What Does Philosophy Mean?

Ancient Greek Boxers
Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora.

“Ways of Knowing” Week 1, Lecture 1

Learning Objective 2:
Define “philosophy.”

What does the word “philosophy” mean?

The word “philosophy” comes to us from the ancient Greek term φιλοσοφια (philosophia, “love of wisdom), coined by Pythagoras (570–490 BCE). The term came to him while observing the Olympic games. As the games unfolded it occurred to him that much of what life is about can be seen in the drama of the games: the struggle between men reveals the character of each of the participants in a way that can be read as an analogy for the daily struggles among the non-athletes present. We can identify with their struggles.

Pythagoras noted that there are three classes of people at the Olympic games. Reflect on the last time you went to a sporting event, especially a large professional game. Who do you encounter at these games, almost immediately after parking your car at the stadium (or as you leave the train or bus)? Do we not, almost immediately, meet people looking to sell you something (water, scalping tickets, team-related merchandise)? This is an ancient scenario, present from at least as early as the original Olympic games in the sixth century BCE. Pythagoras named these folks who come to the games to trade and barter “lovers of gain.” Of course, once the games begin we are focused on the competition between people who have traveled to the stadium in order to earn fortune and fame (for themselves and their cities). Pythagoras called these folks “lovers of honor.” The third class of people that Pythagoras observed at the Olympic games were the spectators: us, the people who have come to watch, “lovers of spectacle.”

The world is full of these three classes of folks, according to Pythagoras. The vast majority of people, he holds, are largely motivated by and concerned primarily with gaining material wealth. The second class of persons is smaller than the first, this group is primarily concerned with achieving fame by distinguishing themselves in some kind of pursuit. The third class is smaller than either of the prior two, the few people who compose this tiny group are the folks who don’t care about fortune or fame but are instead busy trying to understand the spectacle that is life. Pythagoras called these people “philosophers.” It is not that these people are themselves wise—because only the gods were wise—but these people were lovers of the wisdom that could be revealed on earth when the gods intervened and let humans know their intentions.

Next we will consider the question, “how does one ‘do’ philosophy?” and this is related to your first major writing assignment.