181 - By the Book: Ibn Taymiyya

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The controversial jurist Ibn Taymiyya sets forth an originalist theory of law and a searching criticism of the philosophers’ logic.



Further Reading

• W. Hallaq (trans.), Ibn Taymiyya Against the Greek Logicians (Oxford: 1993). 

 • J. Hoover, “Perpetual Creativity in the Perfection of God: Ibn Taymiyya’s Hadith Commentary on God’s Creation of This World,” Journal of Islamic Studies, 15 (2004), 287-329.

• J. Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden: 2007).

• H. Laoust, Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politique de Takī-d-Dīn Aḥmad b. Taimīya (Cairo: 1939).

• T. Michel, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Critique of Falsafa,” Hamdard Islamicus 6 (1983), 3-14.

• Y. Rapoport and S. Ahmed (eds), Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (Karachi: 2010).

• A. von Kügelgen, “The Poison of Philosophy: Ibn Taymiyya’s Struggle for and Against Reason,” in B. Krawietz and G. Tamer (eds), Islamic Theology, Philosophy and Law: Debating Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (Berlin: 2013), 253-328.


Arslan Akhtar on 22 June 2014

Hello, Your last note was


Your last note was interesting, about the 'decline', and indeed, we haven't catalogued (let alone scrutinized!) all the manuscripts found in the Arab world, and outside of course, where the philosophical tradition went on, sometimes even from remote corners : for instance, Shah Rafi-ud-Din, the son of the better known Shah Waliullah of India, wrote works on logic, metaphysics and epistemology, yet a lot of them are still in manuscript form (so if the son of "India's own al Ghazali" can't have his works published, you can have an idea of the rest of average Joes with no symbolic patronage!).

Concerning Ibn Taymiyyah himself, Yahya Michot in recent scholarly works has shown that, even if he's indeed claimed by modern Islamist movements, he's probably not read by them (and there's a gulf between claiming and reading, right!), as Bin Laden (and others) couldn't have justified killings of civilians if that was the case, amongst other subjects.
You also did good to bring the fact that he was a Sufi, even if a "moderate" one (Sufism itself makes the distinction between the school of sobriety - Junaid's - and ectasy - Hallaj's), but still he mentions the concept of fana (extinction) and talks highly of the early Persian Sufi master Abu Yazid al Bistami who, to say the least, didn't utter the most "orthodox" expressions ("there's under that cloak but God" - also he was a disciple of Abu Ali Sindhi who, as per his nisbah, was from Sindh in modern Pakistan, a centre of Buddhism but especially the pashupata school of Hinduism, which was centred around "ecstatic utterances"... he might have introduced him to that school and also Vedanta metaphysics, and in fact it isn't a coincidence if Bistami is the first "ecstatic" Sufi).

"Islamists" generally don't hold that respect for Sufis, "soft" or Akbarians or whatsoever, and his most influential student, Ibn Qayyim al Jawziya, wrote a commentary on Abdullah Ansari's book, another Sufi.
In fact, French academic Eric Geoffroy even says that we have discovered manuscripts where a direct student of Ibn Taimyyah, Ahmad 'Imad al-din al-Wasiti, traces his master's Sufi genealogy (silsia) back to Abdul Qadir Jilani, and it would make Ibn Taimyyah a "formal" Sufi, in the sense of an affiliation to a tariqa (Sufi order ; Qadiri, in that case).
And I can tell you from my readings that Abdul Qadir al Jilani too used expressions that wouldn't go well with "modern Salafis" (like in his Sir al sarr - the Secret of secrets - where he says that the human being is a compendium of Allah's names and attributes or that, if you want to remember God - dhikr - listen to the Qur'an recited by a beautiful voice, a poem, hear birds singing or... watch a couple of lovers.)

Anyway, eagerly waiting for the next delivery, but what exciting times these were, when even (supposed) "bigots" refuted logic with such scientific rigour that Muhammad Iqbal, in his Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, compares the Harran born scholar's entreprise to John Stuart Mill, few centuries later.

Keep it up, and take care!

