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Moore, Christopher, Calling Philosophers Names: On the Origin of a Discipline

I-Kai Jeng
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Moore, Christopher, Calling Philosophers Names: On the Origin of a Discipline, Princteon, Princeton University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780691195056

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* Numbers below refer to page numbers of the reviewed work unless otherwise noted.

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1The genealogy of philosophy, like many human activities, was retroactively applied. Thales didn’t think of his activity as philosophein; he receives the honor of the first philosopher when the enterprise has already taken on discernible shape, and its self-understanding became inseparable from its history (260; also compare the sixth point on 25). Similarly, this volume is an attempt at a self-understanding of philosophy through tracing its origins.

2But in fact, Moore begins both more humbly and more radically than my description of his book above. More humbly, because Moore describes his investigation as historical and adopting an external point of view (6), not an insider’s reflection on philosophy; without denying the relevance of the former to the latter, he presents internal points of view, whenever appropriate, cautiously (as for example on 32, 318). More radically, because he proposes to look at a more comprehensive set of data where philosophos and its cognates occur. A new likely story (8) of the evolution of the term emerges from his examination, and significantly a history of the various attitudes (both external and internal) toward the activity and stances to which the term referred. Among the many claims put forward in the telling of this story, three stand out as central. I. the usual view that philosophos / philosophia meant “cultivator / cultivation of one’s intellect,” “a person of culture / culture,” is too broad. It is much more accurate to say that philosophos meant “sage-wannabes” (1), a name-calling term used by outsiders who meant to caricature or mock people who ape sophoi behavior in the hopes of themselves being called as such. II. The phil- prefix therefore does not refer to a psychological state of desire, or awareness of a lack, i.e. one must not retroject Plato’s analysis back into earlier uses of phil- prefixed terms. Instead, the original connotation of the prefix is to mark perceived excessive behavior with respect to some activity or enjoyment that is socially acceptable when pursued within certain limits (and transgressed by the phil- ones). For example, drinking wine is socially acceptable within certain limits, but indulging oneself too much in it marks one as a philoinos in society. III. Pythagoreans were the earliest group of people marked as philosophoi, and Pythagoras might have appropriated the term and spun it into something positive rather than negative or suspicious.

3Chapter one, which also serves as the introduction, discusses an anecdotal conversation between Pythagoras and Leon, recorded in DL 8.8, together with variants in other authors. Moore argues that, although there is no extant text older than late 4th century B.C. recording the story, there is little reason to think that the story is fabricated or invented for “propaganda” purposes. We ought to treat the anecdote as genuine history, or at least providing some reliable historical information. Moore engages with Burkert’s classical account which claims that Heraclides retrojected Plato’s conception of philosophia back into the Pythagoreans (20-24); he suggests that a careful assessment of Burkert’s arguments still leaves important parts of the story as historically reliable. A discussion of the variants is meant to establish a plausible case for their common provenance before the 4th century. This introductory account therefore motivates one to dig deeper into the whole context of the possible currency and meaning of the term philosophos in 6th century B.C.

4The rest of the book is divided into three parts, the latter two forming the second part of Moore’s argument (see 6). Chapters two to four reconstructs the origins of philosophos / philosophia. Chapter two discusses Heraclitus B35, “For philosophical men (philosophous andras) really quite ought (chrē) to be researchers into much.” The authenticity of the fragment is debated. It looks as if this fragment contradicts B40 and B129, both of which criticize polymathy. To reconcile these sayings, defenders of authenticity sometimes resort to what Moore calls a “two-step” model to wisdom, where polymathy is encouraged at the beginning of research, but discouraged as the ultimate goal. Moore rejects both those skeptical of authenticity (41-45) and the two-step solution (45-51). On his reading, the two-step defense is mistaken on two counts: it assumes that Heraclitus is “squarely in the shared Ionian-Italic research tradition” (50), and that philosophous andras meant something positive for Heraclitus. Rejection of the two-step solution compels Moore to offer a general account of Heraclitus’ epistemology, which turns out to be both skeptical of the promise of empirical research and distrustful of what the philosophoi do. Moore suggests, then, that B35 is not meant as a recommendation to “research into much,” but as an ironic sneer (borrowing Cornford’s phrase, quoted on 58) at Pythagoreans.

