The Chinese New Year in 2024 occurs on February 10th. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this is a year, the auspicious Year of the Dragon, , and the year of yang wood, , which begins the cycle of Heavenly Stems.

The Chinese New Year is defined as the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice. This rule has been used since the T'ai-ch'u Era (104 BC) of the Emperor Wu Ti (141- 87 BC) of the Former Han Dynasty [note].

Chinese astronomy divides the year into twenty-four parts ("fortnights"), based on the longitude of the sun on the ecliptic. These are called the "Solar Terms," or the , the "Twenty-Four Periods of Ch'i" (where ch'i, , is the "breath" or vital energy of the body, but also simply air, steam, or weather). As recounted in "Groundhog Day and Chinese Astronomy", the Chinese seasons begin at the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes, not at the solstices and equinoxes themselves.

The rule for the Chinese New Year, from the T'ai-ch'u Era, may seem odd. Why this New Moon? Well, it turns out that this will be the closest New Moon to the beginning of Spring on 3/4 February, the Solar Term "Spring Begins." Since a lunar (synodic) month is 29.5 days long, the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice is not going to occur before about 20 January, or later than about 19 February. That puts 3/4 February squarely in the middle of the range. The Chinese reckoning of the seasons is different from what we see in Western astronomy, from the Babylonians, to the Greeks, to the Romans, although there are clues that the ancient Celts, and others, may have seen things the way the Chinese did [note].

The twelve parts of the year corresponding to the signs of the Zodiac each consists of two Solar Terms, but four Zodiacal periods overlap two Chinese seasons. The seasons are of different lengths because, according to Kepler's Second Law, the Earth travels faster the closer it is to the Sun. Between January 2 and 4, the Earth reaches Perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, and travels the fastest. Thus, Chinese winter is only 89 days long, while Summer is (roughly) 94 days long. These are bigger differences than in the Western seasons because all the shortest days of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) are in Chinese Winter, while all the corresponding longest days are in Chinese summer. The shortest days of the year are evenly divided between Autumn and Winter in Western reckoning.

The Chinese New Year is often called the "lunar new year," but it is no more "lunar" than the Babylonian, Jewish, or Islamic new years, which are also based on lunar months. No one calls the Jewish New Year the "lunar new year," despite the calendar working just like the Chinese calendar [note].

Like the Babylonian and Jewish calendars, the Chinese is "luni-solar," with lunar months adjusted with intercalations for the solar year -- seven months added every nineteen years. The Vietnamese new year, Tết, (Mandarin jié, "festival, holiday"; Japanese, setsu, "season, period, occasion, time"), is often also identified as the "lunar new year," but it is, indeed, just the Chinese New Year. A reluctance to identify it as such, in the days of the War in Vietnam, may have been from ignorance, Vietnamese nationalism, or nationalism imputed by American reporters. In 2023, the press so consistently says "lunar new year" that I'm beginning to think that there is some kind of political directive to avoid the word "Chinese." There are, indeed, many reasons to object to the government of China today, but the traditional calendar isn't one of them.

Besides Vietnam, the Chinese calendar has similarly been used in Korea, Japan, and Mongolia [note].

1. Spring BeginsRisshun15d91dFebruary 4Aquarius
2. Rain WaterP-1Usui15dFebruary 19Pisces
3. Excited InsectsKeichitsu15dMarch 6
4. Vernal EquinoxP-2Shumbun15dMarch 21Aries
5. Clear & BrightSeimei15dApril 5
6. Grain RainsP-3Kokuu16dApril 20Taurus
7. Summer BeginsRikka15d94dMay 6
8. Grains FillsP-4Shōman16dMay 21Gemini
9. Grain in EarBōshoū15dJune 6
10. Summer SolsticeP-5Geji16dJune 21Cancer
11. Slight HeatShōsho16dJuly 7
12. Great HeatP-6Daisho16dJuly 23Leo
13. Autumn BeginsRisshū15d91dAugust 8
14. Limit of HeatP-7Shosho16dAugust 23Virgo
15. White DewHakuro15dSeptember 8
16. Autumn EquinoxP-8Shūbun15dSeptember 23Libra
17. Cold DewKanro15dOctober 8
18. Frost DescendsP-9Sōkō15dOctober 23Scorpius
19. Winter BeginsRittō15d89dNovember 7
20. Little SnowP-10Shōsetsu15dNovember 22Sagittarius
21. Great SnowDaisetsu15dDecember 7
22. Winter SolsticeP-11Tōji15dDecember 22Capricorn
23. Little ColdShōkan14dJanuary 6
24. Great ColdP-12Daikan15dJanuary 20Aquarius

