grave disorder. . . .There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.” Take a quick look at the headlines: thirty years after MacIntyre’s careful study, things have not improved.

C.S. Lewis, writing in the middle years of the last century, gave us a more humorous take on the same grave problem. In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” an addition to The Screwtape Letters, the master tempter advises recent graduates of the Tempters Training College for Young Devils:

Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that Democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. . . .You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power.

As we watch the unfolding of the progressive political agenda in the United States (and a similar agenda in Europe), Lewis has proven prescient as always in demonstrating how the power of a word can be misused against its own real meaning. 

As another example, consider how the word “equality” is used to justify an astonishing, and frightening, range of policies in contemporary politics, with much the same result as Lewis discerned in the misuse of “democracy.”

So as a step towards recovering the vocabulary that lets us seek and express truth, enter Carlson and his new dictionary with clear, concise definitions of words like virtue, love, temperance, democracy, and equality: a total of 1173 words or phrases. 

The selection is rooted in Thomism but includes entries on schools and concepts such as utilitarianism, phenomenology, and existentialism. Technical terms like “kenosis” are explained succinctly and thoroughly. Carlson includes abundant references to the work of St. Thomas and other Catholic thinkers that enrich the explanations and definitions. 

The book also offers another great gift, a magnificent bibliography with a section on St. Thomas as well as sections on other topics and authors. Those who want greater depth on particular ideas and terms will have plenty of resources at their disposal. 

In combination with the splendid glossary in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, readers who buy Carlson’s volume will have two bookshelf tools to understand comprehensively, precisely, and authoritatively the rich vocabulary of philosophical and theological pursuits. 

A dictionary alone cannot make us all philosophers. But Carlson has given those who wish to seek truth, to “do philosophy,” a truly excellent means to clear the muddle of much so-called moral and philosophical discussion – babble, really – that we read and hear today. 

This book is a great service to the wisdom and tradition of the thinkers who gave us the words and ideas it describes. As it turns out, we do need another dictionary. This one.


Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.