5I find this reading unconvincing because of the chrē in the fragment. Moore anticipates this objection and deals with it on 57 n.54, which the reader should consult. My disagreement aside, this chapter is meant to establish that in Heraclitus’ time philosophos was both current and can have a negative valence; this “…would prove the existence of the word philosophos during Pythagoras’ life” (37) and make the historical veracity of the Pythagoras story slightly more plausible.

6Chapter three, the lexical account of philosophos, argues that phil- prefixed words were generally a “name-calling” device. The bulk of this chapter contains two parts. First, a summary of Aristotle’s analysis of phil- words as sometimes neutral and potentially censorious (73-83) followed by a verification of his analysis in pre-classical Greek phil- prefixed words (83-88). This then proves part of II. The second part traces the transformation of sophos from meaning a specific skill or expertise (pre-sixth century) to denoting a capacity for giving excellent practical advice about how to live and what values to uphold (between sixth and fifth century: the discussion of Theognis fr. 120 on 97-8 is crucial). Moore intriguingly conjectures that the crisis of the old polis-system around the late sixth century contributed to this semantic shift in sophos, because people needed practical guidance, “models that promised civic amelioration” (102 and following). There might be then a sociological reason for sophos denoting a class of “sages.” These two parts together suggest that calling someone philosophos around the sixth-fifth century would be characterizing him as someone striving “to gain a certain cultural status and authority…that likely cannot be attained in the manner on display” (106). On this suggestion, the Pythagoreans are the most prominent target of such a censorious description, which leads Moore to his next chapter.

7Before moving on, I would like to add that, although Moore does not put it this way, he makes one see that the teachability of virtue, an important topic for the sophists and Plato, is already at issue in the contrast between sophos and philosophos. When Pythagoras self-styles as a philosophos, he implies that a certain kind of human effort can overcome the lack of wisdom (108-9, 111). But when philosophos functions as name-calling, the user implies that one can only be a sage by nature, or at least not by learning: to think that one can become wise by human effort is preposterous (105-6: the ending of Plato’s Meno seems particularly relevant here).

8Chapter four forms, in my view, one of the weaker links in Moore’s likely story. He intends to tackle III more directly than the last two chapters; but as we have seen before, the earliest extant text recording the Pythagoras story was written in the late fourth century. In chapter one Moore argued that the different versions of the Pythagoras-Leon anecdote share a common and older source. In this chapter he cites many texts, from Xenophanes to Alcidamas, that characterize Pythagoras and his followers in precisely the ways that fit the lexical account of philosophos. In other words, while the texts he discusses do not call Pythagoreans philosophoi, the characterizations of them in those texts taken together suggest that they might have been called so in their time. Moore is upfront about the indirect and conjectural nature of the evidence available: “Admittedly, no pre-Academic text explicitly calls any Pythagorean a philosophos; we are working with circumstantial evidence” (107).

9Chapter five, “Fifth-Century Philosophoi,” carefully discusses six texts (Hdt. I.30, Th. II.40, the Hippocratic De Vetere Medicina 20.1, Gorgias’ Helen 13, Ar. Ec. 571, and Lys. 24.10) mentioning the term or its cognates. Its purpose is to showcase a roughly unitary conception of philosophos among the variety of uses. It emerges that “being philosophos means continuously investigating, usually in conversational exchange, the underlying and significant normative structures that constitute city- and life-guiding principles” (128). This is meant to prepare for the important claim that later competing conceptions of philosophia in the fourth century turn out to be actually less creative than they appear (150). More on this soon. I cannot do justice to the fascinating discussions and nuances in Moore’s handling of each of these texts; all are worthy of careful study. I limit myself to mentioning his interpretation of philosophoumen in Pericles’ funeral oration. Using the context of the oration as a guide, Moore argues that Pericles in 40.1-3 is expanding on and therefore explicating that word. Reading the surrounding context in this manner suggests that the verb “names a specific mode of political conversation” (135), one that engages in clarifying the fundamental principles and values of one’s polis. The Athenians are outstanding because they are the only people who can do this without weakening their grip on urgent and practical matters----indeed their philosophein even strengthens it (cf. also 168). I find this analysis extremely helpful for specifying the value of that verb in the funeral oration.

