250. Q&A

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Peter answers listener questions on the nature of philosophy and the podcast series.



Further Reading

Follow this link to see the book versions based on the podcast.

TRANSCRIPT of this episode

First up, I’m going to tackle a question raised by Raphael and Josh. Both wondered about including African philosophy in the series, and whether ancient Egypt has contributed anything to the history of philosophy.


I’m starting with this because it gives me the chance to make a little announcement. As you know, I’m now covering ancient Indian philosophy in a series of episodes written together with Jonardon Ganeri – if you haven’t found it yet, you can do so on the website or by searching for the second podcast feed, which is called the History of Philosophy in India. In any case, once we are done with our series on India, which will take us at least well into 2017, I’m going to be teaming up with another co-author, Chike Jeffers of Dalhousie University. With his help, I’m in fact going to be doing a whole series on philosophy in the African tradition – including texts and figures of the African diaspora. Those episodes will be released on the same feed that’s now devoted to Indian philosophy, and of course you’ll be able to find them on the podcast website too. Even further in the future, I hope to tackle Chinese philosophy and perhaps return to do more episodes on India, since Jonardon and I are for the moment only planning to cover the first millenium or so of that story.


Anyway, when Chike and I begin the series on African philosophy we are indeed going to consider philosophical material from ancient Egypt, returning to a time even before Thales and the other Presocratics, where I first began the whole series of podcasts back in 2010. There is certainly philosophical material from ancient Egypt, for instance the “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” in which a well-spoken peasant speaks up for his rights by articulating ideas of justice. We also plan to set the Egyptian writings in a larger context by glancing at other ancient cultures and asking what they may have contributed to the history of philosophy even before the Greeks came along.


Next up are questions about the whole point of this philosophy business. Referring to the ancient idea that the purpose of philosophy is to learn how to live, Thomas wanted to know whether philosophy affects the way I myself live. 


I have to admit that as a historian of philosophy, I tend to think about it more as an object of study than as a way of deciding how to live my life. Actually, I would even go so far as to say that I try not to get too invested in the ideas of historical thinkers, because I want to concentrate on understanding what they meant and whether the ideas have internal coherence, rather than concentrating on whether or not I actually agree with them. (Of course, that isn’t the only way to do history of philosophy, but it’s the way I tend to do it.) Having said that, there are authors who almost can’t be read that way – they demand your attention and ask you to apply what they are saying to your own life. The best examples I know are the Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus. I find especially compelling his idea that, no matter what situation you are in, you can only be in control of your own response to the situation – so you should focus on that and let things that are out of your control take care of themselves. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly good at following that advice but I do occasionally remind myself to try. Also, there is the very fact that I am devoting my life to philosophy, which is something plenty of historical philosophers encourage me to do. I am particularly impressed by Aristotle’s point that philosophy is not the sort of thing you should do in order to achieve some further goal. If you are studying philosophy in hopes of making money out of it or impressing your friends, then you are doing it for the wrong reason, and not just because (let’s face it) it’s unlikely to help you achieve those goals anyway. Rather, philosophy is something to be pursued for its own sake. I guess that applies to philosophy podcasting, too.


On a related note, Don wanted to know more about the ancient idea of happiness as something invulnerable, which cannot be taken away. 


This is definitely an important theme, and in fact it underlies Epictetus’ advice to concentrate on your own choices – because no one else can take away your power of choice. I see a kind of trade off here. The more you insist that your happiness will be invulnerable to circumstance, the narrower a conception of happiness you will need to have. Thus, many ancient thinkers (such as the Stoics) excluded everything else from happiness apart from virtue. Virtue is something that is truly up to you, and you can stay virtuous no matter what, even under a vicious tyranny or in the face of terrible bad fortune. I tend to think this goes too far: surely part of the happy life is having basic material comforts, a happy family life, health, and so on. Instead, I would again go along with Aristotle, for whom some so-called “external” goods are needed for the best life, even if that means it is not entirely under our control whether we get to live that life.


Next up, some questions about the whole “without any gaps” thing. One question came in from Matt Teichman, who by the way is the host of the excellent Elucidations podcast, which features interviews with professional philosophers – well worth checking out. Matt asked how we can plug the gaps in the teaching of the history of philosophy.


Of course, in the podcast I have an advantage over philosophy instructors at schools and universities. I have the liberty of moving at a snail’s pace through the whole history of philosophy. When you are designing a course curriculum, though, you might face tough decisions if you are determined to expose students to less commonly read philosophers. Are you really going to drop Aquinas from your course to make room for Eriugena, or skip over Hume to accommodate Mary Wollstonecraft? What I’ve come to think, having worked at filling gaps with this podcast for the last five years, is that teachers (including myself) should just give up on any pretense of being comprehensive when they cover history of philosophy. Imagine that you’re trying to do a year-long overview of the whole history of philosophy – not an infrequent task at universities around the world. You might think, “What can I cover from the medieval period? Well, I have to include Aquinas because he’s super-famous, and I have to do Anselm’s ontological argument because it’s also super-famous. That leaves me no time for anything else.” Now, I love Aquinas and the ontological argument as much as the next historian of philosophy. But I’m not convinced they merit the attention of students more than Eriugena, Abelard, Hildegard of Bingen, Scotus, Ockham, Buridan, al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, or Ibn ‘Arabi. That’s only a list of top shelf medieval thinkers, and doesn’t even get into fascinating figures from this period who are practically unknown, except to experts and listeners of this podcast – like Peter Damian, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Siger of Brabant, Yahya Ibn ‘Adi, or Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. 


My point is that when we’re exposing students to the history of philosophy, we should not tell ourselves we only have time to visit the highlights, because we don’t even have time to do that. This realization might be liberating. If we give up on the idea that teaching history of philosophy is about paying a brief visit to the most famous or important thinkers, that will free us up to prioritize other concerns. Of course different teachers will have different priorities. But for me one priority is to include women philosophers and philosophers from non-European traditions. It’s important for students to learn that some wonderful philosophers throughout history have been women, and that there is great philosophy from India, China, Africa, and the Islamic world. I suspect that many instructors are reluctant to cover such topics, precisely because they are so unfamiliar. But as I’ve been pleased to discover doing this podcast, there are plenty of translations and secondary literature out there. (Just look at the further reading section I’ve put up for each episode on the website.) On the basis of this material, any instructor can do something to broaden the curriculum and, in the process, the next generation’s conception of what philosophy has been and could be in the future.


Which, however, brings us to a more provacative version of the question. This comes from my fellow historian of philosophy Martin Lenz, who plays devil’s advocate by asking “(1) why bother about the history of philosophy at all? (2) Why should we care about leaving no gaps? (3) And is it possible to leave no gaps?”


These questions hardly admit of brief answers, of course. Well, maybe the third one does: no, it’s not possible to leave no gaps. That’s something that remains an aspiration for the podcast, rather than a realistic goal. Podcast listeners and readers of the book version are right to keep pointing out things I could have covered, but didn’t. One thing I regret, for instance, is that I should have done an episode on the Greek historians Herotodus and Thucydides. As for why we should even bother to try, let’s assume for the sake of argument that philosophy in general is not a waste of time. If so, then we can take the question to mean, why study the history of philosophy, especially in this comprehensive way, rather than limiting our energies to contemporary philosophical discussions? Again, this is relevant to teaching contexts: should we make students read historical texts, whether that means Plato or Hildegard? Or allow them to engage solely with today’s debates over ethics, philosophy of mind, and so on?


Well, today’s philosophy is just the most recent part of the history of philosophy, and the jury’s out on whether it is a particularly interesting part. I see philosophy above all as an exploration of the interrelation between ideas. Philosophy doesn’t directly show us what the truth is. Rather, it shows us how ideas and proposals hang together: that if I make a certain assumption or argument, certain consequences will follow, and that there are certain objections I will have to face. By studying the whole history of philosophy we map out a whole system of interrelated ideas, with the help of the very clever men and women who have, for more than two thousand years, been making one assumption, one argument, at a time and seeing where they lead. Of course, the more gap-less our approach, the fuller a picture we get. This is why we should study the history of philosophy, and do it with as few gaps as possible. In fact I would consider restricting your attention to contemporary philosophy a rather bizarre idea. Contemporary philosophy’s only advantage over older philosophy is that it is happening now – and why should a philosopher care about that?


To this, someone might say, “contemporary philosophy does have a distinctive advantage, which is that it has learned from all previous philosophy.” To which I’d say, not really. What it has mostly done is forgotten almost all the previous philosophy. It’s not as if the philosophical presuppositions of Neoplatonism, scholastic metaphysics, or the Upanisads are being carefully considered and rejected by contemporary philosophers. Rather, the contemporary thinkers by and large start from their own assumptions – whatever strikes them as intuitive – and go from there. There’s nothing wrong with this, since it’s what all philosophers do (even if back in the day, philosophers tended to be better informed about the history of their discipline than they usually are now). But it does mean that today’s philosophers are exploring a fairly small corner of philosophical territory. The full terrain, by contrast, is the whole network of interrelated assumptions, arguments, and ideas. If you want to see the whole picture – or at least the part of the picture that philosophers have managed to fill out so far – then you have to study the history of philosophy from its beginnings, and in all cultures, up to the present day.


