Interview with Peter Adamson

© Peter Adamson and Figure/Ground
Dr. Adamson was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. November 5th, 2012.

Professor Adamson holds a joint appointment with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. During 2012-13, he will be at King’s College London in the Spring term for a research seminar on Late Ancient Philosophy. He has published on a wide range of figures in Greek and Arabic philosophy, including Aristotle, Plotinus, al-Farabi and other members of the Baghdad School, Avicenna and Averroes. However, he has concentrated especially on the output of the translation circle of al-Kindi, who is usually credited with being the first philosopher in the Islamic tradition. This research includes The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the “Theology of Aristotle and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi. Professor Adamson is also a co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, co-edited with Richard Taylor, and Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic and Latin Commentaries. He has edited three books for the Warburg Institute, the most recent of which, In the Age of Averroes, will appear soon. Professor Adamson hosts the excellent podcast History of Philosophy…Without Any Gaps.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

Yes, very much so. I discovered philosophy while doing my undergraduate degree at Williams College. My original plan was to be a literature major but (and this is a good example of the virtues of liberal arts colleges) I took courses in a number of other fields. I quickly found that philosophy was actually more to my taste than literature though I almost finished the English major nonetheless. By my final year I had pretty much decided to become (or try to become!) a professional academic, and that was certainly my aim in applying to grad school. Actually the focus on literature did have a further important influence, in that I found the period of literature I enjoyed most was medieval, and this led me to investigate medieval philosophy which is more or less where I’ve stayed.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

At undergrad level, particularly influential were an anthropology teacher, named Robert Jackall, who taught me early on the basic lesson that I was going to have to work a lot harder in university than I had in high school! Also a literature professor (especially on Dante), John Kleiner, and the various philosophy teachers: Rachel Rue and David Roochnik with whom I did ancient philosophy, Alan White and Jana Sawicki with whom I did continental and Hegel, and Steve Gerrard with whom I did history of analytic philosophy. The philosophy department at Williams was quite historically oriented which obviously stayed with me. Overall the teachers I had at Williams really helped me by displaying good teaching practice – Williams puts huge emphasis on teaching and all these professors I’ve mentioned were superb. Since I figured out pretty early on that I might want to do this myself I spent a lot of time in class thinking about how they were teaching, as well as what they were teaching. They were excellent role models. Kleiner was also important for me because he has an intellectual taste for unresolved tensions, and that became central to the way I thought about history of philosophy especially early on (e.g. texts where different philosophical traditions come together without really being compatible with one another).

Then at Notre Dame I was fortunate in having excellent teachers in ancient philosophy: Michael Loux, who had a huge impact on me by making me see that the tools of analytic philosophy could be used to do history of philosophy; and David O’Connor who was maybe more along the lines of what I’d experienced at Williams, reading ancient texts as literature as well as argument. That’s something Ken Sayre also emphasized. Between my undergrad teachers, O’Connor and Sayre I got to see Plato from many points of view and that has definitely helped me think about texts from different angles, and also to be open-minded about other approaches. But the two big people for me at Notre Dame were my two advisors, Stephen Gersh, who exposed me to Neoplatonism (and continental philosophy, though that didn’t really stick!) and David Burrell, who was my source for Arabic philosophy. Both of them also pushed in the direction of a broad conception of medieval philosophy: Gersh because he took things seriously that analytic philosophers might not (e.g. symbolic texts, numerology, etc. – and indeed Neoplatonism itself which was less fashionable then even than it is now) and Burrell because he was a theologian as well as a philosopher. Mark D. Jordan was also a big influence on me. For one thing he was a relentless user of the Socratic method and I have tried to bring that into my own teaching. Also he once tore apart a paper I wrote because the sentences were too long and complicated (I remember he used the word “raconated,” which I had to look up). That stung me into developing a much more concise writing style. Incidentally I should also mention the great Werner Beierwaltes, who was kind enough to meet with me regularly during a year I spent abroad in Germany, talking about Neoplatonism. That was inspiring, and I’ve wound up now with a professorship at the LMU in Munich where I used to visit him, something I can still barely believe.