10Chapter six, “Socrates’s Prosecution as Philosophos,” begins with the observation, which has not gone unnoticed but rarely satisfactorily explained, that Plato and Xenophon, the two defenders of Socrates’ life, rarely make Socrates call himself or other characters call him philosophos. Moore believes that there is an explanation for this, or rather, a missing link in the story that his account supplies. Precisely because philosophos had negative connotations, Plato’s “redemptive project” (158) of philosophos and philosophia is a two-pronged effort that could appear contradictory: he dissociates Socrates from the appellation while reconceptualizing it to make it respectable (this contradiction seems to be present in Xenophon as well, even though he does not appear to have such a redemptive project: see 172). The missing link is Anaxagoras, who, Moore argues, knew Socrates in person, or indirectly through Archelaus, or at the very least, the two were in the same social circles (160). The first part of this chapter (158-164) argues that both Plato’s and Xenophon’s differentiations of Socrates from Anaxagoras are better understood as reactions to the association between the two. The second part (165-171) argues that the charges against Socrates as recorded in Plato’s Apology 18b-c, 19b, and 23d suggest such an association. The third and final part (171-189) discusses six passages in Xenophon’s works where the term is mentioned. Only Oeconomicus 16.9 records Socrates referring to himself as a philosophou...andros. The cautious conclusion Moore draws from this passage is that when Socrates calls himself thus, he “knows the value of pursuing certain kinds of questions” (189): the philosophos is someone who knows the important questions to ask, if not the answers to them. But while “Xenophon never denies that Socrates is a philosophos,” “he appears to have been diffident, even consciously diffident, about the matter” (189). The interesting point that emerges in this chapter is the claim that Anaxagoras may have been interested in human affairs and taught rhetoric, contrary to the usual image of him as a physiologos. Moore’s evidence for this claim consists in: reconsidering the famous Phaedo passage where Anaxagoras is criticized (163-4); forging a link between the funeral oration passage discussed earlier, the known Anaxagoras-Pericles connection, and Socrates’ remark on Pericles in the Phaedrus (168-170); and, finally, dismissing or reinterpreting apparent evidence against this view as probably distorted (167). I find this new portrayal of Anaxagoras plausible and convincing, and it explains why an ordinary Athenian might see Socrates as guilty of atheism and corruption through such an association.

11Before the full-scale discussion of Plato’s redemptive project, chapter seven deals with the meaning of philosophia outside of the Academy. The evidence amassed is thorough, and interpretations of several passages are insightful. (i) Testimonies about Phaedo’s dialogue Zopyrus, and a papyrus attributed to Antisthenes in 2014 (198), together with other reports about him, show both Phaedo and Antisthenes understanding philosophia to mean something like overcoming one’s nature (195) or transforming one’s desires so as to remake oneself (196, 199). In other words, the conversational skills that help one gain perspective in life are secondary in their conception of philosophia (197). (ii) In Dissoi Logoi and Alcidamas’ On the Sophists, the emphasis of philosophia as conversation is transformed into a more formal notion of debate (cf. the discussion of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen 13 at 143-147), without reference to ta meteōra or public policy debates (206, 204), and a “nascent sense of a group of philosophers” identifiable by the practice of such debating activity emerges (209; this can be read fruitfully alongside the discussion of Alcidamas’ Physics in chapter nine: see below). (iii) Finally, Isocrates’ works further develop and deepen the sense of philosophein first noted in the funeral oration, where oratory or debating skill hones in on benefiting one’s polis (211-4). In the case of Isocrates this results in a “full-bore commitment to a democratically active vocation” as he expresses his project of philosophia near the end of his life in the Antidosis (214). This leads to a crucial point that Moore will reiterate in different ways in the rest of the book, already mentioned a couple of times in this review. One of its more fully articulated versions is as follows:

