Nickolas Pappas, The philosopher’s new clothes. The Theaete­tus, the Academy, and philosophy’s turn against fashion, London-New York, Routledge, 2016


This is an important book. The author, the American philosopher Nickolas Pappas, is professor of Philosophy at the City College and the Graduate Center, at The City University of New York. Pappas is mainly active in the fields of ancient philosophy, aesthetics, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought, with a particular focus on, respectively, Plato’s philosophy, the aesthetics of fashion, and also such thinkers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud. Among the author’s most representative publications in these fields one may mention the books Politics and philosophy in Plato’s Menexenus. Education and rhetoric, myth and history (with Mark Zelcer, 2015) and Guidebook to Plato and the Republic (19951, 20042, 20133) with regard to his work in the field of ancient philosophy, and then his contributions in “The British Journal of Aesthetics” (48/1, 2008) and in the collection Fashion statements (ed. by R. Scapp and B. Seitz: 2010) as far as his interest in the philosophy of fashion is concerned. Now, the abovementioned research areas might perhaps appear at first sight as absolutely heterogeneous, and thus also hardly addressable, or even unaddressable, in a single book. In a word, incompatible. However, the challenge that Pappas takes on, so to speak, in The philosopher’s new clothes (whose title clearly alludes to Andersen’s short tale The emperor's new clothes) is to show that such topics as ancient philosophy and aesthetics of fashion are actually compatible. The book, in fact, masterfully shows that these subjects may be connected to each other in very intriguing and theoretically fruitful ways.

As the author explains at the beginning of the book, inquiring into fashion gradually led him “to the problem of Greek nudity. You would expect one sine qua non in fashion, that it includes clothing”, Pappas explains, “but here were the Greeks, naked in every museum as no one else was in comparably ancient images. It was as if they had found a way to enact the pressures of fashion without a stitch”. The question of nudity and fashion, then, leads Pappas to turn his attention to Plato – whose character Pausanias in the Symposium “distinguishes Greek from barbarian by three signs: naked exercise, homosexuality, and philosophy” – and, in particular, to the Theae­tetus, understood by Pappas as “a meditation on the philosopher’s place in the world”. More precisely, in this Platonic dialogue “the problem of how a philosopher appears emerges from considerations of philosophical schools” after the death of Socrates (for example, the Academia vs. the philosophical example of the Cynics: or, more ironically, “madmen like Diogenes” vs. “gentlemen like Plato”). The focus on Plato, and especially on the role of nudity in his work and, more generally, in ancient Greek culture, allows then the author to connect this topic back to the problem of fashion: namely, of “nudity understood as a fashion” and, moving from this, of how one should exactly conceive of anti-fashion as something that, quite paradoxically but also intriguingly, “is of the fashion world but not in it”. Pappas’ idea, in the final analysis, is that, although antiquity “lacks many elements of modern fashion, yet does contain the social fashion pressures that give the modern debate a meaningful ancient application”. This consideration somehow represents the condition of possibility (to express the concept in quasi-Kantian terms) for Pappas’ attempt to establish a clear connection between ancient and strictly contemporary problems – such as that of fashion, often limited by various scholars in this field to the context of modernity but, as Pappas successfully shows in this book, in principle not inapplicable to certain phenomena which are typical of the ancient times (X-XI, 9-10). As the author explains at the beginning of the fourth chapter, of his guiding theses indeed concerns the fact that “questions about fashion are not as out of place in antiquity as a historically minded conscience might incline someone to say” (111; see also pp. 156-7 and 186).

Having said all this as a preliminary remark on the author and the book’s fundamental approach and objectives, let us take a look now at its structure and main contents. The philosopher’s new clothes presents a systematic structure: it is divided into three parts (Socrates in the Theaetetus; Philosophy regarding fashion; The philosopher’s new clothes), which are in turn articulated in various chapters (three for the first part, three for the second part, two for the third part) and several sections. The book structure and conceptual development is very clear, and the experience of the reader is similar to that of being progressively guided by a trustworthy mentor through the various moments and passages of a stimulating and enriching journey. The author’s expertise and, so to speak, manifold competences fully emerge in his undeniable mastery of Plato’s dialogues and all kind of sources concerning ancient Greece (Greek philosophers, historians, tragedians, poets, etc.), and then in his original way of intersecting different authors, concepts, perspectives etc. in order to interpret a phenomenon (or, in quasi-Simmelian terms, a social form or even form of life) like fashion from a strictly speaking philosophical point of view.

The starting point of Pappas’ investigation coincides with a general contextualization of the Theaetetus: its setting and frame, the role of Plato’s Academy as reflected by this very work, the main characters of this dialogue, the famous metaphor of Socrates as a midwife and the teacher/student relationship deriving from it. As Pappas explains, the Theaetetus “contains, as […] no other work of Plato’s does, signs and remnants of Plato’s movement toward the institutionalization of philosophy”; but the “new philosophical type that the Theae­tetus introduces to its readers will leave us wondering where Socrates” (“normally depicted as at all aristocratic, sometimes not even presentable”, as Pappas recalls) “belongs in the new world of philosophical schools”. For this reason, the aim of the first part of the book (which, as previously mentioned, is articulated into three chapters) is to provide sharp images of “the reality of the philosopher” but also a “less-studied adjunct to this reality”, represented by “the philosophical appearance: what you might have to look like to resemble a philosopher” (15-6). Pappas, then, focuses particularly on a few places of the Theaetetus where the “dialogue’s participants refer to its setting in a gymnasium with a comparison between philosophical dialectic and naked wrestling” (74). This gives him the occasion to extensively deal with the fascinating theme of “the athletic metaphors that Plato uses for philosophy”, of “philosophizing [seen] as the extension and completion of physical exercise rather than as its rival”, of “competitive struggle [as] the feature common to wrestling and philosophical exchange”: “Win or lose but get in there and philosophize”, to summarize Socrates’ way of rebuking every conception of philosophy as merely standing and watching, without taking actively part to “those activities in which human beings can entangle themselves” (76-7).