In reply to by Arslan Akhtar

Majhul on 22 June 2014

Ibn Taymiyya and Sufism

A follow-up on the previous post:

It has indeed been claimed that Ibn Taymiyya was a member of the Qadiri Sufi order. This was brought out, in modern academic literature, by Makdisi (see his “Ibn Taymiyya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order”). But, Michel has shown that Ibn Taymiyya’s deference to ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, and his love other many great Sufi masters, need not necessarily imply that he was an actual member of a Sufi order. See his “Ibn Taymiyya’s Sharh on the Futuh al-Ghayb of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani.”

There is also the question of having a nisba or affiliation with a Sufi order in order to elicit the grace that comes from that order (tabarruk). It is said that Ibn Taymiyya’s “affiliation” to Sufism may have been of this kind. Whatever the actual situation, this is a problem that requires a more nuanced exploration—though Michel makes a pretty good case in his aforementioned article.

In the final analysis, whether Ibn Taymiyya was formally affiliated to a Sufi order of not, there is no doubt that he lived a spiritual life by virtue of his practice of Islam.

In reply to by Majhul

Peter Adamson on 22 June 2014


Thanks very much for the well-informed comments! More generally regarding this "membership in Sufi orders" issue I am no expert, but I get the impression from what I've read that such membership became very common in later periods like under the Ottomans. To be affiliated with a Sufi order was by no means to be a committed mystic living a radically ascetic life or to be a follower of the ideas of Ibn 'Arabi. So one probably needs to take this always with a bit of caution and look into what a given person in a given order would understand by Sufi practice and commitment.

In reply to by Majhul

Arslan Akhtar on 22 June 2014

Indeed but Eric Geoffroy (the

Indeed but Eric Geoffroy (the French academic I mentioned earlier) has mentioned that new manuscripts reveals him as part of a silsila... in fact found the manuscripts Eric Geoffroy was referring to (as he mentioned Princeton), in an article aptly called "Ibn Taymiyya the Sufi Shaikh"

"...in a manuscript of the Hanbali 'alim, Shaikh Yusuf bin 'Abd al-Hadi (d. 909H), entitled Bad' al-'ula bi labs al-Khirqa [found in Princeton, Sorbonne and Damascus], Ibn Taymiyya is found in a Sufi spiritual genealogy with other well-known Hanbali scholars, all except one (Say. Jilani) heretofore unknown as Sufis. The links in this genealogy are, in descending order:

1. 'Abdul Qadir Jilani (d. 561 H.)
2.a. Abu 'Umar bin Qudama (d. 607 H.)
2.b. Muwaffaq ad-Din bin Qudama (d. 620 H.)
3. Ibn Abi 'Umar bin Qudama (d. 682 H.)
4. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728 H.)
5. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751 H.)
6. Ibn Rajab (d. 795 H.)

(Both Abu 'Umar b. Qudama and his brother Muwaffaq received the khirqa directly from Abdul Qadir Jilani himself.)

Further corroboration of two links separating him from 'Abdul Qadir Jilani comes from Ibn Taymiyya himself, as quoted in a manuscript of the work al-Mas'ala at-Tabriziyya (manuscript, Damascus, 1186 H):

"labistu al-khirqata mubarakata lish-Shaikh 'Abdul Qadir wa bayni wa baynahu 'than"

"I wore the blessed Sufi cloak of 'Abdul Qadir, there being between him and me two."

Ibn Taymiyya is quoted by Yusuf ibn 'Abd al-Hadi, affirming his Sufi affiliation in more than one Sufi order:

"have worn the Sufi cloak [khirqata at-Tasawwuf] of a number of shaikhs belonging to various tariqas [min turuqi jama'atin min ash-shuyukhi] , among them the Shaikh 'Abdul Qadir al-Jili, whose tariqa is the greatest of the well-known ones."

Further on he continues: "The greatest tariqa [ajallu-t-turuqi] is that of my master [sayyidi], 'Abdul Qadir al-Jili, may Allah have mercy on him."

[found in "Al-Hadi" manuscript in Princeton Library, Collection fol. 154a, 169b, 171b-172a and Damascus University, copy of original Arabic manuscript, 985H.; also mentioned in "at-Talyani", manuscript Chester Beatty 3296 (8) in Dublin, fol. 67a.]

