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. 


Michael DeBlasio on 30 May 2022

Thank you

I just wanted to thank you for doing the podcast. It really is the best source of info on the history of philosophy that you can find on the internet. You go so much further then most history of philosophies. I thought I wouldn't like the Arabic section. But I listened and loved it. just as interesting as western philosophy if not more. I learned so much. Please keep it up and do the whole history. No matter how long it takes. We need it. Thanks again peter. Your the man!

In reply to by Michael DeBlasio

Peter Adamson on 31 May 2022


Thanks so much! I'm especially glad to hear that some parts of the series have challenged your expectations and changed how you see the history of philosophy.

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