300a. The Relevance of Ancient Philosophy Today

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Three guests to celebrate 300 episodes! Rachel Barney, Christof Rapp, and Mark Kalderon join Peter to discuss the importance of ancient philosophy for today's philosophers.



Further Reading

Websites for our three guests, with lists of their publications:

Rachel Barney

Christof Rapp

Mark Kalderon


Sergio Mattioni on 26 April 2018

Congrats and thanks!!!

Hi Peter, I discovered your fabulous website about six months ago. It made me love philosophy and want to learn more on the subject (always believed that was impossible to accomplish). Congratulations on the 300th episode! And many, many thanks for this wonderful job you've done already. For many more episodes to come! 

I'm a systems engineer. Best rgds from Argentina. 

In reply to by Sergio Mattioni

Peter Adamson on 26 April 2018


Cool! One thing I love about doing the podcast is being able to reach people in places like Argentina, where I have never even been, to say nothing of getting to teach there or give talks or whatever. So glad you like the series!

Peter Adamson on 28 April 2018

Book on Plato's contemporary relevance

If you're interested in the contemporary relevance of Plato's political thought, as discussed by Rachel Barney in this episode, you may also want to check out this new book by Jonny Thakkar, Plato as Critical Theorist.

Ted on 29 May 2018


As an apolitical person who really hates it when someone injects contemporary politics into a history lesson, left, right, or middle, I was very disappointed at Professor Barney's use of Plato's Republic as a springboard for criticisms against Trump. We don't need more partisan politics in our history discussions. Please!

In reply to by Ted

Peter Adamson on 30 May 2018


Well, I think that's a bit unfair. If I'm remembering that part right, she didn't really even criticize Trump in her own voice as such, just pointed out that there has been quite a lot of discussion of Trump in the media and so on that has invoked Plato - which is just a statement of fact and is clearly relevant to a discussion of Plato's contemporary relevance, which after all was the topic of the interview. Indeed it would, I think, have been rather strange to have a discussion about this topic in 2018 (or actually 2017, when we recorded it) without even mentioning this most striking example of the way ancient philosophy has played a role in contemporary discourse.

Of course there is a further question whether people are justified to use, say, Plato's analysis of the tyrannical mindset to understand Trump as a person or political leader, or to analyze Brexit through the lens of Plato's critique of democracy. I think if someone made a cogent argument along these lines then it would also be a powerful way of demonstrating the continued relevance of ancient philosophy. I understand why you might want to keep things "apolitical" to avoid hurting people's feelings or just because a podcast like this is usually a refuge from politics. I more or less feel that way too and mostly avoid mentioning contemporary politics in the podcast. But we should I think be open to the idea of bringing the ancient texts to bear on our current situation.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ted on 3 June 2018


Fair enough. I do look to podcasts such as yours as a very pleasant refuge from the irrational wasteland of contemporary politics, as you guessed. I do see your point, however, and in the future I'll try not to let it get to me if some relevant bits seep into the discussions.

Thank you for the wonderful podcast.

Taxi on 4 October 2018

Just listened to this today. 

Just listened to this today.  Enjoyed it, but it was a bit disappointing that it was pretty much all about Plato and Aristotle, the two guys that any history of philosophy with all the gaps would include.  I have to admit I was hoping for someone saying Plotinus is relevant today, or Stoic logic, or something.  Perhaps we must wait for the Without Any Gaps generation to come of age before we can expect that.  Nice to get some Empedocles, at least.

In any case looking forward to listening to 300b.

In reply to by Taxi

Peter Adamson on 4 October 2018

Relevance of others

Well,  this was supposed to be about how figures from ancient philosophy have actually featured in non-historical work, and to be honest contemporary philosophers, at least on the analytic side, have not ventured far beyond the two biggest names - so in that sense I think the interview conveys a pretty accurate picture. But of course I agree with you that other ancient thinkers should get more attention!

Andrew on 2 October 2023

Hellenistic Schools + future relevance interviews

Surprised there was no mention of any of the Hellenistic schools in this discussion. I know you mentioned in another comment that the Plato and Aristotle being the big focus could just be reflective of the current interest on the analytic side, but even then I find it quite interesting that no Hellenistic schools were mentioned at all. Not even Stoicism. Guess the current popular interest in Stoicism is neither reflective of analytic interest or had any influence at all on the academic level? (Well, to be fair though, it was only three people. But still found it weird that not even Stoicism was brought up).

Also, while I know that the two part relevance interviews was in part because it was to celebrate 300 episodes, I wonder if you will ever do this kind of episode(s) again for other periods in philosophy. Do we have to wait for the stars to align to get it, e.g. a series ending on a hundred again? I hope not. These two (one?) episodes were really fascinating.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 3 October 2023

Relevance of Hellenistic

Good point, I think the coverage here was more a matter of whom I happened to have handy when I was putting the episode together (for instance I was in London so took the opportunity to interview Prof Kalderon). But actually I would say that Stoicism is very impactful on the broader public but not so much in contemporary philosophy, which is what I was going for here. I can imagine doing another episode like this at some point but we'd have to get through a lot of early modern philosophy first.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 3 October 2023


Oh that is interesting. I would have thought that the popularisation in Stoicism would have affected academic study. Is it inertia maybe? Just waiting for the next generation of students that have had been in the movement? Or is there some other reason?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 3 October 2023


Well for starters Hellenistic philosophy is just taught much less. But also I think there is a divide between the popular and scholarly approach to the Stoics; for the most part the former is inspired by the Roman Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus) whereas the scholars are more interested in reconstructing early Stoicism (Chrysippus) et al. Of course this is an exaggeration and some very well credentialed scholars, like Chris Gill and John Sellars, are interested in the "pop" Stoic movement.

Erik Holkers on 1 June 2024

refuge from physics

Hi Peter,
While listening to the interview with Prof Kalderon on colour I wandered why the he didn't even briefly mention how current day physics approaches this. At some point I think he more or less says that he considers that the colour that we perceive is actually a property as such of the things out there in the world. It feels like something was left out, i.e. the model that light can be looked at as particles or waves and when you approach it as being a wave you can measure wave length and the wave length determines the colour you perceive. To me that means that colour isn't out there (just waves out there) but only exists in my mind. I know, also just a model. 
I used the word refuge because in one of the previous comments refuge-from-politics was mentioned. Do you know why Prof Kalderon didn't mention the wave length model, not just once ? 

In reply to by Erik Holkers

Peter Adamson on 1 June 2024

Physics of color

I really don't know, but if I had to guess it would be that it is an answer to a different question. The details of the physical mechanism by which color is realized and transmitted to the senses could vary quite a lot or be entirely mysterious, without having any direct impact on whether we are realists about color. I mean, imagine you think that color is transmitted by particles and then you discover, no, it is by waves - why would that change your mind about whether color is real?

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