I’ve been noticing lately that historians of philosophy have been articulating some friction with the mainstream philosophy community. The issues seem to be the straightforward problems of building a history when present disciplinary concerns are overbearing. In the New York Times’ The Stone series, Justin Smith (who maintains a blog) argues that philosophical agendas constrain inquiry into older philosophers’ sprawling interests, particularly in the sciences. Meanwhile, at the University of Otago, historians of early modern philosophy are arguing for a historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy, as opposed to the empiricist-rationalist distinction applied retrospectively from post-Kantian epistemological agendas. This situation in history of philosophy seems to be similar to what prevails in the history of economic thought, where historians sometimes complain of being an unloved branch of a (sometimes militantly) unhistorical economics profession. At first glance, historians and philosophers of biology seem to have less angst over this, but maybe I’m not privy to the right conversations.
Personally, I’ve never really understood why historians — particularly of older periods — would want to view their work as chained to the present manifestation of a particular discipline. From a practical standpoint, the job market may be incrementally better within those disciplines than within history departments. From an intellectual standpoint, it may well be that the goal of seamlessly uniting historical inquiry with present concerns is simply too attractive to declare the historical enterprise to have distinct goals. However, it may also be the case that intellectual historians and historians of science do not have enough patience for these other areas’ pickier concerns to provide an attractive second home. That would be a pity, because a robustly united intellectual history could, I think, be a vital field.