But hang on, you might be saying. What about science? Listeners Zachary and Adnan both asked about this. Do ancient and medieval ideas still have any meaning for us? Has the success of modern science effectively rendered these ideas, or even philosophy itself, pointless? No, I don’t think so. Certainly some philosophical ideas have been rendered obsolete – just think of ancient and medieval cosmology for instance. But as Zachary suggested, it is hard to imagine biologists dispensing entirely with Aristotle’s idea of teleology, or purposiveness, in nature. Besides, there is a whole range of philosophical questions – the vast bulk of them – that science can’t address with its methods. Also, science itself needs philosophy, because scientists need to think about their own methodology, what justifies it, what its limitations may be, and so on. Neuroscience may have things to tell us that we should consider when thinking about free will or consciousness. But a neurosurgeon with no training in philosophy is unlikely to reach anything but very naive conclusions about free will or consciousness. Without naming names, you can probably think of authors or media personalities who are trained scientists, and who don’t hesitate to leap to sweeping philosophical generalizations on that basis. This is about as sensible as me making claims about quantum mechanics or DNA on the basis of my philosophical training. Fortunately there are some academics who have training on both the science and philosophy side, and they do an invaluable service by helping the two disciplines talk to one another.


Chris also asks about my approach to the history of philosophy. Citing another author who tried to cover the whole thing single-handedly, he mentions that Frederick Copleston said the historian of philosophy must have a certain “sympathy” with historical figures, so as to better understand them. Chris also wants to know how I see my approach as differing from the methods of other histories, like those of Copleston, Bertrand Russell, and Anthony Kenny.


I’ve already mentioned that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether I ultimately agree with the figures I am reading. But I do try hard to be sympathetic in a different way, by trying to see things from their point of view. In fact, that is in a way the most interesting thing about the history of philosophy, for me at least. It’s a chance to inhabit another worldview, with assumptions and argumentative goals I would never have had myself. I think that makes my approach different from Russell and Kenny, both of whom definitely had robust philosophical positions that they brought to their histories. But I should admit that I haven’t thought deeply about these other single-author histories. Since I started working on the podcast I’ve tried not to dip into them, because I wanted to go my own way and not be unduly influenced by other approaches. Also, for my purposes it’s more useful to spend my time reading primary texts and delving into detailed secondary literature on specific authors, texts, and problems, since I want to get a really good sense of each topic before attempting to summarize it myself.


Which brings us to Nick’s question, which is basically how I go about producing the podcast.


As I’ve already implied, one of the hardest parts is actually planning what to cover and in how much detail. Imagine looking at an otherwise blank screen that says “episode list: medieval philosophy” at the top. How to go about filling out that list, as I had to do about a year ago? The answer, basically, is that I write down things I already know I will need to include. I then flesh out this preliminary list by looking at secondary literature. For most periods in the history of philosophy there have been a proliferation of Companions and Handbooks that can be helpful here. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is also very valuable for this initial stage. I also use these sources to help me figure out what else to read. Once I’ve got my draft list of episode topics, I run it by specialist colleagues who are kind enough to tell me what I’ve left out, which themes and topics to highlight, and so on. From there, I start reading more widely. That often makes me realize I need to revise my list of episodes but the main point is to generate the scripts – I try to keep those under three and a half thousand words. I would tell you how much time I spend on each script, but I have a strict policy of not letting myself even think about that. I will divulge that about 65% of this time is spent  thinking up clever episode titles. Later these scripts, with clever or at least would-be clever titles intact, become the basis for the chapters of the later book versions published with Oxford University Press (by the way, the paperback version of vol.1 on Classical Philosophy is out as of March 2016, followed soon by the third and latest volume of the series, on Philosophy in the Islamic World, out in the summer of 2016). I have added new chapters to all three volumes so far, after realizing there were topics I should have included in the podcast series but didn’t.


While I’m doing all this, I am always on the lookout for people to interview; here I try to get a good mix of guests, including younger and more senior academics. Often these are people whose work I’ve found helpful in my own reading. As you might have gathered from listening to these episodes, I usually give the guest a list of questions in advance so they know what to expect. Here I should say that one great thing about the whole podcasting experience is how generous other academics have been with their time, appearing as guests, giving me input on topics to cover and on individual scripts, and so on.


Anyway, I then record the podcast, using a portable microphone (a Zoom H4N) for the interviews and a different one for the scripted episodes (a Samson G track, with a pop filter mounted on the heaviest book available, which is my ancient Greek dictionary). My biggest luxury as a podcaster is that I have always had grad student assistants who knew something about audio editing to turn these recordings into the final episodes. (When I say thank you at the start of the episodes, I’m mostly thanking the source of funding that pays for this editing.) If you heard an unedited episode, you’d listen to me stumbling over my words, possibly cursing, and then going back to do record that sentence again. We also edit the interviews so they sound as smooth as possible.


On which note, I’m glad to say that questions have come in from all the editors who have worked on the project with me so far. The first was Rory O’Connell, who asks, “Who did your original sound editing work when you first started out and what sort of special treat should we get them?” Nice try, Rory.


More serious minded is Fay Edwards, who edited the episodes on late antiquity which is her field of speciality. She suggested I could comment on the relation between philosophy and religion, which is an issue that generates a lot of feedback from listeners – Adam and Mehmet also asked me to say something about this topic. As I’ve gotten into philosophy within the Abrahamic traditions some listeners have even complained that religious issues have become too dominant in the podcast. 


Of course I want listeners who are atheists, or who are members of other religions, to be interested in learning about a pious Christian theologian like Augustine, a devoted Shiite thinker like Mulla Sadra, or a learned Jewish scholar like Maimonides. But it seems to me wrong to try to separate out the religious elements of their thought from what we might think of as the “philosophical” elements. That line is simply too blurry. In an episode coming up I will talk about medieval arguments over transubstantiation and the Trinity. Cases like these show us that abstract philosophical positions can emerge from theological debates. For instance, when you think about bread turning into flesh, you may wonder whether in general, it is possible for accidents (like the texture and taste we associate with bread) to survive in the absence of the substances they belong to. That’s not a burning issue for many philosophers today, but posed in this abstract way it is clearly a philosophical and not a theological question. Indeed we might wonder whether accidents can survive without their substances in other, non-theological contexts – one example from antiquity was that the scent of an apple can hang in the air even after the apple has been eaten. On the other hand, it would be artificial and misleading to consider the philosophical ideas that emerged in religious discussions without paying heed to the theological commitments of the authors in question.


We also need to talk about religion frequently because it has been an important part of the historical context for philosophy in almost all ages and places. Philosophers have been led by their religious beliefs into concentrating on certain topics rather than others, and religious dogmas have often constrained the bounds of acceptable philosophical conviction; I don’t lament this, as many do. To the contrary, I find it fascinating to see how clever people of the past have maneuvered within whatever conceptual space they were allowed, and also how they sometimes pushed at the boundaries of that space.


I got a whole bunch of questions from my current editor, Andreas Lammer who is also a specialist on philosophy in the Islamic world, and a member of my team here in Munich. He can ask me questions about Avicenna (or answer them for me) any time he wants, so he wanted me instead to say what is the most underrated animal in the history of philosophy. Before the podcast got going, it was clearly the giraffe, but I’d like to think I’ve rectified that situation by now. So these days, I would say the most underappreciated animal in this field is the horse: always being put behind Descartes.


Returning to the issue of my life as a podcaster, Bobb asked me to describe my life as an academic. I guess it isn’t too unusual, in that I have to teach, do research, and take care of some administrative tasks. I moved to my current position in Munich in 2012, from King’s College London – though I am still affiliated with the department there. Being an academic in Germany has various advantages. One thing I really like about it is that there is no huge tuition fee for the students. In my view this compares very favorably with the USA and UK, where I have taught in the past: it means that teaching philosophy is more about a common intellectual enterprise, and less about customer service. (Having said that, the medieval university masters were under a lot of pressure to keep their fee-paying students happy. The more capitalist approach of the English-speaking world is ironically rather medieval.)


As for how podcasting fits into my academic life, obviously it’s very time-consuming, but see it as being more like a fun hobby, and not exactly as part of my real job. Still, I’ve found that doing the podcast has been very fruitful for me as an academic. It has led me to texts and topics I would never have gotten into otherwise. For instance, next semester I’m teaching a lecture series here in Munich on women in ancient and medieval philosophy, and that’s something I got seriously interested in through the podcast. I hope to do courses here on Indian philosophy too. Despite all my brave words about the feasibility of looking beyond the usual canon of philosophical works, I’m sure I would never have made time to delve into the Indian tradition if it weren’t for the podcast. I also hope that my published research, which is still mostly on late antique thought and philosophy in the Islamic world, has benefited greatly from the perspective I’ve gotten from trawling through the full breadth of these traditions.


Speaking of which, one question about the so-called non-Western philosophical tradition was posed by Omar, who says, “I've heard it stated that what separates western from eastern philosophy is that the former has an emphasis on argument while the latter does not… does the classical Greek tradition of philosophy emphasise argument more than other traditions, like the Indian or the Chinese?” I agree this is a common assumption, and to be honest I can’t really speak to the issue as far as Chinese philosophy goes, though I hope to get there in future podcasts. But as for India, it certainly is a misconception. There are whole sub-traditions of Indian thought distinguished by their interest in logic, and the rivalry between schools meant that there was pretty much constant argumentation back and forth. Perhaps when people think of Indian literature as less argumentative than Greek thought, they have in mind the earlier period of the Upanisads or Hindu epics. But we find scenes highly reminiscent of Platonic dialogues in these texts. Ancient India was anything but an argument-free zone.


