So you want to be a historian of philosophy

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Recently a student contacted me to ask for advice on becoming a professional academic in the history of philosophy, and I thought others might be interested in the answer, so I promised to write a blog post about it. I hope others will add comments with more ideas and advice!

1. Ideally you should have already studied philosophy at undergraduate level; if you didn't major in it as an undergraduate or have it as your primary subject in the European system, then you will need to do an MA in Philosophy somewhere to “convert” to being a philosopher.

2. Beyond that the most urgent thing is learning languages. Almost every period of the history of philosophy demands a high level of competence in a language other than English (I will assume you know English since you are reading this). So unless you are planning to, say, work on Hume and ignore all the non-English secondary literature on him, get going on some other language immediately. Remember that you will need not only the primary language (e.g. ancient Greek if you are working on Plato) but also modern languages for secondary literature: the more languages you have, the better, but for most periods of history of philosophy French and German are especially important; you cannot do serious work in medieval philosophy for instance without being able to read both of these. You'll need excellent primary language skills to do publishable work on any historical text, and by "excellent" I mean you should be able to read it pretty readily without the help of a translation.

3. Next, where to go to graduate school? One frequently consulted guide to the top departments, including listings by strength, is the Philosophical Gourmet Report. It has its limitations: since I live in Germany the most obvious one to me is that it basically ignores the continental European departments. So you wouldn't know from reading it, to give you a completely unbiased example, that Munich is one of the best places in the world to study ancient philosophy. Another good source to look at is the American Philosophical Association's Guide to Graduate Programs; again, note that this covers USA and Canada only and a lot of the best graduate programs are in the UK or Europe; don't be frightened off by the prospect of doing graduate work in a non Anglophone country, for instance here in Munich many of our grad students write their PhDs in English. By the way, one other point on this: don't take numerical rankings seriously. This includes not only rankings of philosophy programs but also of whole universities - the lists of "20 best universities" in the UK, US, or the world are basically nonsense because it is a pretty arbitrary aggregation of numbers that are very inaccurate measures of anything you'd actually care about. It is to my mind meaningless to say that one philosophy department is ranked 3, and another 6, in general or within any particular field. All you really want to find out is where there are programs that are well-regarded and are especially strong in your likely specialization, and everything else is just noise.

4. How do you know which grad school to go to, apart from the (rather dubious) rankings? Well, even before going to grad school you should have an idea of what you want to specialize in (as already implied by your choice of languages to learn, see above) and you should read around enough to get an idea of who you may want to work with. At this stage it would make sense to think in terms of a broad period/culture, like "early modern" or "Indian", it is too soon to pick a single author to specialize in – see further below on specialization during and after grad school. By the way if you want to be a professional historian of philosophy, the easiest way to do that is to get a PhD in Philosophy. You could also study, say, Classics to work on Plato, Islamic Studies to work on Avicenna, or Indology to work on Buddhism. But generally speaking hiring committees take the PhD label very seriously and philosophy departments very rarely hire people whose PhD is not in philosophy.

5. Make sure to verify, when you are choosing your grad school, that the person/people you want to work with there are actually likely to be there in the coming few years, like, not about to retire or move to another job. Of course no academic can promise that they won't move in the coming few years but it is still ok to ask, politely, whether you can probably expect them to be there (the best way is to emphasize how excited you are to work with this professor and ask in that context).

6. While you are still an undergrad bear in mind you will probably need letters of recommendation and a strong writing sample to get into grad school. Look out for chances to impress your professors, talk to them in their office hours, and put lots of effort into one paper in particular – maybe a term paper you got a good grade on, work on refining it and really showing what you can do. It would be worth showing it to a professor with relevant expertise for advice, even after having it marked.

