How did the discipline of philosophy come to be?
An illuminating, if unorthodox, way to answer this question is to look to the origin of philosophia – the Greek word, and the discipline that it came to name.
That story begins around 500 BCE, with the coinage not of a self-lauding “love of wisdom” but with a wry verbal slight, and concludes a century and a half later, in the maturity of an institution that is continuous with today’s departments of philosophy. This phenomenon – accommodating an insult and building a group identity around it – recurs through history, as illustrated by the Quakers, Shakers, Freaks, and queer activists (to name just a few). A norm-policing name, at first distasteful, gets appropriated, facilitates a new and ennobling self-understanding, and then governs a productive and tight-knit social enterprise. The same is true for philosophy.
The epithet philosophos seems to have begun as “sage-wannabe,” a bemused label for a person’s repetitive and presumed excessive efforts to join the category of sophoi, the political advice-giving sages of the Greek world. The label stuck. (A distinct but equally intriguing history may be told about the related label sophistai, “sophist.”) Eventually, a fashion for etymological invention glossed philosophos as “lover of wisdom.” The gloss caught on, but not because it had recovered a historical truth; rather, it sounded good, and provided a happy construction on what those called it were feeling.
In this way, the many philosophy instructors who, on day one, praise philosophy by praising its supposedly original parts, “love” and “wisdom,” mistake a fourth-century BCE experiment in reconstruction for the term’s coinage many generations earlier. And for their part, most historians of ancient philosophy, guilty not of anachronism but of partiality to the fourth century, ignore the word’s early years, treating it as an unremarkable term meaning “cultivator of one’s intellect,” a word that on their reading happened to catch Plato’s fancy, who then singlehandedly made it a technical term and a distinctive life-defining goal. Neither view – “lover of wisdom” or “intellectual cultivator” – squares with the evidence from the first century of the expression’s use, and neither attends to the way reflection on the expression contributed to the very thing to which the fraught term applied. Just as a sand grain irritates the oyster into making a pearl, a once-irritating word, philosophos, helped bring about the discipline of philosophia among the lasting charms of fourth-century BCE Athens.
Focusing on the origin of the word philosophia leads to different insights than those produced by studies that seek the origin of philosophy, whether in Greece or elsewhere. Such accounts start by deciding what counts for us moderns as philosophy. Then they try to figure out what kind of ancient evidence would justify our finding philosophy in some early practice. Finally, they gather whatever evidence is available and explain how this evidence could identify the origin of such practices.
This approach has cogent goals, to be sure: tracing back our distinctive reason-giving enterprise, studying the conditions under which it arose, and reconstructing the dialectical process by which familiar concepts, distinctions, and problems became salient. Work in this vein is genuinely philosophical, because recognising reasons as reasons means acknowledging and evaluating the normative force of various claims. But the approach confronts serious methodological challenges when it encounters the equivocal evidence on which the issue of origins must rely.
The trouble is that the basis on which we are to ascertain the existence of some “philosophy” way back when seems undecideable. After all, what counts as philosophy now is hardly obvious or agreed upon, given the complexity of our practices, not to mention the diversity and disagreements within the field. What counts as ancient evidence for our idea of philosophy is no easier to decide. Some might look for explicit dialectical engagement, others for explicit argumentative inference, and yet others for non-theistic explanation.
Adding to the difficulty, our evidence for the earliest candidate philosophers comes to us pre-interpreted by later philosophers, such as Aristotle, who might perhaps have to take responsibility for making them philosophical in our sense. The best such studies confront these methodological challenges explicitly and provide deep insight into the nature of philosophy, whatever it may be, in the ancient world. Yet none avoids a fealty to present-day ideas. Perhaps a rational demonstration is a rational demonstration, in 500 BCE as much as now, one might argue. But did every particular case of rational demonstration count as philosophy? Could something nondemonstrative or nonrational count as philosophy? How many people had to share in this demonstrative practice for “philosophy” to become recognisable or count as a practice, institution, and discipline? These are intractable questions, and there is no ready criterion to which one might appeal.
Fortunately, there is a criterion for something. Rather than struggle to apply our own complicated concepts to a complicated past, we might study the concepts that our forebears used. This is the contextualist or historicising approach. Unable to decide on the first philosophers, we can still decide on the first philosophoi. Whereas for historians of philosophy the earliest known philosophers may have been Thales and Anaximander, for historians of philosophia the earliest known philosophoi were those called philosophoi in the earliest attestations of the term: as it seems to turn out, people associated with Pythagoras, from several generations later. The history of philosophia eventually includes Thales and Anaximander, but only once Plato’s students in his “Academy” research group strove to identify and baptise precursors. The evidence we have allows us to see the development of a cultural phenomenon that the Greeks could themselves see, reflect on, react to, and consciously or unconsciously modify, one that may have begun in Southern Italy rather than in Miletus on the Ionic coast of Asia Minor. The Greeks certainly talked about philosophia, and it is crucial to ask why they did so, and what effect on philosophia came about as a result.