Ch'ing Ming, , "Clear and Bright," contains a major spring festival, used to visit the family tombs, to clean them up, venerate the ancestors, and have a picnic. This practice is called , "sacrifice [and] sweep," although the "sacrifice" these days is mostly burning incense and paper money. Ch'ing Ming also happen to be the names of the last two Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the Ming (1368-1644) and the Ch'ing (1644-1912), chosen for their auspicious associations.

The term "White Dew," , whose Japanese on reading (i.e. with the words borrowed from Chinese) is Hakuro, also figures in its kun reading (i.e. with Japanese words), Shiratsuyu, as the name of a Japanese World War II destroyer.

Since length of all terms may vary slightly from year to year, all dates may occur a day earlier.

The terms given "P" numbers are called "principal terms," , "ch'i centers" to Joseph Needham [Science & Civilisation in China, Volume III, p.404]. They correspond to the beginning of Zodiacal periods and are used to determine the numbering of the lunar months. The terms that are not prinicpal terms are , "sectional terms" ("ch'i-nodes" to Needham), though it will be noted that this is also the term for all the solar terms also. Five rules determine the numbering of the months and the occurrence of intercalary months:

  1. The first day of the month is the day on which the New Moon occurs.
  2. Calculations of New Moons are based on the meridian 120o East.
  3. An ordinary year has twelve lunar months; an intercalary year has thirteen lunar months.
  4. The Winter Solstice (term P-11) always falls in the 11th Month.
  5. In an intercalary year, a month in which there is no Principal Term is the intercalary month. It is assigned the number of the preceding month, with the further designation of intercalary. If two months contain no Principal Term, only the first such month after the Winter Solstice is considered intercalary.

These rules, which may be found in the Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac [prepared by The Nautical Almanac Office, U.S. Naval Observatory, edited by P. Kenneth Seidelmann, University Science Books, Mill Valley, California, 1992, p.596], do not provide a simple means for amateurs to construct a Chinese calendar. This was always done by Court Astronomers and still calls for precise astronomical data and special calculations, though it should be reliable enough to use the data for New Moons and for the ecliptic longitude of of the sun in The Astronomical Almanac for the year in question [U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, and Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London].

A table with the Chinese characters for all the Solar Terms may be found in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972], p. 1178. My original information about the Chinese calendar was from O.L. Harvey's pamphlet, "The Chinese Calendar and the Julian Day Number" [1977], which was based on Chronological Tables of Chinese History, by Tung Tso-pin [Hong Kong University Press, 1960], a rare work that I have never examined independently. The locus classicus for Chinese astronomy may be Joseph Needham, Science & Civilisation in China, Volume III, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth [Cambridge U. Press, 1959, 2005].

Curiously, the history of the Chinese calendar at one point becomes mixed with that of the Western astronomy. This was because Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a student of Christopher Clavius (1537-1612) -- the Papal astronomer responsible for the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582 -- was sent to China by the Jesuit Order in that very year.

At the time, the Portuguese were mostly restricted to Macao. Ricci soon became impressively learned in the Chinese language and literature. This is extraordinary. Learning Chinese as a second language, as an adult, is a feat few can accomplish well. And Ricci seems to be the first European to speak Chinese well enough, and know the Chinese Classics well enough, to openly debate Chinese philosophy with Chinese scholars. His name in Chinese then became 利瑪竇, Lì Mǎdòu. Ricci and other Jesuits prepared a map of the world in Chinese and Chinese-Portuguese dictionaries. While becoming friendly with some Chinese governors in the South, Ricci was also expelled by others.

