In this interview, Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at Ludwig Maximilian University and host of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, discusses Dungeons and Dragons, Wizard of Oz, his twin brother, Williams College, getting hooked on Plato, studying Dante, developing an interest in medieval philosophy, and then Arabic philosophy and Neo-Platonism at Notre Dame, why history of philosophy matters, the cultural narrowness of philosophy, the idea of philosophical progress, the role of biography and arguments in philosophy, impostor syndrome, meeting his wife, understanding history of philosophy from the inside, working on Plotinus, advice for grad students, why he left King’s College for LMU, the origin, evolution, production, and future of the podcast, impact, Avicenna, Mill, Buster Keaton, Catch-22, David Sedaris, Election 2016, and his last meal…
What were you into as a kid?
Contrary to popular belief, not all philosophers are nerds. Nor are all nerds philosophers. I am living proof of that, since I was a nerd long before I was a philosopher. I played Dungeons & Dragons, I got good grades, I edited the school newspaper and was on the debate team. Imagine one of the kids from Stranger Things, but not heroic. Actually I should qualify the part about getting good grades. I was a fairly indifferent student in any class that involved numbers, a young version of the person who would later dread the prospect of taking Symbolic Logic in graduate school and spend decades putting off the task of reading Aristotle’s Prior Analytics cover to cover (forgive me, Marko Malink). Nor was I great at science. This was a real failure of genetics, by the way. My mother was a doctor, my father was a math prodigy who went on to work as a computer troubleshooter, and his father was one of the nation’s leading jet engine designers.
So, what was ‘your thing’?
My thing was words. As a teenager I wanted to be a writer, and to this day the part of philosophy I enjoy most is just putting together sentences. This is one reason I enjoy podcasting: I am able to get to the writing stage faster than I can with real research papers. I also got a good start on learning foreign languages thanks to having an excellent Spanish teacher in high school. I rarely use Spanish now but can still read it pretty easily, and more importantly this helped me learn how to learn languages. That’s something I have never really enjoyed as such, to be honest – for me studying grammar and vocabulary is like eating your vegetables, whereas a lot of my classicist and Arabist colleagues seem to take pleasure in the mechanics of the languages.
What else were you doing outside of class, as a teenager?
In retrospect, in my teens I was acquiring several skills or habits that wound up being relevant to my career. In addition to the aforementioned extracurricular activities, drama club was a big nerd magnet at my school so of course I joined up. Among my rapturously received performances I might mention that I played Helen Keller’s father in The Miracle Worker (my southern accent went down well, but bear in mind the audience was from Boston) and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (even now, I can be convincingly pusillanimous on command). This gave me a taste of being on stage in front of audiences which, I will admit, is something I do enjoy a lot, whether when teaching or giving papers. So I am apparently also living proof that nerds can enjoy being the center of attention.
Any exposure to philosophy?
At this point I had no interest in, or maybe even awareness of, philosophy, and I don’t think I was all that interested in history either. But devotion to this subject ran in the family. My father reads history books for fun, and my mother’s father devoted his life to the hobby of singlehandedly writing a comprehensive encyclopedia of American forts which he finished just before he passed away. Family anecdote: the US Army, which by the way contemplated trying to produce an encyclopedia along these lines but gave up the project as too vast [actually I can’t swear that part is true, but it does feature in my mom’s version of the story], sent a representative to my grandfather’s house to find out why he was submitting so many requests for information about military installations. My grandfather explained that he wasn’t a Russian spy but an encyclopedist, and then said, “besides, you wouldn’t send me any sensitive information just because I asked, would you?” The Army guy sighed and said, “you’d be surprised what we might send you.”
I am an identical twin. My brother Glenn is the world’s leading theorist of craft and its relation to fine art; he trained as an art historian and has worked extensively in the museum world. My being a twin must surely explain a lot about me, probably more than I can even know (like, maybe twins enjoy being the center of attention, having had to share the attention of their parents from birth?). But I don’t think it formed me as a philosopher, except insofar as constantly being called “Pete and Repeat” may have encouraged an appreciation of Stoicism. Maybe one area where it has helped is podcasting. I have discovered that many people hate hearing the sound of their own voice recorded, so that a lot of my interview guests don’t want to listen to the episode in which they appear. When I interviewed my friend Fiona Leigh about Plato’s Sophist she said exactly this, and I replied, “really? I love the sound of my own voice.” “Peter,” she said, “you’re the only person I know who would say that.” In fact though, I think the reason is that my voice when recorded just sounds to me like my brother’s voice, and therefore pleasant to listen to.