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A new approach to the origins of the discipline is encouraged not just by the desire to track ancient rather than modern concepts, or to discuss social rather than purely rational phenomena. It is also encouraged by a puzzling feature of ancient histories of philosophy. Over more than a millennium of accounts, and with provocative regularity, ancient authors advert to the origin of the very word philosophos. No other discipline pauses with such care to reflect on the introduction of its name – not astronomy, not poetics, not mathematics.
Not only that, but from at least the fourth century BCE, these historians, otherwise impresarios of disagreement, partisans of some school, or skeptics about all factions, took a single and unwavering view of that origin; we know of no rejections, suspicions, or alternative accounts. The story they told of that lexical origin took varied forms, and differences among them are important, but the striking consensus about the core claim is even more important. We find the account in Aristotle, and in his once-famous colleague Heraclides Ponticus; in a rigorous second-century BCE historian of philosophers, Sosicrates of Rhodes; in the (conjectured) first-century CE encyclopedist of philosophy Aëtius; in the Roman philosopher-rhetorician Cicero and rhetorician-philosopher Quintilian; in the omnivorous historians Valerius Maximus and Diodorus Siculus; in the Platonist intellectuals Apuleius and Maximus; in the neo-Platonist scholars Iamblichus and Hermias; in the Christian-philosophical apologists Augustine and Clement; in the Church Fathers Ambrose and Isidore; and twice in the ten-book Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.
The story is that Pythagoras – theorist of soul-migration, regimens of living, and vegetarianism – had a long talk with Leon, leader of an intellectually flourishing town near Corinth. Leon finds Pythagoras’ conversation uniquely impressive, but despite his superior cultural milieu he simply cannot place his profession, so he asks: “What is your expertise?” “Expertise? None, really; I’m called philosophos.” Leon expresses puzzlement at the unfamiliar word. Two versions of Pythagoras’ response circulate. In one, Pythagoras analogises life to an athletic festival (the Olympic or Isthmian games are nearby): some people come to compete for glory and some to sell their wares for profit, but the best come as spectators to contemplate the whole thing, and these are the philosophers. In another version, Pythagoras observes that while he might seem a sophos, a sage, in fact that name is too high-falutin, worthy only of gods or legends; philosophers simply emulate those paradigms of excellence.
Three features of the early career of the term “philosophy” are readily seen. First, even for an elite Greek speaker like Leon, the term philosophos lacks the transparent meaning those who gloss it as “lover of wisdom” suppose it has. The same point is suggested by the ease with which the later stories could propose alternative explanations of it. Second, Pythagoras’ distinctiveness is his way of discussing issues. Third, nothing makes us presume that Pythagoras invented the name for himself; it looks much more like he has been called the name, and that Pythagoras (or rather his biographers) is putting a good spin on it.
This third point gets support from the linguistics of “name-calling names.” As I see it, Greeks would use the phil– prefix to create neutral-appearing but actually bemused or piquant labels for excessive and thus unseemly social behaviour. Philaitios is phil– + aitios, “legal motion”: not “lovers of legal actions” but “litigious people.” Philerêtmos is phil– + erêtmos, “oar”: not “oar lovers” but a sobriquet apt for the pirates to which the term was applied – “Hey, stop rowing after us all the time!” So too philosophos, as phil– + sophos, “sage, elite advice-giver”: a person who tried to short-cut the life maturity necessary for useful insight by engaging in abstract talk.
Though this account of the origin of philosophia differs from an account of the origin of philosophy, it complements rather than replaces it. The name is reactive, not motivating. What got philosophy going may indeed have been wonder, or the leisured pursuit of scientific understanding, or the appreciation of and confidence in large-scale claims defended by reasons. Perhaps it was moral seriousness that drove Socrates to avoid wrongdoing by learning what he could learn. Perhaps it was fear of death and the quest for self-purification and psychic health. Perhaps nautical astronomy, or agricultural meteorology, or genealogical grandstanding played a role; perhaps it was influence from Egypt or Babylon or Chaldaea. Scholarship on ancient philosophy has learned much from pursuing these hypotheses. But none alone explains why people got called by the name philosophos, and none explains the development of an enduring discipline – a mutually self-aware group of coordinated practitioners with a historical consciousness of their forerunners – named precisely philosophia. Those investigations got consolidated and refined only in some socio-linguistic setting. Cicero spoke imprecisely, in one of his exhortations to philosophy, when he said that though the name is new, philosophy is old; in fact, the name and the practice grew up together, and only retrospectively can we spot rudiments of the practice before the unifying name.