We need not say, then, that Isocrates tried to “define” philosophia, as though he wanted to posit a homonymous neologism. Instead, he would have drawn from past or common usage, and pulled out the features he took as salient or core by the late 390s BCE. …it reconstructs the normative elements—that philosophia conduces to usefulness, that it depends on logoi, that it involves teaching and learning, that it has a polis-context, and that it is not exclusively about meteorology or a forensic contest, and that it differs in key ways from sophistry and the political art—that undergird the main public uses of the term. (215-6)

12In other words, it is the material assembled in chapters three, five, and part of six, that form the basis, the “working material” so to speak, for Isocrates’ novel transformation of philosophia into oratory-centered studies. Isocrates did not pull his notion of philosophia out of thin air; instead, there is continuity.

13The same point applies to Plato, even though he carried out the project in a radical fashion. “Plato’s innovation comes, it appears, from thinking about the prerequisites for philosophia, should the practice actually benefit its practitioners” (222). “Prerequisites” refer to the broad range of issues that are familiar to Plato’s readers----the rules of conversation (dialectic), the purpose of such conversations (ethical Forms as ultimate objects of knowledge), the corresponding metaphysics (Forms as causes), a doctrine of the soul and the role of mind in life, and so forth. On this reading, then, Plato’s redemptive project has some of the flavor of a transcendental argument: if such-and-such conditions do not hold, then philosophy is not beneficial; but it is beneficial; therefore such-and-such conditions do hold. Or, in Moore’s own words, Plato “saves the appearances” (221), that is, defends (and, in the way, more sharply demarcates) the activity of philosophia as it had been roughly understood before him.

14Moore not only argues for continuity where previously it was thought not to exist, he also argues against projecting a false kind of continuity that actually did not exist. I refer to the etymological meaning of philosophia as love of wisdom (the other part of claim II above). The significance of chapters one and three recur: Pythagoras’ need to explain his self-labeling in the anecdote, together with a survey of phil- prefixed words backed up by Aristotelian analysis, suggest that Plato’s etymology of philosophia is an innovative element, integral to the redemptive project (222). Moore surveys a number of dialogues where philosophia occurs: Charmides, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Philebus, Lysis, Symposium, and the Republic. I summarize his results as follows. Plato does not always employ philosophia in the technical way that eventually resulted in what we understood to be philosophy; he can use it in their ordinary, fifth-century senses (Charmides, Protagoras, Parmenides, and Philebus). This means that Plato is familiar with the ordinary meaning, often in its neutral or positive aspects. Moreover, it is with these senses in mind that one can more clearly observe how he ascends from those ordinary meanings towards the more sharply defined meaning in certain crucial dialogues (Phaedrus and Republic: considerable space is devoted to the former). Finally, accompanying this is Socrates’ “specious etymologizing” meant to “revalue philosophy” (249) in, for example, the Lysis and the Symposium, dialogues that are protreptic in character. The picture resulting from this is that a philosophos is a “self-knowing, epistemically modest, pedagogically optimistic, sophia-admiring person” (249); one can derive moderate benefits from philosophia even if one is not fully devoted to it (259); finally, this conception portrayed in the dialogues cannot come to fruition unless the attraction they incite in readers ends up in institutionalized arrangements for collective and collaborative research (258 towards the end). Although not directly relevant to Moore’s main thesis, I cannot help but mention in passing that his reading of poētikos at Chrm. 155a1 (224-6) and how to interpret the nine ranks of souls in the palinode (234-6) are excellent and eye-opening.

15I have two minor objections to this chapter. First, Moore does not quite explore Plato’s works as fully as they deserve. While understandable given his project, not discussing the famous digression passage in the Theaetetus (besides a passing remark earlier on 201) strikes me as regrettable. Second, Moore’s reading of the palinode passes over the transformation from erōs to philia between the lover and the beloved towards the end – a crucial passage, since Plato did not name the best life *erosophia. It is likely this omission that allows him to downplay the determinate character of the phil- prefix in his reading of the ending of Phdr. 278c4-d6 (241-242).

  • 1 As argued by for example Jonathan Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, Cambridge University P (...)

