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Peter Adamson is Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Duanne Ribeiro chats with him about the history of ideas, and the meaning and methods of philosophy.
The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast has reached its 400th episode, after almost twelve years of steady publication. Written and presented by Peter Adamson, the podcast has made its way philosopher by philosopher, movement by movement, from Thales of Miletus, considered the first Western philosopher, to (as I write) Marguerite of Navarre, a sponsor of French humanism. It has gone through twenty centuries of metaphysical, political, scientific, ethical, and aesthetical debates in Europe and the Islamic world, and has sprouted two spin-offs, dedicated to philosophy in India and Africana philosophy. “My project”, Peter told me, “is inherently about expanding our sense of what the history of philosophy is about.”
The first episode of The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps was uploaded in December 2010. In December 2022, you complete twelve years of steady work. The main podcast now has spin-offs, and has turned into a growing series of books. Did you imagine from the beginning where this project would take you?
True, it has been going for a long time now! I definitely did not foresee how large a project it would wind up being. That sounds kind of ridiculous, since I did say from the start that it would cover the history of philosophy ‘without any gaps’. But at the beginning I assumed the only non-European tradition I’d cover would be the Islamic world. The idea of tackling Indian, Africana, and Chinese philosophy – maybe more – came later. Also, it was not originally conceived as a book series, only a podcast, which I assumed would not have that big an audience. So, it’s kind of spiralled beyond what I originally envisioned. That was more like me sitting down once a week, quickly writing up stuff I pretty much already knew, and recording it. Since I research and teach ancient and medieval philosophy, the prospect of covering lots of material that was new for me seemed far away when I started. But I have really enjoyed learning about new traditions, texts, and figures. Also, I love hearing from listeners, and especially interacting with people outside of academia, which most academics don’t get to do. In general, it’s sort of my main hobby, and I enjoy pretty much every aspect of the process.
Did this long journey change you somehow? Did having to study philosophers from different periods and places, some of whom I guess were new to you, modify the way you teach, or read philosophy? I imagine it’s an exercise in openness.
Yes, definitely. It has had a very direct impact on both my teaching and my research. In teaching, I’ve done several classes here in Munich that I was only able to tackle thanks to doing the podcast; for example, classes on classical Indian or Africana philosophy. And I’ve written several books that came out of reading I did for the podcast. My book in 2022, called Don’t Think for Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy, pulls together a lot of stuff I was thinking about both in my research and while doing the podcast.
You’ve gone through Ancient Greece, early Islam, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and on. The many philosophers you have spoken of have many different understandings of philosophy: how it’s studied, taught and lived, what it does, or what it can’t do. Given this, how would you answer the ever-recurring question, What is philosophy?
Now, that’s not an easy question! Of course, I get asked it a lot, and what I usually say is that I’m not really operating with a hard and fast rule. It’s more like, if I think it might be worth including in the podcast, then I include it. Since my project is inherently about expanding our sense of what the history of philosophy is about, I’m happy to take the risk of expanding things ‘too far’ – if that is a risk. I mean, the worst that can happen is that the audience learns about some extra stuff along the way that isn’t necessary.
If I were to address the question more abstractly, I would say that we need to distinguish the question of what philosophy is now, for us, from what it has been in earlier periods. Some cultures – ancient China or India, for instance – didn’t even have the word ‘philosophy’; and the word has meant both very broad and fairly narrow things at various times and places where it did exist. For example – as is often noted – in European history, until fairly recently, ‘philosophy’ included the physical sciences; whereas in the Islamic world, for a long time falsafa – a loan-word from the Greek – just meant ‘philosophy in the style of Avicenna, accepting his ideas’ – so something much more specific. And, of course, our own sense of what counts as ‘philosophy’ is likewise a product of our own time and place. Still, I think that we could at least say that there is a set of issues, such as the nature of knowledge, free will, the existence of God et cetera, which can uncontroversially be taken as philosophical. So, if pushed, I would say that I am basically covering the way that philosophical issues have been dealt with across times and cultures.
Your podcast path isn’t only temporal, but also geographical, so to speak. We listen to you speaking about philosophy in Byzantium, India, Africa. Does it matter to philosophy, with its claims to universality, to have roots somewhere? And how can a place shape a philosopher’s thoughts – if indeed it’s true that it can?