Additional evidence of Ibn Taymiyya's connection to the Qadiri silsila (lineage) is found in his lengthy commentary on the seminal Sufi work by his grand-shaikh, 'Abdul Qadir Jilani, entitled "Futuh al-Ghayb." [this is found in a Princeton manuscript, uncataloged, also in Leipzig University Library, Arabic manuscript #223, and Istanbul University, Turkish translation, "Futuh ul-Gayb Hakkinda Yorum"]"


^what's interesting is that Ibn Qudamah is the other "Shaykh al Islam" of the Hanbali madhab... with Ibn Taymiyyah!
So quite few "heavyweights" in there.

But that's an immaterial debate to know whether he belonged to the Qadiri tariqa (order) or not, but what's sure and subject to no doubt is that he had a genuine respect for Sufism, even if he wasn't a "formal" Sufi (as Peter Adamson pointed out, the turuq system became a "system" that is way after the Hanbali scholar's death), and showing respect for Sufism is a (yet another) point which distances him from modern day "Salafis".

Adam Calhoun on 27 August 2014


I was interested in the idea presented in the podcast that knowledge is not being able to produce a definition, but rather being able to recognize other examples of that concept. Are there links or pointers you could send me to that I could read more?

In reply to by Adam Calhoun

Peter Adamson on 29 August 2014

Knowledge and definition

I think the two best things to look at are the critique of definition in Suhrawardi's "Philosophy of Illumination" and then the similar arguments here in Ibn Taymiyya, there is a section in his refutation of logic (see the bibliography above, and on the Suhrawardi page for the Philosophy of Illumination). But I would say this is a topic that still awaits good secondary literature.

Hoom on 4 December 2016

Mild Sufi

On what basis do you call him a "moderate" Sufi?

In reply to by Hoom

Peter Adamson on 4 December 2016

"moderate" Sufi

Sorry, that expression is indeed a bit vague, isn't it? I just meant that Ibn Taymiyya was in his own view an adherent of Sufism (he belonged to an order) but not willing to adopt what he saw as extreme, pantheistic views such as he thought he found in Ibn 'Arabi. So, "moderate" in the sense that he criticized other forms of Sufism as going too far in the direction of identifying all things with God, but still himself convinced that a mystical approach to God was basically appropriate and right. Does that help?

Hoom on 4 December 2016

Ibn Taymiyyah vs Ibn Hazm

It seems both hold "originalist" view with regard to following the original source without any expansion - but how come the end result is that Ibn Hazm's Zahirists seemed rather permissive (as discussed in his chapter), while Ibn Taymiyyah's Salafists seem rather "this, that and those are not allowed in Islam"?

In reply to by Hoom

Peter Adamson on 4 December 2016


Well, we should be careful about what we mean here by "permissive": Ibn Hazm would have been just as firm on prohibitions and commands that he did think he could find in the Quran and hadith, so it's not like he would have said "well, it's up to the conscience of each believer" or anything like that. The point is rather that, if you go strictly by the "letter of the law" then you will recognize only prohibitions and commands that are obviously present in the texts, without trying to extend them further (at least that's the basic idea of Zahirism). So by its very nature Ibn Hazm's view yields fewer prohibitions. Ibn Taymiyya by contrast claims to be able to discern the original intent of the earliest Muslims, but there isn't any principled restriction on what you can ascribe to those early generations and there is great scope for the jurist's interpretation to determine that. It reminded me of the modern-day originalism of a jurist like the late Antonin Scalia, who claimed to be simply following the original intent of the framers of the US constitution but, conveniently, it turns out they just thought whatever he wants them to have thought.

dukeofethereal on 28 November 2017

Jon Hoover, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Impact on Early 14th-Century Mamlūk

Check out this video Professor Adamson

"Jon Hoover (University of Nottingham), “Ibn Taymiyya’s Impact on Early 14th-Century Mamlūk Ashʿarism," in the panel "Ibn Taymiyya’s Impact on Mamlūk Religion and Society,"


@dcjnq on 19 January 2018

Ibn Taymiyya's epistmology

You misread Ibn Taymiyya twice;

1) [min 19:08] he doesn't dispute absolute explanations; rather the usefulness of strict syllogism to reach at them (doubting that syllogism is an absolute means of advocacy.) In fact on the contrary, it is because Ibn Taymiyya does believe in the existence of absolute explanations he advocates using analogical means rather than embedded arguments (i.e., the implicit circularity in syllogism.)