Where did you end up going to college? How’d you get into philosophy?
For my undergraduate education I went to Williams College, which is a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. I don’t have lots of crazy stories about my life in college or grad school, I’m afraid. I was still pretty nerdy and studious (one might argue that the past tense is not needed here). My experience illustrates why liberal arts degrees work so well for at least some students, in that you wind up taking classes in a range of fields and can discover your interests as you go along. Like I said, I had no real interest in or knowledge about philosophy when I got there but in my first year I took the Introduction to Philosophy class, just out of curiosity. Here the story becomes pure cliché: I read Plato and was hooked for life. It didn’t hurt that I had a great teacher (Rachel Rue) who was brilliant at leading class discussions, one of many wonderful professors I had there. Another who influenced me a lot early on was Robert Jackall. He taught a very challenging Introduction to Sociology class, which again I only took out of curiosity. After reading my exam paper for the class he had me come by his office to say, basically, that he thought I had done really well on it – this encouragement was really helpful to me, since if anything at that point I was feeling a bit out of my depth. That was probably the first moment that I had any inkling that academic work could be for me.
You ever consider doing anything other than philosophy?
Despite being hooked on Plato, I didn’t yet abandon the idea that I was primarily going to be a literature student. Over the four years at Williams I only gradually came to shift my main focus to philosophy and I wound up dropping the English major in the last year, mostly because I didn’t think I could face taking a course on 19th century novels – I know this makes my former self sound like an immature cretin, but that’s only because I was in fact an immature cretin.
Nonetheless the literature part of what I was doing was in a way really important for what I wound up doing later, because among these courses the ones I enjoyed most – especially those taught by a Dante specialist, John Kleiner – were on medieval philosophy. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on Dante, combining my interest in philosophy and medieval literature, and let this determine my choices about graduate school. (At this point I had no plan whatsoever for what to do other than philosophy graduate school; if I hadn’t gotten in anywhere, I don’t know what I would have done instead.) Going to Notre Dame for my PhD made sense because they had, and still have, one of the strongest programs in medieval philosophy.
Why medieval philosophy?
Immature cretin though he was, I should here give my former self a bit of credit: to be honest at this stage it didn’t matter to me that much what area of the history of philosophy I worked in, I just wanted to be a historian of philosophy. This itself is another sign of the influence of Williams, because at that time their department was at the time almost purely historical in focus. So I guess I thought that becoming a historian of philosophy was the only way to become a specialist in philosophy. The reason I picked medieval philosophy was partly because of the literature connection, but it was also to a large extent just because I wanted to work in a field where there was still need for research. Not that I really knew what I was doing, but I had a glimmer of insight that authors like Plato and Aristotle, wonderful though they are, must be pretty thoroughly investigated. Which is not to say that further work on them would be pointless (I certainly don’t think that) but just that it would be a lot more difficult to find worthwhile research projects if I focused on them, besides which there would be more competition. The choices I then made in graduate school were motivated by the same thing, basically. I got into late ancient philosophy and Arabic philosophy because I wanted to work in fields where a lot remained to be done. This made me somewhat unusual at Notre Dame, where most if not all the other people doing medieval philosophy had at least partially religious motivations. For me it was mostly just tactics, and I could quite easily have wound up doing, say, German Idealism. If I could live ten times, I’d like to spend nine of those lives specializing in different areas of the history of philosophy.
Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m an immature cretin. So no religious motivation?
No, I was raised as an atheist and unlike even the staunch atheist Bertrand Russell have never been much tempted by theism. However, unlike certain atheists who have written prominently on the subject in recent years, I have a lot of respect for theism and find proofs for and against the existence of God, issues about God’s relation to the world, and so on to be philosophically fascinating and fruitful. One of my favorite things to see in the history of philosophy is how religiously motivated debates – theological debates, really – spun out conceptual tools that then entered into philosophy more broadly. So for example analytic philosophers who deal with modality, possible worlds and so on, are (probably unbeknownst to them) firmly within a tradition that goes back to medieval arguments about divine free will and creation. Or to take another example, some of the earliest sophisticated discussions of economics came in the context of a debate over the voluntary poverty of certain monastic orders in the middle ages. In general I think one of the biggest, and most common, mistakes made by historians of philosophy – especially those who are not religious – is to proceed as if there is a sharp division between the theological and philosophical traditions. In fact, whether in the Islamic world, Christian Europe, Byzantium, or even ancient India, there is no firm line to be drawn there and even if there were, ideas and arguments would constantly be getting passed back and forth across the line.
