If one were so inclined, one could write an alternative history of American philosophy. Chiefly, that history would recount, beginning with American pragmatists such as Dewey and William James, its rise during the period when serious magazines were still financially viable, reaching its high-water mark with such works as Walter Lippmann’s defense of natural law in The Public Philosophy, and coming to an end when it was disciplinized and professionalized at institutions like Harvard. By or at least not long after midcentury, Harvard professional philosophers like W.V.O. Quine, for whom philosophy of science and linguistic philosophy predominated, would not come to regard names like Josiah Royce as little more than fossils from bygone eras.
Luckily, one needn’t write this sort of book because one could already find all that one needed from Bruce Kuklick’s The Rise of American Philosophy and A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000 and from John E. Smith’s The Spirit of American Philosophy, both of which could be supplemented by Burton Bledstein’s The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America and Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. The historical record would reveal external challenges posed to the idea of a cohesive, intelligible, non-fragmented public sphere (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue) as well as internal challenges to the project of becoming a generalist and morally virtuous teacher. Competence would replace wisdom just as surely as skills talk would come to replace talk of virtues.
The terminus, in any case, would be the ‘common sense’ of professional American philosophy today: that philosophy only seeks to understand something (mainly by providing theories, proffering damning counterexamples, or defending arguments,); that philosophers are figures who get paid to work at universities; that philosophy’s main genre is that of the academic paper; and that these papers are addressed to a small subset of one’s professional colleagues, that subset consisting of those working in the same specialty. Already, we have heard from Quine and Dancy both that the professional philosopher is decidedly not in the business of telling someone how to live and nor is it the case that seeking to become an expert in a specialty (say, that of practical reasoning) has any influence on the way one reasons in the world. We have reason to suspect that this conception of philosophy–literally, the search for wisdom–is limited, false, or both.
Strange to hear: the professional philosopher has sought to become a Technician or an Expert–that is, someone who is especially good at one thing in particular and not necessarily good at anything else and certainly not good at living in general–like everyone else. And, indeed, the effects of this impoverished conception of philosophy can be registered in two different domains. In the intersubjective realm (about which more in a couple of days) in which one seeks some form of guidance from another about how to live, the subject supposed to know is either a Teller or a Listener. ‘Should I leave my husband?’ is met either with the Teller (‘Here is what I would advise you to do…’ with the result that the one who asks will never be autonomous) or with the Listener (‘Hmm… That’s a good question. What do you think?’) who seems incapable of helping another ask the right questions and come to clearer answers.
In the public sphere, subjects supposed to know are Experts also: public experts, government bureaucrats, legal experts, lobbyists, grant writers, etc. ‘Field philosophy’, which is outlined by my friends at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, is one attempt to revisit and reinvigorate public philosophy. A ‘field philosopher’ is not an Expert but rather a generalist. The ‘field philosopher’ does not address colleagues but rather those in the field with whom he or she works. And the ‘field philosopher’ does not construct general theories but begins with the particular problems of those who are affected in the hope of providing a more general sense-making framework.
Tomorrow, I seek to shed further light on this type of public philosopher. From there, I turn to the second conception of ‘living’ philosophy: the one focused on the project of self-cultivation.