Ricci was permitted to travel to the North in 1596, but returned to the South without entering the Court. His reputation became such that, however, when he presented a mechanical clock for the Emperor in 1601, he was invited to appear at Court. At the time, the Wan-li Emperor was a recluse and himself never appeared in public, conducting business remotely, and poorly. Nevertheless, he was curious about Ricci and asked a Court painter to make an image of the man. When shown the picture, the Emperor commented that Ricci was a 回回, Huíhuí, which at the time covered all the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who had come into China from Central Asia. Since that previously would have been the judgment about people like Marco Polo, it was a category familiar to the Chinese.

Ricci was able to introduce Western theoretical and technical astronomy to China. This was, unfortunately, Ptolemaic rather than Copernican astronomy, but it nevertheless included methods that were better than had been used in China.

This created a position of influence for the Jesuits at the Imperial Court that lasted from the Ming into the 19th century, with a steady stream of inventions like the telescope and even Copernican ideas following in their wake. Indeed, in 1611, the Jesuits were charged with reforming the calendar. There was considerable resistance to this from the Chinese astronomers and matters were delayed, but the Imperial order was renewed in 1629. This Jesuit influence was continued into the Manchu Ch'ing Dynasty.

The political opposition to this perhaps reached a peak in the time of Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), who was given charge of the Jesuit mission in 1630. In 1644, Schall and the other Jesuits were arrested for treason and imprisoned. In 1665 Schall was condemned to death. However, this judgment was soon revoked and the position of Schall (soon to pass away naturally) and the Jesuits restored.

In 1669, in the time of Father Ferdinand Verbiest (16231688), the Manchu K'ang-Hsi Emperor again renewed the charge of the Jesuits with reforming the calendar and even ordered a belated official funeral, with an Imperial Inscription, for Father Schall. Even when Christianity was prohibited in China in 1724, the Jesuits were retained at Court. Thus, as noted, since the Chinese calendar is governed, not by the simple rules of the Julian or Gregorian calendars, but by the astronomical determination of New Moons, this process came under the influence of the Jesuits and of Western astronomy. This influence may be said to have continued until today, since Western astronomy has grown into the modern international science.

The Chinese 60 Year Calendar Cycle

The Occurrence of the Solar Terms 1995-2013

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Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Solar Terms and The Chinese Calendar, Note 1

The Chinese New Year in 2023 occurred on January 22nd. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this was a year, the Year of the Rabbit, , and the year of yin water, .

The Chinese New Year in 2022 occurred on February 1st. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this was a year, the Year of the Tiger, , and the year of yang water, .

The Chinese New Year in 2021 occurred on February 12th. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this was a year, the Year of the Ox, , and the year of yin metal, .

The Chinese New Year in 2020 occurred on January 25th. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this was a year, the Year of the Rat, , and the year of yang metal, .

In 2019 the New Year occurred on February 5th. In terms of the 60 Year Cycle, this was a year, the Year of the Pig, , and the year of yin earth, .

Since the "Year of Pig" doesn't sound very nice to some people, is often rendered "Boar" instead, which sounds like a wild animal rather than the barnyard. However, the primary meaning of both and is "pig" or "hog." At least "pig" sounds cuter than "hog." But for "boar" we need a binome, like , which looks like the "duke" pig. We do think of boars as larger and meaner.

Of course "Year of the Rat" may not sound very nice either, but there aren't a lot of obvious alternatives for the name.

