John W. CARLSON. Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. pp. 350. ISBN 978-0-268-02370-6.
Reviewed by Andrew T. McCARTHY, Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA 01612

John Carlson has taken up the challenge of cataloguing and presenting the vocabulary and knowledge of a fairly distinctive branch of philosophy. Deciding where to set the parameters for topics and concepts and how to organize and integrate related information is critical in this effort, and Carlson has carried this out well. He offers concise but essential definitions and descriptions in an endeavor he aptly describes as giving “an account of the word’s meaning” (12). The specific accounts he offers reflect his obvious grasp of the dynamic nature of language to allow for new understanding and sometimes to become the mode of this new understanding. While tending toward manageably succinct definitions, he is not parsimonious in the depth of discussion he offers more vital topics.

The parameters that Carlson sets up for the general subject matter of his work are frequently identified with the ‘Perennial Tradition,’ as noted in the dictionary’s title. Without falling into the common enough tendency of limiting this area strictly to the work of Thomas Aquinas, he clearly uses Thomism to anchor the dictionary’s entries and create a center point in the web of possible relationships. Carlson goes to some length to distinguish his work from other dictionaries of religious and philosophical traditions, and so it is clear that his is not a general dictionary of philosophy, nor could it be described, broadly, as a dictionary of Scholastic or Catholic Philosophy, although he does explain that the work has been carried out in part as a response to John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Brief associations are raised with the work of Augustine, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, and Anselm, but these references stand less on their own and more in support of Thomistic terms and concepts. The reader will also find headwords which are not part of the focal philosophical tradition per se, but which pertain to major topics that come into conversation with the ‘Perennial Tradition.’

Finding that the word has a unique role in imparting or communicating meaning through its association with other words, he indicates the part of speech, synonyms and antonyms, and comparisons with related terms as well as contrasts where either is notable. This latter feature deserves added attention as it is the most helpful research strength of the text. Where the use of some terms might not be clear they are demonstrated in a short sentence or phrase.

Anyone working directly in Thomistic Philosophy or its impact on theology would find the dictionary a regular writing companion. It facilitates an approach to the tradition for someone with a limited background and training. Some entries might not contain the level of detail and nuance that the most expert philosophers in the field would tend to work with, but even for these it would be an invaluable organizational tool. It is a worthy reference text for anyone working in or near Thomistic Philosophy.

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