A number of possibilities were available: Philosophers could serve as 1) synthesizers of academic knowledge production; 2) formalists who provided the logical undergirding for research across the academy; 3) translators who brought the insights of the academy to the world at large; 4) disciplinary specialists who focused on distinctively philosophical problems in ethics, epistemology, aesthetics and the like; or 5) as some combination of some or all of these.
There might have been room for all of these roles. But in terms of institutional realities, there seems to have been no real choice. Philosophers needed to embrace the structure of the modern research university, which consists of various specialties demarcated from one another. That was the only way to secure the survival of their newly demarcated, newly purified discipline. “Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.
This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.
Having adopted the same structural form as the sciences, it’s no wonder philosophy fell prey to physics envy and feelings of inadequacy. Philosophy adopted the scientific modus operandi of knowledge production, but failed to match the sciences in terms of making progress in describing the world. Much has been made of this inability of philosophy to match the cognitive success of the sciences.
But what has passed unnoticed is philosophy’s all-too-successful aping of the institutional form of the sciences. We, too, produce research articles. We, too, are judged by the same coin of the realm: peer-reviewed products. We, too, develop sub-specializations far from the comprehension of the person on the street. In all of these ways we are so very “scientific.”
Our claim, then, can be put simply: Philosophy should never have been purified. Rather than being seen as a problem, “dirty hands” should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought — present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.
There is another layer to this story. The act of purification accompanying the creation of the modern research university was not just about differentiating realms of knowledge. It was also about divorcing knowledge from virtue. Though it seems foreign to us now, before purification the philosopher (and natural philosopher) was assumed to be morally superior to other sorts of people.
The 18th-century thinker Joseph Priestley wrote “a Philosopher ought to be something greater and better than another man.” Philosophy, understood as the love of wisdom, was seen as a vocation, like the priesthood. It required significant moral virtues (foremost among these were integrity and selflessness), and the pursuit of wisdom in turn further inculcated those virtues.