This is absolutely crucial, in my opinion. There is no such thing as a philosophy or philosopher not shaped by time and place, and anyone who denies this is just ignoring the way that their own time and place has shaped them. This is why I try to devote as much attention as possible to historical context as I go along. For example, in recent episodes I’ve talked a lot about how things like the Reformation, the printing press, or the discovery of the so-called ‘New World’ impacted philosophy and the kinds of philosophical views that were being expressed. Even something as basic as the question of which topics or questions a given philosopher chooses to tackle will be conditioned by these kinds of contextual factors. To give an obvious example: it’s no coincidence that Western philosophers started thinking about freedom of conscience and how to deal with diversity of opinion around the time of the European wars of religion, in the sixteenth century. Contextual influence is more obvious in some areas of philosophy than others: of course political philosophy responds to historical context; but it may be less obvious with metaphysics or epistemology. But you can almost always understand any thinker better by knowing more about their context.
I remember you saying that one of the reasons you started the podcast was that classes on the History of Philosophy typically leaped from one household name to another, missing out long periods of human thinking. Could you say more about the role played by the history of philosophy in Western universities? Would you say it’s undervalued?
It varies a lot. In Germany, where I teach now, the history of philosophy has traditionally been very central to philosophy, whereas in some American or British universities there has instead been a strong focus on contemporary ‘systematic’ issues. I think probably nowadays, though, the standard approach would be to have a mix of history and contemporary philosophy, with variation as to the balance between them.
Personally, I think it would be good if there were even more variation in the ways philosophy is taught. I mean, one thing I have learned from doing the podcast is that there is a heck of a lot of philosophy, so it’s not really possible to cover it fully in just one department. So, it would be nice to see, for instance, more American departments that have a specialism in Asian philosophy, with others focusing on Latinx philosophy, and so on. Of course, there is some value to the idea of having common reference points and a language that all trained philosophers share; but I don’t think that goal should be pursued so relentlessly that diversity of approach becomes impossible.
Analytic philosophy is – or was – proud of not studying philosophy per se: “Old books and dead philosophers don’t matter,” it was said, “We focus on philosophical problems.” This may lead, in my opinion, to a bird’s eye view of philosophy, which loses much of the creativity of the past. Do you agree, or what’s your take on that?
I like to say that the philosophy happening now is just the most recent part of the history of philosophy, and we don’t have a very good sense of whether it’s a particularly worthwhile part, since we have so little distance on it. Certainly, a lot of philosophy is being produced – more than ever, I guess. So presumably some of it will stand the test of time. And contrary to what you might expect, I really like contemporary analytic philosophy. I have enjoyed and still enjoy having colleagues who work in that area, and I try to keep up to speed on developments in their fields insofar as I can. However, I can’t really take it seriously when people dismiss the history of philosophy as uninteresting. Like, how would you even know? Have you even looked into, say, Nyaya epistemology, or Mulla Sadra’s theory of modulated existence? Do you even know what I’m talking about? If not, then how do you know it’s worthless? That would seem like bluster masking willful ignorance.
Here in Brazil the teaching and research in philosophy is mainly historical. The ‘structural method’ applied by Guéroult and others has made a deep impression here. In any case, it is only one way of studying the history of philosophy. What’s yours?
This is relevant to the previous question, since my way of studying the history of philosophy is most definitely informed by analytic philosophy. I am of course not an exception to the rule that philosophers are shaped by their time and context!
You can see the influence of analytic philosophy in the issues I’ve chosen to work on in my academic research, but also in the podcast – albeit that I have tried hard to broaden my sense of what counts as philosophically worthwhile. Also, it probably shows itself in the way I write – striving for clarity, making distinctions, focusing on arguments and counterarguments: all that stuff one usually associates with analytic philosophy.
As we speak, you have come to Renaissance France in the podcast. You’ll have maybe ten more years of work before reaching our epoch. Are you in good shape to finish the marathon?
I always just say “I have no plans to stop anytime soon!” Since I do enjoy it so much, and I know that people are waiting for me to get to the excitements of the seventeenth century and onward, plus there are several non-European cultures I still want to tackle, yes, I do expect to be doing it for another decade, and more. Let’s hope it works out!
• Duanne Ribeiro is a journalist and PhD Student in Information Science. He also graduated in Philosophy.