What is an ISM in Philosophy? A Detailed Exploration

Hello there! You’ve landed here because you’re wrestling with the question, “What is an “ISM” in Philosophy?” Well, let’s tackle that head-on.

Think of an “ism” as a special pair of glasses that philosophers put on to interpret the world. It’s a handy term that encompasses a range of ideas or beliefs that help us make sense of our complex, unpredictable, yet utterly intriguing lives.

Terms like existentialism, utilitarianism, and realism – are all examples of ISMs. But don’t be overwhelmed by the jargon – they’re just different ways to perceive our existence.

Now that we’ve established what an ‘ism’ generally refers to, let’s put a sharper point on that definition.

What is an “ISM” in Philosophy?

Let’s define an ISM:


\ ‘i-zəm \

a distinctive doctrine, cause, theory, or religion

manner of action or behavior characteristic of a (specified) person or thing

prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a (specified) attritube

adherence to a system or a class of principles

Now, let’s break that down into everyday language.

Picture this. You’ve got this curious critter called an ISM. It’s like a quick-change artist, constantly switching up its costumes. One minute, it’s a unique doctrine, cause, theory, or even a religion. Think of it like a cook creating a signature dish that stands out in a sea of potlucks.

Next thing you know, it’s taken on a certain behavior or action that’s characteristic of a particular person or thing. Kind of like your Uncle Bob’s uncanny knack for always knowing where he left his glasses.

Just when you think you’ve got it pegged, the ISM throws a curveball. It could manifest as prejudice or discrimination based on a specific attribute, like deciding all dogs are bad because one dog ruined your favorite shoes.

In its final act, the ISM morphs into a steadfast adherence to a system or set of principles, as solid and unwavering as an ancient oak tree.

But don’t let all this confuse you. An ISM is just a special lens for viewing and understanding this wild journey we call life.

Having established a clearer picture of what an ISM is, let’s take a fascinating journey back in time to explore how these ISMs have evolved.

The Evolution of ISMs: A Journey Through Time

History is a living, breathing entity, especially when we delve into the captivating narrative of the Oxford philosophers. Envision a cadre of thinkers, not merely confined to their academic ivory towers, but actively engaging with the realities of the world. These philosophers didn’t subscribe to stagnant doctrines. Instead, they embraced ideologies that were fluid and responsive to the shifting colors of their era.

Take, for instance, existentialism, an ISM that emerged in the aftermath of World War II. At that time the world was grappling with questions about the meaning and value of life. Or consider feminism, an ISM that has continually evolved in response to societal changes, constantly redefining and challenging the norms about gender and power dynamics.

These philosophies, much like chameleons, adapt to their surroundings. They are not fossilized concepts but dynamic doctrines that transform to accommodate the zeitgeist, much like we humans do.

Therefore, when considering the relevance of philosophies, it’s vital to remember that they are not mired in the sands of time. Instead, they are dynamic, living ideas, ever-evolving to reflect the changing world. These ISMs, steeped in rich history, are not merely artifacts of the past. They persist and continue to significantly shape our society and the ways we interpret and engage with the world around us.

As we’ve seen, these ISMs have a rich history. But they are not just relics of the past – they continue to influence our society in profound ways.

The Interplay of ISMs and Society

Let’s turn back the clock to 1975. A groundbreaking book, “Animal Liberation,” penned by Peter Singer, graced the literary landscape, provoking a seismic shift in our perceptions of animals and their welfare. This book, now resurrected in a fresh edition, is a potent reminder of utilitarianism, an ISM that promotes actions yielding maximum happiness and minimum suffering.

Utilitarianism, in the context of animals, implores us to consider their welfare. It’s akin to opting for a longer path to bypass a trail of ants, understanding that each action, regardless of its size, bears an impact. Utilitarianism challenges us to contemplate the broadest scope of happiness possible.

But the influence of ISMs doesn’t stop at utilitarianism. Consider the realms of environmentalism and veganism, both philosophies deeply intertwined with our relationship with animals and the natural world. Environmentalism compels us to reconsider our actions’ impact on the Earth and its inhabitants, while veganism, an offshoot of this consciousness, challenges us to minimize harm to animals by modifying our dietary choices.

With this understanding of how ISMs can profoundly shape society, let’s delve further into specific ISMs and unpack their meanings, their origins, and their impacts on our world.