7. Ok now you are in grad school, congratulations! Now that you’re here, don’t be in any hurry to get finished. In fact, practical considerations aside (like, having money to live on or a family to support), it is almost true to say that the longer you take in grad school, the better. It would totally make sense to do things like taking a year out to go improve your languages: the time you spend in grad school is your chance to build up intellectual capital for the career to come, because once you are an academic you will be dealing with teaching, administrative duties, and pressure to publish quickly. So this is your time to really lay down the basis for what you will do for the rest of your career.

8. Both at this stage and as a young academic, you want to strike a balance between specialism and breadth. Many aspects of contemporary academic life push people towards specialism, but this is not really a way to be a good historian of philosophy (cf several of my “rules for history of philosophy”). So what you want to do is gain a broad understanding of your historical period, which again should be something the size of “ancient philosophy” or “Islamic philosophy”, say. Your attitude should be: anything in that area is of extreme interest to you. Go to talks at your university, or organize talks yourself like by getting students together to invite visiting scholars; read widely, browse in the library and in journals. I have have students tell me they were skipping a visiting talk on, say, Aristotle because their dissertation is on Plato. That is not the right attitude. At the same time, bear in mind that you want to develop a further area of interest that you’d be interested in teaching in but probably not doing research: in North America this is called an “area of competence (AOC)”, whereas your main area of research is your “area of specialization (AOS)”. Having a broad knowledge of your AOS and some knowledge of an AOC means you can teach widely enough to be useful to a department, and also it will benefit your research because it gives you context, ideas for comparison, etc. For a historian of philosophy it is usually a good idea that the AOC is an area of contemporary philosophy: hence if you are working on, say, Kant’s ethics, you might try to become very conversant with Modern or German philosophy and especially all areas of Kant (your AOS) and pretty conversant with modern ethics (your AOC).

9. The flip side is that within your research, as a junior academic you should try to establish yourself as an expert on one very specific thing: for me it was al-Kindi, so I did pretty much all my publishable work in grad school and my first five years of academic on al-Kindi and his circle. He is admittedly fairly obscure but it was a topic I could get known for specializing in, and that helps because people are like “oh Adamson, he is that kid who works on Kindi” or “hm, who works on Kindi? Oh, I guess that Adamson kid.” This is harder to do if you are working on, say, Kant or Aristotle, but nonetheless it is easier to get known in your field by making some topic “yours” and then broadening out as your career progresses (e.g., once you have tenure, in the American system).

10. This goes hand in hand with a more fundamental point: when deciding what to do your dissertation on, thematically speaking less is more. Usually grad students who come to me sketch their idea for a dissertation topic and I tell them to do 20% of what they have in mind as their actual thesis. So in the context we’re discussing here, one philosophical topic in only one text by one author is the norm: obviously there are exceptions (one topic in all of Plato’s early dialogues, or a narrower topic in several authors) but the rule of thumb is to try to do less, but better and more deeply. Incidentally this goes for shorter pieces too like term papers or articles: I sometimes tell my undergrads that if they select one sentence from an author like Aristotle and really explain that sentence in a deep way, that is enough for a 10-15 page paper.

11. At the risk of being discouraging, these days it is getting pretty difficult to get a job out of grad school unless you have at least one publication (which has led to some debate and lament in the field, but it is true and won’t be changing any time soon). Here quality is more important than quantity: one article in a well regarded blind review journal is worth several papers in collected volumes or more obscure sounding places. Also don’t publish anything (even in a relatively obscure place) that isn’t your top-level work: you don’t want to be embarrassed by it later or have members of a hiring committee come across it on the net.

12. Everything I say above is really about the academic world I know, i.e. North America and Europe, and it is geared towards the goal of getting a job in a philosophy department. Of course there are many other ways to contribute to the history of philosophy: academics in other fields do so, non-academics do so, etc. I don't mean to undervalue that in any way, it's just not what this particular advice is aiming to help people achieve.

I think that’s what comes to mind for now but as I say I hope others will add more below!

Corey W. Dyck on 27 February 2018

This is, I think sound advice

This is, I think sound advice, and of course some of it holds for students interested in grad school/careers in philosophy generally as much as for those interested in history specifically. One minor point (and then one more substantive suggestion): concerning point 8, there are unsurprisingly some sub-(sub-)disciplinary variations--so at least in North America it is not generally expected that all folks who specialise in Kant's ethics and politics will be proficient across the Kantian corpus (so that they could lead a first Critique course for instance). In some contexts, of course, it might be advantageous if you could do so, but more often you'll find individuals with that profile have interests in cognate contemporary fields.

By way of a more substantive suggestion, I'd recommend that students interested in history of philosophy go out of their way to take courses in the relevant history in addition to philosophy. As historians of philosophy increasingly turn towards a contextualist methodology, the research of our colleagues in fields like intellectual history, history of religion, language, culture, and politics becomes more relevant for us (since one can't have only a little bit of context). Moreover, my own experience in my own field (18th century German) is that there are excellent scholars approaching the figures and issues I'm interested in from a variety of different perspectives and in a variety of different departments; thus, even if we'd never (be asked to) teach a course in history, interactions with these scholars (as students or as faculty) can improve our own research and helpfully expand our scholarly networks. 

T. Franke on 27 February 2018

Maybe one thought should be

Maybe one thought should be added: If you become a professional philosopher in the university system, you are restricted in what you can say openly. Severely restricted. This is not the case, if you are e.g. a computer scientist, earning good money and being free to think and say what you want in your free time -- with the disadvantage that most likely no professional philosopher will listen to you (at your lifetime), and no academic journal will print your stuff, even if you are very good and have to say brilliant things.

It is a sad experience, but I see it time and again: People are not happy with their professions. After some enthusiastic start, they resign, and it is their job only. Nothing more. They cannot unfold their creativity because they depend on the money, and the money is given to you only if you play by the rules, and the rules are not set by you. Only few manage to make their passion their job. Most unfold their creativity outside of their job, in another field, in their free time. Or they unfold it near and after retirement, when it cannot harm their career any more. Especially really good and new thoughts are rarely welcome in existing systems, including academic systems.

I know no solution, and everybody has to find his own way, but one advice: Look for the character of the people working in the field you want to choose your job from. They differ heavily. Technical people are much different than people working in the humanities, than doctors and nurses, than artists, than business people etc. etc. You should be able to feel well with the people around you, while working for your money.

And please do not satisfy yourself with being "professional" and having success in making career because you play by the rules and do not think beyond. Then your soul will be lost. Never stop to strive for wisdom. Life is an adventure, and you are the hero who is examined facing the forces of evil, even in our days. The ways of wisdom are never straightforward, and God only knows whether and how you will succeed, one day.

Chike Jeffers on 28 February 2018

An interesting experience of

An interesting experience of mine that connects with Prof. Dyck's comment: when I began studying for my Ph.D at Northwestern University, I noticed that graduate students in the department specializing in ancient philosophy would often serve as TAs (teaching assistants) for the Classics department. It struck me that, aside from the niceness of helping out Classics, this usefully allowed the students to contextualize their study of, say, Plato with better knowledge of Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, etc. Given my interests, I took inspiration from this and acquired permission to TA for the African American Studies department. The time during which I did this was well-spent, in my view, although it was important that I eventually switched back to TAing for Philosophy (also Northwestern launched a Ph.D program in African American Studies during my time there so they didn't need me anymore anyway).

Experiences like this are not essential for becoming a historian of philosophy, but they are helpful, both for grounding you in useful contextual knowledge and ensuring that you are completely comfortable engaging with scholars across disciplinary boundaries.

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Peter Adamson on 28 February 2018

Yes, I agree with these

Yes, I agree with these points totally. I could tell a similar story in fact: when I was in grad school I audited some classes in Islamic studies to get an understanding of things like Prophetic traditions, the early history of Islam, etc and that has been really helpful to me in my subsequent career.

pietro on 28 February 2018

So you want to be a historian

So you want to be a historian of philosophy

You've got the urge to be a historian of philosophy

You've got the nerve to be a historian of philosophy

So go ahead and be a historian of philosophy that we can sing.

Sam Rickless on 2 March 2018

I agree with everything in

I agree with everything in your post, Peter, but I write to emphasize one thing that I think is missing from your post.  The post gives students the sense that they should spend time in grad school honing their history-related skills before going on the job market: languages, time-periods and figures that are related to the time-period/figure that will be the focus of their dissertation.  These are important, but I have found in my own career that the most important part of my training in graduate school was the non-historical part.  I was always interested in history (what brought me into philosophy proper as an undergraduate was a class on Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein), but in grad school I worked hard at everything, with particular attention to everything non-historical (mind, language, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy), before my interests took me in the direction of the history of philosophy among other things. It’s the rigor at the base of philosophy as such that has had more of an influence on my work than almost anything else. Languages are very important, the ability to read is very important, historical context can be very important, but the ability to understand and reconstruct arguments is really de rigueur.  Maybe I’m unusual in this respect, but I find, based on my experience as an editor and reviewer, that often the weakest work is written by those who have emphasized the study of history at the expense of the study of philosophy.  So I think it’s a good idea to tell students who are interested in studying history of philosophy in grad school that they should absolutely throw themselves into their non-history courses, and not just the non-history courses that tie into their historical interests. The specialization revolution that has swept through the profession pushes grad students from the get-go to focus almost exclusively on what they see as their future AOS/AOC.  This focus is understandable, but it also needs to be resisted. 

In reply to by Sam Rickless

Peter Adamson on 3 March 2018

Well I can't disagree with

Well I can't disagree with this either - as I have said elsewhere (see "rule 11") although I do think that history of philosophy is a kind of history, it is also a kind of philosophy and it demands that the historian think like a philosopher. This obviously means getting a sound training in philosophy. If I didn't mention this, it was perhaps because I was implicitly assuming that anyone who studies philosophy as an undergrad and then works through a graduate program will be strong in the various areas of philosophy understood systematically. However it is important that Sam has added this, because I can imagine an aspiring historian thinking of these courses as the intellectual equivalent of eating their vegetables. But in fact these parts of the training are just as crucial and well worth enjoying - just like real vegetables now that I think about it.

Austin Mitchell on 24 September 2018

Hi Peter. I'm a new podcast

Hi Peter. I'm a new podcast listener currently working through Plotinus. I have a quick question for you on languages. Namely, how many of them have you learned to the degree of "excellence" you mention in #2? Thanks!

In reply to by Austin Mitchell

Peter Adamson on 25 September 2018

Hi, welcome to the podcast!

Hi, welcome to the podcast! The only foreign language I can actually speak well is German but I can work with texts in ancient Greek, Arabic, Latin, French, Latin, Spanish, and Italian; I learned all these for academic purposes, except for German (my wife is German and we live in Germany) and Spanish which I learned in high school and has held up well enough for reading purposes. Also I've been learning classical Persian for a couple of years so I can work with primary texts in that language now too, though not at the same level as my Greek or Arabic, say.

Jobe on 8 May 2020

Hey Peter,

Hey Peter,

I'm an avid listener of the podcast (almost listened to all of the episode, right now at the last episode of the Indian philosophy series)

You mentioned magazines in your post.
What magazines in the field are currently considered prestigious?

In reply to by Jobe

Peter Adamson on 9 May 2020

You probably mean journals,

You probably mean journals, right? Like, where we publish research papers? It depends on the sub-field of philosophy, so for instance in ancient philosophy the top ones are Phronesis, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, etc and there are general journals for history of philosophy too. There are of course many, many philosophy journals: here is an interesting blog post with some data on acceptance rates for some of the more important ones.

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