I should also say that my years as an academic at King’s, where I had my first academic position (2000-2012), were as educational as my years as a student. One of the best things about being an academic is that you’re surrounded by other academics and as the years go by you should not stop learning, but on the contrary get even better at soaking up colleagues’ knowledge and learning to think the way they do. This is especially true for me as regards my ancient colleagues at King’s, Verity Harte, Raphael Woolf and MM McCabe who has been a particularly huge influence on me. Reading texts together with these colleagues for years has given me a kind of intellectual tool kit for approaching works of philosophy (especially Plato and Aristotle, but the techniques generalize well).

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

Here my experience is rather unusual because I have been at four very different institutions: a liberal arts college (Williams), a US research university (Notre Dame), and universities in the UK and Germany (King’s and now the LMU). This means I probably don’t have a very good insight into how things have changed during the last 20 years within the USA, for instance, but I can compare the different systems. There is a lot to say here. A few things leap to mind immediately though.

Firstly, it makes a huge difference whether or not students are paying fees, and how high the fees are. I saw major shifts just in my years at King’s because when I arrived an undergrad degree was almost free, and by the time I left it was ruinously expensive (£9000 per year, still cheaper than many US institutions of course). This changes the whole relationship between professor or university and student: it turns the students into consumers who expect (or are assumed to expect) a kind of packaged, spoon-fed product. By contrast, in Germany – especially under the old Magister system, though they have now brought in something more like the US and UK bachelor’s degree – the students are more like self-motivated inquirers who are using the university as a kind of instrument to help them learn. Of course one can be too idealistic about the no-fee system; in particular, if students don’t pay any money the university doesn’t have a very strong motivation to look after them, and I have seen the bad side of that in Germany back in the 90’s. Still there’s no doubt in my mind that high fees do a lot of damage to the learning experience.

Another issue that arises here is that if students vote with their feet and bring money to certain disciplines and courses rather than others (media studies instead of medieval studies, say) then effectively the students are deciding what will be funded at universities. Of course that has always been the case: more popular subjects have more academic positions. But I think that the UK is now going very fast in the direction of letting teenagers (that is, university applicants) decide what disciplines should exist and be expanded at its universities. This may not be such a bad idea, though: in my experience 18 year olds have a more enlightened idea of what is worth knowing than your average British politician. The same may be to some extent true in the USA as well, though the fact that students typically study a range of subjects may mitigate the effect to some extent. If enough people want to dabble in, say, medeival studies, then medieval studies can survive in the American system whereas in the European system it might die for lack of single-subject students. Meaniwhile in Germany, at least in my so far limited experience, they seem to fund disciplines more on the basis of research excellence than ability to attract high student numbers, though that is also a factor.

Another things that leaps to mind is that there is a wide variety in the amount of administrative work academics are expected to do. In the UK usually every academic has an administrative job as well as a teaching role and expectation to do research. This can easily take up a third of one’s time, or even more if you are, say, head of department or head of undergraduate studies (I did both of these jobs). The administrative stuff can be surprisingly rewarding but I don’t think one is prepared to expect it as a grad student. And of course academics are trained and hired with research and teaching expertise in mind, so it is pretty hit-and-miss whether academics are any good as administrators. So I’ve always found that aspect of the British system rather odd. My impression is that there is less in the way of administrative duties in the States and Canada. In Germany a full professor would have a fair amount to do but also help from a dedicated administrative assistant.

