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17.10.15, Adamson, Philosophy in the Islamic World

17.10.15, Adamson, Philosophy in the Islamic World

Most surveys of philosophy in the Islamic world share the same shortcomings. They focus primarily on a couple of traditions, restricted by creed ("Islamic philosophy"), language ("Arabic philosophy"), or geography ("philosophy of Middle East" or "Near East") at the expense of covering the contributions of scholars from other milieus. They assume too much knowledge and training on the part of the reader, and are written for a limited audience that hardly needs an introduction to the discipline. They can be too limited in their scope, preferring to highlight the early formative periods, but do not connect them to later movements and thus perpetuate the notion that a dynamic tradition of Islamic or Arabic philosophy effectively ends in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, many treatments are just plain dull, presenting philosophy like a medicine that is good for you, but not enjoyable. The current volume eschews these pitfalls to create something truly special.

The title indicates that Adamson wishes to cover the philosophical traditions that existed geographically within the borders of the Islamic world, broadly conceived, and thus avoids the thematic problems of earlier surveys that limit themselves to Muslim or Arabic authors, including Christian and Jewish philosophers in conversation with the wider intellectual culture. The work spans more than 1200 years, three continents, and sixty chapters, split into three sections ("The Formative Period [Mu'tazilism to al-Ghazali]," "Andalusia," and "The Later Traditions [Abu l-Barakat to the legacy of Mulla Sadra]"). Most chapters are seven or eight pages and focus on a single author, though several seminal philosophers (al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, etc.) see several chapters, and there is special attention paid to theological influences. In these ways, Adamson's structure, treatment, and arguments do not reinvent the wheel entirely. To be fair, there are a few blind spots and gaps in coverage, specifically a lack of discussion of Persian or Indian influences or traditions until later chapters. Its greatest contribution to the genre is the treatment of philosophical trends up through the modern period, joining Ottoman and Safavid scholars to their predecessors in Andalusia. Scholars of either early or later periods will appreciate the near-effortless connectivity across the centuries in one volume.

Yet Peter Adamson's Philosophy in the Islamic World is nothing short of masterful in that it creates an accessible and eminently readable volume on a vast and difficult subject. The style of Adamson's writing stands out immediately. A conversational and personal tone pervades the work that is initially disorienting for those used to reading dry compendiums on the history of philosophy. For example, he begins a chapter on the Baghdad Peripatetics by informing the reader that he likes to keep up with the younger generation and their slang, such as "kickin' it old skool," which means that you are evoking an earlier era, specifically back to 1980s hip-hop (55). Adamson provides a footnote for further clarification. One finds these discursus throughout the work, which itself begins with a pun about a policeman following a silverware thief (punchline: we come to a "fork in the road" in which Hellenism splits between Latin, Greek, and Arabic traditions). I will not soon forget his description of al-Razi's Five Eternals, which, he offhandedly muses, would be a good name for a Motown group à la the Four Tops (53). While these and other winsome and cheeky statements often elicit a laugh or a smile--rare for this genre--they serve an important purpose and hint at a greater agenda.

What makes this volume and the wider series truly exceptional is Adamson's ability to educate and inform, and thus the work has the ability to reach a broader and less specialized audience than previous books on the subject. Indeed, I would recommend this book to both historians of philosophy and advanced undergraduates. The lucid explanations, evocative examples, personal anecdotes, and even bad puns serve to engage the reader while remaining scholarly and authoritative. Adamson's writing betrays the influence and spirit of his well-regarded, similarly titled podcast series A History of Philosophy without Any Gaps. In these ways, Adamson performs a kind of alchemy that the study of the history of philosophy desperately needs in this moment--a format that is academic, approachable, and likable. Like a master teacher whose students rarely miss class, his narrative and explanations stay with you and make you want to read more. On page 63, he begins a chapter on al-Farabi by telling the reader that "[o]ne of the things I like about working on the history of philosophy is that it naturally leads you to learn about all areas of philosophy." Adamson makes this sentiment infectious and compelling throughout this work. One hopes that he will continue to produce volumes in the series so that other philosophical traditions can receive the same important treatment.