Why history of philosophy? Like, why not just directly study the issues these historical figures were interested in? I mean, what philosophers thought matters historically, maybe when you are trying to understand the nature of what we do, but I can imagine a skeptic arguing, who cares what they thought? Playing the devil's advocate here!
To questions like this I am always tempted to give the most provocative possible answer, namely: who cares what today’s analytic philosophers think, in comparison to giants like Plato, Avicenna, or Confucius? (Or indeed non-giants like Theophrastus, Mechthild of Magdeburg, or Uddyotakara: at least their works are still being read many centuries after they died, which is surely more than we’ll be able to say for 99% of contemporary philosophy.) Just consider that, if you go out on the street and ask people to name some great philosophers or say what “philosophy” means to them, they will certainly not say anything that is reminiscent of analytic philosophy but are pretty likely to mention something about the history of philosophy. So to me it is rather bizarre that historians of philosophy are always put on the defensive in this way. We are the ones doing the part of philosophy that non-philosophers will readily recognize as meaningful and serious, and it is the contemporary philosophers who could more easily be accused by outsiders of wasting their time. Not that I personally think that they are wasting their time! I’m just saying the onus of self-justification should not really be on the historian. The fact that it often is, mostly has to do with the fact that we have to persuade non-historian philosophers to hire us.
Having gotten all that off my chest, I would concede that there is a serious question here too.
There is an obvious rationale for doing history of philosophy which is that it is a kind of history. It’s pretty uncontentious that we want to understand the past, and we can’t understand the past without understanding the ideas of the past, which is where the historian of philosophy comes in. And that is probably why non-specialists will find it immediately obvious that history of philosophy is worthwhile. However we also want to be taken seriously as contributing to philosophy and not just history; so how is it that we do this? A frequent answer is that one can delve back into the past to find answers to problems that modern-day philosophers take seriously. But I am pretty skeptical of that answer. That would lead you to focus on the figures, texts and debates that happen to seem relevant to today’s concerns, to the cost of other topics. To the contrary, I think one great service we as historians can do is to call attention to philosophical debates and positions that are not liable to arise in our own context. Contemporary philosophy is, as I always like to say, only the most recent part of the history of philosophy, and it’s not easy to be sure whether it is a particularly fruitful part, to say nothing of being the one period of philosophy that just happens to be handling all philosophical questions in all the ways that would be illuminating. That notion strikes me as staggeringly arrogant, especially when you consider that “contemporary philosophy” usually means something like “philosophy being done in English in North America, Australia, and Europe” so that it is a geographically and culturally, as well as chronologically, narrow conception of philosophy.
I suspect to many analytic philosophers, studying the history of philosophy, returning to and studying ancient philosophers for instance, even if famous, would be a bit like modern chemists spending time corroborating Lavoisier. Contemporary philosophy isn’t just as good, it is demonstrably better! I guess the question is: If philosophical progress is really occurring, why should we study the history of philosophy?
For one thing I am totally on board with the idea that philosophy makes progress, simply because as the history of philosophy goes forward more ideas and hypotheses are being explored and entertained and then challenged. The advance is just a matter of increasing the sum total of philosophical reflection that has gone on. As long as you aren’t just unwittingly going back over old ground, progress is being made, even if only by exploring an idea that turns out to be subject to devastating objections because you’ve eliminated it, or at least shown it to be less plausible than it may have first seemed to be.
But as you say, someone might argue: given the tools at the disposal of today’s philosophers, aren’t they making progress of a special kind, one that makes all previous history of philosophy simply otiose? As you suggest, contemporary physics tends to think it can chuck all the old physics on the dustbin of history; so why take seriously the idea that older philosophical discussions remain part of what I am calling, and valuing as, the “sum total of philosophical reflection”? I agree this not an unattractive thought. In at least three areas, we do have improved starting points for useful philosophical reflection than older philosophers. These three areas are better empirical science, better analytical tools (especially mathematical logic), and better moral understanding. The first two are probably obvious enough not to need explaining. What I mean by the third is that, for instance, we no longer really need to explore arguments for and against slavery, but can take it as a given that if your ethical and political theory implies that slavery is acceptable, that just shows you need to go back and revise the theory.