Similarly, something that many would-be academics might not realize is that there’s a big expectation, even in the humanities, to raise money by applying for grants. This takes up an amazing amount of time and can be very frustrating. One can easily have the experience of writing a 25+ page proposal for a research project which then gets rejected. In such a case, one has put as much effort in as one would into, say, a journal article or preparation for a one semester course, and the effort and time has been completely wasted – no one has learned anything or benefited in any way, except insofar as the professor has the dubious reward of having learned something about the procedures and tactics of writing grant applications. (There are interesting statistics about how many dollars/euros etc are spent by universities on applying for funding: often the outlay in staff time and other resources is as much as if not more than the amount of funding that is eventually handed out, which seems rather perverse. But of course the costs of applying are rather invisible since they mostly consist of staff time.) I think that the need to attract outside funding is a negative aspect of current academic culture, and in the humanities especially it makes little sense – it is really a model that belongs more in the “hard” sciences where you do need to get outside funding to get your particle accelerators and whatnot. Certainly there are some research projects in the humanities where you do need funding to build a team of people and spend money on, say, computer software for doing linguistic analysis, or whatever. But the need to attract funding has, I think, been undercutting the value of just sitting alone with books and thinking about them, which to me should still be a big part of what a humanities researcher ought to be doing.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

I think one can be too pessimistic on this front. After all most university experiences still involve a group of students with a teacher, and all of them are in a room together for a given amount of time. So they are not really distracted for that time by the internet and so on, as long as they keep their phones in their pockets. In my experience students have reasonable attention spans – they seem comparable to students back when I was an undergrad, when the internet was still in its infancy and so on. Of course students can get bored but that’s always been the case. The solution to that is what it has always been: clarity, enthusiasm about your subject, and if possible a dose of humor.

I have now been doing a rather different kind of “teaching” which is the podcast I host on the history of philosophy. Here, I’m of course capitalizing on the good things about the information revolution we’ve experienced in recent decades. Now it’s possible to offer something that is in a way a bit “niche” (perhaps history of philosophy doesn’t seem terribly niche, but the way I am doing it probably is, because I am doing it in so much detail – “without any gaps” – meaning that I needed to find an audience that is interested in learning about some rather obscure stuff). But even if the topic is of relatively narrow interest, if it is free and on the internet, you can get an audience of thousands. I find that very exciting.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

One thing I’d say is to seek the right balance between specialization and breadth. Pretty much everything about the job market pushes you in the direction of specialization: nowadays you are expected to publish already as a grad student, which means you need to focus in on a narrow area so you can become expert in it very fast. But then, as a professor, you quickly find that you need to cover a broad range of things as a teacher. Furthermore, good research will always have an eye on the bigger picture. For instance one could get a PhD by knowing one Platonic dialogue in great depth, enough to publish articles on that dialogue. But this isn’t the same as being an expert in ancient philosophy – and the work one would do on that dialogue will actually suffer, especially in the longer run, by lack of context. So my advice is nonetheless to focus on something narrowly and get expertise in it, but to be very broad-minded about what else might be relevant. Thus I think that if one were, say, writing a PhD on the political theory of Plato’s Republic, one should learn a lot about all of Plato and Aristotle at least, and preferably a good deal about the Presocratics and ancient philosophy after Aristotle; also useful would be to learn about contemporary philosophy in the same areas as one is working on (e.g. political philosophy, in this example).

A similar issue has to do with the fact that some topics are researched to death, while others are comparatively untouched. So for instance in ancient philosophy there is one Neoplatonism expert for every 20 Plato experts; yet there is a lot more to be done on Neoplatonism, with whole texts still awaiting translation and basic analysis, than there is in Plato. Of course Plato is such a rich author that his texts can reward an infinite amount of attention, but it’s harder to find things still worth saying about Plato and there’s a danger of re-inventing the wheel. Indeed you have to spend a lot of time just going through previous secondary literature in order to find out what’s already been said, and there’s another danger of just responding to the secondary literature rather than to the primary text. But there is a practical point here which is that it is harder to get a job if you worked on, say, Damascius (an ancient philosopher no one has heard of) than if you did the familiar stuff that one is expected to teach. All of this would apply, I suppose, in pretty much any humanities discipline (e.g. in art history the choice would be between studying Picasso vs some obscure painter no one has heard of). Anyway my advice here (much as with the previous point) is nonetheless to be open-minded and look for genuinely new topics of research.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