This sort of approach to the history of philosophy has as its goal neither an ahistorical definition nor a universal praise of philosophy. It seeks instead its disciplinary origin. The Greeks loved studying such origins, apotheosising or heroising the inventors of the arts and sciences. We love it, too. Sometimes our love is defensive, underlining the nobility of science, the value of literature, or the urgency of scholarship, teaching, and theory. But sometimes our love has more than instrumental value, by contributing to self-understanding – about the norms to which we commit ourselves as members of a discipline, whether medicine or social theory or ethics. Disciplinary origins, like political constitutions, project powerful limits or ideals onto our present-day practice, even if the means and extent of this projection occasion intra- and extra-disciplinary debate and disagreement.
Indeed, philosophy provides a special case for the histories of disciplines. Its spokespeople may rightly claim that it birthed or sloughed off many other disciplines, such as psychology and physics. To be sure, it was no ur-discipline; it arose in a milieu spawning a range of inquiry, including linguistics, poetics, political science, and historiography, with the boundaries between them becoming clear only in time. But unlike other disciplines, which at least seem to have relatively stable and uncontroversial objects of study – stars and orbits in astronomy, points and lines in geometry, melodies and instruments in music – the objects of philosophy have never been secure or subject to enduring consensus. A discipline called philosophy nevertheless came to be, and, in time, quite self-consciously.
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Tracing the way a discipline built itself up around the word philosophia has a lesson for contemporary discussions about the meaning of philosophy. Diverse candidates get floated for the essence of the subject: thinking about thinking, knowing at the deepest and most systematic level, conceptual analysis, concept creation, social critique. This diversity should surprise nobody. Each of us sees something else, takes something else as central, and interprets the unmet ideals differently. Some will take a minimalist line, trying to account as capaciously as possible for all activities called philosophy; others will take a maximalist line, trying to articulate the precise processes and substances of philosophy. Consensus will fail even if philosophy is to be defined negatively, as what differentiates it from other disciplines. Indeed, the dominance of the institutional definition – “whatever people do in university philosophy departments” or “whatever people publish in university presses’ philosophy list” – obscures the full range of disagreement.
For my part, I doubt that there is anything that “philosophy” (or philosophia) naturally or necessarily takes as its object, whether the cosmos, or ultimate being, or the self, or the norms of thought. I am less inclined to doubt Aristotle’s view that the activity of philosophy amounts to explanation, especially fundamental explanation – but that is because I take explanation to be constitutive of any discipline whatsoever, and the role of explanation in philosophy is even more salient insofar as the field lacks other important anchors, such as rocks for geologists or poems for theorists of poetry.
At the same time, I think that philosophy is basically a practice of talking that has the goal of becoming a better person. This method and this aim raise a central question: How is self-improvement through discussion and study supposed to work? There is nothing to turn to for answers except what other philosophoi have done and talked about. Thus I take philosophy to be, crucially and not merely for due diligence, the interpretation of prior experiments in philosophy – its methods, concepts, arguments, and ideals – from those you take to be your ilk, philosophers, such that by understanding them one might come to live better. Now, perhaps every discipline takes as its goal, somewhere in its remit, the flourishing of people. But as I see it, the discipline of philosophy differs in believing that well-being comes from the interpretation and assessment of philosophical claims and views, not from excelling in productive activities or from understanding natural or human-made objects in the world. I thus take philosophy to be inseparable from the history of philosophy.
The history of the word “philosophy,” then, may not dissolve many philosophical problems, but still it is important. It disabuses us of the notion that the term has always meant “lover of wisdom” or indeed needs to identify any inner passion at all, rather than some public social practice. It allows that the doubt or pessimism people feel about philosophy has always been felt, acknowledging that the promise of philosophy was in dispute and contention from the start. It addresses concerns about Hellenocentrism: we can accept the Greekness of the name and certain canonical personages while also accepting that the ideas, practices, and goals had foreign beginnings or influence. Most importantly for me, it gives a humble nobility to an origin story for our discipline connected with the sophoi (the advice-giving “sages”), and thus with political action, curiosity, and a contrarian spirit of self-cultivation; with conversation and fellow feeling; with concentrated and enduring attention to detail, validity, and truth; with personal responsibility; and with the hope for a better life.
No mere story of a word can vindicate a way of life, of course, but when that story has been about ways of life themselves, and so has drawn attention to them as proper objects of our deliberate concern, we might make some progress.