by Peter Adamson
For the last five years or so, I’ve been putting out a weekly podcast devoted to the entire History of Philosophy, with the emphasis on “entire.” The slogan of the series is “without any gaps,” which is intended to convey that I do not just cover the familiar names—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes—but also lesser-known, “minor” figures and movements. I’ve also tackled topics outside the standard canon of European thought, looking extensively at philosophy in the Islamic world and, more recently (with the help of co-author Jonardon Ganeri), philosophy in ancient India. The latter expansion of the project has been particularly eye-opening for me. My own area of research includes philosophy in Arabic, so the Islamic world was to a large extent familiar territory. But everything I know about the Upanishads, early Buddhism, the Mahabharata, and so on, I have learned in the past year or so.
I already took it on the good authority of experts like Jonardon that there is plenty of philosophical material offered in the Indian tradition. But it’s one thing to take this on trust, and another to find out for yourself. As it turns out, some of the ideas we have covered have struck me as rather familiar after all, thanks to the oft-noted parallels between ancient Indian and ancient Greek philosophy—something I have discussed in a column for Philosophy Now. None of which is to say that I am going to learn Sanskrit and start devoting all my research time to texts from India. But it has convinced me that learning about, say, the idea of the self in the Upanishads, unattached action in the Bhagavad Gita, or non-violence in Jainism, would be worth the effort of any philosopher. The podcasts on India are intended as an invitation to listeners to do just that. They are designed to be useful for students and for an audience outside the bounds of academia. I also hope that they may be a useful resource for instructors who want to teach topics outside the bounds of their usual comfort zones.
Of course, I’m far from being the first philosopher to call for expanding the canon or to include “non-Western” philosophy and other figures who are typically ignored (of course, this would include pretty well all historical women thinkers). But my experience as a podcaster may give me an unusual perspective on the issue. The project has given me the chance to cover the history of philosophy without the constraints of a semester schedule, to go at a pace compatible with the “without any gaps” mantra. As a result, the podcast series has already run longer than a U.S. undergraduate degree would, and without getting any farther than late medieval philosophy. But, you might ask, is it really feasible to take the same approach in the context of university teaching?
Ironically, it was another philosophy podcaster (Matt Teichman, host of the interview series Elucidations) who recently pressed me on this issue, by asking precisely that question. And he’s right: perhaps all professional philosophers have wrestled with the problem of how to cover all the important things in the limited time of a single course. Are you really going to drop Aquinas from your medieval philosophy course to make room for Eriugena, or skip over Hume to accommodate Mary Wollstonecraft when teaching modern philosophy? But what I’ve come to think is that we should give up on trying to cover “all the important things.” For this is impossible by a very large margin. You might tell yourself you have covered the important medieval philosophers if you’ve done Anselm, Abelard, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. That’s an impressive line-up, no doubt. It’s a lot more medieval philosophy than most undergraduate students will ever read, and even gets in a thinker from the Islamic world. But do these big names really have a greater claim on our attention than Eriugena, Hildegard of Bingen, John Buridan, Meister Eckhart, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi?
My answer would be no. The fact that such authors are not, or not yet, “canonical” has little to do with historical and philosophical merit and much to do with the historiographical priorities and limited perspectives of previous generations. These generations wrote our textbooks, designed the syllabi for courses we took as students, and decided what to edit, study, and translate—and in so doing, shaped out sense of what is too “important” to leave out. In reality, there are simply too many important thinkers in every period to be fit into any undergraduate historical course, in both the historical and philosophical sense of “important.” And that’s without even getting into “minor” figures like, say, Saadia Gaon, Yahya ibn ‘Adi, Alcuin of York, John of Salisbury, Hadewijch, Radulphus Brito, or Henry of Ghent, all of whom would be well worth teaching to undergraduate students. So when we’re exposing students to any period in the history of philosophy, we should not tell ourselves that we only have time to visit the highlights. In fact we should admit that 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 thinkers, that will free us up to prioritize other concerns. Of course, different teachers will have different priorities. It would be reasonable to focus on just one topic and consider what a range of canonical and non-canonical thinkers have to say about it. And it would be more than reasonable to insist on including women philosophers and philosophers from non-European traditions. I suspect that many instructors are reluctant to cover such topics, even if they sympathize with the goal, precisely because the authors and texts in question are so unfamiliar. But as I’ve been pleased to discover doing the podcast, there are plenty of translations and there is plenty of secondary literature out there for all but the most abstruse and under-researched topics. (I always put recommendations on the website for each episode, by the way.) Thanks to scholars who have been plowing these fields for us, prepping a class session on the Upanishads or al-Farabi is going to be a lot easier than you might think. And it is certainly going to be rewarding enough, for both instructors and students, to be worth the effort.
Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He is the author of the History of Philosophy podcast, which is also appearing with Oxford University Press in the form of a series of books entitled “A History of Philosophy without Any Gaps.”