“A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”: Interview with Prof. Peter Adamson
by Sarah Virgi
Speaking about research topics and sharing them with a wider audience is not an easy task for an academic, perhaps in any field of research. Professor Peter Adamson, the host of the podcast “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” is definitely an exception to this rule. Since 2010, he has taken listeners from all over the world through the history of philosophy. Today, his podcast counts more than five hundred episodes in total, and several of its series are also available in print. His talent for story-telling and entertaining anecdotes can make any complex philosophical topic or author sound easy while at the same time preserving impeccable accuracy and in-depth analysis. In this interview, Adamson tells us about how this project emerged and about his passion for sharing his ideas with the public. In addition, we also learn about his concept of a “history of philosophy without any gaps” and how it reflects his own approach to the history of philosophy.
About Peter Adamson
Professor Peter Adamson holds the chair of Late Antique and Arabic Philosophy at the LMU in Munich. He has published widely in ancient and medieval philosophy and is currently the director of two research projects in philosophy, namely the DFG funded project “The Heirs of Avicenna: Philosophy in the Islamic East from the 12th to the 13th Century”, and the ERC funded project “Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World”. He is the host of the podcast “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”.
Sarah Virgi: What drove you to the study of Late Ancient and Medieval Arabic Philosophy? Was there any special reason for which you decided to specialize in this field?
Peter Adamson: As with many academics, I would say that my speciality was to some extent a matter of happenstance. I went to the University of Notre Dame to do my PhD, initially planning to focus on Latin medieval philosophy. I was curious about philosophy in Arabic but didn’t really expect it to be a major interest of mine. Soon upon my arrival, though, I took a class on Neoplatonism with Stephen Gersh, and got very interested in that. I think the initial attraction was that Neoplatonism seemed so exotic and strange from a modern-day point of view, yet was very historically influential, even the dominant tradition of philosophy for about a thousand years across several cultures. Maybe I didn’t fully understand either side of that paradox at the time, but I had some inkling of it at least. So I came around to the idea that the traditions and periods within the history of philosophy that interested me were unified by this one intellectual paradigm, starting with Plotinus in the third century and then moving forward through both the Latin and Arabic intellectual traditions. My intention at that time, and still to some extent now (though my work has centered more on Greek and Arabic than Latin, and has gone into more Aristotelian authors and not only Neoplatonic ones), was just to try to specialize in Neoplatonism as a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic phenomenon. The same combination of interests led me to focus especially on the reception of Plotinus in Arabic, which was the topic of my PhD thesis.
SV: What was the most challenging part of your career in this field? And what was the most surprising and revealing research project or task you have ever encountered?
PA: It’s kind of obvious but the biggest challenge has been learning all the languages one needs for this field and keeping them all in practice. At a minimum I realized I needed Greek, Arabic and Latin for the primary texts (ideally also Syriac, Hebrew, and Persian, though I have only tackled the last of these over the last few years), and for secondary literature you need English, French, Italian, and German at least. Since I only had English, Latin, and high school Spanish when I got to grad school, I had a lot of catching up to do! I still regret that I had to learn a bunch of language quickly and therefore not in a properly systematic way: I work a lot with properly trained experts in ancient Greek and classical Arabic and envy their mastery of these languages.
As for the most revealing research project I have done, I would say it is the one I have been running here at the LMU in recent years on the reception of the philosophy of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the Islamic East in the 12-13th centuries. The sheer amount and quality of the material we have been dealing with is staggering. I tell people it’s like discovering a philosophical tradition of the same size and importance as Latin medieval scholastic philosophy, which is for the most part unstudied in European languages. In turning towards this material our group has been following the lead of some other colleagues like Ayman Shihadeh, Dimitri Gutas, Frank Griffel, and Heidrun Eichner. But there is just so much to read and understand, even more than I expected when we were writing the application to get funding to tackle this material. I mean, we had some idea of the sheer quantity of text we’d be dealing with (hundreds of works by dozens of authors), but I have been surprised at the depth, nuance, and power of the philosophical ideas we’ve discovered, and on a huge range of topics.
SV: How did your podcast “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” emerge?