However I don’t think this shows that the philosophical hypotheses and ideas of the past are no longer relevant. Probably a lot of philosophers would say that the second area, the advance in technical conceptual tools, might do that; but of the three I think that actually that has the least tendency to render past ideas irrelevant. This is because almost all (maybe all) technical “advances” quietly make various philosophical assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are clear to the user, but often not, and doing history of philosophy can help you see this. For instance, Aristotle would have been perplexed by existential quantification, or by possible worlds semantics, because they wouldn’t fit with his metaphysics. Understanding why this is so will help you to see what is being presupposed in the background of such technical machinery. As for moral progress, that really only sets the boundaries of what the right “applied” answer is – slavery and the degredation of women are now off the table, but it isn’t obvious that past ethical theories had such things “built into them” in a way that would make them no longer potentially viable. To take Aristotle again, he took it as a matter of common sense that slavery should exist and that women are inferior to men, but we can hope that these repugnant views were in a sense external to his ethical theory. Finally, with empirical science of course we no longer have to work on Aristotelian physics or Galenic medicine, say, as a real program of scientific research. Here in a sense we’re talking about the views of philosophers on what have now become non-philosophical topics. I think the historian of philosophy does need to understand those things though, because they were so intimately bound up with the generation of the theories dealing with issues we still consider as part of philosophy proper. For instance you can’t even start to think about ancient and medieval views on determinism, which remain very interesting and have inspired contemporary work on this topic, without some grasp of ancient and medieval cosmology.
Cool. Earlier, you mentioned the geographical and cultural narrowness of philosophy. I think it’s fair to say that many analytic philosophers aren’t against non-Western stuff. The thought is, “Who cares where it’s from?” Is that misguided? Again, I ask because I imagine you are one of the people best positioned to answer this type of question!
Well, I think that in a sense the “who cares where it’s from” response is right. It’s in a way what I myself am saying about contemporary philosophy: the fact that it comes from “us” (whoever “we” are) and “now” does nothing to recommend it in philosophical terms. An idea doesn’t become more compelling or fruitful just by having been devised in 21st century Europe rather than ancient China, or vice-versa. Of course part of the impulse for studying philosophy in, say, China, India, Latin America, or the Islamic world is a political one and while I do share that impulse and endorse it, I would distinguish between that motivation and the purely philosophical motive of just wanting to discover new ideas, considerations, and conceptual tools, wherever they may come from.
Imagine that we went off to study, say, Indian philosophy and found that exactly the same schools and positions emerged there as in ancient Greece, with all the same arguments and counterarguments on all the same topics. If that were true, I would say that in philosophical terms it would not matter so much which of the two traditions one studied, even though in political, cultural, and historical terms one would surely want to give India and Greece equal “credit” and billing. But of course it is not the case that any one historical tradition duplicates what we find in any other tradition. Rather what we find is that while there is some overlap in the topics and arguments found in those two traditions, there are also many differences, and there are huge areas of sophisticated philosophical reflection that can really only be explored by engaging with classical Indian philosophy (for instance the particular kind of monism one finds in Vedanta, or the approach to philosophy of mind one finds in Buddhism). And that’s true of other “non-Western” traditions as well.
Interested in the personal lives of philosophers, historically? How does it effect the philosophy, and how does the philosophy effect the personal lives of philosophers?
I think it is important to know about the biographies of philosophers, but I would put the point more broadly. I’d say that the more you can find out about the whole context in which philosophy was produced, the better you will understand it. In fact other contextual factors could be more important than a given philosopher’s life story. For instance knowing about Athenian history is more vital for understanding Plato’s dialogues than knowing (the little that we do know) about Plato’s own biography. Having said that, there is at least one special consideration that does arise with narrowly biographical data, which is the question whether a given philosopher lived in accordance with their principles. It’s upsetting to see, for instance, Seneca consorting with the appalling Roman emperor Nero, and people have often accused Seneca of hypocrisy while others have defended him. The mere fact that a given philosopher was a hypocrite is, of course, not all that interesting in itself. But it can help us to reflect on the difficulty of living up to the standards of certain teachings; indeed Seneca is a good example because Stoic ethics is so demanding and his life story shows just how hard it may have been to live the Stoicism he espoused.