But let’s get back to the fascinating subject of me. Jason asks, “As it can be good to start off defining terms; who is Peter Adamson? Maybe the answer should include how he discovered philosophy.” Well, as anyone who has met me in person will know, I’m a strapping and muscular fellow with a commanding presence, silken, flowing blond hair and piercing blue eyes the color of a storm-tossed sea. So most of the kids in my high school expected me to become a professional athlete or perhaps pursue a career in acting or as a model. I however wanted to be a writer. So when I went off to university, I was planning to major in English. (That last part is actually true.) The institution I attended, Williams College, is a liberal arts school which encourages, or even requires, students to pursue a range of different subjects. I took a course on philosophy just out of curiosity, and was immediately hooked, especially by Plato – still today, as in antiquity, the most enticing gateway drug into the discipline. I can also trace my interest in the history of philosophy to my undergraduate years, because the Williams department laid a lot of emphasis on this. I was still majoring in literature too, though, and especially intrigued by medieval texts – it will be a return to these early interests of mine when, in upcoming episodes, I look at the Romance of the Rose and Dante’s Divine Comedy. So I got into medieval philosophy as a way of combining my two academic interests. The rest is, quite literally, history: I went to Notre Dame for my PhD because of its strength in medieval philosophy, and that’s where I got into Neoplatonism and Arabic philosophy, which are still my main areas of focus in my research and teaching.


That tells you something about my personal philosophical tastes, but several questions came in that ask me to reveal more. For instance Adam also asked whether there are any philosophers that are overrated, and whether there any philosophy books I have struggled to get your head around. The answer to the latter question is definitely “yes.” I spent a whole summer once trying to get to the point where I could follow what Kant was basically trying to say in the Critique of Pure Reason, and even with authors I know very well there are texts I find utterly mystifying, for instance Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. As far as overrated thinkers go, I have to admit that I am one of those English-speaking philosophers who secretly wonder whether a lot of 20th century French philosophy might be an emperor with no clothes. I tried to wrap my mind around Derrida in graduate school, without much success. He’s someone I could perhaps mention in answer to Matthew’s question “Who is one philosopher you wish you could leave out?” But in all honesty, if anything I am eager to get to the so-called “Continental” tradition and to tackle the challenge of demystifying figures like Heidegger and Derrida. More generally, there are definitely some figures who are harder to cover than others, because they are more technical or difficult to understand – it will be very hard to write podcasts about such challenging and intricate authors as Duns Scotus, Fichte, or Husserl, without oversimplifying them greatly. That doesn’t mean I would want to skip them exactly, but maybe it means I wouldn’t mind if my non-existent sister got her act together and really did write a script or two.


Along these same lines, Rose asks “If you were having a dinner party and could invite six philosophers, who would they be?” I think probably I would settle for one philosopher, and go for a drink with David Hume. Unless Buster Keaton counts as a philosopher.


Speaking of which here’s one more question from Adam: “It's rumoured you like Buster Keaton films! Do they have any philosophical angle for you or do you watch them to relax?” I have actually wondered whether I might try to write a podcast about Keaton in this series, if and when I get to the early twentieth century. I do think there are philosophical aspects of his movies: the way Buster as a character is always confronted by an implacably uncooperative physical environment, often in the form of technology out of control, seems to me to be a comment on modernity that could be placed alongside other early twentieth century reflections – and actually here Heidegger comes to mind. Keaton’s movies also comment on the nature of film itself, the most obvious example being Sherlock Junior, in which he plays a movie projectionist who falls asleep and steps into a movie by walking up and into the screen. I’m sure Buster himself would have scoffed at the idea that he was doing anything philosophical, but sometimes philosophy is where you find it, even if no one intentionally put it there.


I actually didn’t get too many questions about the figures and movements I’ve covered in the podcast so far – perhaps a sign that I’ve already covered these things in exhausting, as well as exhaustive, detail. But a few queries along these lines did come in. Kalan and Michel both asked about Plato’s theory of Forms. Kalan wanted to know whether that theory could be reconciled with relativism. You might think the answer would be a clear “no,” since the whole point of Forms is to serve as a universal and objective standard of truth. But actually, later Platonists talk about Forms being received in the soul of the knower, for example by being understood discursively rather than in the kind of “all at once” knowledge that is characteristic of the superhuman intellect that serves as the realm of Forms. So there could be room for saying that one and the same Form is understood by you in a way different than the way I understand it. Nonetheless, Platonists didn’t to my knowledge ever make that move, precisely because it would undermine the prospect of attaining certain knowledge. Which might be another way of saying that if you are a Platonist, you probably aren’t a relativist. 


Michel meanwhile wanted to know if there is any relation between the theory of Forms and Avicenna’s distinction between essence and existence. Basically here the answer really is just “no.” We shouldn’t mistake essences, as Avicenna for instance understands them, with Platonic forms. The essence of something is just its fundamental nature, and for Avicenna physical things have essences too. The point of distinguishing existence from essence is not that existence is physical realization, while the essence is a separate paradigm or Form. Rather, it is that one and the same thing, like Hiawatha the giraffe, can be analyzed as possessing both an essence – the nature that makes her a giraffe and not a horse or any other kind of thing – and existence, which is not part of the essence since being a giraffe does not guarantee existing. Only God’s essence must, by its very nature, be realized, or exist.


Lukas asks whether medieval (or ancient) philosophers had something like our present-day notion of phenomenality. Probably not, though it depends what you mean by “phenomenality” – but to me that term suggests a distinction between the way things are in themselves and the way that they seem to us. That is a fundamental contrast in Kant, as I seem to remember from my summer trying to understand the Critique of Pure Reason. And it becomes important for later thinkers who are responding to Kant, like the phenomenologists. Medieval philosophers start laying the groundwork for that contrast, especially in the 14th century as we’ll see – because that is going to be a time when the correspondence between our ideas and the external world is put under increasing scrutiny. In fact we’ll get pretty close to these issues when we look at the idea of intentionality in later medieval philosophy.



Another question that came in on the podcast website was, “which missing work of philosophy is the biggest loss to us? To put it another way, if a new batch of scrolls were found, which work would be most exciting to discover?” The obvious answer would probably be one of Aristotle’s many lost works, for instance the part of his Poetics that would have dealt with comedy. But I have a different suggestion: a substantial discovery of works by Chrysippus would be about the most exciting thing I can imagine. You might remember that, although he wasn’t regarded as the founder of Stoicism – that honor being reserved for Zeno of Citium – it was really Chrysippus’ doctrines that became definitive of Stoicism. By all accounts his works were also phenomenally sophisticated, showing technical prowess in logic which he also applied to other topics like the problem of vagueness. So it’s a real shame that his writings are lost and known only through later reports. Another suggestion might be works by Hypatia, who may be the most significant female philosopher of antiquity – though it’s actually unclear whether she wrote much on philosophy or was mostly interested in mathematics.


I was also asked to say something about languages, like how many I know and whether I have any advice for learning languages to use in history of philosophy. Of course it’s right that this is crucial for good historical work – if you can only read a philosophical work in translation, there is always going to be a limit to how well you can understand it, something I’ve been feeling keenly while reading texts from the Indian tradition since I’m unable to go consult the original Pali or Sanksrit texts. In my own research I work regularly with Greek, Arabic, and Latin but the only language I actually speak apart from English is German (I can read secondary literature in French, Italian, and Spanish well enough to make use of it though). My advice on learning is basically to start as young as you can. Recently I’ve been trying to learn Persian, which has been fascinating and definitely worthwhile, since if you know Arabic philosophical terminology you can recognize a lot of the words in a Persian philosophical text anyway. But mastering the grammar and vocabulary has been a challenge for me now that I’m in my forties. Another piece of advice I’d have is that, especially with a classical language like Greek or Latin, it’s invaluable to join a reading group and go through a text carefully with others who know the language. It makes sense to do this after one or two years of getting the basics of the language under your belt.


On a less practical and more philosophical note, Bob posed a nice question about the soul. He observed that in ancient and medieval philosophy there is a tension between thinking of the human person as being an organism that has a soul, and thinking of the person as just identical to the soul. This is exactly right, I think. It is basically the difference between Aristotle’s and Plato’s understanding of the person. For Plato, you really are your soul, and you just happen to find yourself in a body: in fact, your soul can also transmigrate to other bodies. For Aristotle, by contrast, the person is a composite or combination of a soul and a body, and the soul is really just the set of capacities that makes the body a living thing. As we’ve seen, later interpreters tried to bring the two conceptions closer together, notably by appealing to Aristotle’s claim that thinking happens without a bodily organ. So an obvious harmonizing move, made by many later ancient and medieval thinkers, was to say that the person just is his or her thinking or rational soul – and this was the soul Plato talks about, which can survive independently of the body.





Finally, here’s a difficult question from medieval philosophy expert Stephen Read: “around 1100, the Latin West had little Aristotle and less Plato; over the next 100 years or so they went to great lengths to recover the whole of Aristotle’s extant texts, but seem to have made no effort to recover Plato's works. Is that true? If so, why? Is the same also true of the Arabs in the same position some two or three hundred years earlier? Is Neo-Platonism to blame, or at least an explanation, for the seeming lack of interest in Plato’s own writings?” Stephen’s suggestions already point in the right direction, I think. In the thirteenth century, the philosophical agenda was set at least to some extent by the interests of authors from the Arabic-speaking world. They had engaged in great detail and depth with Aristotle, while remaining largely ignorant of Plato – in fact there wasn’t, as far as we know, a single Platonic dialogue that was fully available in Arabic. And that is indeed a legacy of later antiquity, when philosophical texts were above all produced for teaching purposes, and teaching philosophy usually meant teaching Aristotle. Plato was simply considered more advanced and too difficult for the introductory student. Something else to bear in mind here is that Aristotle’s writings offer a ready-made curriculum for reading and teaching, with separate treatises on individual philosophical disciplines like logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics. That’s not true of Plato. In fact his dialogues may have been seen as literature, just as much as philosophy – remember how his style was admired by the rhetoricians and stylists of the second sophistic in late antiquity. Of course, the Latin-speaking medieval world wasn’t totally ignorant of, or uninterested in, Plato, and had a special interest in the Timaeus which we saw influencing many twelfth century schoolmen. But when they tried to build up a university curriculum, they were always going to make the same decision as the men who designed the curriculum of teaching in late ancient Alexandria, and use Aristotle rather than Plato. The other side of this coin is that when we get to the Renaissance, the rejection of scholasticism is going to go hand-in-hand with an embrace of Plato’s dialogues, newly available in translations based on Byzantine Greek manuscripts. And Plato has never left us since.


