The history of Western philosophy can be presented in a number of ways. It can be told in terms of periods — ancient, medieval and modern. We can divide it into rival traditions (empiricism versus rationalism, analytic versus Continental), or into various core areas (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics). It can also, of course, be viewed through the critical lens of gender or racial exclusion, as a discipline almost entirely fashioned for and by white European men.
Yet despite the richness and variety of these accounts, all of them pass over a momentous turning point: the locating of philosophy within a modern institution (the research university) in the late 19th century. This institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.
Take this simple detail: Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.
Philosophy, then, as the French thinker Bruno Latour would have it, was “purified” — separated from society in the process of modernization. This purification occurred in response to at least two events. The first was the development of the natural sciences, as a field of study clearly distinct from philosophy, circa 1870, and the appearance of the social sciences in the decade thereafter. Before then, scientists were comfortable thinking of themselves as “natural philosophers” — philosophers who studied nature; and the predecessors of social scientists had thought of themselves as “moral philosophers.”
The second event was the placing of philosophy as one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research university. A result was that philosophy, previously the queen of the disciplines, was displaced, as the natural and social sciences divided the world between them.
This is not to claim that philosophy had reigned unchallenged before the 19th century. The role of philosophy had shifted across the centuries and in different countries. But philosophy in the sense of a concern about who we are and how we should live had formed the core of the university since the church schools of the 11th century. Before the development of a scientific research culture, conflicts among philosophy, medicine, theology and law consisted of internecine battles rather than clashes across yawning cultural divides.
Indeed, these older fields were widely believed to hang together in a grand unity of knowledge — a unity directed toward the goal of the good life. But this unity shattered under the weight of increasing specialization by the turn of the 20th century.
Early 20th-century philosophers thus faced an existential quandary: With the natural and social sciences mapping out the entirety of both theoretical as well as institutional space, what role was there for philosophy?