Hi, I’m Ratan Varghese and you’re reading “Ra-Tan Lines”, brought to you with the support of the Iron Warrior and sleep deprivation. This issue’s podcast: The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.
The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is one of the most ambitious projects in all of podcasting. That much is clear. But what is history? What is philosophy? When is a gap not a gap? What is the nature of ambition, and furthermore, when does one podcast end and the other begin? Today, we’ll be tackling these questions and others. First, however, let’s consider the host who started it all.
Peter Adamson is a professor of ancient and Arabic philosophy at the University of Munich. He is a very clear speaker, even when distorted by my podcast speed settings. He is also known to be fond of Buster Keaton, giraffes, ensuring that the role of marginalized peoples in shaping history will not be forgotten, and puns. When monologuing about philosophy, he seems genuinely interested but not particularly happy or sad. It is the content of his words that stick with the listener, not his voice.
While he is clearly quite knowledgeable, he is also quite aware of the limits of his knowledge, and makes sure to consult people with more specialized information when appropriate. In interviews with other academics, one gets the feeling that they sorted out all the really obvious misconceptions beforehand, leaving only a slick, information-dense dialogue for public consumption.
So enough of the man and his mannerisms. Does this podcast actually cover the entire history of philosophy? The answer is: not yet. This is a work in progress with enhancement on two fronts. On the main podcast feed are topics that are roughly within Adamson’s area of expertise: the philosophy of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans. The current topic is philosophy during the European Renaissance. On a second feed are topics where Adamson gets someone else to do the bulk of the research and planning, while he focuses on the presentation. It has already covered Indian philosophy, and currently this feed is focused on African and “Africana” philosophy. Just in case that wasn’t clear: this is a project involving two separate podcast feeds which each include at least two series. One could reasonably call the entire thing a podcast, or call each feed a separate podcast, or even call each series a podcast. I personally would call it a single podcast, as it is the product of a single, clear vision.
This is a history of philosophy podcast, so naturally the history of other areas of life are covered with the minimum detail necessary to understand limitations that philosophers were living under. While many people might abhor the limitations cultural norms and religious faith impose on human thought, Adamson’s work reveals a different view on the matter. It can be quite interesting to see just how cleverly people can justify their views within the limitations of their era. An example is how Augustine’s theories about mind and memory meshed with his religiously-imposed belief in the Trinity. Naturally, I’d expect Adamson and his listeners would strongly object to life under ancient theocracies, while still being willing to describe their contributions to the present day.
As for the philosophical concepts described in the podcast, I cannot judge Adamson on his comprehensiveness as I have little knowledge of philosophy myself. I can say that I find some of the concepts less memorable than others. Quite often the ideas seem to enter my left ear and exit the right. However this is not due to any failure on Adamson’s part, but due to the fact that I’m usually doing something else with my eyes while listening to his podcast.
There is also a fair bit of meta-philosophy. Adamson accepts a wide range of works and practices as possibly being philosophy, while mentioning that others may have narrower definitions of the field. Nowhere is this more clear than in the series on African philosophy, where the differences between philosophy, religion and culture are discussed for what felt like forever. In a Q&A episode, Adamson has said he regretted omitting certain people he initially considered non-philosophers, such as Herodotus (known to some as the Father of History, and others as the Father of Lies).
The thing that takes this project away from the realm of normalcy and into the inspirational is the last part of the title: “without any gaps”. The problem that Adamson set out to solve was that most courses on the history of philosophy are limited by the length of school terms and years. Thus, they end up skipping over thousands of years of thought. This isn’t something I would know about by the way, just something Adamson and his critics both seem to mention.
However, it is not as though every second of philosophical thought that ever occurred can be described in podcast form. First of all, quite a lot of information has been lost. Secondly, not everyone involved in philosophy provided enough original ideas to merit a minute of fame. This is why some philosophers get more coverage than others: in some cases individual philosophers are given dozens of episodes, while in other cases entire schools of philosophy that have endured for centuries can be condensed into a single episode. Given the state of my knowledge and the state of the project’s completion, the most I can say is that the hosts are trying really hard, and I would be surprised if there was any other work covering the history of philosophy with even fewer gaps.
All episodes of The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps last between 15 and 50 minutes. Each ‘series’ has its own intro music and outro music. There are none of the usual ad breaks or discount codes one finds in other podcasts, instead Adamson states his two sources of support briefly at the start of each episode. The main feed started in 2010, the secondary feed started in 2015, and both are updated roughly once every two weeks if the podcast isn’t on holiday. There’s still quite a lot of ground to cover: the main feed has only started dealing with the Renaissance very recently. In general, this is a good podcast if you have time to focus, but can be exhausting binge-listen. One can only hope the podcast survives long enough to eventually live up to its name.