2) [min 16:46] It is clearly self-contradictory to argue that sensation is exclusively better than intellect; because the very act of arguing is actually intellectual; Surely neither Ibn Taymiyya nor even hardcore empiricists such as Hume, would do that - however Hume would have it (at least as far as I'm aware of) such that sensation is the only means to "create" the intellect, plus inform it about the universals and particulars both - In contrast, Ibn Taymiyya considers sensation to be the only means to "collect" the knowledge of the particulars, then inform the intellect about *their* universals, but not *all* universals.. that is, the grounding foundations of intellect is independent of sensation, plus dominate over sensation.

(I can't blame you for point 2, because even some researches who have access to Arabic text seems to have it wrong sometimes as well.)

In other words, Ibn Taymiyya subscribes to a view of a priori knowledge, which naturally consists of a set of universals (such includes the mathematical and logical truths,) universals that are independent of any external particulars.

Here is a link to a collection of qoutes, in Arabic, I compiled sometime earlier in order to demonstrate the apriori stance of Ibn Taymiyya:


In reply to by @dcjnq

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2018

Ibn Taymiyya

I don't really understand your first point: my criticism was that they would agree with him that we need to start from sense perception, but deny that that makes sense perception "primary" (since he is not taking into account their contrast between primary in itself and primary to us: sensation is the latter, not the former). I can't make any sense of what you say as a response to this.

Re the second point, firstly I am not crazy about your method there ("Claim X is a stupid claim in my opinion, therefore Ibn Taymiyya does not hold X": seems to take the principle of charity too far). But leaving that aside, it may well be that there are other passages elsewhere in him where he sounds more like an anti-empiricist, his works are vast indeed. I had a look at your Arabic passages and he does indeed there speak of self-evident principles or premises in a way that is pretty standard for kalam and falsafa epistemology. But I think what I say is still a fair representation of the attack on the logicians, I mean, the text I was drawing on so perhaps he was just saying it for dialectical purposes, I mean, in order to refute them rather than express his own view?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

@dcjnq on 19 January 2018

Your opposition in the first

Your opposition in the first point seems to be an argument against the reliability (rather than fundamentality) of sense perception, which is totally a different argument (than Ibn Taymiyya's.)

Because, sense perception is necessarily present and unique, hence primary, to the examiner. The same cannot be said to the conception of the universals, for they have nothing absolutely primary.. since, as Ibn Taymiyya argues, analogy and syllogism are not parallels or counterparts, rather hierarchical.. so that in order for syllogism to actually work, it must eventually come down to a one to one correspondence between two particulars, otherwise it is kind of a circular process (infinite regression.)

Re (2), Since I am citing from Taymiyya's work, it's absolutely unjustified to assume I am projecting my own views on him!

Yes, in a sense, dialectical purposes played some role in the large misunderstanding of his views; his emphasis on the priority of the particulars should have been evaluated in the context of his refutation of the philosopher's advocacy of syllogism, which relates necessarily to the external world and the abstraction of  the universals from its particulars. However, ultimately there is no contradiction between both of the two assertions, it's not either-or scenario: indeed with respect to the synthetic knowledge, universals could only be acquired through the particulars, whereas with respect to the analytic knowledge, universals are self-sustained. It's just that he was mostly arguing with philosophers on the former, not on the latter, that the distinction basically blured and mostly missed by the reader.

On another note, I should draw your attention to the fact that it wasn't unanimous amongst all of the mutakallimeen and falasifa that the intellect is independent from sensation in the acquisition of universals; while for example, Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali would affirmatively refer to a priori knowledge, Al-Razi seemed to differ with this view (not completely sure - only quick inspection of mine.)

