U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Did Philosophy “Lose Its Way”?

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]  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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.”

[1] 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.

[2] Frodeman and Briggle’s sense that philosophy did so change its focus is certainly contestable, but it is at least plausible.

[3] 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].

[4] I also feel – and felt — that there are some costs to the myth of accessibility. For more on that, read my earlier post.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Excellent reflections, Ben. It seems to me that the cultivation of expertise involves at some level distinguishing ourselves from the “person on the street,” and that this need not be considered a failing or a weakness in our discipline. There’s a lot to be gained from being in conversation with my expert colleagues, and there’s a lot to be gained by being in conversation with the various publics.

    I wonder whether the differing trajectories of history and philosophy aren’t partly determined by the learning we expect of our children. We started studying history in grade school, but I didn’t study a single philosophy class until graduate school, and that was against the advice of our department chair, who predicted that a historian of science would be frustrated by the goals of a philosophy course. I have spent my entire life with some amateur education of history, but didn’t gain any in philosophy until my forties.

  2. The big thing that jumped out to me from Ben’s reflection is the notion that philosophers are less apt to designate a piece of writing as ‘bad philosophy’, choosing rather to say it’s not philosophy. I love that distinction—it resonates with my experience dealing with some philosophers. But I don’t see, strictly, how it connects to Ben’s endnote. Harman’s aphorism is more of a presentist depreciation of the virtues of historical thinking, as a kind of less-useful handmaid to philosophy, than it is a classification of “not philosophy.” Indeed, his “tends” caveat is about quality rather than taxonomy/type, which seems to lend itself to a “bad philosophy” designation. In sum, though I agree with Ben’s bad-v-not distinction, I feel the need for us to summon a few better examples.

    Also, like Ben, I really enjoy thinking about this topic. I’m a love of certain types of philosophy (as are probably many intellectual historians), but I wring my hands over the inability of philosophical thinking to permeate more of the public square. – TL

  3. Ben,

    Your thoughtful post brought two major questions to mind: 1) over the longue duree of philosophy as a discipline how often has it been responsive to the needs or interests of “the man on the street?” and 2) how much of our concern about academic philosophy’s current popular relevance is due not to problems within philosophy, but our changing needs and expectations regarding scholarly production? My impression from reading about the history of philosophy is that all three major schools of Western philosophical investigation – analytic, continental, and theological – have rejected the idea that the value of ideas is bound to popular utility. It seems instead that there was a brief interlude in American philosophy from 1880 to 1950 when, under the broad rubric of pragmatism, philosophy was engaged with the man on the street. But this seems like an outlier to me.

    Regarding popular history, it seems to me the break between popular and academic history is rooted in differing levels of complexity. Popular histories are overwhelmingly narrative. They privilege narrative force over intellectual complexity, which, though often giving a more complete picture of historical phenomena, makes their work more accessible to a wider audience. Academic historians privilege argument over narrative. This is because their audience, or perceived audience, is other historians who have training in the discipline’s methods and are familiar with historiographic debates. Under this framework narrative suffers and the work is often opaque to non-historians. This does not mean academic historians are more correct than popular historians. Nor does it mean a marriage of the two approaches is impossible (I think Hofstadter is probably the best example of a synthetic approach). Differences over complexity and narrative/argument do seem, to me at least, to be the major divisions between popular and academic (or unpopular if you want to be cruel) historians.

  4. Ben – I share your reservations about Frodeman and Briggle’s linear, one dimensional narrative of how “the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda,” which reminds me of the sometimes reductive social histories of professionalization done in the 70s, where diverse elements get tightly bound, and all swept along together in a single master process.

    Meanwhile, I hope that “therapeutic philosophy,” a label for some current countermoves [see Patrick O’Donnell on this], doesn’t get burdened with much of the bias and normative baggage of Philip Rieff’s work.

  5. In commenting on an earlier post (several years ago) by Ben on a related topic, I said a few things relevant to some of the questions broached here (and there’s a link to the ‘therapeutic philosophy’ post kindly mentioned by Bill Fine): http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2012/07/analytic-philosophy-the-big-questions-and-rhetorical-sensitivity.html

    For the philosophically inclined or intellectual historians with a philosophical temperament (most of you?!), there is a Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 66 (2010), edited by Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle on “Philosophy as Therapeia,” that well covers the “therapeutic” conception. More than a few of the articles address the subject with historical and comparative concerns and sophistication. John Cottingham introduces his book, Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian, and Psychoanalytic Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998) with some pertinent observations about contemporary philosophy. Finally, some of you may recall that Stephen Toulmin proffered a provocative historical thesis (regarding the history of the ‘discipline’ in the modern West) in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 1992) that may help one understand many of the lingering problems that afflict contemporary professional philosophy, especially (thus not only) in the U.S., problems identified by those both within and outside the profession.

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