Dear Earlier Self,
I am writing this to you as you are taking your first philosophy courses in college. You are seventeen, a freshman in college and you are trying to make sense of it all: what is academic philosophy and how does it relate to the broader society. I am now thirty-seven, went through academic philosophy as a student and a professor, and I am trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps what I say might be helpful to you.
You are in America at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, taking courses from people called "philosophy professors". What is this institution and how did this designation of philosophy professors come about? While you are in the class it feels as if the institution of philosophy is thousands of years old, as if what is happening in the classroom is directly tied to the beginnings of human civilization in a direct, unbroken chain. In a sense, that is true. In another sense, it is necessary to see the historical changes which created the classrooms you are sitting in.
Where should I begin the history? With the big bang 14 billion years ago, with the Neanderthals 500,000 years ago, with the rise of agricultural societies 15,000 years ago? There are many perspectives, temporal and global, from which to tell this story.
In order to connect it to the story you are being told in classes, I will begin with Socrates around 500BC in Greece. What happened then? A miracle when the first philosophers were fully formed out of nothingness? No. Every society has its grand narratives: where it came from, where it is going, what obstacles it faces. The prevalent grand narratives at a given time are tied up with the main institutional structures of that time. Over time, institutional structures come and go, and during such times of changes, questions come up about the meaning, nature and future of human beings. This is the renewable source of philosophy: the transition from one institutional framework to another, and it has been happening as long as there have been human beings. And it happened once more in Ancient Greece.
The guiding framework for many centuries before Socrates was given by the Homeric myths, which were learnt and narrated by priests/poets of that time. For various sociological, political, geological, etc. reasons, that framework started to break down, which meant they had to rethink what the fundamental ideals and structures of their society were. This is what the preSocratics and Socrates started to do. But then there was a question: what kind of an institutional setting should this new framework be in? Plato and Aristotle started schools which they thought could provide that institutional grounding. But others a bit later on such as Sextus Empiricus and Marcus Aurelius thought that the institutional structure for philosophy couldn't be schools, but had to be structures which enabled each person, irrespective of their profession, to live a philosophical life.
This disagreement between academic and non-academic philosophers was possible because there was a shared public intellectual space in those societies. Academic philosophers engaged with non-academic philosophers, and vice versa. It is like when Kobe Bryant or Lebron James play with and against non-professional basketball players on public courts in NYC--that is a space where the professionals and non-professionals meet to test each other, and explore the different kinds of basketball skills each has. Such shared public spaces connect the esoteric and the non-esoteric in a mutual back and forth, which brings everyone in the society together into such a common space.
The same thing was true in the European Middle Ages. Philosophy then wasn't limited to the intellectuals like Aquinas in monasteries. The Catholic Church itself played the role of shared public space, for the framework of the Church provided a space, physical and intellectual, in which someone like Aquinas and an everyday priest who engages with his village congregation could meet and debate each other. The Church wasn't just one thing, but rather a broad framework for the complexities and even disagreements intrinsic to a diverse society, one where it was a live question whether a thinker like Ockham or a saint like Francis of Assisi captured best the ideals of the Church.
Even in the Enlightenment and into the 18th century, there was such a shared public, intellectual space. Many thinkers of that time, like Descartes and Spinoza and Hume were not academics, even as others like Kant were. That an academic like Kant could say that he was inspired by a non-academic like Hume shows the kind of public space that was palpable then. And at least in the European tradition, things start to get testy in the 19th century. There are still famous academics (Hegel, etc.) and famous non-academics (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.), but it is not so clear anymore whether the academics are reading and engaging with the non-academics. The initial influence of the non-academics is on the educated class more generally, but not necessarily on academic philosophers in particular.
By the time you are starting college at the end of the 20th century, it is not clear anymore whether there is a shared, public intellectual space in our society. This is why you never heard of academic philosophy until you enrolled in college. To you it might feel like you entered upon a secret society with a wealth of knowledge, and which expects the public to come to it rather than it reaching out to the public, and engaging with non-academic philosophers. That is why your family and friends wonder why you want to study philosophy. It is not only, or even mainly, because they worry about your job prospects. It is because they don't know what academic philosophy is, and so don't have much sense for what it is you are saying you want to dedicate your life to. They don't know whether you are doing psychology or religion or new age philosophy or what. It's like if the public never saw basketball on TV, nor saw basketball on public courts, then they would be confused if you told them you want to pursue basketball, which you discovered in college. Your friends and family will ask questions like: what is this "basketball"? You mean baseball, or cricket, or soccer?
Why did this transition happen in the last two centuries? Where did the shared, public intellectual space go?
It is for the same reason why there are less public goods in general now, such as public parks or healthcare or resources for taking care of the elderly, and so on. Public goods, including public intellectual spaces, require a shared sense of community, and not just in some abstract sense of humanity, but in terms of shared modes of life and artifacts, such as music, art, history and so on. For all their disagreement, this is what Hegel and Schopenhauer still shared, as did in a more broad sense Hume and Kant, and Plato and Sextus Empiricus.
But this past shared sense of community came at a cost: it presumed hierarchies internal to the community, and it assumed that there were other communities out there which were different from it and with which they didn't have to be so deeply engaged (like for Europeans the communities of Asia, Africa and so on). As in the last two centuries these aspects of traditional community were seem as problematic (for example, Marxism regarding hierarchy, anti-colonialism and globalization regarding othering), the very fabric of community itself has been thrown up in the air.
This lack of community has gone hand in hand with the economic and sociological reasons for professionalization in the society overall, which lead regarding philosophy to the idea that only academic philosophers are really philosophers. If a philosophy professor like Thomas Nagel and a new age thinker like Ken Wilber shared a sense of community in a deep sense, then they might see each other as concerned with similar issues, even if with many differences in perspectives and methodologies. But without such a shared sense, and seen through the prism of professionalism, it seems as if Nagel and Wilbur are talking about radically different things, or otherwise that one is coherent and the other merely confused.
My earlier self, as you now study philosophy in classes, you thus face a choice. It is not the choice of whether to do philosophy inside or outside academia. That is determined mainly by biographical and sociological causes, such as whether you want to grade papers, or whether you get a job in academia. Rather, whether you are in academia or outside academia, the choice you face is: are you going to assume that things are fine as they are (with academics talking mainly to each other, and non-academics talking mainly to each other), or are you going to help to bridge this divide, and so contribute to creating a new kind of shared, public intellectual space in a global community?
This choice matters because if there is no shared, public intellectual space where academics and non-academics can meet as equals, then the intellectual traditions of our society are going to be lost to the vast majority of people, and academic philosophy will become a new form of esotericism. Thriving public philosophical discussion between all members of society is the foundation of a democracy. It is not enough for all of us as thinkers, academic or non-academic, to simply bemoan the unfortunate state of public discourse in society, as if the problem just lies with FOX and MSNBC. The polarity in the media is a symptom of the larger problem, and isn't itself the root problem. The larger problem is that there is no shared, public intellectual space, and so no sense for how people with differing perspectives or backgrounds can talk to each other. And for this larger problem each one of us is responsible.
A community is formed when members of a community recognize a shared problem and come together to tackle it. As you take your classes, it is natural to feel the power of inertia and the sense that things are fine as they are, or the feeling that the problem is too big for you. But the problem actually isn't too big for you. It is just the size that you can handle, if you can see that you are bigger than you think you are. Enjoy your education, but at the same time be a bridge to outside academia so that at any given moment you are a walking emblem for the shared, public intellectual space we can all build together.
With sympathy for the pains and with fondness for the joys to come,
Your Older Self