And, it should also be noted that, the Idealistic view of those philosophers is quite different than that which is held by Ibn Taymiyya.. since Taymiyya didn't believe in the doctrine of Unity of Existence, to him apriori knowledge may only originate from God, the personalized creator.

In reply to by @dcjnq

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2018

More on Ibn Taymiyya

I guess I don't know enough about Ibn Taymiyya's epistemology in other works to say more on point 2. On point 1, though, you are still not getting my argument, I think. It has nothing to do with reliability, it has to do with the order in which we learn things. The standard Aristotelian (and hence falsafa) doctrine is that the things most immediate to us are, typically, not the things that are causally primary. So for instance we would start out in physics by noticing motion of bodies around us, and work from there to the first cause of motion which is God. So He is primary in causation but the last thing we discover. Hence, my point: they would agree with Ibn Taymiyya that perception is "primary" in the sense of immediate, that which is primary to us. But what is primary in itself would be universals or intelligibles since these explain the things we experience through the senses (a good example would be the Agent Intellect in Avicenna's cosmology). Does that clarify what I am trying to say?

I agree with your point there about syllogisms though, and there I think he has a pretty strong case!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

@dcjnq on 20 January 2018

Yes I think I got it now!..

Yes I think I got it now!.. well I agree with you on that you would be right to object to singling out the sense perception alone.. but then I don't really think that's what Ibn Taymiyya beleives.. instead what I think he would offer as a response is that we also can't single out the intellect alone just as well.

That is, it's not a matter of order.. but to emphasize the necessity of both of senses and intellect to explore the real world (put equally on-par perhaps..) which is to say that, both types of universals (dependent and independent) are equally required for the intellect to function ideally. So I indeed agree to your point on this, but still suggest that Ibn Taymiyya is not really promoting "let's make the sensation first" (great again!) but rather not to differentiate in the first place.

To fully make sense of this, remember that this is a natural anti-idealism position (as you rightly hinted by Avicenna's cosmology).. because from an idealist's point of view, singling out only one faculty (namely intellect) champions scopes of existence that is beyond both the cognition and the external perceivable world;


Andrew Maclaren on 3 June 2022

Similarity to a later Indian philosopher?

Hey Peter, love the podcast. Just wanted to note something that popped in my head while listening to this episode. Unsure if there is any significance or meaning to it right now.

Before I started listening to the Eastern Traditions series of episodes, I had listened through your series on India. The episode I was reminded of was "61. What Happened Next: Indian Philosophy After Dignaga". Specifically, it was about a later Indian philosopher you didn't cover in that series. Went back to check, it was around 7:30 you started talking about him, Śrīharṣa. The main defining thing you pointed out about him was his argument against philosophy based off of finding the correct definitions. Ibn Taymiyya, as pointed out in this episode, critiqued the philosophers for thinking that finding the correct definitions brings knowledge.

I'll have to look at both critiques more but I wonder if there is really any similarity there or if their critiques only look similar. Even if they are similar, there is still the further question of what significance this has. Still, this seems something interesting to note I think.

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Peter Adamson on 4 June 2022

Critique of definitions

Yes, that is a nice resonance! Actually the idea of critiquing definitions as pointless (because they don't increase knowledge) is recurrent in the history of philosophy. An early example from the European context would be Sextus Empiricus and actually, though I didn't realize it when I was writing the later eastern series on Islamic philosophy, Ibn Taymiyya is actually pretty late to the party in critiquing the Aristotelian/Avicennan project of giving definitions. Figures like Fakhr al-Din al-Razi had already made the same points. I think basically this is just a move that skeptics and critics of mainstream philosophy are always going to make: positive epistemology will gravitate towards the idea of providing definitions and that will provoke the thought that definitions are not informative. Hence I would guess that it is just the same idea emerging multiple times in different contexts independently, though one would have to read these authors alongside one another to be sure.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 4 June 2022


It is always fascinating to find resonances like these, even if there isn't much meaning to there being a resonance.