16Chapter nine differentiates Aristotle’s philosophia from Plato’s. The story is familiar—Aristotle invented philosophy as a discipline. But as told by Moore, the story becomes slightly less familiar. To begin with, even before Aristotle, there had to be a roughly defined or understood “canon” of sophoi available, which traces a genealogy or can later serve as the material for constructing one. Certain people had to be included (Thales, Solon, etc.) and others excluded (perhaps certain poets) for there to be an identifiable group of sophoi. In this pre-disciplinary canon-formation, Hippias’ lost anthology collecting sage sayings plays a significant role in Moore’s estimation, as he “provides a cooperative, optimistic, and localized formation of sophoi” (263). Then, a remark in Alcidamas’ Physics (reported in DL 8.56) anticipates further in inchoate form the elements of a clear disciplinary conception, i.e. where a group of researchers, distinguishable from others in their activity, share a common interest in questions, methodologies, and attempt to find solutions in institutionalized settings, allowing for results to be modified and developed across generations (267-269). Finally, a careful reading of the Metaphysics A, where Aristotle seems to give the first or one of the first histories of philosophy, shows him to be “repurpos[ing] his history of the sophoi for his history of the philosophoi” (276). The criterion of ‘with whom can one fruitfully engage’ (not an exact quote: 277, 279) allows Aristotle to build a genealogy of philosophoi. Readers familiar with Plato might immediately think of the review of the ancient investigators of being in the Sophist, and wonder if the disciplinary conception is not already there. Moore does not discuss the Sophist passage specifically. He does contrast, however, what Plato does with the predecessors with what Aristotle does in 269-272. On his reading, Plato treats the views of ancients as in principle difficult to know for certain, and therefore there is a focus on oneself and his conception of philosophia always has self-knowledge as a component. Aristotle, on the other hand, “never defines philosophia in terms of self-knowledge” (271), as he at least assumes that one can reconstruct the views of ancients as charitably as one can. I find this contrast between the two philosophers partly plausible and partly forced. On the one hand, I wonder if Plato does not also practice “epistemic charity” (272) as well – consider, for example, the engagement with Protagorean doctrine in the Theaetetus. On the other hand, it is not completely awkward to think that self-knowledge is implicitly at work in many of Aristotle’s ideas. For example, to make already virtuous adults as the intended readers of Nicomachean Ethics seems to make that work a training in self-knowledge, an inculcation of the principles already at work in the virtuous person’s actions.1

17The final chapter forms a bit of a parallel with chapter seven. It concerns the survival of the ordinary, everyday meaning even after Plato and Aristotle. In other words, the two great thinkers did not monopolize the meaning of philosophia / philosophos despite the great success of their projects. And here again there is much to learn. A discussion of a stele that copied one of the Delphic inscriptions “be philosophical” suggests the positive cultural currency of philosophos, in a way that overlaps with some of the fifth-century uses. Then the negative attitudes against philosophia are shown to exist quite well in later antiquity, where comedians deride philosophers (Alexis’ fragments) and others are openly hostile enough for one to speak of apotreptics and to compel Peripatetic responses (there is a valuable discussion of a papyrus fragment unearthed in 1984; see 301-6). Finally, with these surviving meanings in mind, Moore shows two things. First, Aristotle’s Protrepticus involves a sophism, or a “perfect protreptic” (306) depending on one’s perspective, that equivocates between the ordinary, everyday non-disciplinary conception of philosophia and its disciplinary one. It is an equivocation that works precisely because the two conceptions share enough in common. Second, the pseudo-Platonic Rival Lovers might be understood to be portraying a certain bridging of both the disciplinary conception of philosophia with its ordinary conception of “knowing oneself,” a bridging provided by Socrates in the dialogue through his examination of the mildly ridiculous intellectual fellow.

18In the conclusion, Moore offers some rudimentary thoughts on how his history sheds light on the contemporary situation. One lesson he draws is that “philosophy” is not monolithic and encompasses a more diverse range of activities than one might suppose (318). It is unsurprising that a historically oriented research agenda leans one towards a historicist or quasi-historicist position concerning philosophy. But this thought should be carefully gauged in light of the results of this work as a whole. If Moore is right about the transformations of philosophos in ancient times, then philosophy, while not monolithic, perhaps persists as a nebulous unity throughout its historical modifications and transformations.

