Philosophy in the Islamic World

A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 3

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Peter Adamson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2016.
     280 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199577491.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

One could say many of things of Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Islamic World: hefty, long, or fat—but dense or dry do not apply. This book is based on a series of podcasts on philosophy, which Adamson has made freely available. The series begins with Classical Philosophy followed by Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds. He intends to continue with books both on Medieval and Indian philosophy.

The aim, according to the publisher’s description of the series, is to “present a complete history of philosophy, more thoroughly but also more enjoyable than ever before,” and one does not need to be a philosopher to enjoy this book. Written in a conversational style, it is easy to follow and can serve as a good introduction to the study of philosophy. In addition to the endnotes, which point to books to deepen one’s knowledge on a particular topic, Adamson helpfully suggests books for further reading on the main topics in the final section.

Despite coming third in a series, one does not need to have read the previous two books in the series. While Adamson at times references previously mentioned material, he does not do so assuming crucial knowledge. For instance, in chapter sixty while speaking of women scholars in the Islamic world he writes “women feature prominently in the history of religious asceticism and mysticism from early on in the Islamic world. Here we can detect a parallel to late antiquity, when the “desert mothers” joined in the Christian ascetic movement” (426). Not having read the previous text—which explains the desert mothers—is no disadvantage in understanding the present passage.

Philosophy in the Islamic World is more or less thorough, depending on one’s view. Spanning over 450 pages, this book covers a period of almost fourteen hundred years, and covers philosophers from as far west as Andalusia and as far east as India. The book opens with the beginning of philosophy in the Islamic world, under nascent Islam, with the Greek-to-Arabic translation movement, weaving its way through the history, influences, and philosophers working in the Islamic world to philosophy in Andalusia, and finally finishing with the introduction and reception of enlightenment philosophy in the Islamic world. One cannot hope to cover every philosophical argument that took place over such a lengthy period and over such a wide geographical area, but Adamson does succeed in offering one of the most complete introductions to this period covering both major and minor figures. The majority of the sixty-two chapters are a mere seven pages long: not long enough to go into any real depth, but each chapter does present a solid overview of the influences—cultural, religious, and mystical—that help shape the philosophical history, as well as the main topics of discussion. Adamson does not constrain himself to the oft mentioned main characters, but strives to encompass women and other minor figures who played a part in the history of philosophy. He acknowledges the mutual influence that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers had on each other, and whereas most introductions focus either on Jewish Medieval philosophy or Islamic philosophy, this book encompasses both, enabling the reader to better recognize the mutual influences of one upon the other.

Adamson presents, critiques, and explains as necessary. In the chapter on the Greek-to-Arabic translation movement, Adamson makes sure to explain the role of the translator in philosophy. “The translators of the Metaphysics effectively decided for future readers what Aristotle had in mind every time he used the word eidos—‘form’ or ‘species’—without the reader even knowing that any decision had been taken” (23). In the same chapter while speaking of the translation of Plotinus, Adamson references inaccurate translations that were made. “The changes made in the Arabic Plotinus are anything but philosophically innocent.” To help his readers distinguish between innocent changes of language and intentional ones, his refers to dubbed movies, explaining how these are not changes due to differences in language, but as if entire new scenes were added to the movie.

This book contains a timeline to help the uninitiated place each philosopher in their proper time period. There are minimal endnotes to distract the reader and those that are there generally point the reader to texts. As an introduction to philosophy in the Islamic world, the book is readable, relatively thorough, and provides a solid foundation for the topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie Nuar is adjunct professor of world religions at St. John's University, Rome campus.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Adamson took his doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and first worked at King's College London. In 2012 he moved to the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen, where he is Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy. He has published widely in ancient and medieval philosophy, especially on Neoplatonism and on philosophy in the Islamic world. 

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