Various sources have given the year in a continuous Chinese Era. For a while, the official Astronomical Almanac of the U.S. Naval Observatory (previously The American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac) gave such a date, a practice that has now lapsed; and the Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac [edited by P. Kenneth Seidelmann, University Science Books, 1992] has explicitly said:

There is no specific initial epoch for counting years. In historical records, dates were specified by counts of days and years in sexagenary [i.e. 60 year] cycles and by counts of years from a succession of eras established by reigning monarchs. [p.595]

Thus, since nothing of the sort had been used during actual Chinese history, the editors of the Almanac have obviously decided not to use it. When the Almanac gave such a date, if we brought it up to 2020, the year would be 4657. Various sources on line, many of which seemed to be Chinese, gave a date for 2019 as 4717.

So we want to ask what these implied Eras actually date. The number 4717 would mean a benchmark of 2698 BC, while 4656 (for 2019) implied one of 2637 BC. Since these differ by just 61 years, it looks to be an issue of just one 60 year calendar cycle. Then, if we consult the Dynasties listed at the end of Mathew's Chinese Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972, p.1186], 2698 looks like beginning of the reign of the Third Legendary Emperor, the "Yellow Emperor," , in 2697 BC.

The difference between 2698 and 2697, one year, like the one extra year in the 61 years just noted, bespeaks some confusion or conflict between cardinal and ordinal counting, such as we have in reckoning the beginning of the century and the millennium. Chinese practice involves its own problems, when a reign era proclaimed by an Emperor, or at his accession, only actually begins the following year. This plays havoc in Chinese historiography with short reigns, which may not make it to the next year, as under the Ch'in (the three days of Hsiao-wên Wang) and the Mongols. I still have not seen a full and sensible explanation of such problems.

So the continuous Chinese Era dates what apparently is taken as the beginning of Chinese history, with the legendary "Yellow Emperor," . However, we see in Mathew's that the Yellow Emperor does not seem to actually begin Chinese History. The beginning of the entire "Legendary Period" of the "Five Emperors" was in 2852 BC, 155 years earlier, with T'ai-hao, .

The complication is that there have been handed down different versions of who the Five Legendary Emperors were. It is the "Grand Historian," Szu-ma Ch'ien [Sima Qian] (145-86 BC), who lists the "Yellow Emperor" first among the five. Other sources, like the I Ching, are what Mathew's follows in making the "Yellow Emperor" third and T'ai-hao, , first. The dates given by Mathew's, however, apparently match what is used by those who place the "Yellow Emperor" first. Were we to use the earlier date for T'ai-hao, the year for 2019 would be 4871, which I have seen given by no one.

I have seen preciously little information or even lore about T'ai-hao, . Although Mathew's Chinese Dictionary lists him first of the Five Legendary Emperors, there is not an entry for his name in the body of the dictionary. Similarly, there is no entry under his name in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, by John DeFrancis [Hawai'i, 2003].

In Mathew's, the character [#2072] is defined as "Clear summer sky. Vast; grand. The Power that rules in the heavens." The combinations of interest are , "the vast heavens; Imperial Heaven -- it seems to be used both of the heavens in their expanse, and of Heaven as having a ruling personality"; and , "The Sovereign on high in the vast heavens." Remembering that originally would mean a "god," this makes a fairly serious deity -- serious enough that it is curious we don't hear more about him.

Given the superlatives but little information about T'ai-hao, it is then also curious that the Five Legendary Emperors often also include Shao-hao, , which would mean the "lesser," as opposed to the great, "Sovereign on high." We find him in various lists in various places, once even as the first Emperor, in others as the son and/or successor to the "Yellow Emperor," whether the "Yellow Emperor" is listed first or third (as on Mathew's list) -- yet he does not figure at all in the lists of Szu-ma Chien or the I Ching. The lore about Shao-hao is varied and contradictory, and he has even entered the universe of modern computer gaming. All the greater the contrast with T'ai-hao.