I mean, as far as Plato is concerned, you say the greater context matters, but it was how it affected him right? Not everybody thought Democracy was bad. Was it just arguments? I mean his mentor, who was sentenced to death! Sure, they had their reasons, but still, there was a very important biographical element. No?
Yes, for sure. In general I think a historian of philosophy needs to think about the personal and political motives that generated a philosopher’s ideas – really anything that helps you understand where a theory, idea or argument came from can be useful. But I’d resist the reductive approach that says nothing more than, say, “Plato had bad experiences with democracy, so that’s why we get the critique of democracy in the Republic.”
Surely his experiences are relevant but he is also giving arguments there, ones we should take seriously. (Indeed, as many people have been pointing out, his critique of democracy is looking more relevant now than it has for quite some time!) One way of thinking about this is that knowing about his personal experiences, insofar as we can, will give us a concrete idea of what sorts of example he might be thinking of, things he could have pointed to to illustrate the problems he sees. That is a more complex and illuminating way of thinking about it than imagining that he was just annoyed at the Athenians and grasped for any old justification he could find to express his irritation.
Yes! Speaking of personal lives…back to yours! Room for romance as an undergrad?
I met my wife Ursula at Williams; she’s from Germany (well, Bavaria) and spent a year there as an exchange student and language instructor. Because of her I wound up learning German and spending lots of time here in Germany, and this is why it eventually made sense for us to move to Munich where I teach now.
Do y'all chat about philosophy?
She has no interest in philosophy at all! Doesn’t even listen to my podcast. This is a good thing, I think, since my family life is pretty much the only thing that gets me to lift my head up out of all this history of philosophy business.
So, when you got to grad school, Notre Dame, did you ever doubt your abilities?
Oh goodness, yes. Actually, years later, after grad school, when I first got to King’s College London, I asked a senior colleague, “when do you stop feeling like a fraud?” and got the answer, “oh, that never happens.” Which is true to my experience. It probably affects all academics, but at least in history of philosophy you are constantly being reminded of how much you don’t know, how much you haven’t read, or how much your language skills need improving.
Surprises in grad school? How and why did your views shift?
Well, when I got to Notre Dame my plan was really to do Latin medieval philosophy still, though I had some notion I might try to get into Arabic. But the main shift was when I discovered Neoplatonism by taking classes with Stephen Gersh, which has been the tradition I’ve worked on most in my whole career, in both Greek and Arabic, as well as occasionally Latin. He definitely influenced my conception of the history of philosophy, too, since he tried to teach it “from the inside” and make you see how the system works in its own terms, and what principles or intuitions they started from.
Interesting! Could you give an example?
A good example from Neoplatonism would be their idea that one thing can have more or less being than another. For instance the soul is a real being, and the body is a real being, but the soul is more real than the body. We nowadays tend to assume without even thinking about it that being is all or nothing, rather than a matter of degree, or at least that's what I personally would have said before encountering Neoplatonism. And the remarkable thing is that the Neoplatonists don't just say that being comes in degrees, they take that to be just obviously true! For them it is a bedrock intuition and I find it fascinating to see how much difference that makes for their whole worldview.
What was your dissertation on? Who did you work with? Was writing the dissertation a challenging process? Advice?
My dissertation was on the Arabic version of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and my advisors were the aforementioned Stephen Gersh, plus David Burrell, a theologian who has worked a lot on Aquinas but also learned Arabic to understand Aquinas’ sources from the Islamic world. So I used to tell people I was working on the Arabic Plotinus and had Burrell for the Arabic and Gersh for the Plotinus. I also got a lot of help from Richard Taylor, who really suggested the project to me, and Cristina D’Ancona who has done more research on this text than anyone else. The approach I took with writing the dissertation, which I recommend to other PhD students, was to try not thinking of it as one huge book-sized project, but rather to write a series of paper-length studies of different aspects of the text and then those were the various chapters. That made it a lot more feasible and less daunting. By the way on the blog of my podcast I have a whole page of advice for PhD students in history of philosophy!
