Some recent fairly productive polemics and exchanges over at New APPS have led Mark Lance to issue the following query: "[W]hat I'd like to know," he writes, "is how the historians on this blog think we should draw the line [between what counts as history of philosophy and what is simply historical scholarship that should be housed elsewhere than in a philosophy department]. Is the measure still in terms of some notion of engagement with contemporary philosophy? Or is there some other consideration that would suggest that there should be a field of history of philosophy, housed in philosophy rather than history, where engagement with contemporary philosophizing is in no way an essential desideratum."
Here is my reply:
I have a straightforward answer, one that will not come as a surprise to some of our readers: I do not believe that any direct engagement with contemporary philosophy should be a requirement of employment as a historian of philosophy within a philosophy department. This is not to say, however, that I do not think that historians of philosophy play a vital role in, let us say, the ecosystem of academic philosophy. I believe historians of philosophy can help current philosophers to gain perspective on their projects by showing them the scope and range of what has been able to pass as an important philosophical question in different times and places, and thereby providing a picture of the flexibility and contingency of what ought to count as a philosophical question.
This sort of contribution might have the effect of changing contemporary debates by showing that some resolution to them was already proposed long ago in an unfamiliar idiom (which often happens, for example, in the study of ancient Indian epistemology: we find the answers to contemporary questions, but we often don't even realize it because the style of argumentation is so different). Or this sort of contribution might simply help current philosophers to bear in mind the extent to which what we call 'philosophy' today really is a mixed bag of leftover questions from various historical legacies. In this connection, I believe it is absolutely crucial as a historian of philosophy to respect actors' categories, and that means to accept that if some Libavius or van Helmont claims to be doing 'philosophy' when he is in fact doing something that looks a world away from what we think of as philosophy, we have to respect his own understanding of the endeavor. This is in part why I was aghast when Leiter, perhaps semi-facetiously, announced recently with surprise that there is such a thing as the philosophy of chemistry: heavens, I can show you countless texts, published over several centuries, in which the words 'philosopher' and 'chemist' were used interchangeably! What does this show? Among other things it shows that philosophy and chemistry go way back together. It also serves as a fine illustration of the flexibility of the discipline.
This flexibility inevitably leads the thorough historian of philosophy down paths that cannot easily be connected up with current philosophical concerns. But it is up to the current philosophers themselves, if they wish to go through the intellectual exercise and thereby to be edified, to take an interest in the findings of the historians of philosophy --the findings that are often so far from current concerns--, and to allow these findings to serve as fuel for reflection on what this project we call 'philosophy' is all about anyway.
If current philosophers don't want to hear it, then I guess I would be willing to work in an HPS program rather than in a philosophy department. The problem with switching to a history department however is that they aren't interested either: whereas historians of philosophy tend to practice a fairly Whiggish march-of-great-ideas sort of intellectual history, professional historians tend by and large to be suspicious of intellectual history, to see ideas as epiphenomenal, and thus tend only to skim philosophical texts enough to get an idea of what is being said, before going back to talk about networks of patronage, the distribution of printing presses, etc. So my natural home, I insist, is in a philosophy department. But I would like to see some changes in the way non-historian philosophers understand the contribution of their historian colleagues. I would also like to see some changes in the way historians of philosophy conceive their intellectual project. I would like to see more of them explicitly reject the demand made by many of their non-historian colleagues that they demonstrate the relevance of their research to current philosophical debates.
I often hear colleagues relating how they first came to philosophy by reading the Tractatus, or the Republic, or some other common gateway text. I had a less usual introduction: as an undergraduate I came across the Philosophical Transactions, and read the first 30 years or so of them, starting in 1666, from cover to cover. This gave me a highly distorted perception of what the field of philosophy includes. But somehow I've always remained loyal to that first impression I had of what philosophy is about (e.g., the possibility of spontaneous generation, the function of the chimpanzee's larynx, vortex theory, the problem of infinitesimals, the refraction of light at the earth's poles..., hell, pretty much everything), and I continue to believe that exposure to unfamiliar conceptions of philosophy, such as the one that gives the Transactions their title, is a good thing for current philosophers, whether they do history or not.
And this is why I think historians of philosophy belong in philosophy departments, even, or perhaps especially, if they don't contribute directly to current philosophical debates.
Update: I am finding it harder to extricate myself than I had hoped. David Wallace replied to the above comments with I think a very sensible question: Isn't there a semantic issue here? The discipline we call "philosophy" now doesn't automatically map onto any given discipline with the same, or an etymologically related, name in the past. What "Philosophy" meant when the Philosophical Transactions were being published in the 17th century is not obviously closer to modern philosophy than to modern science. After all, Philosophical Transactions is still being published, and these days it's unambiguously a science journal.
