BMCR 2020.09.55

Calling philosophers names: on the origin of a discipline

, Calling philosophers names: on the origin of a discipline. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 440 p. ISBN 9780691195056 $45.00.

[The Table of contents appears at the end of the review.]

In Calling philosophers names, Christopher Moore has produced the definitive study of the ancient Greek word philosophos, with attention to the related terms philosophia and philosophein, from the 6th to the 4th centuries b.c.e. At the same time, he also seeks to situate this investigation in the history of philosophy, that is, the field of intellectual inquiry that comes to be known by that name. All subsequent scholarship on these topics will begin with this important new book.

The question, Who was the first philosopher? is ambiguous between: Who was first called “philosopher”? and: Who was the first to engage in the field of intellectual inquiry known as philosophy? The first of these questions is a matter of philological research. The second is a historical inquiry that depends on some normative understanding of what counts as philosophy. Thus, because the usage of words can change, it might well be that the first person called “philosopher” was so-called for some other reason than because they engaged in what later came to be known as philosophy. Likewise, it might also be that some people who engaged in what later came to be known as philosophy were not known by their contemporaries as “philosophers.”

As Moore signals in his subtitle, the implications of his study extend from the lexicographical toward the normative question of what counts as philosophy. But, while his paradigm of the field is the activities in Departments of Philosophy at contemporary Western colleges and universities, his purpose is not to trace their rise. He also resists speculation about the reasons for philosophy’s development in Greece (e.g., the rise of the polis, use of coined money, or cross-cultural influences). It is enough for him that during the 4th century philosophy emerged as a recognized field. Moore’s very substantial contribution lies in providing a philological account of how philosoph- vocabulary initially appeared before it was subjected to this normalizing redefinition. Only in his epilogue does he gesture toward the implications of such an inquiry for reassessing the self-understanding of contemporary practice.

At the core of Moore’s approach is a careful review of textual evidence—including consideration of papyrus remains, Mycenaean phil-compound words (attested only in proper names), and inscriptions. Of the several hundred (mostly Classical and post-Classical) Greek phil-compound words, Moore’s argument is built on close consideration of a number attested up to the beginning of the 5th century, and of the ways in which the senses of phil-compounds shift from negative to later neutral or positive connotations. (An appendix lists 73 phil-compound words appearing overall in the work.)

His primary thesis is that philosophos is a somewhat dismissive appellation (the “name-calling” of the title), subsequently approvingly appropriated by those to whom it was applied (apparently initially the Pythagoreans)—not unlike the embrace of the pejorative “queer” in the late 20th century by those so discriminated. The emergence of philosophy as an autonomous field occurs only when philosophos is provided with the false etymology “lover of wisdom” by Plato. Its autonomy is then secured by Aristotle through a historical self-awareness that recognizes and assimilates precursors not by what they were called but rather by retrospective consideration of whether and to what extent they are seen by him as contributors to what he understands as his own philosophical project.

(Of related interest would be an account of the term sophistēs, which we can look forward to in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Sophists, co-edited by Joshua Billings and Moore.)

The book is organized into three major divisions, each of three chapters, and an introduction and epilogue.

Moore introduces his project by considering the sources for the claim that Pythagoras was the first to use the word philosophos as a self-description, tracing the Academic conceptions of philosophy that inform this doxographical tradition.

The book’s first part, “Origins,” then begins with a chapter devoted to Heraclitus’s use of the word philosophos. Moore accepts as authentic Heraclitus fragment B35/D40,[1] and reading it together with fragments B40/D20, B57/D25a, B129/D26, B81/D27, argues that Heraclitus’s use of the word is dismissive. Moore’s argument relies on an excellent reconstruction of Heraclitus’s epistemology, to make the claim that his focus on the singular need to understand the logos leads him to denigrate Pythagoras and others characterized in these fragments by their polymathy—seeking wisdom in many things rather than the wisdom that all things are one. We may also draw the corollary here that, despite later being placed as a prominent figure in the history of philosophy, Heraclitus would not himself want to be known as philosophos.

The next chapter considers the formation of phil-compound words, and the way in which their meaning shifts over time, from Homer onward, also with some concern for Mycenaean use of phil-compound proper names. Moore demonstrates convincingly that the Platonic gloss “lover of wisdom” obscures the original and somewhat negative sense of phil-compounds, in which the first element is not signaling a positive desire but rather, roughly, a life-orienting activity, and the second element is the life practice of concern. Consider, for example, the philēretmoi Phaeacians and Taphians of the Odyssey, whom one cannot imagine to be “oar-loving”—rowing is a physically demanding exertion—except as an ironically bemused comment by others on the expediency of sea-faring for them. Philosophos therefore looks to be a word used to describe people who lead lives with the apparent goal of becoming like those called sophoi—“sage-wannabes” as Moore puts it—a somewhat queer goal, so it appears, as such status had been something traditionally attained by acclamation, perhaps on recognition of one’s polymathy, and was not something one could have or would have sought. The subsequent chapter then argues that it was initially for the Pythagoreans that this description was used, quite apart from whether Pythagoras ever did, or would have, used the word to describe himself. Philosophia andphilosophein would seem to have emerged simply to describe whatever it was that they were seen to be engaged in—particularly the community organizing for which they were known in the cities of Magna Graeca. While this might have seemed superficially akin to the political activity of the canonical sages of old, by some factions it was considered transgressive, and it led to violence against them; so here these terms pejoratively mark the rancor with which their activities were met. In any case, this politically charged name-calling directed against the Pythagoreans had nothing to do with the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of “love of wisdom,” even though that tradition would later also subsume them within its historical self-understanding.

