‘Philosophy Without Borders?’ Defining Philosophy at its Cross-Section with Theology

By Cameron Clausing

A version of this post was given by Cameron Clausing, a PhD candidate in Theology and History at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, as a response to the 2019 Gunning Lecture Series. These lectures were given by Dr Peter Adamson, Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Professor Mona Siddiqui opened this series of lectures with a brief history of the Gunning Lectures. In that introduction she reminded us of the endowment that was given by Dr. Gunning for this series, and that one purpose of the lecture series was to provide students in training for Christian ministry with an opportunity to explore the intersection between theology and philosophy. While I am not here at New College for ministerial training per se, I am training to become a theologian in the Christian tradition, with a particular interest in the intersection between theology and philosophy, so I believe Dr. Gunning would be pleased to know that the lectures are still faithful to his charter. It is to this concern that I want to focus my reflections.

Prof Peter Adamson delivers the first lecture in the 2019 Gunny Lecture Series at New College on 7 May 2019. Photo by Lucy Schouten

Throughout this lecture series, I have appreciated Professor Adamson’s clear and cogent call to consider philosophy and philosophical developments outside of the ‘Western tradition’. During training in either theology or philosophy, it becomes easy to form a myopic view of one’s own tradition and see other traditions as ‘filling in the gaps’ of your tradition. This view sees the philosophical or theological ‘other’ as valuable only in so far as it adds to or compliments one’s own philosophical or theological tradition. Professor Adamson, however, argues that when one allows the other traditions to speak for themselves, there can be interesting insights into the potentiality of cross-cultural influence. As with many claims about these types of influences, there is difficulty in proving the direction in which the influence occurred.

In some ways, one could see these different traditions much like the spots on a giraffe, no two giraffes having the same spots but all of them being similar enough to know that they are all giraffes. (Admittedly, this may be a forced analogy.) The similarities are striking, and thus, they warrant our serious consideration.

Flowing from this, my question comes out of the first lecture, ‘Philosophy Without Borders: Intellectual Exchange between India, Europe, Islam and Africa‘, and and was reinforced by the subsequent lecture,
Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World‘.

I would like to take that first title in a slightly different direction than did Prof Adamson. Prof Adamson pointed to a conception of philosophy without geographical borders. I wonder if we could talk about disciplinary borders. To adapt a quote of G.K. Chesterton, ‘Philosophy, like art, consists in drawing the line somewhere’.

As a Christian theologian a large portion of my own work is trying to draw that line. When is my work theology and when is my work philosophy? Where does one find the line between the two? Does theology need philosophy to solve its problems? These are questions that Christian theologians often find themselves struggling to answer. One can look at the history of the early church, and Tertullian, who famously asked, ‘What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?’

Many of the people and traditions that you have dealt with in these lectures wouldn’t see a clear and distinct line between philosophy and theology. Yet, in your first lecture, Prof Adamson made a comment about not being worried about theology but philosophy. I wonder about the extent to which you can make a distinction like this in almost any philosophical tradition. So, my question is, broadly, where do you draw the line? What is philosophy and what is not philosophy? If every discipline, including art, medicine, narratives, and theology, amounts to philosophy, would it be reasonable to say that nothing is philosophy?