Again, here is my reply:
I had somewhat anticipated the semantic question, and probably should have said something about it in the initial post.
Certainly, if there had been some sudden and total shift at some point in the past, after which what they called 'philosophy' no longer overlapped at all with what we call 'philosophy' (say, like the shift from Thomas Aquinas's use of 'metaphysics' to Shirley MacLaine's use), then there really would be no value to current philosophy in studying everything that has ever been called 'philosophy'. But what we see instead is a gradual and continuous transformation (with one fairly abrupt and large transformation occurring over the course of the 18th century, when the particular natural sciences come to be parted out from what was until then known as 'natural philosophy').
But there are at least a few ways in which studying these transformations as a historian of philosophy may be fruitful, rather than simply zeroing in on those elements of past philosophy that remain of clear relevance to us. First of all, we might find that when someone in the past was doing something that he thought of as philosophy but that we do not think of as philosophy, he might nonetheless have been making observations that we can recognize as philosophical; e.g., Galen on the function of the pancreas can tell us something about teleology; Daniel Sennert's alchemy/chemistry can tell us something about the range of possible theories of compound bodies, which should be of interest not only to, say, those who might also be working on Democritean atomism or Descartes' corpuscularianism, but also to readers of, e.g., van Inwagen's Material Beings.
But again, I insist, this sort of pay-off is nice, but must not be a condition of considering some research on some past work research in the history of philosophy. For one thing, at the outset the historian of philosophy is not going to know where these still-philosophically-relevant nuggets might be hidden within some vast treatise on calendrical astrology or some such no-longer-legitimate thing. Second, in taking, say, Libavius's claim seriously that in trying to transmute base metal into gold he is doing 'philosophy', or Joachim Becher's claim that he has invented a perpetuum mobile, sometimes described as the ultimate 'machina philosophica', we might be forced to reflect on forgotten (but still perhaps latent) elements of the philosophical project: in fact these two examples are not so different from at least one of the two accusations, made justly or not, against Socrates at his trial.
So our philosophy does have something to do with their philosophy. This something would have been perfectly obvious to anyone writing before or during the great splitting off of the disciplines (Kant remains perfectly aware of and respectful of this older conception of philosophy as late as the turn of the 19th century). So again it's not a matter of a sudden shift of meaning, but rather a gradual transformation, of which I believe it is one of the responsibilities of the historian of philosophy to provide an account.
One final note: as you point out the Philosophical Transactions is today just another science journal, but that certainly doesn't make it irrelevant to philosophy, any more than the first issues of the journal are irrelevant to the historian of philosophy: it's very relevant, as a source of material for philosophers of science.
A postscript (not in the original comment):
Come to think of it, I would not necessarily exclude, from the list of legitimate questions a historian of philosophy might ask, the question as to how it came to be that if you go to the 'metaphysics' section of a bookstore today (or, say, ten years ago, when such bookstores still existed) you will find books by Shirley MacLaine, but not Thomas Aquinas. That is an interesting question, and the full answer to it would probably tell you a great deal about the history of metaphysics. Surely it has much to do with the transformation of 'metaphysical' into a term of derision in early-20th-century positivism, and it might have something to do with the inherent unclarity of what the topic ought to be covering, an unclarity that goes back to the very naming of the work by Aristotle that brought the discipline into existence.
So by all means, fellow historians of philosophy, ask yourselves about Shirley MacLaine's metaphysics, too. Draw on all possible sources of insight that might help you to understand what the project of philosophy is about. It is not that MacLaine herself will actually say insightful things --for the most part, the minor figures I study from the 17th century don't either--, but rather that she serves as a bit of evidence in piecing together the history of a difficult concept.
Mutatis mutandis, just this sort of work has been done by William Newman, who reconstructed the emergence of occult-tinged 'symbolic alchemy' over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, in order to distinguish it from the practical and scientific alchemy/chemistry --Newman calls it 'chymistry', highlighting the fact that the two words were for a long time interchangeable, and thus it is an anachronistic error to suppose that one of them could have been a legitimate endeavor, and the other a fraudulent one-- of the early modern period. With C. G. Jung's reveries cleared out of the way by solid scholarship, we are in a better position to appreciate the contribution chemists/alchemists made to the history of matter theory, which is to say to a part of the history of philosophy. But Newman is, professionally, a historian of science, and so he is free to contribute to the history of philosophy in a way that historians of philosophy themselves are not.