What was the job market like when you wrapped up? How did you do?
Well, to make a long story short, I got several interviews at the American Philosophical Association meeting, where all these other young people were looking for jobs; a friend of mine said to me during the meeting, “have you ever been anywhere where dread hung in the air more thickly?” My own experience wasn’t unusually horrible I don’t think, though at one interview I got out one phrase of my spiel about my dissertation, “It’s about the Arabic version of the works of Plotinus…” and was interrupted with the question “Is there any philosophy in it?” Perhaps that moment is not unrelated to my impatience with analytic philosophers who are dismissive of history. Anyway, I got two on-campus interviews but wasn’t hired at either. So I was making plans to be in South Bend for another year when the King’s College job came up, and they were looking for someone in late ancient philosophy. This was because it was to replace (insofar as one could speak of “replacing” here) Richard Sorabji, who had established late ancient philosophy as a standard topic for teaching at King’s. So that was incredibly fortunate, and to be honest the King’s department was taking a real chance in hiring me given how inexperienced I was, the niche area of philosophy I worked in, and how little I had achieved – just one forthcoming journal article. I was totally stunned that they hired me. I had been surprised even to be interviewed and thought all I would be getting out of it was a free trip to see London.
You got the job at King's in 2000. You were at King's for over 10 years. Good times?
In general I also loved being at King’s, and found the department to be very supportive and an amazing intellectual atmosphere (I still go back regularly and it has remained just as good). One thing that I did think was a step backwards, during my time there, was the government’s introduction of substantial tuition fees, which happened just a few years before I left. Leaving aside the political issues surrounding that decision, I had a chance to see how much it changed the whole dynamic of higher education, with the students increasingly seeing themselves as customers, like they do in the US. That does have good sides, actually: in a tuition-free system students are more likely to be left to fend for themselves and some will slide along without being too invested in the degree they are taking, since they aren’t paying for it apart from covering room and board. But on the whole, speaking just as an educator, I much prefer my current situation in Germany, and the situation I first experienced in the UK, where university is not an explicit exchange of services for investment.
I hear London’s amazing. What did you do in your free time?
We had our first daughter shortly after getting to London and our second a few years later, so free time was not in huge supply! We did love it there though, and enjoyed being in this multiethnic capital of world culture. Even if we didn’t necessarily manage to go out to the theater (or rather “theatre”) that much it was nice knowing we could, in theory.
Why'd you move to LMU?
A major factor was that my wife is Bavarian and we wanted our kids to grow up fully bilingual and in touch with both German and English-speaking culture, so it seemed like a good move for family reasons. I was already fluent in German from spending so much time with my in-laws, so it wasn’t difficult in that sense. Well, actually it turned out that I had to learn some new German for philosophical use, since I was not used to using German in that context. To give you some idea, I learned quite a bit of German by watching dubbed episodes of Magnum PI, because the plots are so predictable that you can tell what is going on from the visuals. So I was ready to talk about smuggling weapons into Hawaii, but not the categorical imperative.
haha…was it a hard move?
The LMU is an excellent and wonderfully run institution, so in that sense the move was easy. A full German professor has more responsibility, but also more resources, than professors in the UK or US: your task is basically to build up a research team in your area of specialty. Individual professors each have a “Lehrstuhl” and this tends to be the basic unit of academic life, rather than the “department”. Again this has upsides and downsides: I run the Munich School of Ancient Philosophy together with Christof Rapp and Oliver Primavesi, and we have one of the world’s biggest gatherings of ancient philosophy scholars in the world. That makes for a very rich and intense research environment, where for pretty much any text I might pick up there is a top expert on that text in the same building. But I don’t spend as much time with people from other fields of philosophy as I did at King’s, so that is a bit of a trade-off.
Awesome! What's the origin story of the podcast? Were you listening to podcasts at the time? It might not seem like it given the skeptical tone of my other questions, but I just have to say, I really friggin’ love it, dude!
Thanks very much! I like “origin story,” like, it happened because I was bitten by a radioactive iPod or something.
