Earlier this week in the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone, philosophers Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle published a piece entitled “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” that makes an argument about what Frodeman and Briggle see as the unfortunate direction that their field took at the beginning of the last century. Faced with the challenge of natural science, which had begun to more successfully address a host of questions that had formerly been the purview of philosophy, and the rise of the modern university, which encouraged a kind of specialization foreign to the earlier practice of philosophy, early 20th-century philosophers made a fateful turn:
Philosophers needed to embrace the structure of the modern research university, which consists of various specialties demarcated from one another. That was the only way to secure the survival of their newly demarcated, newly purified discipline. “Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.
This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.
As a result, Frodeman and Briggle argue, philosophy became incomprehensible to the “person on the street.” And instead of focusing on basic questions of human existence – e.g., what is the good life? – philosophers worked on ever more abstruse issues that are more about proving that the philosopher is clever than answering actually important questions.
I was drawn to blog about Frodeman and Briggle’s piece both because it makes an historical argument (more involved than my summary of it might make it seem) and because it simultaneously raises some interesting questions about the practice of academic philosophy in the United States while providing answers that I find a bit unsatisfying.
After all, the field of history also had to face the challenges of converting itself to a modern academic discipline and responding to the challenges of the rise of modern social science, though the latter was admittedly a less existential crisis for the field of history than the rise of modern science was for philosophy. Like philosophy, history successfully made itself into a modern academic discipline. And yet, somehow, we did not entirely divorce or ourselves from the “person on the street.” Nor did we convert history into a discipline that was profoundly different in focus from history prior to the rise of the modern university.
A number of years ago on this blog, I wrote about the notion that we academic historians ought to be writing for a broader audience. Unlike in disciplines such as English and Philosophy, the idea that our work should be accessible to the person on the street is a kind of professional norm in history. Yet little of our work gets read by a broader audience. The idea of the accessibility of academic history a myth, though largely a productive one:
[T]hough few academic historians are writing books for audiences much beyond our subdisciplines, let alone beyond the academy, the notion that one should write as if one were addressing a literate, general audience helps historians counteract the tendency of academic discourses to get ever more abstruse and hermetic.
Facing some of the same challenges as philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the field of history somehow did not make the same fatal errors that Frodeman and Briggle attribute to their own field.
So where do I think Frodeman and Briggle have gone wrong?
In the first place, philosophy has been somewhat less successful at “purifying” itself than academic philosophers think (or fear). There remains real public interest in philosophy. Of course, what the public understands as philosophy is different from the Anglo-American academic discipline. At this moment, the current list of best-selling philosophy books on Amazon.com is dominated by works by tidying-up guru Marie Kond? and a variety of other self-help manuals. But the top 20 bestselling philosophy books also include The Communist Manifesto, Machiavelli’s The Prince, a volume of Plato’s dialogues, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
Perhaps this gets us back to Frodeman and Briggle’s argument about “purity” after all. We historians, I think, usually talk about “bad history” when we dislike or disagree with popular works of history. Academic philosophers are much more apt to say that someone like Marie Kond? is not doing philosophy at all. As for figures like Plato and Marcus Aurelius, there has been, at least in the recent past, a spirited debate among analytic philosophers whether students of philosophy today should be required to study pre-modern philosophy.
The second thing that Frodeman and Briggle gloss over involves the public profile of philosophy long before the early 20th century. Throughout the history of philosophy, some philosophers have felt that philosophy is not something that everybody should be doing. While some philosophers worked in the market place, others worked away from the public. Indeed, the very word “academic” comes from a philosophical institution – Plato’s Academy – that was not open to the public. Relative to philosophy, history has tended to be a much more public practice.
The very different ways in which the fields of philosophy and history made the transition to becoming modern academic disciplines may reflect deeper facts of the histories of these two activities, rather than simply a particular moment in the relatively recent past when one of them “lost its way.”
 I wrote about some similar issues to those discussed in this post in a 2012 post on a piece by Jim Holt that also appeared in The Stone.
 Frodeman and Briggle’s sense that philosophy did so change its focus is certainly contestable, but it is at least plausible.
 In a recent piece for Slate, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion looked at which history books sold well and concluded that they are overwhelmingly books by men about men and for men, with a heavy emphasis on military and political matters, what Kahn and Onion call “uncle books” [h/t John Fea].
 For what it’s worth, modern academic philosophy enters the mix only at #25 and #26, which are textbooks on logic and moral philosophy, respectively.
 The Princeton philosopher Mark Harman famously – if briefly – had a sign on his door that read “History of Philosophy – Just Say ‘No.'” The Princeton Philosophy Department – which recounts its own history on its webpage – largely devotes its entry on the 1980s to a discussion of Harman’s sign. Harman clarifies his view – which he sees as neither unusual nor particularly hostile to the history of philosophy, as follows:
I also think as an empirical matter that students of philosophy need not be required to study the history of philosophy and that a study of the history of philosophy tends not to be useful to students of philosophy. (Note ‘tends’.) Similarly, it is not particularly helpful to students of physics, chemistry, or biology to study the history of physics, chemistry, or biology.
Of course, it may be helpful for students of physics to start with classical Newtonian physics before taking up relativity theory and quantum mechanics. But it tends not to be helpful for them to read Newton.
This is, of course, a very different attitude than the one most historians have about historiography, as well as about the similarity of our discipline to the natural sciences.