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A Terminological Proposal

10 February 2013

Another entry in the ‘shorter but more regular’ category, today I present a brief proposal to, I hope, improve contemporary English philosophical nomenclature. Regular readers will know that, in addition to an historical review this blog functions as a forum for my own philosophical and theological thinking and that this thinking has been moving in a number of previously unforeseen directions, including being caught up in the modern rebirth of virtue ethics. While I have no pretensions to ever contributing to this movement in such capacity as a professional/academic philosopher, I don’t mind counting myself amongst those members of the digital republic of letters who like to muse now and again from outside the walled gardens of their peculiar bailiwicks.

To this end I would put forward today a modest terminological proposal: the adoption of the term ‘aretaism,’ and its obvious adjectival form ‘aretaic,’ from which is actually derived, to encompass the contemporary field of virtue and ‘virtue-related’ inquiry.[1] I propose this to replace the current practice of affixing ‘virtue’ to the name of any philosophical field to form awkward noun clusters, such as ‘virtue ethics,’ ‘virtue epistemology,’ and ‘virtue jurisprudence.’ In addition to eliminating the need for these awkward compounds, ‘aretaism’ would serve a global term for the modern ‘aretaic’ movement in Western philosophy and theology, facilitating the acceptance of virtue/excellence/arete as primary paradigm for philosophical and/or theological reflection, rather than mere component of a ‘more complete’ system.

I derive this new noun from the Greek term of which ‘virtus,’ the Latin word from which the English virtue is derived and the source of the cognate terms in many other modern languages, [2] was at first a slightly awkward translation, ‘arete,’ meaning ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence.’ Etymologically ‘arete’ is a better descriptor for the stream of thought than ‘virtue,’ as the former has not acquired the exclusively moral connotations that make terms such as ‘virtue epistemology’ so jarring and because the modern school of thought often applies the term in the more general sense of ‘excellence,’ ‘virtue’ having acquired an almost exclusively ethical connotation. The term is also not an entirely original invention, as the phrase ‘aretaic turn’ already has a good deal of currency.

If you agree that the various field of ‘virtue x‘ require a simpler, unifying name, which possesses both adjectival and nominal form and is remote enough from everyday use not to lay down the field with layers of connotation unrelated to the ideas it is meant to convey, I hope you will consider introducing the term ‘aretaism’ into lexicon. Perhaps with time it will gain enough currency to make its way into the philosophical vocabulary proper.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] I add the term ‘virtue-related’ to acknowledge that some thinkers within the field, most notably Alasdair MacIntyre, do not employ the term ‘virtue’ to describe their thought. MacIntyre, for instance, refers to his tradition of thought as ‘Aristotelian Thomism.’

[2] The practice is not universal. German, for instance, uses the native ‘Tugend,’ which derives from a semantic field of physical strength and fitness but carries no connotations of such.

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