But actually your guess is right: I started out because I was listening to podcasts already. I am tragic enough that, as a historian of philosophy, I was mostly following history and philosophy podcasts. I was struck by the fact that none of the philosophy podcasts that existed at the time were dealing with the subject in the style of a history podcast, which typically builds a narrative in weekly episodes. My model for that was especially a podcast called History of Rome, which I highly recommend (also Revolutions by the same podcaster, Mike Duncan). But then I also liked the interview format of, say, Philosophy Bites. So I decided to combine these two formats and inch my way forward through the history of philosophy in d episodes, with expert interview guests coming in every few episodes to add depth, as well as voices and perspectives other than my own.
It’s a good mix. Technologically, what was your setup? Did you have help?
The technical set up is actually pretty easy: I have two microphones, one for recording scripted ones at home, one portable for the interviews, and there is free software like Audacity for editing. I have been lucky to have financial support from King’s and the LMU so I have always had an assistant to do the editing of the raw audio files.
What was the plan when you started?
What I really wanted to achieve with the podcast was to convey the riches of the history of philosophy in a way that had not been done: very detailed, but in a way that is accessible to anyone who is curious about it. So obviously I do cover big names like Plato or Aquinas but I am mostly giving the audience a “popular” presentation of topics that usually only experts know about, like Proclus, al-Kindi, or Henry of Ghent. The “without any gaps” slogan was originally supposed to convey just this: that I cover so called “minor” figures and move through history continuously without jumping from one figure to another.
How has the show evolved?
There are two main ways that the original plan has changed. First, when I started I had no ambition that these would turn into books, that only came much later when I was done with classical antiquity and realized I had a book’s worth of stuff on my hands. So the first episodes were a bit more slapdash and had less research behind them; I basically sat down and was like “ok, what do I know about Parmenides?” and wrote that down with a few jokes. So, those early scripts needed quite a lot of work to get them ready for publication. Now, even the initial version of the script is carefully edited and may have a dozen or more footnotes, because I am looking ahead to the book version. I hope though that the audio versions have retained a light and entertaining feel, since that remains the goal; after all the books also are supposed to be enjoyable and accessible for a broad audience.
The other change, which is more significant, is that at first I explicitly planned not to cover non-Western philosophy apart from philosophy in the Islamic world. Since that is my main area of research, along with ancient philosophy, I obviously wanted to cover that but I felt that my total incompetence meant it would be presumptuous to try to deal with other non-Western traditions, even though I certainly knew they would be worth covering. I guess maybe I was hoping someone who actually knew what they were talking about would start up a similar podcast to cover India, China, or both. But then, listeners started complaining that I shouldn’t call this philosophy “without any gaps” if I was leaving out these magnificent traditions, and I decided they were right. Also, I wound up covering a lot of stuff I didn’t know about already, like for instance some late ancient Chirstian thinkers who I had never read before. So I thought, if I’m covering material I don’t know about anyway, I might as well do India and China after all. But I felt I needed co-authors to do this, because I would have been so far out of my depth doing it on my own. After starting the series on ancient India with Jonardon Ganeri, I started talking to Chike Jeffers about the idea of covering Africana philosophy, and for various reasons it seemed worth doing that first before covering China (among other things, with Chike I had an excellent and willing co-author who was ready to go). After the Africana series, I will be tackling ancient China together with Karyn Lai. In the future I am hoping to do a further series on later India, and also later China plus Korea and Japan. Plus I would like to do a book’s worth of episodes on “indigenous philosophies” around the world, where I’d cover things like ancient Mexican, Inuit, Native American, and indigenous Australian philosophy. But if I manage to tackle all these topics it would be far in the future still.
Nice. How can the philosophical community support projects like this? Where do they fit in the teaching/scholarship/service paradigm?
For starters of course other academics can help by spreading the word, recommending it to their students and other academics. I would not encourage people to assign “popular” content in lieu of reading primary and secondary literature. So if you are deciding whether to have your students listen to my podcast on Plato or read some Plato, for goodness’ sake have them read Plato. But of course today’s students are comfortable with internet content, so recommending it as a supplementary resource to go with the other things they are reading makes sense and will probably be welcome. Obviously there is not just my podcast to recommend either, there are plenty of things out there that are worthwhile and can enrich the students’ experience and understanding.
More ambitiously, it would be nice to see institutional support for projects like this. That turns out to be an easier sell in the UK than in the US or the rest of Europe, because in the UK they reward academics for “impact,” meaning research that has some effect in society outside academia. What exactly “impact” is and how to document it, are famously not clear, but assuming that the powers that be deem something like a podcast to count as “impact” British universities at least have a motivation to support academics who embark on such projects, for instance by giving this weight in promotion decisions.