Fittingly, this question has brought us to look ahead to the future of the podcast, which is indeed going to move on to Byzantium and then the Renaissance – all the while devoting episodes in alternating weeks to the cultures of India and, then, Africa. But before we reach the Byzantines, the medievals are going to occupy us for some time still. The underestimated riches of the fourteenth century are already on the horizon – and as we’ll see it’s one of the most fascinating periods of the history of philosophy. 


a. on 27 March 2016

metaphysics as the prerequisite for physics


philosophy as paradigm; precisely.

when I am older I shall be a theoretical physicist / polymath / independent scholar; therefor a foundation of analytical mediation of our cosmos that transcends the collective consciousness of all eras, geographia, cultures ... in childhood, is apt. 

Matěj Cepl on 27 March 2016

Neoplatonic understanding of platonism

(published on my blog)

When listening to the Q & A episode #250, I was very excited by the last question on the relationship between our understanding of Platonism, or what actually Platonism because during the ages, and the actual thinking of Plato.

I like what I understand be the meaning of the answer that for many centuries what went under the label of Platonism was actually more inheritance of Neoplatonism, which was the only thing which actually was known to the medieval philosophers.

My question how much of that understanding of Platonism actually survived the recovery of the true Plato’s works in the Renaissance Italy. Particularly I have been persuaded for years that generally Plato belongs to what the Marxists of my youth of the Communist Czechoslovakia called the idealist type of philosophy (or using the medieval terminology could be called realist, I guess). However, when listening to Mr. Adamson’s coverage of Plato, it seemed to me that his thoughts were a way closer to nominalists. Or perhaps that Plato’s ideas were a way more primitive; only the coverage of philosophy without any gaps gave me better understanding of the time scale of the development of philosophy, particularly how really incredibly ancient Classical Athenian philosophers were. In the usual course on the philosophy I experienced (which was rather short on the Hellenistic and late Antique philosophy with some small exceptions), Classical philosophers seemed to live just next to the Boethius and Marcus Aurelius. For example I remember that Stoicism was just one brief lecture, but when I look at the dates more intentionally I see that there are 445 years between deaths of Zeno of Citium and Marcus Aurelius, that is like from us to the year 1574, when the pope Innocent X was born who was fighting with Oliver Cromwell.

So, the question remains, was Plato actually Platonist, meaning a realist or idealist?

In reply to by Matěj Cepl

Peter Adamson on 30 March 2016


Yes, your point about the length of time that ancient philosophy took to unfold is a good one - I think I say something similar in an early episode about Charlemagne being about halfway between the presocratics and us. Anyway, regarding Plato I think that there is a danger of trying to force him into conceptual frameworks that aren't really relevant to the dialogues, and idealism for me would be an example of that. Of course it depends on how you define "idealism," but on my understanding of that term he is neither an idealist nor _against_ idealism, since idealism hasn't really been thought of yet and arguably won't be until early modern Europe. You probably have noticed that I don't make a habit of trying to classify historical figures with "ism's" and this is a good example of why. It's more useful to try to understand their position from the inside out, so to speak.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Matěj Cepl on 30 March 2016

OK, you are firm on idealism

OK, you are firm on idealism v. materialism, and I have to agree. Won't give in a bit on realism v. nominalism? Do you think these categories are not fitting him either? Did he believe in the real existence of forms independent of the real world?

Jesus Villaverde on 28 March 2016

David Hume

Lovely episode today. I was intrigued by your comment that you would select Hume as your favorite philosopher to go for a drink/dinner. But you did not tell us why. A quick elaboration? (BTW, I am also a big David Hume fan).

In reply to by Jesus Villaverde

Peter Adamson on 30 March 2016


Well, I was thinking that he had a reputation for being a good and witty conversationalist - plus he spoke English so I could understand him! Actually upon further reflection perhaps I should have chosen someone about whom less is known, like Hypatia - would be interesting to know how interested she actually was in philosophy, instead of maths!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Matěj Cepl on 30 March 2016


Except, unfortunately most likely she was around sixty when she died, so if you hoped for Rachel Weisz, you would be sorely disappointed. Of course, unless your interests are completely unwordly and purely focused on the world of spirit. ;)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jesus Villaverde on 2 April 2016

Good point! I am just reading

Good point! I am just reading (and enjoying) David Hume: An Intellectual Biography, by James A. Harris right now :)

Roman Prychidko on 29 March 2016

250th anniversary

Congrtulatiions Peter on your 250th anniversary. In honour of the landmark I have composed the following verse

Two hundred and fifty and still going strong

It cannont be all wrong

A view a thought a believe in me

For the world today is difficult to see

Pythagros Plato Plotinus Poitiers are just a few

With all the rest having their due

Dripping ideas put on view

Looking for that key

To fit a understanding of what it is to be  

Yet the tree still grows whatever they say

Each branch has its way

Flowering to the tune of time 

There is no middle ryhme

Just nature and mankind


Stoev on 31 March 2016

Congratulations for the 250th

Congratulations for the 250th milestone reached!

I expect with excitement the 14th century and the Byzantine tradition!

Otter Bob on 1 April 2016

Having Versus Being a Soul

Thank you, Peter, for taking up this issue during the podcast. Holy Smokes!---did I get it wrong. The tension must have been so great that I was strung out and sprung back into error. I thought it would be Plato that conceived of a person as having a soul and Aristotle who would argue that a person is a soul. Your remarks make it clear that it is just the opposite.

I think now I was mistaken on Plato's position. In addition to other research, I went back to your podcast on the Phaedo and the text itself, and, if Socrates there is speaking for Plato, then a person just is his soul, happens to have the body he has, and he (the soul) may, upon death, transmigrate to other bodies.

But now it is Aristotle's position that puzzles me. I did frame the tension in terms of living organisms, not just persons, so I was approaching this issue biologically. I'm leaving out such issues as after-death survival, soul transmigration, and even Aristotle's view on a type of thinking that does not require a bodily organ. Those takes us, I believe, beyond the straight-forward biology of living organisms.

So we start with the soul as being the form ('eidos') of the living body. I've been keeping a list of the uses of this term (in English translations) by Aristotle: the look of a body, its shape, its structure, the proportion of its parts; then on to more abstract concepts with the curious phrase “the what it was to be”, essence, nature, the principle of motion, an actuality versus a potentiality, the substance or being of a thing; finally to the soul (the form of the body) as the principle of life or, most fully, as the first actuality (completion or realization) of a natural, organic body capable of being alive. We have taken that to mean the set of capacities that makes the body a living thing. We then push on to say that the living thing, as living, has this set of capacities (its soul). But when we get so far as to see that the soul is the very being of an organism, the first full realization of a natural body capable of life, then I don't see how we can get any closer to just saying the organism is the soul. If that is what it is to be an organism then that is what an organism is.

Oh heck—there is probably, in Greek and English, a perfectly good use of 'have' that is synonymous with a sense of 'is' or vice versa. And that will just settle the matter of whether an organism has or is a soul. Or will it? I've got more studying to do.

Sorry for the poorly put musings, Peter, The main point is: Much applause not only for reaching the 250th episode but even more so for all the excellent podcasts on the way to this milestone. They have been so informative and engaging that some of us are starting over by buying the book versions as companions to the primary texts.

In reply to by Otter Bob

Peter Adamson on 1 April 2016

To have and have not

I agree "have" is difficult here. You can talk about a table "having" a certain shape but also of me "having" 20 dollars, and clearly the two uses there are very different. The point is that the relation between soul and body in Aristotle seems to be more intimate (more like the shape of the table) whereas for Plato the soul is really a distinct thing from the body (more like the 20 dollars). The word "person" is also difficult since "person" could mean lots of things, but if we take it to mean something like "the primary subject of thinking, practical action, and other distintcively human activities" then for Plato probably the person is the soul, whereas for Aristotle it is the soul-body composite. But this is all quite controversial of course, and what I'm saying about Aristotle was definitely not the standard interpretation of him in later antiquity and the medieval period.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Otter Bob on 2 April 2016

Lost Love--Can't find the intimacy

Thanks for the remarks, Peter. I've been trying to find an analogy that better captures the intimacy of the dynamic involved in Aristotle's conception of matter and form yielding a body and, more specifically, body and soul yielding an organism. His analogies to carving a block of marble into a statue, or stamping an impression into wax, or the cutting of an axe or even “if an eye were an animal, sight would be its soul”---I find these lacking in various ways. Even the last and best confuses me in that I would think that the capacity for seeing (sight) is not attributed to the eye but to the whole animal. So the pupil and sight do not constitute the eye, as he says. The soul of the eye would (if the eye were an animal) be some other capacity or power. I may even have that wrong.

I was going to briefly offer an analogy to baking up some cornbread—a short list of ingredients for what is called a “quick bread”. But my analysis by analogy became neither quick nor short. So I gave up and went on to hum an inharmonious tune.

