Brian Leiter recently shared this excerpt from Harry Frankfurt’s contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:

Harry FrankfurtI believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded.  We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing  us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet.  We seem, more or less, to be marking time.  (pp. 125-126)

With respect, I think Frankfurt couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy is hardly in the doldrums. This comment both misrepresents the contemporary status of our discipline and typifies an antiquated notion of what constitutes non-doldrum, energetic, thriving, and creative philosophy.

Frankfurt’s criteria for philosophy to count as energetic is that there are creative Great Men in the field (notice the gender of everyone he lists), around whom the rest of us bask in reflected glory, working on the projects and questions they set. These “great figures” are apparently (for Frankfurt) the only source of “new challenges or innovations” for the rest of us to be “preoccupied with responding to.” It would seem to follow that without these enlightened geniuses to guide us, all other philosophers are intellectual hacks incapable of doing anything new, interesting, or worthwhile on our own.

Obviously, I disagree with this conception of philosophy and philosophers. First, it re-enforces several stereotypes, the most obvious of which is philosophy as field led by white men. Second, it implicitly relies on the notion of great philosophy being based on intellectual brilliance, not effort. As Leslie et al (2015) point out, Philosophy is rife with the view that success in our field depends on “innate talent.” And the emphasis on brilliance is part of the basis for the gender gap in our field (and others). Third, Frankfurt’s remarks seem to regard anyone in the history of philosophy as not doing philosophy (or at least not anything “interesting”). It suggests the real, serious philosophers are those working on the cutting edge questions. If you’re a Kant scholar or work in aesthetics (for example), you don’t count, since that is never something that will occupy the attention of the rest of the discipline, those working on allegedly central questions.

Fourth, it ignores or diminishes the impressive and original work by a host of new, younger philosophers. In fact, there are, I think, so many, that I’m hesitant to begin naming them and leave off too many. Because there are too many to name in a short list. (You’re welcome to list in the comments some of those you’d put in this category.) I’ll go further and say that there are many I don’t know about because we have so many great philosophers doing exciting and original work in so many areas of philosophy, it’s nearly impossible to know them all. And that is a good thing.

We can’t come up with a list of a few great philosophers of our time, the ones unifying all our attention and work. Since the days of Russell and Wittgenstein, Kripke and Quine, philosophy has become much more multifaceted. We work on some many different problems, issues, and questions using so many different methods and from so many different traditions that there is and can’t be anyone that captures the attention of us all. All that energy and insight that is being generated by so many different thinkers moving in so many different directions is precisely why philosophy isn’t in the doldrums, why this is an exciting time to be in philosophy.

On Frankfurt’s view, each philosopher is a ship. In our discipline’s heyday, there were a few great and massive battleships (or ocean liners) and the rest of philosophy followed in their wake, travelling to only a few ports. Now that those great ships of yore have left the high seas, the rest of us are left becalmed, not knowing where to go or how to get there. No. Rather today, we sail in so many directions, to more ports than ever before, places that the HMS Russell or the USS Kripke wouldn’t go or in some case have been able to. Today, more philosophers open and expand more and more philosophical trade routes, and the field is anything but “quiet.”