The Jewish Eras of the World

The Japanese no longer use the Chinese calendar; but Japan still dates by reign eras. The year 2019 was Heisei, , year 31, the Era of the Emperor Akihito. However, Akihito abdicated that year. His son, Naruhito, ascended the Throne, and a new Era name was adopted. So 2019 became year 1 of the Reiwa, , Era. 2020 is then Reiwa 2. Japan does not follow the Chinese practice with eras, so, as Akihito abdicated, Heisei 31 immediately became year 1 of the Reiwa Era.

Japan does use a continuous Era of its history, making 2020 year 2680, since the legendary Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC -- curiously close to the Era of Nabonassar in 747 BC. This dating is seen less often, since it may be associated with the bad old days of Japanese imperialism and the Shintō Cult of the Emperor. But one should be familiar with it. The "Type Zero" World War II Japanese Naval fighter got its name from becoming operational in the year 2600 (= 1940 AD). It may be noteworthy that 2020 is exactly 80 years later.

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The Solar Terms and The Chinese Calendar, Note 2

For instance, in 2015, the Chinese New Year, for the year, fell on February 19th, fifteen days after Spring Begins on February 4 (and, as luck would have it, two days after Mardi Gras). This appears to violate the rule for the occurrence of the Chinese New Year, which is the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice in 2014 was on December 21st at 23h02m, followed by a New Moon on December 22nd at 01h36m, on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT; Universal Time, UT; or Coordinated Universal Time). Subsequent New Moons in 2015 are on January 20th at 13h14m and February 18th at 23h47m.

What may be involved is that the Winter Solstice on Chinese time is actually already on December 22nd (as the February 18th New Moon is on the 19th), using the meridian 120o E as the standard meridian for these phenomena (as it is), and we might interpret the T'ai-ch'u rule as meaning the Second New Moon after the day of the Winter Solstice. In terms of closeness to Spring Begins, both January 20th and February 19th are separated by fifteen days from February 4th. So it's a close call; and whatever it comes down to in hours and minutes, obviously Chinese calculation has settled on February 19th. This, however, will clearly be about the latest Chinese New Year, as January 20th would have been about the earliest. This is an issue in all luni-solar calendars

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The Solar Terms and The Chinese Calendar, Note 3

Another confusion about the Chinese New Year is the phrase gung hay fat choi, which is often said to be "Happy New Year!" in Chinese -- we got that about every year on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (d.2005), when Ed McMahon (d.2009) would always announce the Chinese New Year with gung hay fat choi. In 2004 I actually saw a news report that this was the right phrase in Mandarin Chinese. But it is not. It is in one of the other Chinese languages (or "dialects"), or Cantonese, which is spoken in Guandong Province and Hong Kong. Cantonese syllables can end in m, t, p, or k, while Mandarin syllables cannot. The word fat thus shows that the phrase cannot be Mandarin. In Mandarin, "Happy New Year" is Gōngxǐ fācái! To pronounce this, one needs to know how to read Pinyin initials.

The currency of the Cantonese expression is probably due to the circumstance that most Chinese immigrants to the United States before World War II were from Guandong Province, with Hong Kong itself contributing its influence (especially with a large movie industry) since then. The same phrase in Mandarin in characters is . This does not literally mean "Happy New Year," but is a wish for complete happiness and prosperity ("become rich").

A web page on line says that gung hay fat choi is not used by anyone in China, and that it is the result of "Imperialism." Unfortunately, this would mean that no one in China speaks Cantonese anymore, and in fact there is a 1985 movie, in Cantonese, called Kung Hei Fat Choy. The only "Imperialism" here may be the program of the Chinese Government to suppress local languages -- on top of the Communist oppression in Hong Kong and genocide in Tibet and Sinkiang. The phrase in characters with Cantonese pronunciation is -- the notation for tones is that used in an old Teach Yourself Cantonese [1970, 1976].

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The Solar Terms and The Chinese Calendar, Note 4

I have had one Mongolian correspondent claiming that Chinese astronomy, attested from antiquity, was derived from the Mongols. Since the Mongols adopted writing only in the time of Chinggiz Khan, and so Chinese civilization antedates any Mongolian documents by a couple of thousand years, I don't think there is much doubt, from the historical evidence, that Chinese astronomy originated in China.