But I wouldn't say it is necessarily a sceptical position. Maybe from the standpoint of those traditional projects, but unless my conception of scepticism is too narrow (I usually think of scepticism, as a position, as one that tries not to offer a positive project at all), I don't see why you can't continue doing philosophy after accepting the critique of definitions. After a cursory look at Śrīharṣa, he himself tries to do just that, by supplying a different method to doing philosophy.

One question that comes to mind then is how much of ancient philosophy is still valuable to someone who accepts this critique? Or, put in another way, how much is salvable? I would hope the answer isn't a pessimistic one, but I can't dismiss that possibility off hand. Either way, it is at least an excuse to do some investigation work.

Another line of thought is how this shows different ways to doing philosophy. Going through the history of philosophy, since everyone is taking after Plato and Aristotle for most of it so far, the framework of what philosophy is/how to do philosophy is so embedded that critiques like these are so interesting since they seem to show a "trace" or "glimmer", if I can coin a term on the spot (I don't mean trace in the derridean sense, since I don't really know derrida anyway) of possible alternatives that show just how entrenched and invisible the original framework otherwise is. Which leads to the second question: When are we going to meet more philosophers that do try to give an alternative framework to doing philosophy? My intuition is that I just have to wait for modern philosophy, but another is that my question may be too vague to answer, since I am presupossing a well defined framework from which one can either remain or break with, when it is probably a lot more fuzzy than that. Still, I think that there are a lot of assumptions that (hopefully later) philosophers will come and dig out and critique. Especially cultural and social ones (I am reminded of the few times already where the relations between the sexes are taken as given and then woven into how they view the world, for example when you talked about kabbalah and how they used "male" and "female" principles in the sefirot without justification or further comment, just passed over).

Sorry, that last paragraph was rambly and probably contained two points rather than one (alternative frameworks and being critical to social and cultural assumptions (side thing but I have this vague notion that philosophy eventually gets more socially and culturally aware in a general sense and I can't wait for that)). Still though, what is your opinion? That is, if I made any sense haha.

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Peter Adamson on 4 June 2022

Skepticism and definitions

Yes that's a good point - you can be skeptical about the project/importance of giving definitions in general, or of the specific kind demanded by a given school (Peripatetics, Nyaya...) without being a global skeptic. Certainly Ibn Taymiyya was not a skeptic for example!

As for the more general question, I guess it depends what you mean by radically different frameworks. Leaving aside what we have covered in the Africana series, because so much of it is relatively recent (19-20th c), some things that come to mind would be that we have seen empiricism and materialism in the Epicureans and Carvaka; and at the other end of the spectrum Neoplatonism and Vedanta. Or sticking just to epistemology we have seen the mind-blowing perspectivism of the Jains, which has basically nothing in common with, say, Aristotelian theory of science. So I think the variety has been very large even before we get near early modern philosophy. Maybe it doesn't feel like that because in the main thread of the podcast we have been doing medieval and renaissance philosophy for so long, where a broadly Aristotelian approach is very dominant.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 4 June 2022

Different Frameworks

I think in some sense I was vague but you still answered my question given the vague meaning I had in mind.

On one interpretation of framework, you are exactly right. There is already so much that broke out of specifically the Aristotelian and Platonic frameworks that even the Hellenistic schools did. This is one meaning you could read into framework.

On another interpretation, maybe some of it is a break (I would have to think about it some more) but also not really. The sort of change that was lingering in my mind was the "critical philosophy" that Kant brought about. The challenge Kant brought about to traditional philosophy was huge and meant we could no longer do the speculative type of metaphysics we have been doing for most of the "mainline" history of philosophy so far. The challenge could probably be applied to a lot of the Indian traditions as well.

I think I was sort of blurring the two in mind. Maybe I am still blurring the word "framework" with other meanings, but those are the main two that I was slipping between in my previous comment.

So to rephrase my original question after refining it: How much is traditional metaphysical method/framework of doing philosophy challenged by the critique of definitions? Would you still be able to do philosophy like that I wonder? Guess to find my answer I have to do philosophy of my own and apply Ibn Taymiyya's critique all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. So much work I have given myself just from this chain haha.