The Dance of ISMs: Rhetoric and Dialogue

Let’s now shift our gaze to the sphere of rhetoric. It’s comparable to a dance, a delicate interplay of words and ideas. In our polarized times, we find thoughtful minds rediscovering the ancient craft of rhetoric, a discipline dear to the Sophists, those esteemed philosophers from Ancient Greece. They held the belief that truth wasn’t etched in stone, but more akin to a malleable clay figure, able to be shaped and reshaped through discourse.

This concept brings us to relativism, an ISM that asserts the relative nature of truth, depending on various factors such as cultural, historical, and individual perspectives. By this view, our truths are not universal, but subject to the context and understanding of the individual or society.

Imagine if we could master this dance of dialogue, could we bridge the chasms that divide our societies, fostering a harmonious coexistence between different ISMs? Here’s a thought worth mulling over.

Let’s now ground these abstract concepts with a real-world example, illustrating how an ISM can shape our everyday life and decision-making processes.

ISM in Action: The Dilemma of Utilitarianism

Let’s return to the concept of utilitarianism for a moment, and apply it to a practical situation. Imagine a fervent debate taking place in a Philadelphia school about a proposed “gifted” program. The question at hand is whether resources should be allocated to cater to the few exceptionally talented students, or spread evenly among all the students, thereby raising the overall level of education.

This scenario serves as a real-world demonstration of how philosophical ISMs like utilitarianism don’t just exist as intellectual exercises for academics. Rather, they operate like unseen conductors orchestrating our societal decisions and policies.

They influence our judgement in scenarios such as deciding whether to give the last slice of pizza to the person who is the hungriest, or to divide it equally among everyone. Utilitarianism, in this instance, provides a framework to help us navigate these moral dilemmas.

Having seen utilitarianism in practice, let’s take a step back to appreciate the wider landscape of ISMs, and explore their profound impact on our day-to-day lives and societal norms.

ISMs Everywhere: A Panorama of Thoughts

Don’t be fooled, dear reader, into thinking we’ve covered all the ISMs. Philosophers are a lot like curious adventurers, always exploring, always questioning. They’re forever poking and prodding at the big questions – about how we argue, what we know, and what truth really is.

It’s like wandering through a maze where every twist and turn brings a fresh question, a new way of seeing things. So keep your eyes open and your curiosity alight, and you’ll discover ISMs popping up like daisies in the fields of life. Stay in the loop with the latest musings in philosophy at philosophynews.com.

Now that we’ve traversed the vast landscape of ISMs, let’s set you up with some resources to dive even deeper into this fascinating world.

Dive Deeper: Reading Recommendations

You’ve dipped your toes in the vast sea of ISMs, and you’re itching to dive in headfirst. We’ve got you covered! We’ve put together a list of six books that’ll take you on a whirlwind tour of these ISMs – from the twisty turns of moral relativism to the peaks of feminism, the deep valleys of existentialism to the sprawling plains of Marxism, and more.

Reading these books isn’t just about getting to know these ISMs better. It’s about sparking thoughts you’ve never had, challenging views you’ve held dear, and maybe, just maybe, shifting the way you see the world. Every page you turn is another step on your journey to becoming your own brand of philosopher. So, grab a book, and let’s dive in!

NOTE: these books are available on Amazon. Tap the title to take you there directly.

sophies world book

“Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder

This novel is an excellent introduction to a wide array of philosophical concepts and ISMs, presented in an engaging and accessible narrative.
the second sex book

“The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir

This foundational text of feminist philosophy explores gender inequality and the social construction of femininity.
utilitarianism book

“Utilitarianism” by John Stuart Mill

As the title suggests, this book lays the groundwork for utilitarianism, arguing that actions are right if they promote happiness and wrong if they produce the opposite.
a theory of justice book

“A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls

This book introduces the concept of justice as fairness, a form of social contract theory, and counters utilitarianism.
animal liberation book

“Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer

This influential book initiates a philosophical discussion about animal rights and is an excellent resource for understanding utilitarian ethics applied to animal welfare.
the stranger book

“The Stranger” by Albert Camus

A classic novel that provides an introduction to existentialism and absurdism.


So there you have it. ISMs, those spectacles we adorn to comprehend the world, permeate every facet of philosophy. As we delve into the freshest debates and explorations, we realize that ISMs aren’t just arcane theories collecting dust – they’re living, breathing ideas that shape the world we inhabit. Now, armed with this understanding, go forth and philosophize!

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