After all that wandering, I'll simply ask what you are referring to as the standard interpretation (agreed, not yours) of Aristotle by later writers. Is it about the soul or the more general matter/form distinction or something else? I'm only asking for a quick pointer to some earlier episode(s)or a short note on the subject matter of the interpretations. Then we can leave this. Thanks in advance.

In reply to by Otter Bob

Peter Adamson on 3 April 2016

Aristotle on soul

The later ancient and medieval interpretation depends on the idea that intellect is an immaterial power. So their idea is that the body does have a form, which is the soul or perhaps an effect of the soul; but because the soul also has this intellective power, it is an immaterial substance in its own right unlike, say, the shape of a table or the soul of a plant or animal. In some authors, the idea is that the soul consists of distinct powers, one of which survives death while the others die with the body. Bu Aquinas for instance insists that the entire form/soul is a unity, and is preserved without body thanks to its partially intellective nature. This is all covered in later episodes, though, so if you follow the whole series you will hear a lot about it.

Eric on 1 April 2016

Still an exciting ride at a snail's pace

Hi Peter, congratulations with 250 episodes. Your podcast is for me still a most exciting ride at a snail’s pace, so keep up the great work.

As you mentioned in this episode, Plato is for a lot of people the gateway to philosophy. For me this podcast has been that gateway.

As a result I have picked up philosophy as a new hobby, but it is already getting out of hand. You encouraged listeners to read the primary texts, so that is what I decided to do.

Now, a year later, I have read most of these sources up to Plato, which brings me to episode 33.

In summary, I spent considerable money and time, learned a lot, but still I am none the wiser. And I love it.

I won’t have a problem finding a hobby when I retire … in 20 years time.

In reply to by Eric

Peter Adamson on 1 April 2016

Snail's pace

Actually I think snails would probably be zooming past me if this were a race. But I'm glad you don't mind! And so pleased you have gotten more deeply into the material, that's mission accomplished as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for listening and for the comment!

Joseph on 14 April 2016

Continental Philosophy


I was especially excited to listen to this episode (in fact, listening to this episode marks my catching up with the podcast after starting to listen in late December), because I was curious about the path you would take going forward with the series. In particular, I have been eagerly awaiting the (very far off) episodes on the continental tradition, as well as on earlier German phenomenological philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzcshe, so it was great to hear a few brief remarks about both subjects. I'll admit I was a little bit saddened to hear that you were not as excited by the eventual episodes on modern French continental philsophers such as Derrida, though.

I am curious how you intend to traverse the gap between analytic and continental philosophy - I deeply hope that you give equal attention to both sides of the divide even as it widens.

As a final note: I was happy to hear that you mentioned wishing you had done an episode on Thucydides, as I was one of the listeners who was surprised that he was left out of the early episodes. I understand that it can be difficult to define a dividing-line between philosophy and other fields in order to determine who bears mentioning. To that end, I wanted to encourage you to consider doing an episode on Friedrich Hölderlin when you reach the 19th century. Though he would more likely be classified as a poet than philosopher, his poems are anything but idle wordplay, and his attention to what the Greeks have to offer Germany goes on to capture both Nietzsche and Heidegger. He seems like the sort of character who might slip through the cracks and I hope that you'll give him some consideration when the time comes.

In reply to by Joseph

Peter Adamson on 16 April 2016


Actually I am pretty excited about tackling continental philosophy; partially because it can seem so mysterious and I like the idea of trying to understand it well enough to explain what is basically going on. One thing I already think I would try to do by the way is question this absolute analytic/continental divide that tends to get drawn in the English speaking world. My impression in fact is that the idea of "continental" philosophy is to some extent a fiction invented by analytic philosophers to define themselves in terms of what they weren't doing. I think there is a lot to say about the mutual interplay of the traditions (so think about for instance the Vienna circle and their reaction to Wittgenstein -- Vienna is on the Continent, after all), and complexity within each tradition (phenomenology and its relation to existentialism). Lots of stuff here that needs careful disentangling and HoPWaG would be a good format to do it, I think.

But as you say that is a long way off! In fact perhaps you could remind me to include Hölderin once I get closer, since that is a nice idea. In general I like the idea of including more literary figures, e.g. I am soon having an episode on the Roman de la Rose and shortly thereafter, on Dante, and plan to do Shakespeare when I get to the Renaissance.

Emma on 24 April 2016

Music Taste

I meant to ask this in time for this episode, but I lost track of episode count and thought I had more time!

Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and giraffes, are all things that you've mentioned many times and clearly these are all things you are a fan of. But you've also mentioned musicians, usually soul or funk. Even more intriguing to me since this isn't what one would normally expect, on one occasion you mentioned early hip hop, and episode 16's title seems to also be a reference to that.

I'm curious then what your musical tastes are. What do you listen to most often, do you listen to music when writing episodes, and who are some of your favourite artists?

Completely unrelated to that, you have called Thomas Aquinas "You know who" often enough that I had a hope that on April 1st, you'd have posted a joke episode on the philosophical positions of Voldemort, maybe in contrast to Dumbledore. Maybe something to consider for next year!

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 24 April 2016


I like the Voldemort idea; doesn't his philosophy pretty much boil down to not liking muggles though? (Between you and me in some year on April 1 I would indeed like to do a spoof episode... maybe.) As far as music goes, you're right that my tastes run especially to soul and funk music, I also like contemporary African music quite a lot (Tinariwen!) but beyond that have fairly eclectic tastes, I like swing jazz and baroque classical, for example. Plus, anything that was on the radio when I was a teenager (mid 80's) because I had no ability to filter for quality then, and am stuck liking it out of habit.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emma on 25 April 2016


There's definitely a lot of mileage to get out of Voldemort depending on how serious you wanted to take it. Voldemort I believe twice refers to "the old debate" between him and Dumbledore, which was about whether Love is really a magic on par with Voldemort's focus on dark magic. I think it's not too difficult to spin it out as a magical version of Callicles and Socrates. Everything Voldemort does revolves around his belief that the magic produced from the bonds between people such as love, mercy, and friendship not only makes people weak but produces a weak sort of magic, whereas a focus on his own personal power will allow him to achieve his goal of conquering death.

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 25 April 2016


Clearly, it's you who should be putting out a podcast on this!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emma on 25 April 2016

I wish! I don't have a

I wish! I don't have a microphone or any recording equipment, but I have thought it'd be fun to do a series on philosophy in fiction.

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 26 April 2016


If that's all that's holding you back, then just buy a microphone - they aren't all that expensive, or at least you can get decent ones that are fairly cheap. The real investment is the time you would put into it...

Eric on 8 July 2016

Third installment

Hi Peter,

Just saw that you released your third book of the "History of Philosophy without any gaps" series today.

Congrats. The cover looks great and it will be a great addition to my growing philosophy section on my bookshelfs shortly.


In reply to by Eric

Peter Adamson on 8 July 2016

Volume 3

Thanks! Glad you are excited about the book. I agree they did a great job on the cover, I hope you think the contents match up.

Bob Jackson on 27 July 2016

Purpose of History of Philosophy


Just listened to this podcast.  I am catching up on the entire series, which I discovered via the Stanford Philosophy site.   I have done one pass on the subject about 30 years ago using Coppleston.   I am now returning to the subject after retiring this last June.  I thought I would give my meager thoughts on why to study the History of Philosophy (or more specifically, why I am studying it in depth). 

1. UNIVERSAL QUESTIONS.   IMO, ALL humans who reach the age of reason have three basic questions that drive their lives: (a) how should you live, (b) how is reality organized (this is a very far reaching qeustion as I am very broadly defining 'reality'), and (c) how the first two question interrelate.    IMO, most humans let their cultures answer the questions and leave the answers buried deep in the unconscious.    These questions are very complex and layered.   For example, the first question (how should you live) is best summarized in St. Francis's prayer - Lord (a) give me the courage to change the things I can, (b) the patience to accept those I cannot, and (c) the wisdom to know the difference. 

2.  PURPOSE OF NON-TECHNICAL EDUCATION.    To confront the universal questions and provide reasoned answers.    This mission has been totally lost in the modern American university.    Please remember, all students will have answers to the universal questions, the issue is whether the truth of the answers are raised and confronted.    IMO,  99.99% of American collegiate/univesity grads neither raise nor confront these issues, but simply answer them via the culture (or via a very shallow answer - as you noted, usually a brilliant physicist opining on the universal questions using an incorrect epistemology). 

3. THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF ANSWERING THE UNIVERSAL QUESTIONS - ENDOXIC METHOD.    Modern epistemic theory is, IMO, a trainwreck.   IMO, Aristotle got it right.   The correct methodology for answering the universal questions is the endoxic method - you compare your answers against those given by prior "learned" humans.    And, where does one find those prior "learned humans" who provided such answers?     You know the answer - in the history of philosophy.  And, please note, I am defining "history of philosophy" broadly to include related fields of inquiry such as economics, mathematics, the sciences, etc.  But, the primary sources that must be confronted to use the endoxic method to analyze answers to the universal questions are in the traditional history of philosophy.   For example, part of the brilliance of Aristotle is he is, I think, the first to present a fully reasoned and organized set of answers to the universal questions.    Aristotle was either wrong or incomplete in his answers, but he did present very detailed and reasoned answers, which is far better than, as a IMO guess, say 99.9% of the present student population of American universities.   Thus, a great starting point for delving into answers to the universal questions is the work of Aristotle (Plato/Socrates also  confronted the questions, but in no where near as comprehensive approach). 



bombs4u on 29 July 2016

Thanks for a superb podcast

An interesting episode. And I had two of my questions answered. Sweet.


