Philosophy Sidetracked

In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life. In it Dewey expressed concern that philosophy had become “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. He took pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy had made immense contributions to culture both past and present. But he was concerned that the topics being raised by the new class of professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”

Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Upon his return Dewey continued to comment on the public questions of the day, a role he held to until his death in 1952. But since then another set of expectations has ruled the philosophic community. The reasons for this shift are debatable: Jacoby (2000) chalks it up to the allure of academic careerism during the post-World War II expansion of universities; McCumber (2001) notes the chilling effects of McCarthyism; Reisch (2005) sees it as mainly a matter of historical accident; and Soames (2005) describes it as the playing out of the logic of specialization. In Socrates Tenured. we argue that it is is largely a matter of the consequences that flow from a certain institutional housing.