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? 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.I understand what they are getting at. Another one of the foolish things I did when first exploring the internet was to join several philosophical discussing groups that seemed, from their titles, to be open forums for discussing the meaning of life and the place of scholarship therein. But they all turned out to be places where graduate students debated very technical points of contemporary philosophical discourse, using terminology I could barely understand.
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.
But on the other hand I have the sense that philosophy in its glory days, both in the ancient world and in the 17th to 19th centuries, was the product of a particular culture and world view. In both of those eras the upper class prided itself on its rationalism, and based part of its argument for its own perpetuation in power on its philosophical outlook. Reason was in the air; even people who opposed narrow rationalism did so in the name of some deeper idea of reason.
Modern philosophy is arcane not just because it became a university specialty, but because we have a different sort of elite and much less confidence in reason. It would be impossible now to write an argument for a reasonable approach to public life that would not be seen as a statement of partisan politics. Our understanding of private life is dominated by post-Freudian psychology, saturated with unreason. Our science is scarcely comprehensible to non-specialists, and what outsiders glimpse of cutting edge science seems downright mad.
In our world we still have tons of popular history, some of it by professional historians, and some respected literary figures sell lots of books. But is there such a thing as popular philosophy? It's an interesting question. I would nominate M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled for this category, but of course it is sold as psychology or self-help. Otherwise I am having trouble coming up with examples. Does something like Chicken Soup for the Soul or Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten count? I'd be interested in suggestions.