This sort of thing must be added to the list of nationalistic and propriety claims made by various ethnic groups, countries, or even races. We might be surprised at claims for the antiquity of Mongolia despite the total lack of evidence, but that sort of thing is not unusual in the genre.

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The Earthly Branches
4.boumẩo taulai2011
Chinese years are classified according to 10 "Heavenly Stems" and 12 "Earthly Branches." The succession of Stems and Branches produces a sixty year calendar cycle.

The Earthly Branches are more familiar, since one association is with 12 Zodiacal animals, which in Buddhist tradition are supposed to be the animals that responded when the Buddha called to them, like St. Francis, to hear him preach the Dharma. Most people hear about the Chinese New Year and know, for a while, that a year like 2000 is the "Year of the Dragon."

The Chinese names, in Pinyin, in the lefthand column are not the names of animals, but the proper names of the "Branches." The Japanese list gives the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name followed by the Japanese name of the corresponding animal. The Vietnamese names are the Vietnamese pronuncation of the Chinese names. The Mongolian names are the animal names. Thus, tora in Japanese and bars in Mongolian both actually mean "tiger."

Since the "Year of Pig," like 2019, doesn't sound very nice to some people, is often rendered "Boar" instead, which sounds like a wild animal rather than the barnyard. However, the primary meaning of both and is "pig" or "hog." At least "pig" sounds cuter than "hog" -- some people have them as pets. But for "boar" we need a binome, like , which looks like the "duke" pig. We do think of boars as larger and meaner -- and certainly not domesticated. The "Year of the Rat" may sound even less appealing than "Pig," but there doesn't seem to be a remedy for it. The only actual mythological creature here is the Dragon, whose years are the most auspicious.

The primary association of the Heavenly Stems is with the five elements. These are divided into yang or "elder brother" and yin or "younger brother" forms. The Chinese names are not the element names, but the proper names of the "Stems." Note that these figure as the second element in the names of the Kings of the Shang Dynasty. The Japanese and Mongolian lists give their pronunciation of the Chinese names followed by the elder/younger version of the element names. The Vietnamese list is just the pronunciation of the Chinese names.

The Heavenly Stems
1.koki-no-egiápgaere modun2004
2.otsuki-no-toấtyieme modun2005
3.heihi-no-ebínhbingere ghal2006
burning wood
4.teihi-no-tođinhdingeme ghal2007
lamp flame
5.botsuchi- no-emậuuere shiroi2008
6.kitsuchi- no-tokỷgieme shiroi2009
7.ka-no-ecanhgingere temür2000
8.shinka-no-totânsineme temür2001
9.jinmizu- no-enhâmshimere usun2002
10.kimizu- no-toquígüieme usun2003

A table with the Chinese characters for all the Earthy Branches and Celestial Stems may be found in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972], p. 1176. Treatments of the Japanese Branches and Stems, and other calendar features, may be found in the Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan, E. Papinot [Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1910, 1972], p. 836, and in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell [Princeton University Press, 1985], p. 399.

The Vietnamese names here are taken from Nguyễn Đình-Hoà's Vietnamese-English Dictionary [Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1966, 1991], under listings for chi (the Earthly Branches, p. 62) and can (the Heavenly Stems, p. 31). Vietnamese diacritics cannot be rendered well in HTML. On this site I have begun using Unicode for Greek, Chinese, and other languages. Thus, 2020 is a gēngzǐ year, as noted below. Unicode allows for the representation of all the Chinese tones, at least in Mandarin. I have now used Unicode to render Vietnamese diacritics.

2020 was the year , mainly identified as the "Year of the Rat" from the second character. This begans the 12 year cycle of the Earthly Branches. The Heavenly Stems, however, were still three years from the end of the cycle.

2021 is the year , the Yin Metal Year of the Ox.

The Occurrence of the Solar Terms 1995-2013

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Science, Calendars

Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved