250. Q&A

Posted on 27 March 2016

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.





a. 27 March 2016


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 27 March 2016

(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?

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.

Matěj Cepl 30 March 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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 28 March 2016

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).

Peter Adamson 30 March 2016

In reply to by Jesus Villaverde

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!

Matěj Cepl 30 March 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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. ;)

Jesus Villaverde 2 April 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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

Roman Prychidko 29 March 2016

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 31 March 2016

Congratulations for the 250th milestone reached!

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

Otter Bob 31 March 2016

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.

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.

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.

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 1 April 2016

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.

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 14 April 2016


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.

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 24 April 2016

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!

Peter Adamson 24 April 2016

In reply to by Emma

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.


Emma 24 April 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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.

Peter Adamson 25 April 2016

In reply to by Emma

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

Emma 25 April 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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.

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 7 July 2016

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.


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 27 July 2016


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 29 July 2016

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?

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.

peace4all 15 August 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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 7 August 2016

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 :)

Peter Adamson 8 August 2016

In reply to by Josh

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 10 September 2016

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.

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.

Jack 14 September 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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!

    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?

    Jack 4 August 2017

    In reply to by Peter Adamson

    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?

    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 16 January 2019

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Tomasz 22 January 2019

    In reply to by Peter Adamson

    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 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.

    Peter Adamson 13 July 2019

    In reply to by Alexander Johnson

    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!

    Alexander Johnson 18 July 2019

    In reply to by Peter Adamson

    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

    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".

    Alexander Johnson 19 July 2019

    In reply to by Peter Adamson

    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.

    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?

    Otterlex 13 November 2020

    In reply to by Peter Adamson

    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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