The second section, “Development,” begins with a chapter tracing the usage of philosoph- vocabulary in the 5th century (in Herodotus, Thucydides, Gorgias, Lysias, Aristophanes, and the Hippocratic On Ancient Medicine); and philosopheinnow expands to describes any number of miscellaneous activities that might be seen as being informed by some sort of wisdom or to be the sorts of things about which the wise might be thought to be concerned, including judgment about the best life and facing life obstacles, deliberation about political questions and political constitutions, but also reasoning about the relations between the kosmos and medicine, and what we would now call ethics, psychology, and epistemology. These uses provide a bridge to the 4th-century use of philosophein that coalesces around the figure of Socrates, which Moore sums up as referring to “a way of talking” characterized by “examining oneself and others, arguing about the nature of justice, redirecting one’s desires, learning about civic affairs, and practicing political speech giving.”

The next chapter considers the curious fact that, while Socrates has often been seen as a figure of world-historical importance in the history of philosophy, neither Plato nor Xenophon seems interested to use the word philosophos to describe him. Moore has previously demonstrated Xenophon’s programmatic concern to distance Socrates from the philosophoi.[2] Here, he extends the analysis to Plato; and although the latter more readily embraces philosoph-vocabulary, he seems to share with Xenophon a profoundly apologetic purpose in wanting to distinguish Socrates from the pejorative popular conceptions of philosophos, philosophia, and philosophein that he suggests animated his prosecution.

The final chapter of this section treats “non-academic philosophia” in Phaedo, Antisthenes, the Dissoi Logoi, Alcidamas, and, especially, Isocrates; and leads to the conclusion that it was not so much that Plato “won” the battle over what philosophos, philosophia, and philosophein meant as that he was victorious over Isocrates in establishing philosophy as an intellectual field due to the institutional endurance of the Academy.

The book’s final section, “Academy,” then turns to consider this legacy. Going beyond the work of figures such as Walter Burkert, Andrea Nightingale, and John Cooper, Moore wants to see Plato less as innovating than as renovating. For Moore, Plato does not mark a break in the history of philosophy nor (pace Nightingale) does he inaugurate a new, technical conception of it. Plato rather extends the colloquial sense of philosophia as a “certain kind of edifying talk with like aspiring people” by fusing to it a consideration of conditions for its possibility—today we might say he supplies it with a metaphysics of morals—which in turn provide the basis for the disciplinary specialization and technical elaboration that later developed.

This section’s second chapter then considers Aristotle’s historiography of philosophy as providing the definite break between those who earlier philosophized in their divers ways with what now emerges as the pursuit of intellectual cultivation and curiosity that understands itself as the “love of wisdom” in both its architectonic concerns and universal purview, which the modern discipline claims to continue. The earlier ambivalence about philosophoi does not disappear, however; and the final chapter considers where it still finds expression in the twin specters of resistance to philosophy and its potential vacuity.

In this study, Moore has gone beyond earlier work through a combination of exhaustive philological research and sensitive, historically astute evaluation of the evidence. Overall, he succeeds admirably in his related lexicological and historiographical projects. The immediate take-away is to overturn the continuing conception that what passes as “philosophy” today is in any straightforward way “from Greek ‘love of wisdom,’” and to highlight the dissonance between philosophy conceived as the contemporary professional practices of college and university professors and the sense of it as a politically consequent way of life that this conception suppresses. [3] Quite apart from the merits of Moore’s study, it is difficult in the present moment not to reflect on what philosophy has become. In his epilogue, Moore suggests that an appreciation of the history of philosophia in ancient Greece and its contrarian and overtly political concerns could help us make progress on reclaiming what was lost when philosophy’s way of life became understood in terms of specialized theoretical inquiry rather than political activity. Given the world in which his study has appeared—in which a viral pandemic rages and in which calls for social justice resound in the aftermath of the recent killings of George Floyd and others—I think we do well to heed his reminder of the political stakes that once animated philosophia, and to recognize that Socrates did not die for “love of wisdom” so that the “philosophers” could merely interpret the world. As Marx reminds us, the point has always been to change it.

Table of Contents

Selected Abbreviations and Editions
Map of Places Mentioned

Chapter 1—Introduction: The Origins of Philosophia

Chapter 2—Heraclitus against the Philosophoi
Chapter 3—What Philosophos Could Have Meant: A Lexical Account
Chapter 4—Pythagoreans as Philosophoi
Chapter 5—Fifth-Century Philosophoi
Chapter 6—Socrates’s Prosecution as Philosophos
Chapter 7—Non-Academic Philosophia
Chapter 8—Plato’s Saving of the Appearances
Chapter 9—Aristotle’s Historiography of Philosophia
Chapter 10—Ambivalence about Philosophia beyond the Discipline

Epilogue: Contemporary Philosophy and the History of the Discipline
Appendix: Versions of the Pythagoras Story
Classical Uses of Philosoph- Discussed in This Book
Phil- Prefixed Words Appearing in This Book
Index Locorum


[1] As numbered in the editions of Diels-Kranz and Laks-Most respectively.

[2] See his “Xenophon on ‘Philosophy’ and Socrates,” in Gabriel Danzig, et al., eds., Plato and Xenophon:  Comparative Studies.  Mnemosyne Supplements 417.  Leiden & Boston:  Brill, 2018; reviewed at BMCR 2019.06.32.

[3] See, for example, the “Philosophy” article on Wikipedia, or the American Philosophical Association’s “Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates,” [accessed September 30, 2020].