I think I disagree that philosophy doesn’t make progress and also see philosophy as more of a practice than an area of study. The practice of critical thinking. I began to write a long post about this, but couldn't find the clarity it needed, which may mean I need a rethink.


The biggest influence philosophy has had on me, is simply to be critically engaged when I look at the world. When people say it would be a disaster for North Korea or Iran to have nuclear weapons, while accepting that the US and UK can have them, is that because there's simply one rule for "them" and another for "us", or are there more principled reasons behind that stance?

In reply to by bombs4u

Peter Adamson on 31 July 2016


Thanks, glad you like the podcast! I actually do  think that philosophy makes progress, in a sense: by mapping out the interrelation of ideas and implications between various claims. But I don't think it really rules certain things in or out for good, it only tells you what the benefits and costs of certain propositions are; so in that sense perhaps you could accuse me of thinking it makes no progress. Anyway you are definitely right that it is also a practice and a form of critical thought, and this shouldn't be underestimated. That may not be distinctive of philosophy, though, because other humanities disciplines (art history, say) also involve he same kind of critical practice and analysis.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

peace4all on 15 August 2016

More progress

A thought provoking episode. Thanks for the reply. I agree that philosophy can make progress clarifying things. If we think of philosophy as mapping out conceptual possibilities, it can help make clear that if we believe X, we can’t believe Y; or that if we believe A, that entails believing B. I also think it can make progress in coming up with new ideas. Thomas Nagel on moral luck. Popper on falsification. Libertarian political philosophy. John Rawls on the veil of ignorance. Freud on the unconscious. (He’s a philosopher to me, though he saw himself as a scientist). Things like these may have had their seeds in earlier work, but didn’t fully flower as new ideas until later. We might think of that as developing, adding to, or discovering new areas in the conceptual space of possibilities.

If by progress we mean more than new ideas; we mean the right, or correct answer; it’s trickier to say philosophy progresses. Still, there are things like Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Hume on the problem of induction and the Euthyphro dilemma. I’m not really qualified to comment and there will probably always be people who claim to have found a way around them, but those things seem like the final word to me, there is no way around them.

Maybe I should be more cautious about thinking we have the final word. My understanding is that Kant thought some things could be known through reason, like that something can’t be in two places at once. That now seems to be undermined by quantum mechanics. Kant also thought Euclid was the final word in geometry, if I remember right, that also seems to be wrong as there are now non-Euclidian geometries.

It’s true that other disciplines practice critical thinking. However, I would say that in philosophy critical thinking, logic and argument are an integral and an explicit part of the subject itself. I don’t think this is the case with other subjects. That makes philosophy different. That makes philosophy distinctive. Otherwise I can’t comment on the practice of art history, the example you gave, because I know little about it. I am fond of Goya’s black period.

I’ve enjoyed turning this over in my mind. I’m not saying my way of understanding philosophy is the objectively correct one, or maps on to how other people think of philosophy, it’s just my personal view. Something like the exploration of conceptual possibilities, the study of logic and argument, with an emphasis on practising right logic and argument. Something like that.

Josh on 8 August 2016

Egypt, etc.

It was great to hear my question about Egypt answered! I enjoyed interacting with someone who is doing something really cool on the other side of the world. I'll be loyal until the African philosophy episodes roll around. I'm relatively young, so I'll probably still be alive :)

In reply to by Josh

Peter Adamson on 8 August 2016


Great! Actually I think you won't have to wait all that long until the Africana episodes, I suspect they will kick off in the first half of 2018.

Jack on 11 September 2016

Philosophy and the traditional canon

Hi Peter, love the podcast and quite enjoyed listening to this episode. Two questions about the history of philosophy and its relation to contemporary philosophy arose to me while listening to this episode, and I was wondering if you'd be able to clarify your thoughts on them.

- You talk about the incompleteness of the traditional philosophy canon, and advocate the abandonment of any pretensions to the contrary. Suppose however that a teacher, who recognises the impossibility of being comprehensive, still wants to give their students a 'highlights' course. Though this hypothetical teacher recognises that comprehensiveness is impossible, they still believe that not all thinkers are equal and that it is still possible to single out a group of 10-15 philosophers who could reasonably be regarded as the 10-15 most historically important. What I am wondering is the following: what sort of group you would advocate to such a teacher? A traditional, analogous course might cover the following: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Wittgenstein. Who would you say are the most significant omissions from this list? I imagine Avicenna would be your first answer, but I'm less sure who would next. If coverage on the podcast is any indication, I suspect Plotinus might be another answer. I also imagine there are women and figures from India whom you might have in mind, but I'm not so sure who in particular. Along these lines - and perhaps to force a rather uncomfortable choice upon you! - I wonder if my list anyone whom you think should be omitted from such a course. I gather that you disagree with the elevation of Aquinas above the other medievals, but since you advocate for more coverage of pre-modern philosophy generally I'm not so sure he'd be your first answer.

- You criticise contemporary philosophers for ignorance of philosophy's history, acting as if their modern prejudices are somehow superior to older prejudices, and being concerned for only a small portion of philosophy's traditional corpus of problems. I was wondering if you could state which traditional problems you would like to see enjoy something of a Renaissance, or which assumptions you would like to see contemporary philosophers analyse more critically.

This post ended up being a bit longer than I thought it would, so apologies if it's a tedious read. Further apologies for asking it six months after the release of the episode. Thanks again for all the work you've put into the podcast!

Kind regards,

A long-time fan.

In reply to by Jack

Peter Adamson on 11 September 2016


Thanks for this very interesting response. The first question is a bit easier for me to answer than the second. I would really just stick to my claim that "covering the highlights" is a bad way to go about it. I wouldn't eliminate any of your names from a list of all-time major thinkers, but I could easily multiply the list's length by three (major omissions on your list already start before Plato, with at the very least Heraclitus and Parmenides among the Pre-Socratics, and go on from there in increasing numbers as history gets more complex and more thinkers' works are preserved). So, there is no point attempting to cover the "top 10". Maybe you could find a convincing top 100, or 150, or something, I don't know - but that doesn't matter since 100 or 150 is too many for teaching purposes anyway. Hence, one should drop this unattainable goal and focus on a different goal that one can actually achieve, and I'm pretty open as to what that goal could be. I think the best idea is probably to think about which themes one wants to cover, and then select interesting thinkers on that theme - I personally would be in favor of including non-European and female philosophers in the process but that is another, bigger can of worms. Is this answer too much of a dodge?

Re. the second, I think that students would benefit from seeing that certain ideas were once controversial or even taken for granted that are now no longer debated much: to take two examples, slavery and (the topic of today's new episode as it happens) the question of whether being always means the same thing. Students are not usually asked to reflect on either of these two questions. I obviously don't want to advocate that they seriously consider endorsing slavery but it is so interesting and important to see how slavery was once intellectually justified, and how and why it was challenged - this is a theme that runs all the way from antiquity to the series on Africana philosophy I'll be doing with Chike Jeffers. But those are just two examples, the main point is not so much to pick some given theme but to look at themes that are no longer part of our philosophical discussion.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jack on 14 September 2016

Thanks for your reply. Your

Thanks for your reply. Your answer, nevertheless, has not fully expunged my curiosity. If you will indulge my fancies, I'm afraid that I must press further!

I must confess however that I'm not sure what to make of your position on this first matter. I agree with your ranking of Heraclitus and Parmenides as the two most important Presocratics, but still think that they could justifiably be excluded from a highlights course. You yourself, in the episode on Hellenistic Schools, seemed to rank Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus as the top three ancient philosophers (and intimating that Chrysippus might be added to this category had his writings survived). It seems to me that such a course could therefore include only those three amongst the ancients and still claiming to be doing the highlights. Albeit only the three highest lights. Elsewhere you have stated unequivocally that Avicenna is "the most influential of all medieval philosophers". So if this course were to restrict itself to only one medieval (not that I would advocate that such a course do so), it seems as if it would have to be him. If it is possible to identify the 'top three' of ancient philosophy, or the singularly most influential amongst the medievals, I must ask why it is that the same task is impossible in identifying 10-12 throughout history. If your claim is rather, that the task is possible, but pedagogically pointless, then it seems like quite an interesting one. If this be so, then I simply cannot resist the urge to inquire as to your reasoning behind this claim. You will find no objection from me that such courses often distort philosophy's history for the sake of preserving . Indeed, I would venture the claim that preserving the narrative is a major factor underlying the prevalence of courses that choose Aquinas and Anselm to be the sole representatives of the medieval tradition: the two fit quite well into the hackneyed reduction of said tradition as a concerted effort to prove God and Christianise Aristotle. Nevertheless, I would resolutely affirm that the existence of a traditional canon has major advantages. As you yourself so regrettably affirm, such courses represent for many contemporary philosophers the virtual entirety of their study of the history of philosophy. Thanks to it, even they can be expected to recognise, for example, Aristotle's four causes, or Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena. Furthermore, such a course seems to me the ideal introduction to the history of philosophy for those who eventually pursue its study more thoroughly. Study of philosophy's most truly outstanding thinkers (as judged in terms of their historical import), even in such a cursory form, is perhaps the most effective way to whet a student's philosophical appetite. That no one hour lecture could give anything close to a proper understanding of, say, Plato or is Aristotle, is beyond dispute. And yet I would think it equally undeniable that it can give some understanding, enough indeed in some cases to make students question long-held beliefs or to spark a more thorough study. Such study, in turn, provides a deeper understanding of the historical and intellectual context within which they wrote, and of their impact on the philosophical tradition. With such an understanding comes familiarity with new thinkers and ideas that are of interest, inciting yet more study. And thus, the cycle begins! By no means can the can the student, by such a course, be perfectly equipped to discover which philosophers and topics are of most interest to them. But neither can any course of such length, and it seems to me that a highlights course is the best option for the student at the very beginning of their philosophical journey – unaware of the names of perhaps even Plato and Aristotle. In defending the merits of highlights based teaching, I would certainly not deny the value of thematic courses, merely claiming that they play different roles. In general, I would say that the former is better for helping students identify areas of interest in broader history and in particular philosophers; the latter is better for identifying fields and topics of interest. As an aside, and perhaps as evidence for this claim, I would note that thematic based introductory courses are (at least in my experience) quite common, but have a tendency to focus overwhelmingly on contemporary philosophy. It also seems to me that the highlights approach is better at covering systematic philosophers. As an example, Descartes' arguments for the distinctness of mind and body seem more likely to be given a proper context within Descartes' epistemological strategy in a highlights based course than in one on philosophy of mind.

