Peter Adamson, and the gap problem

It’s wonderful to have Peter Adamson’s perspective on this perpetual problem in teaching the history of philosophy: whom do I cover, and whom do I leave out? Adamson, of course, is bravely executing “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” podcast. He knows it’s impossible, but he’s doing what he can do give some basic treatment of philosophy from all times and places. I’ve heard a few of the podcasts, but have recently gone to the very beginning and am listening in order while I’m having to haul my body from one place to another. He’s endearingly nerdy and silly, and also absolutely genuine and responsible. He’s doing a good thing.

The basic tension is that teachers feel obligated to cover “the greats” – the people whose names students really must recognize, and will most likely encounter in other classes or books or conversations. But at the same time, these “greats” in the western tradition tend to be all men, precisely because women have for such a long time been forbidden or at least strongly discouraged from participating. Whether we mean to or not, we perpetuate the discrimination by not including women philosophers, since undergraduate women often come away with the sense that this is a game for boys. And even setting that important issue aside, there are loads of wonderful, intriguing philosophers from history who did not make the “A-list” for reasons having nothing to do with intrinsic merits of their writing. Accidents of history, and all that.

But every school term is limited. Peter nails the tension head-on:

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?

And his answer swiftly follows:

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 our 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.

Peter goes on to recommend that we don’t think of covering the “major” figures as our primary responsibility. We might think in terms of giving a taste of the kinds of problems of the time period, the styles of argument, the big concerns, and the seemingly endless variety of voices. Students who leave class with an informed sense of the complicated landscape of early modern philosophy – metaphysical, social, epistemological, political, religious – will be much better served that those who leave with the sense that there was Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume — and little else going on.

There is plenty of room for experiment and variation in these matters. One way to dispel the “boys only” sense is to include secondary articles by contemporary female historians of philosophy. One can devote a day to two or three lesser-known figures; or, turning that upside down, one can spend a day providing a thumbnail sketch of a “great,” and then spend two or three days going into greater detail of a lesser-known figure. One can assign an “orthodox narrative” (like Copleston’s) as homework reading, and then use class time to complicate and challenge that narrative.

In the end, I agree with Peter that we can stop thinking of our work in teaching the history of philosophy as something like screwing this or that part onto a chassis as it rolls down the line, thinking that we must make sure that these parts are included for the final product to be functional. A better view is that we are equipping students for much more variable tasks, and a more open-ended future.


About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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