I guess as a side thing: It would be an interesting to see just how much my statement about Kant's challenge to traditional metaphysics really does apply to some Indian traditions.

Can't wait for you to do modern philosophy. If you do that well you would without a doubt be the main resource for anyone learning philosophy in my opinion. So far this podcast is only directly applicable to people interested in Ancient to Medieval philosophy and for the ones interested in dipping their toes into Indian and Africana, and only indirectly applicable for the regular philosophy student and contemporary philosophers who would benifit from learning about that. But as you get further through the Renaissance and Reformation and eventually modern philosophy, you will be the best and biggest resource for anyone interested in philosophy. I think when you reach modern philosophy that will be a turning point for your podcast as a educational resource. Keep up the amazing work!

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Peter Adamson on 5 June 2022

Definitions and modern philosophy

I think the critique of definitions could have huge implications, or very few, depending on how it is taken. On one view finding definitions is just not interesting because they simply express what we must already know (otherwise how would you give the definition?). But that could leave the rest of the epistemology more or less standing, it is basically just saying the first step is easier than the philosophers make out. Alternatively it could be a very radical challenge, if the idea is that it is impossible to give definitions of the natures of things - then the whole Aristotelian/Avicennan epistemology would collapse.

And thanks for your comments about modern philosophy! To be honest I can't imagine challenging something like the Stanford Encyclopedia for sheer usefuness and authoritativeness, but you are probably right that when I hit the 17th c that will bring a new audience to the podcast. On the other hand I am myself not an expert in early modern, so what I think I can really bring to the topic would be the fact that I'll be approaching it from the background of already having done, like, everything else that happened beforehand. Someone interested "only" in early modern would at least do well to jump in where we are now, in the 16th century, which as we've been seeing sets up many developments associated with the Enlightenment. In fact the more I do these reformation/renaissance episodes the more I think that the 17th century was to a large extent just playing out the developments of the previous century.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 5 June 2022


As always it seems to come to how you interpret it haha.

Anyway, I didn't mean really that you would challenge SEP, just moreso as a general resource for philosophy for any audience. SEP can be quite technical and indepth, and also unless you already know what you are looking for, it is hard to get stuff out of it except maybe some of the ideas you would have floating around.

By contrast, you sort of offer like a guide map for philosophy's development. A long epic from which people can follow the developments and themes throughout its history. I am not a philosophy student, but ever since I read Sophie's World (a sort of storytelling novel following a character named Sophie as she is instructed in philosophy historically by a teacher) it has been a special interest of mine. There is something to be said about knowing its development rather than just the ideas in the abstract.

The biggest problem with the book was how it treated the Middle ages. One chapter, and mostly seeing it as a long dormant sleep if I remember correctly. I can paraphrase the story it told with it: Greco-Roman culture survived in three seprarte current or streams. Roman Catholic in the west, Byzantine in the east, and Arabic in the south. Neoplatonism survived in the west, Plato in the east, and Aristotle in the south. The three streams merged again in northan Italy which kicked off the renaissance. It goes on to give an overview of Augustine and Aquinas mostly from the pespective of how philosophy related to the faith. And outside of alluding to the developments in the south to bring Aristotle to the west, nothing else was talked about for the other streams.

I also had the conflicting narrative given by modern day Aquinians and their parochial view on scholasticism (read: Aquinas) for the middle ages. So the actual bridge between the middle ages and modern philosophy was obscure to me. This podcast has (and is, and shall continue to be, especially when I get to the renaissance/reformation and beyond) been a good help in actually weaving the story together, actually showing how one thing developed from another. So you talking about how the 17th century was just a development out of the stuff you are covering now is very exciting for me as you can imagine. Even before that, the Byzantine period when I get to that should also do the trick.

In short, you add the user friendly guide map to philosophy's development and not just as unconnected individual ideas following one another that have no basis in what came before (see again how modern Aquinians treat the gap between Aquinas and modern philosophy). Being able to have this "story" is just amazing.

