Of late, there has been an interest in our online community on the status of philosophy. Harry Frankfurt and Brian Leiter believe philosophy is in the doldrums, lacking any “agenda-setters” to unify the discipline and create significant movement or progress. I disagreed. Zachary Ernst, formerly an associate professor of philosophy, contends that philosophy lacks unity as a discipline; philosophy is a magpie collections of questions, methods, texts, topics, and thinkers. And he takes this to be a lamentable state for the field. Both of these views, I believe, are based on the myth of a unified philosophy. Ernst is right: philosophy is not unified. But it has not been, will not be, and should not be unified. This lack of unity is a virtue of philosophy, not a vice.
Let’s begin with the Frankfurt/Leiter lament over a lack of agenda-setters. The story goes that, back in the heady days of early and middle of the twentieth century, there were a few philosophical luminaries, whose insight raised new questions, new philosophical vistas for the rest of us to explore. There are many problems with this story. Last time I argued that the appeal to agenda-setters is the wrong criteria by which to judge our discipline. I think the lack of a few philosophers setting the agenda is a good thing. The condition that Leiter and Frankfurt are bemoaning is the lack of unified movement, with a few thought-leaders setting the course for everyone else to follow. The only progress that counts as progress for Frankfurt and Leiter is when the movement happens in unison. No argument is given as to why this must be. It would seem that as a field, if we move any many directions at once, with some going here and others there, we cover more ground, we do more, we make more progress (if anything can be called progress in philosophy).
The new point I want to emphasize here is that not only is unity in philosophy a myth in terms of what philosophy should be, but of what it ever was. Frankfurt and Leiter are looking back in time with rosy-colored glasses at a bygone golden age that never was. Philosophy was not unified on a single agenda set by a few philosophers (Russell, Wittgenstein, Rawls, Kripke, etc.). Such a history arbitrarily relegates anyone doing any of a host of kinds of philosophy to the realm of non-philosophy. Out is virtue ethics, feminist philosophy, ANY history of philosophy, continental philosophy, and so much more. Work in these areas wasn’t following the agenda. So, it’s not really philosophy, according to Frankfurt and Leiter’s appeal to the myth of unified philosophy. Attempts to cast out all philosophers in these areas is not only myopic, but without justification. The change we are seeing is that there are now fewer of us working in “pure” philosophy, i.e., those areas on the agenda. Allegedly pure philosophy has shrunk and a greater variety of philosophical voices have begun to emerge.
Instead, Ernst has a more accurate read on the history of philosophy. It is and long has been a conglomeration of subfields that are very different from one another. No definition of philosophy seems possible that (a) includes all these subfields and (b) excludes work done in other departments. I think he is absolutely correct here. Ernst goes on to claim that this lack of unity has contributed to sexist exclusion on the basis of “fit”. I think here Ernst is close. The problem isn’t philosophy’s disunity, but rather the myth that philosophy is, was, or should be unified. If we banish this myth, appeal to “fit” no longer even seems like a plausible basis for not hiring a candidate who works in a different subfield than “pure” philosophy.
It is this myth of a unified philosophy that is largely responsible for people regarding philosophy as being in the doldrums. The lack of unity is apparent. There aren’t and cannot be now a single agenda set by a few philosophers. If we abandon the myth, we might see more clearly how exciting a time to be in philosophy this truly is. We are expanding philosophy in ways never before conceived of by the agenda setters. I, for one, consider that progress.