Monday, April 24, 2023

it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap - Peter Adamson's Classical Philosophy, the beginning of the History of Philosophy without Any Gaps

Peter Adamson is an English philosopher with a long-running podcast, History of Philosophy without Any Gaps.  What can that mean, without any gaps?

We’ve finished Aristotle, and it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap.  In an undergraduate philosophy course you might reasonable expect to jump from Aristotle to, perhaps, Descartes, leaping over about 2,000 years of history in the process.  A more enlightened approach might include looking at Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century – still omitting the better part of two millennia. (Classical Philosophy, p. 309)

So we have an experienced undergraduate lecturer frustrated that he rarely gets to teach about Empedocles and Diogenes and all of the other figures who are so much fun.  I am reminded of the beloved Barnard philosophy professor in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field who spends too much time on the pre-Socratics because they are so enjoyable, and then has to blast through Plato and Aristotle before leaping to Descartes in the next semester.  There is only so much time in a semester, but not in a podcast series.  Adamson happily lingers among the pre-Socratics.

Then again, here is an episode on Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka, which suggests a different kind of thoroughness.

I have no room in my life for podcasts.  Fortunately Adamson has also written books.  To some degree the books must be edited transcripts of the podcast, although some episodes have guests and the book chapters do not.  I have only read the first book, Classical Philosophy (2014) and look through Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), the first half of which will be very helpful this summer as I look at Stoicism and Cynicism and so on.  The second half is neo-Platonism, pagan and Christian; I deliberately stopped before neo-Platonism which feels to me like a move to a philosophy of a different kind.

Other published volumes are: Philosophy in the Islamic World, Medieval Philosophy, Classical Indian Philosophy, and Byzantine and Renaissance Philosophy.  There are some tempting books here.

I had heard of but did not really know about Adamson’s when I planned my little Greek philosophy project.  If I had, I may not have thought of it as a readalong, but just read some texts alongside Adamson’s short pieces.  Why read along with me when you can read along with Adamson?  Too much thinking like this leads to torpor, so never mind.

It is helpful, though, to read along with an expert.  “The pages that follow [the second half of Plato’s Sophist] are among the most difficult in Plato’s writings, and have been much debated” (171).  What a relief to read this, since I did not understand that part of the dialogue at all.  How nice to know.

Adamson encourages the reading of original texts, but is realistic.  I read the third of Classical Philosophy covering Aristotle hoping to get a better idea of the readability of his books.  What should I read besides Nicomachean Ethics?  On the Soul, a work on psychology, sounds possible.  Metaphysics, as Adamson describes it, is still daunting.  Politics is perfectly readable.  I don’t know.  Still, I have read and perhaps even thought about Aristotle’s texts.  Reading about philosophy is doing philosophy.

Classical Philosophy is written with energy and good humor, and is a perfect fit for my level, whatever that is.  Interested undergraduate?  Persistent autodidact?  I have been enjoying myself and am likely to continue on into the series once I am done with the Greeks.

If someone knows the podcast, please let me know what you think.



  1. I have no doubt that many, or surely some, podcasts are very good, but I will never know, unless they provide transcripts like Adamson essentially does.

    Please, podcasters, transcripts. The software does most of the work now.

  2. I have no room in my life for podcasts.

    Same here. Provide a transcript and I'll check you out. Otherwise, you're dead to me.

  3. Another advantage of the transcript is that it makes a podcast easy to quote. But fast-forwarding through an audio file to find the quote, forget it.