To refer back to one of the points I’ve already made, grant money in humanities is handed out partially according to whether what is proposed is “interdisciplinary” – almost to the point that if one is staying within the bounds of a traditional discipline and traditional methods, one will immediately be ruled out of contention. This strikes me as ridiculous and as one distortion of the humanities fields (among others) that is being inflicted by the funding culture. Of course sometimes there is a case to be made for interdisciplinary studies, the use of new and innovative methods, and so on. But these disciplines and traditional methodologies exist for a reason, they are not entirely arbitrary and blinkered. Besides, interdisciplinarity by definition presupposes the existence of some disciplines that are brought together. Thus, the core of what happens at a university is disciplinary studies, not interdisciplinary studies, both as concerns teaching and as concerns research. In general most academics spend almost all their time doing work within a traditional discipline, even if they deny that for the sake of self-presentation. That’s how it should be – the boundaries of the traditional disciplines need not be set in stone, but when they change they change slowly and for a good reason, rather than being blurred just for the sake of the blurriness.

I also think that for the very reasons cited in the question – information overload and so on – students, or at least good students, have a genuine desire for deep learning within a given discipline. They do not want to pick and choose bits and pieces from across all the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. This takes me back to what I said about my own education – the opportunity to explore a range of fields, as I did at Williams, can be invaluable. But ultimately if you want to do useful work as an academic you need to find a field that suits you (in my case history of philosophy) and explore that discipline as thoroughly as you can. The case I’ve made for broad-mindedness seems to me to work best within a discipline, and the expertise you can get by doing that is a prerequisite of doing good interdisciplinary work.

Francis Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the US, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. He believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. What do you make of this?

Here I am again in an unusual position in that I have seen tenure-track institutions as a student and non-tenure-track institutions in Europe as a professor. One thing I think is not optimal about Germany, where there are no tenure-track jobs (or hardly any), is that you get a two-level system with secure and well-resourced professors at the top and temporary academics below them. It’s quite nice if you’re one of the professors, as I am now! But it means that if you want to be an academic you have to put up with job insecurity well past the stage most normal people would have a good idea where they will be living and working. Of course people with “normal” jobs are subject to losing those jobs. But a young academic in Germany almost has to assume they will change jobs, and usually cities, numerous times while they work their way up the ladder – thus instability is the rule rather than the exception. The USA is all the way at the other end of the extreme. Most academics begin with a chance at tenure and, if they are successful, they have a guaranteed job for life. The arguments against this – inability to respond to new intellectual environments with any speed, inability to get rid of idle faculty, etc. – are very familiar. But all in all I think it is a more humane system than the German one.

It may be that the UK system is the happy medium. No one has tenure, but one can work one’s way up starting as a lecturer and moving up to senior lecturer or reader, and then professor, depending on how well one publishes. If one doesn’t manage to make a case that one should be promoted, one simply stays at the lower level rather than actually being fired. On the other hand, there is a downside, which is that in principle staff can in fact simply be removed at the whim of a university administration (which they call “de-investing”). In practice that turns out to be very difficult, if only because of the bad publicity that results. But that hasn’t stopped it from being tried several times in the UK in the past few years, including at my own institution of King’s. The episode I’m referring to was by far the worst experience I had at King’s, which in general was a wonderful place to be for more than a decade. This debacle could never have occurred if there were a tenure system in place.

So, overall I think I am a bit on the fence about tenure – it has good sides and bad sides but they are probably just about matched by different bad and good sides in the other systems I’ve seen up close.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter Adamson
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with Peter Adamson,” Figure/Ground. November 5th.
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