Post 37: History of Philosophy part 1

Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.


Pre-Socratics

Book coverI’m going to stick with reviewing his coverage of Classical philosophy: partly because he has a book out on that section, and partly because it is as far as I have got! I’ve not got a huge background in philosophy personally – I once read Sophie’s World (which is another good intro) and something by Plato on the death of Socrates (without picking up any of the subtleties). As to the actual ideas, I am still very much a novice.

It’s a good thing then that Adamson starts at the very beginning with the earliest Greek Philosopher, Thales of Miletus. Along with many of the pre-socratic thinkers, he gives an attempted explanation of natural phenomena. This practical side makes it easy (for me as a physicist anyway) to become drawn into the subject. These are effects that we all know and while the answers may not be correct, it is (sometimes) simple to understand or hazard a guess where these ideas are coming from. Sources for these early philosophers are obviously poor – there are often just fragments of larger statements or brief soundbites that hint at several possible interpretations. Alternatively, the information may come from later philosophers who are using the ideas for their own purposes. The term ‘Pre-Socratics’ suggests another issue with these philosophers – they are a bit of a mixed bag, lumped together solely because they came before the truly big hitters – but there are still some familiar names here: Pythagoras (of Maths fame), Heraclitus (‘stepping into the same river twice’) and Democritus (invented the atom). Adamson expertly guides the listener know the characters, their ideas or developments and who we can interpret them.


Socrates and Plato

This mixed bunch of thinkers would, to later audiences, be blown away by the arrival of Socrates and his pupil Plato. It gets awkward to separate these two as so much of what we know about Socrates comes from the work of Plato, which is usually aimed at presenting his own thoughts. There are other sources for the life of Socrates and they may attest to his reputation, but they don’t have much real philosophical content. The simplest thing you can say about him is that he asked a lot of questions, wound people up, and laid the ground for the more complete work of Plato.

There’s a saying that Adamson quotes – “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And he does well to explain why one might think or even reasonably argue for this. Any philosophical topic out there will have been tackled by Plato at some point – generally written in his ‘dialogues’: a kind of play where characters (based on real people like Socrates) will discuss these ideas, usually with Socrates pointing out the flaws in peoples’ arguments and everyone getting more and more confused. While the characters may have been confused, Plato however manages to fit together a large body of generally coherent and self-consistent theories – though as some of the discussions show, they would still very much have been a work in progress for him. Adamson shows his talent as a lecturer and does a fantastic job at conveying the basics of these to the audience, often with the help of a philosophical giraffe or Buster Keaton.


Aristotle

After Plato comes the footnotes – but if Aristotle is a footnote, then he’s one of those footnotes that takes over the book (like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). Like Plato he covers pretty much any area of philosophy you could think of, but unlike Plato he starts to divide these neatly into their own little sub genres. They still fit together as a whole, but we get Physics discussed separately from Biology or the Soul with a kind of literature review and moderate conclusion based on logic, observations and the work of his predecessors. It’s a huge advance on the work and style of these predecessors and it would be the basis for everything to come after it for centuries (probably for a bit too long tbh – some of the theories were still way off). These concepts and arguments are much more complicated and involved that those that went before, but Adamson again explains them well and encourages the listener to do reading of their own to pick up the details. Discussion episodes with guest philosophers also help to put these in context and give time for these ideas to sink in.


I would highly recommend this series for anyone who has a budding interest in any areas of philosophy (be that science, logic, the concept of a soul …) or the history behind it. There’s a light tone and mix of humour that nicely balances the heavier moments on more complicated subjects; a bit of history thrown into the mix for context, and then interpretation from an experienced lecturer in the subject. It’s really a great idea, executed well, and it will encourage (and enthuse) the listener to get out there and read up on these topics themselves! Check it out at http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/

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