From stripping naked to wrestle to the dressed body/­nu­dity relationship, from Socrates’ way of dressing, “if not like a poor man, then certainly without fuss and formality”, to the more general examination of “some form of dress and uniformity [that] connote standardness and indistinction, functioning in this respect like the naked body taken alone”, it is but a short step. This paves the way to the subsequent development of Pappas’ argumentation, now explicitly focused on the philosophy of fashion. The connection is clearly emphasized by the author in the last section of the third chapter, as he argues that “the question of Socrates is the question about a natural versus an institutional understanding of philosophical activity. What makes the examples about dress matter is that they too force the question of the natural as opposed to the institutional”. For Pappas, “dress is the best way […] to inquire into that very issue. Dress brings us to the matter of fashion, and fashion forces us to consider how we live uncertainly between nature and human institutions”. “To speak of dress”, Pappas argues, “is to speak of fashion, and the question now for philosophers becomes how they might present themselves given the fact of fashion. How will they avoid fashionable dress”, given their well-known “hostility toward fashion” that sometimes even led philosophers to “think of fashion as the antipodes to their profession” (101, 113)?

Pappas starts from a reconstruction of the problematic relationship between fashion and philosophy in the Western tradition, identifying its ground in “philosophy’s need for an enemy opposite” (125) and, in turn, detecting the reason why philosophers often identified fashion as their enemy opposite in the deeply-rooted tendency to reduce fashion to mere “human imitativeness. Imitativeness is not the whole story of fashion”, Pappas explains, “but it has been true enough to be taken as fashion’s fundamental characteristic, and surprisingly often has been the basis for a philosopher’s antipathy” (117). Understanding fashion as mere imitativeness and passivity actually leads philosophers to consider the latter as “a threat to autonomy” and thus to seize upon the “phenomenon now known as anti-fashion” (130, 133). Pappas interprets such an impulse toward anti-fashion as a sort of manifestation, in Nietzsche’s terms, of the philosophers’ fundamental tendency to priesthood and ascetism. Then, under the rubric “Anti-fashion today” he takes into examination some “examples of clothing” that “during the last century or two (in some cases longer)” have appeared “not [to] follow the vagaries of fashion” (136): the suit, denim jeans, some kinds of body art, the color black, etc. As a result, certain features of anti-fashion seem to emerge: among them, anti-fashion as something resisting fashion’s tendency to change, but at the same time anti-fashion also as a socially recognized mode of dress (even resembling a species of fashion sometimes), and most of all anti-fashion as something that, in taking a critical stance against change in dress, eventually “evokes the natural and naked human body” (150).

On this basis, in the third and last part of the book “the question of what nudity can mean” – investigated in an accurate way, by paying attention to the nature/culture dialectic involved in dress as well as to the different significance of nudity for Greeks and non-Greeks – “returns the argument to the first part of [the] book”, thus testifying its systematic thematic structure. Here, mostly with specific reference to Plato – who, for Pappas, “sensed the anti-fashion in his culture’s uses of nudity and therefore appropriated nudity for use by philosophy. […] Platonic philosophy seeks to be an anti-fashion of human discourse” –, we encounter evocative and penetrating observations like: “Understanding the soul entails an undressing that philosophy is best able, or possibly alone is able, to administer”; “Philosophy is the naked body of thought”; and, in the last sections on Thoreau and Kierkegaard that mark the book’s final transition from antiquity to modernity: “The philosopher is a man who might well put on nothing at all” (218, 221-2). In fact, Pappas eventually relies on Thoreau’s emphasis on the shirt as a sort of “generic clothing, clothing as such”, a sort of “universal or standard [dress], growing on human bodies naturally, like bark on a tree – therefore true, true to the human”. On this basis, he establishes “a close relation” between “the shirt [and] the unclothed body” that leads him to speak of the “essential, universal garment and instrument of self-knowledge [as] what a philosopher wears. […] My point”, Pappas concludes, “has been to observe one impulse within fashion that opposed fashion not by urging its eradication but by aspiring to transcend fashion” (222-3).

As I said at the beginning, this is an important book. It contains a great variety of contents and original ideas, each autonomously developed in detail but without losing sight of the basic question concerning the problematic relationship of philosophy with the domain of clothing, in general, and fashion, in particular, from antiquity to today. Hence Pappas succeeds in never giving the reader the impression of a multifaceted investigation made up of unrelated elements; he rather keeps together, so to speak, unity and plurality in an understandable way. The author’s style is clear, always avoiding useless technical terms that may easily degenerate into a mere jargon, but also very clever in the use of the specific philosophical terminology when the latter is required: for instance, in the case of Pappas’ extremely precise analyses of Plato’s philosophy, confirming his ability, as an expert interpreter of Greek philosophy, to fruitfully “contaminate” the latter with issues and problems of our time. In the end, what makes this book an important book, in my view, is its capacity to provide an extremely original contribution to a field, such as that of the philosophy of fashion, that until recent times has been quite underdeveloped but appears today as a very promising field of inquiry. This is testified by other recent publications on fashion specifically conceived from a philosophical perspective (rather than, say, from a sociological, psychological or cultural-studies-influenced perspective), and The philosopher’s new clothes must be definitely ranked among the most original ones.

Stefano Marino


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