I suppose that's the extent of my worry about a complete abandonment of any traditional canon based education. Given your experience in philosophy education, and the thought you appear to have devoted to these issues, I look forward to you – as Feyerabend would say – making mincemeat of me. I do have further, somewhat separate, queries, but I think it best not to bring them up here. This comment is more than long enough already. I can only hope that the reading assignment I have inflicted upon has not proved too insufferably dull. In the event that my hopes are in vain, I offer nothing other than my sincerest apologies. Perhaps, as a philosophy student, my most important lesson to learn from this exchange will be a realisation of how terribly unconcise I am!

In reply to by Jack

Peter Adamson on 14 September 2016


Thanks for pressing me on this. I think you raise an important point (well, several but let me focus on this one) towards the end when you contrast historical introductions to philosophy to thematic, mostly contemporary ones. I totally agree with you and I would (of course) rather that intro students get a canonical historical survey than a thematic, totally non-historical one. I am not really that much against the canonical survey, in fact - anything that gets people reading great history of philosophy is pretty much fine with me. Also, I guess I would instinctively feel appalled if someone told me they managed to do a whole philosophy major without reading any Plato, Aristotle or Kant, so that I am at heart at least to some extent wedded to the canon. Really my point is more that you shouldn't _just_ try to identify the top 10 (or however many) thinkers, since there are too many. So to answer your query about antiquity, I would put at least Augustine and Epictetus among the ancient thinkers one really "must" read or know about, along with Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and maybe some more (like the Presocratics we mentioned). But also, I want to say that since one is bound to leave out some top greats no matter what, one may as well relax about this and do a combination of top greats with "minor" figures who may be selected for other reasons, e.g. thematic (they cover a philosophical issue really nicely), gender balance, cultural balance, etc. Can you live with that?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jack on 4 August 2017

Hi Peter, sorry to revive a

Hi Peter, sorry to revive a discussion from almost a year ago, but I've just come back from a class where many of these issues came up. The tutor began began by asking about the value of learning the history of philosophy, and my provocative discussion style ended up substantially influencing the nature of the tutorial. I criticised the teaching of the history of philosophy as being characterised by a 'great man' approach and Eurocentrism, essentially advocating the more thematic approach you did - giving the Cambridge Histories as an example of 'good history' and Russell's as an example of bad history (I should note that this wasn't just me picking an easy target, another student actually brought him up). In the course of the discussion, it became apparent that, even though he is interested in the history of philosophy, the tutor held many of what I think you would agree are the most pernicious beliefs about it. In response to my allegation of Eurocentrism, he was highly dismissive of the Chinese tradition and (though somewhat more favourable) emphasised that the Indian philosophical tradition apparently never broke off  from the Indian religious tradition. In response to my claim that the great man approach leads to the wrongful sidelining of figures outside the canon (giving as examples Malebranche, Bayle and Reid), he stated that there's no way to cover everyone and that some historian is always going to feel their favourite has been left out. Without even any prompting, he claimed that the entire period between 200 and 1500 has proved not have the contemporary relevance that Greek and modern philosophy do because they were all too caught up reading the Bible (no mention of the Qur'an of course). When I pushed back on that claim he did concede, albeit almost certainly without changing his mind in any meaningful way.

It's quite likely that these or similar issues will come up again in future tutorials. Given that, my question is this: do you have any advice for arguing with such people? In your experience are there any points or particular examples that have proven effective in rebutting such views?

In reply to by Jack

Peter Adamson on 4 August 2017

Win friends and influence people

Wow, that is a great question. I think that it might be worth discussing this in a more prominent place, so I'm going to paste the question you pose on the blog here on the site and refer back here for your full comment. More over on the blog...

Tomasz on 16 January 2019

Between science and philosophy

I wonder who you mean by naive neuroscientists *nudge nudge wink wink* - I have a serious question in that regard, though. As you mention, what philosophy has to say about cosmology is outdated, although one could argue that we needed it all (armchair speculation, theology, sceptics, etc.) before Newton, simply to develop the scientific method itself, and that it is hard to pinpoint the point of divergence of physics from "philosophia naturalis". Many of my colleagues (I'm an astrophysicist myself) believe Aristotle (or at most Archimedes) is all we need, and although I don't necessarily agree, I tend to think that past a certain point in antiquity, we had the methods, we had more than enough hypotheses (including the "correct" one like atoms) and we just had to wait for technology. My question then is simply: why treat neuroscience differently?

A case in point is the recent interview/exchange between Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennet on the subject of free will. Mighty interesting, but at the same time it seems obvious that neither side can convince the other philosophically anymore. We have more philosophical position than we need, but not enough scientific discoveries to prune them. Wouldn't you agree that at some point scientists start taking care of their own methods and interpretations without philosophers' help (there is, in fact, an inversion when things get too technical for philosophers, and yes it sometimes leads to bad science)? Notions like space and time move outside philosophy, although a millenium ago one could paraphrase what you said: "Perhaps physicists could conduct advanced experiments on the movement of planets, but without training in philosophy (and/or deep faith) they would reach only naive understanding of space and time." Or is it that a great scientist, with properly subtle understanding, gets counted as a philosopher by extension? I am genuinely curious what you think about it.

In reply to by Tomasz

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2019

Science and philosophy

These are really difficult issues and I'm not a philosopher of science, nor expert in any modern scientific field, so I can only make some tentative remarks. Generally I'd say that in both directions, it's important to avoid the temptation to overreach: just as philosophers shouldn't think they understand empirical science better than their training has allowed, so scientists shouldn't think that e.g. because they know all about the brain at an empirical level, they have well-justified views on the mind-body problem. In a sense this is just agreeing with your point about independence: you can find out lots and lots about a physical system without making much if any progress on the philosophical questions concerning that system, since philosophical questions are these days usually more or less defined as being non-empirical (this is a big difference from the pre-modern approach where empirical science was part of philosophy). So ideally what we want, when doing philosophy of physics, biology, etc is either collaboration between expert philosophers and scientists, or people with training in both, like two PhDs. But that is a high bar so collaboration with open minds and curiosity on both sides is probably the best way forward.

One other little point: the fact that philosophers don't agree and cannot convince each other doesn't in any way suggest that the philosophers need the scientists to come in and settle the issue for them. Philosophy doesn't, in my view, aim at settling issues or giving final answers to questions; it aims at articulating the benefits and costs of giving certain answers to certain questions. So actually we should expect the successful result of philosophical inquiry to be a deeper understanding of disagreements and why they arise, rather than a resolution of disagreement.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Tomasz on 19 January 2019

But Peter, a scientist with a

But Peter, a scientist with a PhD technically already has a Philosophy Doctorate! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

As for the other little point, would that it were so! But judging by my favourite podcast, philosophers throughout history sought to pose questions, inquired into answers given by others, but invariably ended with their own answers, supposedly settling the issue. (Yes, there are exceptions.) When I listen to Dennett or Searle they don't give cost-benefit analysis - they stick to their own. Science may not be expected nor able to settle those debates, but when philosophers reach a stalemate, who else can pull them out of the Münchhausen mire? (By collaboration, not overreaching.) It might be an occupational bias: in mathematical physics it's hard to separate even the most abstract from the empirical. Physics inspired new branches of mathematics, used to settle questions in other branches of mathematics. I suspect the same for the mind-body problem (which, as a user of both mind and body, I view as quite empirical ;)

Perhaps the role you're describing falls to those dealing with the history of philosophy, and you should definitely be congratulated for making it happen.

In reply to by Tomasz

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2019


Yes, that's an important objection to my view: most philosophers see themselves as giving answers to questions, not as just exploring reasons for certain answers. While I admit that, I maintain that the exploration and devising of reasons is, as it were, the genuinely philosophical part of philosophy. The point at which you say "ok, now I've decided that the considerations given for position A over position B are convincing, so I endorse A and not B" is just a matter a of declaring yourself persuaded - it's the point where philosophical reflection stops. In fact you would always understand the issue better if you had another look at the arguments on the other side, or went back to look critically at your own presuppositions. By the way I also tend to think that the decision to support a given view is almost always at least in part taken for non-philosophical reasons: religious or political commitments, intuitions one finds oneself having or grew up with, and so on. So that's another reason to be suspicious of the idea that endorsing philosophical views, as opposed to arguing for them, is the defining act of the philosopher.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Tomasz on 22 January 2019

This remind me of the

This remind me of the complaints on another philosophy podcast, which shall remain nameless, about people who decide that "Hegel got it right" and that's the end of the journey for them. Great points, and great implicit advice about settling and endorsing.

