Shift in Circumstances: Humdrum Stuff

If the relationship between philosophy and the polis has always been fraught, and perhaps laced with a bit of subterfuge, it has also been in the end a workable one. Until the 20th century. Since then the tension has grown into a paradox, the gap into a chasm. Socrates Tenured offers an account of the development of this chasm – how philosophy, the most practical (if not always the most efficient) of subjects, lost the creative tension between contemplation and engagement and slipped into cultural irrelevance. But we offer more than only critique: we also propose a way forward, describing how philosophy, especially philosophical research, can regain a role in culture.

Our argument focuses on the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance: the institutional emergence of the field as a discipline. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers – or more precisely, given their limited set of options, philosophers chose to discipline themselves. Philosophers were placed in departments. They inhabited studies and classrooms. Their writings were restricted to professional diction and concerns. And they now wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers.

William James was among the few to notice this shift in the circumstances of philosophy. As early as 1905, he lamented the “dessicating and pedantifying process” that philosophy had become. He had a word for it: “Faugh!” The young philosophers then coming of age regurgitated “what dusty-minded professors have written about what other previous professors have thought.” Such was the birth of the academic discipline of philosophy, which like a snake turned and swallowed its own tail.

In the main, however, these changes went unremarked upon. Or they were treated as merely the humdrum stuff of becoming ‘serious’, the professionalization of the field.