Similarly it would be great if, in the US and elsewhere, universities saw public outreach projects as counting towards things like tenure review, promotion, and even hiring. At the moment I would say that most, if not all, institutions have fairly conservative views on such matters. They reward “proper research,” administrative service, and good teaching. Of course I do think those things should all be rewarded! I am not a popularizer who in any way disparages traditional research; for one thing, I do it myself, and for another thing mostly what I am doing in my podcast is reading literature aimed at specialist academics and synthesizing it in a form that is accessible to non-specialists. But if we think public outreach is valuable, then institutions need to reward it rather than treating it as an eccentric hobby. I don’t have any fixed views about the relative weighting of outreach and the more traditional academic tasks; it would be a good start simply to admit that outreach has some weight or other.
What are the causes of the various diversity problems in philosophy?
I’m a little bit less militant here than some others who want to promote diversity: often you’ll hear philosophers who don’t teach women and non-Western thinkers accused of various forms of prejudice. But I think it has more to do with inertia – each generation teaching what it was taught – and lack of confidence, or even people feeling that it wouldn’t be their place to try to teach, or write about, philosophy from other cultures. Of course you could rightfully reply that this is pretty much just how racism and sexism work: through the perpetuation of systematic cultural favoritism rather than active, conscious bias. Still just for rhetorical reasons I prefer to concentrate on the positive message that any trained philosopher can absolutely read up on a non-Western tradition or on women thinkers from the Western tradition who are usually left out of the canon, well enough to teach them.
You’re a historian, so I’m interested in your answer to this one: How do you see the future of philosophy in general?
I am optimistic about this very point we were just discussing. As I argued in a recently published piece on the blog of the APA, I reckon it is all but inevitable that philosophical education and research will become much more diverse by the time my career is winding up (so in about 20 years, if all goes well). There are lots of reasons to think this: the general effects of globalism, the pressure brought to bear by students who won’t put up with being restricted to the traditional canon, and also the need for young philosophers to find new territory to explore. I think this is clearly happening already in fact, at least we see many more positions advertised each year in non-Western philosophy than was the case even ten years ago.
Favorite philosopher, living or dead?
Avicenna! He’s the most important medieval philosopher (sorry, Aquinas fans) and was just extraordinarily innovative and independent-minded. He’s the highpoint of his philosophical tradition and was seen as such in the Islamic world, where he effectively displaced Aristotle as the primary thinker to whom others had to respond.
Most underrated philosopher?
I guess I’ll go with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. Most readers have probably never have heard of him, but he was a twelfth century philosopher-theologian – one of the main thinkers to respond to Avicenna in the way I just mentioned. He wrote numerous long works that are packed full of clever arguments, plus his Arabic is relatively easy so it is a pleasure to work on him.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
I get lots of practice being confronted by excellent philosophers I don’t agree with, because I’m an atheist and spend a lot of my time working on the history of philosophical theology. But if we leave that aside I might say Mill and Bentham, because I am deeply unpersuaded by Utilitarianism but I have to admire both their acuity and their beneficient influence on British society.
If you could go back in time and have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be and why?
Buster Keaton. Why would anyone even consider any other answer?
Good answer. Other than philosophy, who do you read? Favorite book?
I unfortunately don’t have time to read other things too much but I guess my taste tends towards the “witty” like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, David Sedaris. Catch 22 is darkly hilarious and made a big impression on me when I first read it, I think when in college.
Movie: obviously something by Buster Keaton; no one should go to their grave without having seen Sherlock Jr and The General, and among his short films I especially like One Week. Music: among the genres I listen to is world music, especially from Africa, and my favorite band in that direction is Tinariwen.
What was your election night like in 2008? 2016?
Well now that I live in Europe I always see the results from the US elections only upon waking up. Obviously with the Trump election I figured I was not really yet awake and it was a surreal nightmare. (Actually a couple of years on that still seems the most plausible hypothesis.) A better election memory is that when Obama was first elected, I was walking with my kids on the way to school – this is when we were still in London – and people who overheard my American accent were walking up to congratulate me on this wonderful historical event.
I would like always to have each meal followed by a further, later meal, please.
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]