PA: It was back in about 2009 when I was first thinking about it; I launched the podcast in late 2010. Probably almost all podcasts start because someone who listens to other podcasts looks for a series they would like to listen to, and doesn’t find it. Or at least, that would have been the case a decade ago when the number of podcasts was so much smaller. In any case this was the situation with me: I was listening to a lot of history podcasts, and philosophy podcasts, and noticed that there was no history of philosophy podcast. It also struck me that it would be a nice format for approaching philosophy in the way that I favor, which does not just focus on famous names in European philosophy but fills in all the gaps by covering lesser known figures (who are often very important, actually, just not famous!) and of course non-European traditions like philosophy in the Islamic world. After coming up with the idea for the podcast, I hesitated for quite a while before starting, because I was worried it would be very time-consuming. Which it has been! But very much worthwhile. I can also remember worrying at the time that podcasts might be a flash in the pan, like, a format that people would lose interest in within a few years. Obviously that was not the case. If anything I got into it relatively early, so I was able to build an audience of people who were presumably looking for a series on this topic, just like I was.
SV: What does the history of philosophy without any gaps mean to you? How does it reflect your own approach to the history of philosophy?
PA: For me this “without any gaps” approach – I actually stole that phrase from Richard Sorabji – is a perfect fit for my research area, because late ancient and Arabic philosophy are topics that are usually left out of the popular understanding of the discipline, and not covered in undergraduate courses and the like. Part of what I am trying to get across is that history of philosophy is indeed a kind of history, and that as with the history of events, it can be presented as a continuous narrative. The “highpoints” need to be understood in context: just as you have to know about the background to an event like the Battle of Hastings to understand why it happened and what it meant, so you have to know about obscure German thinkers in the time of Kant to understand Kant properly. So even if you really only care about the famous thinkers, you need to pay some attention to the less famous ones. But also, philosophy is as much about movements and trends as it is about individuals. I mentioned Neoplatonism above, and though that tradition is especially associated with Plotinus, it extends over about a millenium and involves many well-known and many less-well-known figures. So, that was what I meant with the phrase “without any gaps” when I first started, that it would go through the whole history of philosophy without chronological jumps from one famous thinker to another. As the project has developed though, it has involved a kind of “mission creep” where I avoid gaps by covering non-European traditions: obviously philosophy in the Islamic world, my own field of speciality, but also Indian and Africana and soon Chinese philosophy. In theory I would eventually like to cover philosophy from all times and places, including Latin American philosophy, Korean and Japanese philosophy, and so on. But we’ll see how things go!
SV: As a professor and a researcher, how does it feel to share your research with the general public, through your podcast, your books, and your talks? Why do you think doing this is important for a non-specialized audience?
PA: This is a constant source of motivation for me: I really appreciate getting to interact with listeners from outside academia, who are in touch with me on social media or by leaving comments on the podcast website (www.historyofphilosophy.net). In fact that was really what pushed me to do it in the first place: I was feeling that my job as an academic was only allowing me to communicate with a relatively small audience of students and fellow researchers. I love teaching and exchanging ideas with other academics, of course, but I wanted to earn the right to keep doing that by pursuing a project that would have a broader impact. As for why it’s important, I guess that for me the fundamental answer would be that the history of philosophy is extremely interesting in its own right, and telling people about interesting stuff is an intrinsically worthwhile thing to do! But if I had to justify it on other grounds, I would for instance say that the history of philosophy (especially the way I am presenting it) undermines assumptions about the supremacy, uniqueness, and supposedly self-contained development of European culture; and that by highlighting the role of women even in pre-modern periods, you can challenge the association of high intellectual achievement with men.
SV: In what measure does sharing your research and other subjects of interest in medieval philosophy with the general pubic contribute to your work and other dimensions of your life?
PA: It’s had a very powerful effect on my research: I’ve now written quite a few articles on topics I only encountered through reading up on them for the podcast. In fact the project we’ve been doing on the reception of Avicenna itself grew out of the podcast, to some extent. I knew enough about that period that I realized I should pay attention to it in the series, and when I read around it struck me that the secondary literature was still very partial and that hardly any of the works had been translated. So that really brought me towards applying for the grant to do this project.
Then in my life outside of academia, it certainly has an impact because (as my family will tell you) I spend so much time reading for the podcast, writing the episodes, and so on – plus given half a chance I will start waxing enthusiastic about whatever I have just been reading about, to whoever will listen.
I might mention one other specific effect on my worldview, which has come from doing the recent series on Africana philosophy together with my co-author Chike Jeffers. That has given me a different perspective on the United States. I used to see slavery and its consequences as an important theme within American history, but now I think it is sort of the reverse, that American history as a whole is best understood as a significant part of the broader, global story of colonialism and racialized oppression. So this has significantly changed my attitude towards the country of my birth.