19It should be obvious from this sketch that Moore’s is a clearly argued, comprehensively documented, and outstandingly researched work. I was most impressed with how he often sheds new light by the way he approaches well-known, familiar passages. Every now and then he shows an uncanny ability to read them with the erudition of scholarship but without the burdens of tradition that often accompany such erudition. He does not innovate, as far as I can tell, merely for the sake of being innovative. Add to this his lively sense of the sociological dimensions of texts, an immensely nuanced and rich study of philosophia results. Also, in order to tell a convincing story, Moore also excavates many digressive delights on the way, some of them mentioned above. I do not wish to give the wrong impression in saying this, but at the end, whether Moore’s main thesis is right becomes less important than how he pursues the indirect evidence and builds a case for his thesis. This is philological detective work of a high order. It will surely become a standard study on the ancient notion(s) of philosophia, and a wealth of resources to build further research upon.

20Besides the usual indices, there are three serviceable appendices. The first records bilingually versions of the Pythagoras story. The second is an index of all the philosoph- occurrences in classical texts that are discussed. The last is an index of other phil- words discussed. The book suffers from a number of minor printing issues. I found few typographical errors. However, if there are rules governing when to transliterate and when to print Greek letters, they do not appear obvious. The most regrettable mistakes are lacunae in bibliography or suspected misprints of citations in the footnotes. I conducted a line-by-line examination of 260-361. About 20 works were cited in this portion of the text but not listed (or listed inconsistently) in the bibliography. A list of my findings is appended below. For a project of such magnitude, errors are to be expected. But when the quality of the argument is so good, one wishes that there were far fewer errors, so that one could look up the authors that Moore cites for support or criticism to verify his claims or disagree with him. I hope these errors get corrected should there be a second edition in the future.


40 n.12

Sider and Obbink 2013: not listed in bibliography

116 n.46

Palmer 2014: not listed in bibliography

171 l.25

In Memorabilia 4.2.24, philosophein philosophia” should be 4.2.23, philosophein philosophian

261 n.3

Koning 2010: not listed in bibliography

262 n.4

Zhmud 2006, Palmer 2009: not listed in bibliography

263 n.7

Brunschwig 1984; Dusanic 2008: not listed in bibliography

266 n.24

Leszl 2006: not listed in bibliography

277 n.50

Rosen 1962, Panchenko 1993, O’Grady 2002: not listed in bibliography. Sassi 2018 [2006]: listed without ‘[2006]’ in bibliography

277 n.51

Dicks 1959: not listed in bibliography

278 n.58

Mogyoródi 2000, Leszl 2006: not listed in bibliography

278 n.59

Chroust 1973a: listed without ‘a’ in bibliography

279 n.62

Philip 1963: not listed in bibliography (but there is a Philip 1966)

290 n.1

Callard 2018: not listed in bibliography

294 n.16

Guarducci 1974 3.78-80: a comma missing between year and page; Wieshöfer 1996: not listed in bibliography

295 l.7-9

‘That Clearchus his Lives might suggest.’ Sentence seems to miss a verb.

295 n.20

Wieshöfer 1996: not listed in bibliography; Merkelbach and Stauber 2004: there is a ‘Merkelbach and Stauber 1998’ in bibliography

302 l.6

παμβονήρους should be παμπονήρους

305 n.49

The page numbers for Alieva 2013, 128-31 don’t appear to match the bibliography

310 n.55

Annas 1985, 112: page number seems incorrectly cited

315 n.63

In the second-to-last line of the footnote, αὐτοῖ should be αὐτοὶ

350 l.7

The year number is missing for Hutchinson, D. S. Introduction to Rival Lovers. (should be 1997)

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1 As argued by for example Jonathan Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 157.

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I-Kai Jeng, « Moore, Christopher, Calling Philosophers Names: On the Origin of a Discipline »Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 16 | 2021, mis en ligne le 08 mars 2021, consulté le 20 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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I-Kai Jeng

National Taiwan University

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