You have talked about before how the usefulness for a contemporary philosopher studying the history of philosophy was between two choices. First being seeing ideas that are different from our modern assumptions (you talked bout this in Averroes especially. On the other hand how some ideas preconfigure ours (see your episode on Cārvāka). In my opinion, you actually unwittingly offer a third reason, which is seeing how ideas develop off from one another historically, and where and when modern ideas came from which combines both of the other reasons you talked about before in some sense. This is the key behind why I think of the podcast so highly. This isn't something that can be conveyed by an encyclopedia, at least not without some guide through its entries which would otherwise be disjointed to a layman. Given this, I couldn't agree more with your last two lines, maybe in more ways than you would expect haha.

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Peter Adamson on 5 June 2022

The south

Thanks so much! That book Sophie's World has gotten a lot of people into philosophy - in London I used to be the admissions officer for the dept and many, many personal statements cited it as the reason kids had gotten interested in the topic. (Maybe would no longer be the case, this was almost 20 years ago.)

If that book really presents Islamic philosophy as happening in "the south" that would be pretty weird- it mostly happened in central Asia, Persia, Iraq and Syria.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 5 June 2022

Sophie's world

That is basically what it said. While I did say paraphrase that is almost word for word what it says in one paragraph. In some sense it is better than the traditional narrative for the middle ages, and in another just parrots the view of its relevance only in so far as it related to the latin west. Also in the middle ages chapter it mentions "islam" or "islamic" three times, mainly in reference to its emergance and its conquering to spain. Here is the part. When being asked if the greek philosophers were forgotten, the professor said:

"Not entirely. Some of the writings of Aristotle and Plato were known. But the old Roman Empire was gradually divided into three different cultures. In Western Europe we had a Latinized Christian culture with Rome as its capital. In Eastern Europe we had a Greek Christian culture with Constantinople as its capital. This city began to be called by its Greek name, Byzantium. We therefore speak of the Byzantine Middle Ages as opposed to the Roman Catholic Middle Ages. However, North Africa and the Middle East had also been part of the Roman Empire. This area developed during the Middle Ages into an Arabic-speaking Muslim culture. After the death of Muhammad in 632, both the Middle East and North Africa were won over to Islam. Shortly thereafter, Spain also became part of the world of Islamic culture. Islam adopted Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Bagdad as holy cities. From the point of view of cultural history, it is interesting to note that the Arabs also took over the ancient Hellenistic city of Alexandria. Thus much of the old Greek science was inherited by the Arabs. All through the Middle Ages, the Arabs were predominant in sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine. Nowadays we still use Arabic figures. In a number of areas Arabic culture was superior to Christian culture.It is interesting that I owe a lot to that book despite now seeing glaring flaws like this."

After this Sophie wanted to know more about what heppened to greek philosophy and the three streams thing was put forth. Just referred to as "arabic" in the rest of the chapter.

It is interesting how that book has continued relevence. I read that in secondary school from the library since I was just interested in what philosophy was, and that was what the librarian pulled out. I am now 20. Funny how that matchs how long ago you said you were an admissions officer.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 5 June 2022

The south

Sophie's world doesn't really present any of the trio of streams it outlined on their own terms really. So no focus on "islamic philosophy" as such in the south (or really the other two) but moreso as preservers of ancient culture and philosophy that would be revived in the renaissance in northen Italy. The biggest casualty in my mind is Byzantine. At least the book gave praise to the arabic world as being "predominant" while refusing to give further detail than that. Outside of mentioning Byzantine as one of the preserving streams no more detail is offered. So the reader is left with the vague idea that they were just carriers of plato until the renaissance. To be fair, the book does say this is an oversimplified picture in as far as each stream did contain bits of the other two, but you can now imagine the gap in my mind about the transition between the middle ages and modern philosophy. Especially combined with the internet Aquinian view.

Also unless I don't know how the notify comments option works I am not getting any emails about your replies.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 6 June 2022

two comments

Sorry for the two comments. The verification took longer than than the comment you replied to and I thought it was rejected for quoting directly from the book.

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Peter Adamson on 6 June 2022


Yes sorry, I have to approve the comments by hand, since we get a lot of spam that I need to filter out.

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