Yesterday, after I unpacked the book boxes in my new office, I suddenly remembered a colleague’s comment from my Syracuse years: “Between the two of you, you and Tamar Gendler know everybody in the whole discipline,” (or something to that effect). I was unsure it was meant as a compliment (about me or Gendler), and I didn't bother to ask. At the time, about a decade ago, Gendler (who had been faculty at Syracuse, too) was already a big deal (I was familiar with her work on thought experiments), and, while I was not quite suffering from imposture syndrome (but see here), I was not used to being compared, favorably or not, to a world class philosopher in the profession. Insecure minds are fragile; I was made defensive by the comment -- as if being a social hermit would be a sign of academic excellence? --, and I believe (in so far such memory can be trusted) I responded dryly that academic journeymen have plenty of opportunities to meet folk in the profession.
While the internet and a few philosophy blogs already existed, I had not yet heard of Facebook and other social media. Even so, professional philosophy is not a very large community. Yes, a thousand PhDs or so are annually produced in the English speaking world [don't ask me for a source--it's just a number I recall], and collective we publish way too much papers and books that go unread, but even Stateside the number of academically employed professional philosophers combined is the size of a small town. There are about 18,000 employed faculty or so; that's a lot more than the PGR ecology, of course, but not huge. If you spent most of your day interacting with the townspeople, you, too, would get to recognize a decent fraction of them (at least by gossipy reputation).
These days a decent chunk of professional philosophy is on Facebook, and so that facilitates recognizing names of one's peers and to put these names into some kind of (partial) context. (At first I found it very strange that people wanted to 'friend' me even though they had never met me in person.) But while Facebook generates its own social awkwardness and problems, it humanizes one's colleagues. This is especially useful if you encounter each other rarely in person and if some of these encounters are polemical or competitive (given scarcity of resources/jobs, etc.). In a small, specialized, scholarly sub-field like early modern Facebook has also proven to be a first class intellectual resource--I can literally canvass the world's experts if I am flummoxed by a scholarly problem and have world class discussion threads.
These thoughts were prompted by this: my new department -- political science -- has about sixty full-time staff, and quite a few more temporary staff (PhD students, post-docs, and adjuncts). It feels huge. (Apparently, it's not as huge as the local psychology department, by the way.) Counting my BA and PhD departments, I am now on my eight university, and I had never encountered a philosophy department remotely that size. (The Syracuse department was pretty large, by the way.) I checked the Ohio State department size (assuming it would be among the biggest in professional philosophy) and it does not come close. Because I am a social scientist now, I decided to do a brief, further, empirical survey (N=5); it looks like that often political science/government departments are anywhere between 50% and 300% larger than philosophy departments at the same university. So, I am inferring political science really is a bigger discipline than professional philosophy.
In reflecting on this train of thought, I recognize that in my scholarship about the sciences (early modern physics, eighteenth century political economy, mid-twentieth century economics) I write about relatively small intellectual communities. This assertion is not just a function of a biased interest in canonical figures. For example, while there was lots of philosophy in the seventeenth century, there was not that much mathematical natural philosophy. It's a lot more than Kepler, Gilbert, Galileo, Wallis, Wren, Huygens, Newton, Fatio, Marriotte, and Leibniz, and, to be sure, there is more than I have tried to read (Leibniz alone can keep you busy), but I am reasonably familiar with the size of the corpus. In my work on twentieth century economics, I recognize that there is a post-war explosion of work in and differentiation within economics (or division of labor within it). Unless one just decides to read all of Samuelson's papers, there is probably no way to even try to master what economics looks like between, say, 1945-1990; one consequence of this, is that contemporary professional economists are really trained to be less (for lack of a better word) intellectual and sensitive (about philosophy and other disciplines) than earlier generations (in order to be cutting edge specialists).*
I am unsure what moral to draw from any of these impressions. I will note, that Gendler and I have not met in person, yet.