Interview with Peter Adamson

Prof. Adamson, a main part of your research focuses on philosophy in the (medieval) Islamic world. Was the question of the “good life” a question which Islamic philosophers were concerned with, and would you say that there is a conception of the “good life” which most of them share?

Yes, certainly. Especially thinkers who are more influenced by Aristotle and engaged with the arabic version of his Nicomachean Ethics, like al-Fārābi and Miskawayh, for instance, have plenty to say about the topic of happiness. So this means that they follow Aristotle and the Greek tradition in adopting “eudaimonism,” the notion that the good life for humans is indeed to be happy. They tend to emphasize the more intellectual or contemplative side of Aristotle’s ideas about happiness, which we find in the last book of the Ethics. So in other words, though they definitely think that practical virtuous activity is worthwhile, they think the perfection of the mind is a higher pursuit. Often that is understood, as one might expect, in terms of grasping God insofar as is possible. In this respect figures from the Islamic world prefigure, to some extent, the ethics of Latin scholastic philosophers like Aquinas.

Then also in the Islamic world you have a tradition of ethical reflection with Islamic theology, or kalām. Here the central concept is not however “happiness” or the good life so much as obligation, though of course it is understood that a blessed afterlife awaits those who fulfil their obligations. The main philosophical debate within this part of the tradition concerns the sources of obligation: one school of thought held that we can determine our obligations using reason, for instance knowing it is wrong to harm people without good cause or to lie. Another school thought instead that all obligations are imposed by God. So again, that anticipates a debate we can find in Latin scholasticism, with the latter school already putting forth the kind of “voluntarist” account of morality that became dominant in the fourteenth century with philosophers like Ockham. Philosophers of religion still talk about this under the heading of the “divine command theory” of morality.

There is an interesting fable written by the 12th-century thinker Ibn-Tufayl, called “The Philosopher as an Autodidact.” He imagines the Robinson-Crusoe-like case of an infant who grows up alone on a far-away-island, but manages to teach himself all the knowledge necessary for the right kind of life – just by studying the world around him and employing reason. At the end of his life, the “autodidact” has even taught himself the mysteries of the Quran – without ever reading it. Do you think that this optimism about the capabilities of the human mind is unique to the medieval Islamic world? And were the Islamic philosophers convinced that we can learn the right way of life simply by using rational thought?

Right, so this actually takes us to what I was saying in response to the first answer: the more rationalist school of theologians would have said yes to your question, the other school would have denied it. Philosophers tend to be rationalists, of course, and I would take Ibn Tufayl to be arguing that a philosopher, even a self-taught philosopher, can work out all important truths on their own, these being the core truths also taught by revelation. Whether that means that philosophers can actually dispense with the revealed law is another matter, though. Another couple of highly rationalist philosophers who were from Islamic Spain, like Ibn Tufayl, were Averroes and Maimonides. And I take both of them to think that philosophy is the best way for understanding the message of revelation (the Quran and Torah, respectively), but that the revelation may impose additional obligations on us that we could not have known by reason. For instance you might know rationally that God should be honored, but not that we ought to pray to Him at least five times per day.

Many readers might know you already from your podcast The History of Philosophy without any Gaps, in which you intend to give an overview about the entire history of philosophy – without skipping niche figures or non-European traditions. Let’s relate this to the “right way of life” – do you think that learning about the history of ideas can help people to lead better lives or to cope with the present?

Sure, of course! Actually a lot of people are nowadays finding inspiration in traditions like ancient Stoicism, and there are even self-help courses built around Stoic teachings. If we think about a tradition like Buddhism, it’s even more obvious that philosophical traditions that began a long time ago still offer a “way of life” for a huge section of the world’s population. I have to admit that my own history of philosophy project, the podcast and books based on it, is not really aimed so much at that, because I am more in the business of comparing different thinkers and their ideas, talking about the contexts that gave rise to them, raising possible objections, and that kind of thing. Still I would hope that listeners or readers who are particularly taken with one or another thinker or tradition will be inspired to dig deeper and perhaps take ideas from wider reading that feed into the way they live their lives.

Thank you for taking the time!

Interview by Maximilian Priebe


Prof. Peter Adamson teaches Ancient and Islamic Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and he is also affiliated with King’s College London. With his podcast “The history of philosophy without any gaps” he has been opening up the subject to a wider audience since 2010. His research interests include the impact of women thinkers in the late antique and medieval period.

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