One of my favorite podcasts is the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, on which Prof. Peter Adamson of Kings College, London, and the University of Munich, is slowly but steadily working his way through (Western) philosophy, from the Pre-Socratics to the present. This year is being taken up with philosophy in the medieval Islamic world, which is Adamson’s chief area of research. While I know a bit about philosophy in the Islamic world (and have even taught al-Ghazali in a Great Books course), it’s an area that I ought to know more about and have really enjoyed and benefitted from Adamson’s coverage of it.
But I’ve noticed something odd about my ability to absorb the material of the podcast since it moved from the late Classical world to Islamic lands in the Middle Ages: I have a much harder time really taking it in, simply because I don’t know the chronology of Islamic history nearly as well as I know that of the West (broadly understood).
To a very great extent, the basic chronology of U.S. and modern European history are second nature to me. And I am nearly as familiar with the chronology of earlier periods of European history. When, for example, I encounter a text by John Dewey or Tom Paine or Thomas Hobbes or Cicero or Plato, I immediately know when it was written. And, just as importantly, I have a sense of the significance of when it was written, of what was going on, politically, culturally, and intellectually, in the early 20th century US, in British North America in the 1770s, in England (and continental Europe) in the mid-17th century, in Rome in the 1st century BCE, or in late 5th and early 4th century Athens.
Though I’ve certainly encountered the history of Islam, I’ve never studied it in any detail and I simply don’t know it as well. The same is, to a greater or lesser extent, true of the histories of, e.g., Japan, China, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Latin America. Thus, when I encounter a discussion of the work of philosophers like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, or Averroes, I often can’t immediately call to mind when or where they lived. And, once I remind myself of their times and places, they still mean much less to me than, say, the fact that Hobbes wrote Leviathan in Paris as Civil War raged in England.
None of this, it should be said, is Peter Adamson’s fault. Adamson does a fine job throughout his podcasts of reminding the listener of the historical contexts – especially the intellectual contexts – of his thinkers. But Adamson’s own care just makes my sense that I’m understanding less of the history philosophy in the Islamic world all the more striking.
As historians, we often take chronology for granted. Nothing could be more old-fashioned than memorizing dates. Indeed, I’m sure we’ve each spent a good deal of time explaining to non-academics that that’s not what we do. But as part of the process of learning to do the various things that historians actually do, we’ve all come to know a lot of chronology as second nature. And our ability to call up dates–of important events, people, cultural changes, intellectual trends, and the like—without giving it a second thought allows us to do all kinds of things when we encounter historical texts.
Finding myself in an historical space in which I can’t do that has been instructive, not least because I suspect it makes me a bit like a lot of my students, whose relationship to the finer points of the chronology of U.S. history is probably not unlike my relationship to the finer points of the chronology of Islamic history.
But, having said that, I’m not entirely sure how to alter this state of affairs—for myself or for my students. For I realize that the ease with which I can think about US and European history is related to the richness of my knowledge of both. The chronology of those histories is at hand precisely because I know so much about it. Times and places in the European and American past—the U.S. in 1865 or Germany in 1939—immediately call to mind a host of associations. The same is simply not true of ninth-century Baghdad, where al-Kindi lived and worked. The answer is not, I think, simply memorizing dates. That’s certainly not how I got my level of fluency with the European and American pasts. And my guess is that I’ve probably already spent more time worrying about keeping straight the chronology of philosophy in the Islamic world than most of my students spend worrying about when George Fitzhugh or Whittaker Chambers lived and wrote.
 And, yes, I had to look that up. I knew the Baghdad part, but I was stuck between the 9th and 10th centuries.