‘we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom…’--Otto Neurath
[Aristotle’s ghost] freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy, because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must do; and he found that Gassendi, who had made the doctrine of Epicurus as palatable as he could, and the vortices of Descartes, were equally exploded. He predicted the same fate to ATTRACTION, whereof the present learned are such zealous asserters. He said, that new systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; even those who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined.--Gulliver's Travels, Chapter VIII of Voyage III.
Today starts the bi-annual HOPOS conference (HOPOS = History of the Philosophy of Science) that my department is hosting in Ghent. Attending this meeting is a kind of intellectual home-coming because it is the only conference where I don't feel I need to justify my academic specialization to fellow philosophers. Even among early modernists, I felt like an outsider as long as I understood myself, and perceived others to look at me, as 'one of those weird Adam Smith guys.'
HOPOS, which has been around a few decades or so, is an anomaly in the profession: unlike other historical-philosophical topics it is not organized around a central figure -- although I often joke it is a coalition of folk that like Carnap and folk that like Newton -- nor characterized by a historical epoch. I am unfamiliar with professional societies devoted to HOM (History of Metaphysics), HOPOL (History of the Philosophy of Language), HOE (History of Ethics), HOA (History of Aesthetics), etc. It is prima facie odd that a sub-specialization of philosophy, philosophy of science, would merit a society devoted to its history as an area of research (with even its own journal). The oddity of HOPOS (I have been a proud steer at one point) is deepened by the fact that there is a general sense that GPOS (General Philosophy of Science) is being displaced by more specialized sub-disciplines (PoX, that is philosophy of biology, philosophy of economics, philosophy of physics, etc., and even sub-disciplines of these: space/time, QM, etc.). Perhaps, the gradual demise of GPOS is a necessary pre-condition for the rise of HoPoS (history as burying the dead?), but I have never heard anybody say that.
In principle, HoPoS is a way of doing philosophy of science. So, after philosophy of science turned historical, say, with Kuhn, it is natural, albeit not necessary, to become reflexive about this turn and understand one's own activity historically. It's not clear that one could really go meta from HoPoS to, say, HoHoPoS, so it seems the potential infinite regress is blocked at HoPoS. To be concrete: I have long been puzzled and fascinated by the fact that some of the most significant features of Kuhn's Structure, were anticipated in Adam Smith's "The History of Astronomy" (written in the first half of the eighteenth century). Apparently thinking of science as an open-ended succession of revolutions between systems of thought that are in some sense incommensurable with each other is a kind of permanent open possibility in philosophical-logical space. That idea has a history, too (see the quote from Gulliver); it is, in fact, somewhat of a skeptical trope (while researching my dissertation I found a version of it in Montaigne).
Ever since NewAPPS took off and started to reach hundreds and then thousands a readers a day, I often reflect on the fact that I am conditioned to think that my scholarly work will have only a few readers. This is, of course, partly a consequence of working on relatively obscure topics; I'd like to think that's a consequence of my originality (we all need such delusions to stay motivated on bleak days), but I know that there are many more original and cutting-edge thinkers that occupy their time on their 'research frontier' and that will find far larger, scholarly readerships. But it is a fact of scholarly life that the vast majority of journal articles have very few readers. I try hard to keep anxiety over such facts at a safe distance from my scholarly choices (even though I recognize that in an age of metrics and bottom lines whole disciplines can get wiped out of so-called universities because of their lack of impact or grant generation).
Even so, I cannot deny that blogging has changed my sense of a philosophical home. A non-trivial part of my intellectual brain has come to think of these daily D&I pieces as my shot at hitting the ball out of the proverbial philosophical ball-park.
For, while scholarly publishing is undoubtedly a credentialing means toward gainful employment as a professional philosopher, I always write in order to be read by others and to contribute to ongoing philosophical discussion even if the intended conversation partner is as of yet itself a hopeful fiction of my imagination or a long-dead fellow scholar whose ghost I conjure in my imagination. This desire probably made me make a few bad career choices (publishing too early and not prestigious enough). But it has ultimately landed me here; these matters have an inner necessity!
And, so, in writing these lines, I recognize that even when I found a home in the profession and found a place where my work is welcomed and appreciated, a part of me left it. That's undoubtedly a sign of emotional disfunctionality and, upon further reflection, is rooted in my childhood experiences, which generated a mistrust of home and for a while an urgent need to leave it. (This is, I think, why I often find Heidegger so comic even though I recognize a feature of his longing.) Even so, I am also thrilled to see many younger faces at last night's welcome reception; it's wonderful to be part of a collaborative effort that may outlast all of us, as the home gets refurbished and redesigned along the way.