Alexander Johnson on 12 July 2019


I have a question for the post Q&A (i just got to here).  What biases do you carry into your study of philosophy that come from your analytic training?  What biases do you actively have to push back against when reading historic philosophy?  And where might the biases be that you are yet unaware of?

I have one I think I may have spotted if you'd like to hear about, but I don't want to influence your answer.

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 13 July 2019


Great question! I suppose I'm the last one who'd be able to see my own blind spots, as it were. But I do notice about myself that I am not that drawn to political philosophy - the reason I've covered political texts (and related things like history writing) more as we've gone along is that I noticed I was doing too little on that in antiquity. But I would like to think that I'm managing to avoid some standard blind spots of analytic philosophers, for instance by taking literary works (Romance of the Rose, Chaucer, etc) seriously. I'm curious to know what you think though, since as I say this is really something where other people need to tell me from the outside!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alexander Johnson on 19 July 2019

The one that I've noticed so

The one that I've noticed so far is that you seem to like properties/definition to be binary, when it isn't clear that they should be.  For example, with Plato's two sticks, the description you gave didn't make clear that the two sticks were alike, but not perfectly alike.  Previously when talking about what is knowledgeable, most people off the street will know things are "more knowledgeable" or "less knowledgeable", and understand that "knowledgeable" as an absolute term doesn't work without a reference point (usually ourselves or some kind of average person).

i suspect it is because not having discrete states runs into problems with vagueness, but i think (based off of limited information) that you sometimes are pulled away from properties as a continuum even when the vagueness is not a problem, or is less of a problem than trying to split it into 2+ discrete categories

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 19 July 2019


Oh, well that is not (I think) a bias of mine and if it were one, it probably wouldn't be because of analytic training since analytic philosophers have been really interested in the phenomenon you're describing (there is a whole subfield dedicated to vagueness). It is more a bias of Platonism: it actually isn't clear exactly what Plato meant with the two stick passage but he wants to use it to show that objects have both a property (eg equal) and the contrary property (unequal). If you just said "well, it has one property, namely that of being kind of equal but not really," the philosophical point of that passage would vanish. Of course that's just one passage but in general Platonism, and actually also Aristotelianism, was very strongly committed to the idea that properties are an "on/off" kind of thing. However Aristotle for instance would still be willing to say that colors and other sensible properties are placed along a continuum, or one might also think of Mulla Sadra's notion of variation of intensity in being and other properties. So you do get the idea of continua but generally speaking I think in the periods we covered there is an assumption that a given property, once it is sufficiently specified, will be either had, or not had, rather than "sort of had".

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alexander Johnson on 19 July 2019

Vague Platonists

Ok, well my limited exposure to analytic tradition it usually sounds like vagueness is treated as a problem to overcome, rather than an inherent property, but i could be wrong about that.

I know Aristotle in the categories lists which categories allow variations of degree and which ones are on and off, but i'm really surprised to hear that Platonists were strongly connected to the "on/off" of properties.  I thought things in the physical world could resemble a form more than other things in the physical world.  Like two unequal sticks resemble equality in their stickness, where as two sticks of the same size resemble equality in both their stickness and size.  Or that an elephant could resemble the form of largeness, but does so less than the whale itself.  In fact, wasn't that the point made in the Phaedo?  We need the forms because physical objects seem to be both like and unlike properites?

Furthermore, in Neo-platonism, even existance seems to be a continua, with things having more unity or less unity than other things.  So it seems unlikely given that the static "is or is not" doesn't even work for existence, which is probably the most straight forwards on/off criteria to default to.  Maybe the confusion is that a property can be vague in two ways, the property itself is vague (which I get the impression Platonists would reject), or that things being in a property could be vague (which i think Platonist would accept as degrees of resemblence to a form/unity)?  Or put another way, it can be vague whether new particulars fit static universals (or subject to degrees of resemblance), or whether the universal itself is vague.

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 22 July 2019


The study of vagueness is a big sub-branch of analytic philosophy now, actually. A good starting point would be this: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vagueness/

Re. Platonism you're right that they often emphasize the "imperfect" reception of a property like, say, justice or even largeness. However Plato's original way of thinking about this, which lives on later in the tradition, is that something would have both the property and its contrary, e.g. be both equal and unequal but in different respects. So though you're right about the degrees of being idea and its centrality I think the best way to think about that is that something might partake of both being and non-being, rather than thinking of it as a case of vagueness in the technical sense that would arise in something like the paradox of the heap (where the problem is not this "compresence of oppposites" but rather that you can't give a sharp cutoff point for whether a property is possessed or not). The difference is basically between partaking of two contrary properties at the same time (Platonism) and partaking of one property but indeterminately (vagueness). Does that make sense?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Otterlex on 13 November 2020


That does make sense, but I don't think it closes the argument quite, though I didn't know how to properly express it at the time, so I did some research, and listened to philosophy bites and elucidation episodes as well on vagueness or contextualism, and I think I can express my reservations about analytic interpretations (not necessarily yours, though I am pretty sure I've noticed some of this at times while listening through the podcast) .

Take the case of vagueness.  I'm pretty sure you have at some point said, "this is obviously a problem".  However, this is not directly obvious.  If I say "my friend Brian is tall", or if I am asked "you're tall, right?" these are obviously vague sentences, but in everyday thought, they rarely ever pose any difficulty for the speaker or listener, neither for understanding, nor building correctness conclusions.  If there is an obvious problem here, it would seem to be why this is so rarely a problem, even as just moments apart, I could say "Seth Curry is tall" and "Seth Curry is short" and not be in contradiction.  

However, for the Stoics, it is obviously a problem, not so much because it is a problem in and of itself, but because it creates a problem for another commitment being held.  That is, that there is the idea of an ideal sage that is never wrong, and this sage is to be emulated.  Therefore, it is in this context that the problem of vagueness is brought up, because it only becomes a problem when a need to be never wrong comes up (and even then, the conclusion reached is not to avoid committing to any relation, but only to the unclear ones).  However, systems that didn't commit to this had far less interest in pursuing vagueness because it was far less of an issue for them (Aristotle's categories would refuse a truth value to a relation of one factor without relating it to another, which eliminates most examples of vagueness.  Platonic forms accept that a thing has tallness and shortness, which allows a statement about tallness to exist only as a degree).

So, it seems to me, that the analytic problem of vagueness is seen as a problem, and one demanding a solution, because it is pushing against a Fregean commitment, that all propositions represent a thought, and all thoughts must be true or false.  Therefore, if I say, "Seth Curry is short", this must be true or false.  Attempting to preserve this has created approaches that only allow a truth or falsehood answer (a contextual model would say that it is true in a context or false in a context; a probabilistic solution says there is a percent chance of being true and a percent chance of being false, which is kind of like speaking of degree while still claiming an absolute truth or false endpoint).  

Once we remove this commitment, I think we arrive back at more naturalistic thinking, where people would take matters of degree (usually relations) and say that any demarcation is arbitrary.  "Seth Curry is short", then, does not hold judgments on truth or falsehood, it is instead establishing a demarcation, and that demarcation will be useful in some follow-up.  Or, if it would be evaluated, it would be evaluated on a benefit of the doubt principle, which would demand not that it be true or false in a context, but rather that it is assumed true (since it is an arbitrary demarcation), and therefore it limits the range of context, or establishes the context. Further, it better matches our experience, in that a model of a speaker making a statement that is true or false reduces the role of the listener to a passive entity independent of the speaker.  However, experience says that the most important aspect of communication is considering the audience.  Using the more naturalistic model, if I propose the demarcation "Seth Curry is short", the listener can reject my demarcation (say, because they don't watch basketball, and so can't consider him within the set of all basketball players), while at the same time not claim that I am wrong (or that my claim is false).  

So back to what I was trying to say, at some point someone had proposed that we might say if we add up all facts in the world, and tested people on it, we could say that someone is knowledgeable if they scored above a certain score, and this was not a problem.  Likewise, that analytic philosophers were working on definitions that were something along the lines of "at least 6 out of 10 things met".  In the first case, non-analytics would in fact see it and think "OK, we ordered everyone from least knowledgeable to most knowledgeable," but then, once you try to establish any demarcation, most people outside of the analytical tradition would immediately give pause and ask why are we trying to demarcate it.  But within the analytic tradition, the instinct seems to be that immediately demarcating it so that "knowledgeable" is true or false, is natural.  And I think I've seen this bias pop up a couple of times in previous episodes, but I do not remember where.


Another issue I have seen is that aggregation doesn't have a good translation into simple logical statements.  If I am discussing a tax law, and I say "People are smart, if there is a loophole, they will find it", I've seen in logic books people translate this to All people are smart, or Some people are smart, or occasionally Most people are smart.  But none of these capture the notion "people as a whole, are smart", which is being expressed.  "All people are smart" isn't necessary for the statement to be true, "some people are smart" however, isn't enough for the statement to be true.  "most people are smart" again isn't necessary either.  We could do something like "the number of people who are smart is greater than or equal to the number of smart people needed to find the loophole", but even this may be going too far (people as a whole can often make decisions smarter than any one of them can make alone, so "people are smart" can be true in certain circumstances even if no person within is smart, by whatever metric we are using to express this).  If I were forced to express this statement, I might say something like "the sum of all intelligence produced by the sum of all people is greater than or equal to that which is necessary to find a loophole" or something like that, but this is also an incredibly awkward way to express something that was more clear practically before it was converted.  So I would worry that strictly following predicate logic reasoning might produce results that are like term of service agreements, where it is logically clear, but so bloated as to be epistemologically obfuscated.  However, I not seen this come up much other than in jokes, so I have no idea how strong the concern should be.

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