Teaching Diversifying the Canon: An Interview with Peter Adamson

Diversifying the Canon: An Interview with Peter Adamson

With this post, the blog is kicking off a new series of interviews dedicated to diversifying the canon. We’d love for you to share your thoughts. Please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

Peter Adamson is Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at the LMU in Munich, having moved there from King’s College London in 2012. He received his PhD from the University of Notre Dame in 2000. He writes the book series A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, published by Oxford University Press (3 volumes so far), which is based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast. Two volumes collecting his papers on Neoplatonism and philosophy in the Islamic world appeared recently with the Variorum series published by Ashgate.

What are you doing in your own classroom/ university to diversify the philosophical canon?

I regularly teach courses on philosophy in the Islamic world, though in a way I don’t feel that that should count as a special effort to diversify since it is my main area of specialization in research, along with ancient philosophy. I have also taught courses on women in ancient and medieval philosophy, both here at the LMU and just recently in the form of a video-based lecture series for King’s College London. That will be generally available soon on iTunes actually. Also when I offer more general courses on ancient and medieval philosophy, I do try to include sessions on female thinkers. Having covered Indian philosophy in my podcast (with the help of Jonardon Ganeri) for the past couple of years I am also hoping to give a course on that in Munich in the near future.

What’s your favorite piece to teach and why?

From the Islamic world, probably Avicenna’s “flying man argument.” It is a great piece of philosophy because you don’t need to have any background knowledge about Avicenna, Islamic thought, or really even philosophy in general to get straight into thinking about it. The idea is that we should imagine a human being created in midair with limbs stretched out, and in a complete state of sensory deprivation (nothing to see or hear, and in midair so that he is not in contact with anything). Then Avicenna states that this person would be able to recognize his own existence – and infers from this that the self or soul is immaterial. It’s a fascinating argument and you can even talk to kids about it: what would it be like to be the flying man? What could he know, if anything? But you can also get deeply into how it relates to Avicenna’s philosophy with students who are more advanced. As it happens I have a piece coming out with the Journal of the APA on this thought experiment, which I wrote together with Fedor Benevich, one of my collaborators here in Munich.

Which pieces do you find resonate most with students? 

Some of the texts I have taught about or by women in the history of medieval philosophy seem to resonate strongly. Christine de Pizan (depicted above), for instance, or works by female mystics like Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich. I think it is because, in addition to the usual things that make philosophical texts exciting (new ideas about knowledge in mysticism for instance) you have the added dimension of thinking about what it meant for women even to be able to write in that cultural context, and the extent to which it was even possible for them to do so. It’s fascinating to see the moves they make to assert the right to speak to a male audience, for instance by disowning any authority as human authors (“I am a mere feeble woman” etc.) while also claiming to speak with God’s voice.

From philosophy in the Islamic world, I would mention Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan,” a text about a self-taught philosopher who grows up alone on an island with no access to other humans. I’ve enjoyed teaching that as an introduction to medieval Islamic philosophy. And from around the same time and place (12th century Islamic Spain) there is also Averroes’ “Decisive Treatise” which is exciting because it addresses the role of philosophy in Islamic society and the relationship between religion and reason.

What are the biggest challenges in teaching these?

I think the main challenge is that medieval European philosophy, or philosophy in the Islamic world, involves sketching in a lot of historical context. A philosopher like Ibn Tufayl was responding to Avicenna and al-Ghazali, who were in turn responding to late antique philosophers, who were reacting to Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics, etc. So it is sometimes hard to know how to fill in all that background for students, or rather what to leave out. The mystics I just mentioned can be refreshing in this respect, since they at least pretend to start with more of a blank slate, and to take their ideas straight from God. Another major challenge is that, at least at undergraduate level, you are pretty much always teaching from a translation of the primary text which means you can’t necessarily get into the details of the original wording as you might like. Then too with more neglected texts means that there isn’t as much good secondary literature to recommend to students as there would be on old favorites like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. But I think the situation is getting better.

What general advice do you have for other philosophers interested in diversifying their syllabi?

I guess that it may seem daunting to, say, offer a whole course on Islamic or Chinese philosophy if you are an expert on a completely different topic. So one thing I would recommend is adding texts from other traditions, or by historical female authors, to a course that is thematically structured. So for instance if you are doing a historically oriented class on the history of epistemology why not spend just one session on Indian debates over pramanas (sources of knowledge) or al-Farabi’s theory of intellect? Of course that won’t allow you to present these topics in their full context, but it is a lot better than nothing and at least gives students a glimpse of what they are usually missing.

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This series of the APA Blog is dedicated to understanding what our fellow philosophers are doing in and out of the classroom to diversify the canon. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else to write a post for this series, please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

Header image: Christine de Pisan | Wikimedia commons

3 COMMENTS

  1. Well, the canon might be diversified by shifting the focus from philosophy to reason.

    The above discussion seems reasonably labeled as what people typically think of as philosophy.

    Do topics like those explored above qualify as reason? Is it logical for the best and the brightest minds to focus on such topics at a time when modern civilization can be erased in an hour? Is it logical to pretend that’s not happening, and that we have time to discuss conversations between medieval intellectuals?

    It seems to this reader that philosophy as it is commonly defined is intelligent, learned, sophisticated and articulate. But not a product of reason.

    What would philosophy that was reason based look like?

  2. 1000-Word Philosophy (https://1000wordphilosophy.com)is seeking (short) essays on diverse philosophical traditions. We recently published two on Mengzi’s moral psychology and are seeking more essays on non-Western or non-Euro-American philosophical traditions. We hope that these highly accessible introductions invite readers and students to learn more about diverse topics, perspectives, figures and traditions.

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