As far as the total percentage for these sixteen philosophers is concerned (67.1%), this [the last five volumes] is identical to that for the first twenty volumes of the BJHP. Kant is well out in front, however, and Plato and Aristotle, too, have a much larger share. Spinoza comes much higher, and Berkeley much lower, but this is in line with what we have experienced at the BJHP over the last five years, as noted above. Over 50% of the articles published in the JHP over this period are on just seven philosophers, in this case on five early modern philosophers plus Plato and Aristotle. 41% of the articles are on the ‘big seven’ early modern philosophers identified above, so less than for the BJHP in its first twenty volumes, though more than twice as many than for the BJHP over the last five years (the corresponding period). Only nine articles have been published in total on the history of twentieth-century philosophy – one article each on Dewey, Russell, Russell and Quine, Collingwood, Heidegger, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Quine, and Sellars (father and son). That is only half of what has been published on Kant alone, and less also than on Aristotle alone. Aristotle and Kant are undoubtedly giants in the history of philosophy, but it is striking that their work should apparently be seen as historically more important than the entire philosophical thought of the twentieth century. I will only add here that there is also not a single article on any woman philosopher in the history of philosophy.
This is not the place to discuss the reasons for this bias both in the JHP and also, though now to a lesser degree, in the BJHP, but it is certainly something that needs to be addressed by the history of philosophy community as a matter of urgency. I will just say two things here. First, I do think that scholarship on the ‘top seven’ early modern philosophers, plus Plato and Aristotle, is now an extremely well-oiled machine. There are plenty of sophisticated philosophical treatments of their work, plus many rich contextual studies, so that a new scholar – if they are prepared to put in the effort – can readily stand on the shoulders of others in making their own contribution, even if it is only to add an epicycle to existing debate. Second, while a scholar of one of those nine – or even sixteen – philosophers has as much a chance of gaining a permanent post in philosophy, or promotion, as anyone specializing, say, in contemporary epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, or philosophy of language, there is a widespread prejudice that someone working instead on medieval philosophy or neo-Kantianism, to take just two examples, are not in the same league. We need to do much more to show how deeply mistaken this prejudice is, and we hope that the new and exciting work that is now being published in the BJHP will help do this, and in the process encourage further work on philosophers outside what is increasingly recognized as an absurdly narrow canon.
We are pleased at what we have managed to achieve over the last five years, but we are very conscious that there is still much more to do, which will require concerted and coordinated activity across the whole community of philosophers and historians of philosophy, both inside and outside the academies. At the BJHP we will continue to publish the very best articles on the ‘canonical’ figures, but we will also be redoubling our efforts to broaden that canon as much as we can. As we move forward, what we would like to promote, above all, is more work on non-Western philosophy, especially where it seeks to deepen dialogue between the various traditions through critical engagement and fruitful comparison. So here, in particular, we would like to underline that we welcome submissions that discuss non-Western philosophy even if our record to date might suggest otherwise.--Michael Beaney, Editorial "Twenty-five years of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy." [Emphases added.]
Michael Beaney called my attention to his editorial (go read the whole thing--these are just final paragraphs), undoubtedly with the hope to elicit some discussion. I dislike (recall) the term 'non-Western philosophy,' but I share in Beaney's encouragement to further work outside an absurdly narrow canon (and I try to practice what I preach by, when I do history, working on some non-canonical figures and non-typical topics). The passage that I italicized in bold in his piece really caught my attention.
Before I get to the really juicy sociology of the profession, I want to say something about some of the selection biases that follow from focusing on journal publication (such BJHP (and JHP) data; see also Chris Meyns's important piece on lack of research on slavery in early modern scholarship). For, it is important to recognize that while journal publication in 'top' refereed journals is important, in some areas of scholarship, it is not the main vehicle of (ahh) knowledge dissemination, I mean, publication. Monographs and handbooks/companions/encyclopedia articles are often a lot more important. (Some scholars dislike the word-limits of journal articles, and many respect the thoroughness of monograph). ) This actually shows up in citation figures. Here's an example, according to Google scholar Don Garrett's classic paper on Hume's two definition of causation (Nous 1993) has 22 citations. That's not a bad number of citations in the field after 25 years, but not a lot for a paper that influenced a lot of discussion on a classic topic on a canonical figure. That's because people tend to cite (and perhaps only read) his first Hume book which has about 490 citations. (The vast majority of these citations are not only about causation; there is a lot more in that book!) Even edited volumes can be more influential than particular papers. Ignatieff/Hont's Wealth and virtue: The shaping of political economy in the Scottish enlightenment, is a lot more cited than most papers in the field.
This point in the previous paragraph is even more striking if you focus on non canonical figures: in the last few decades there have been very important books on Gassendi (by Joy, Osler, Lolordo, Lennon, Brundell, Sarasohn [interestingly enough the majority of these are women!]). I could rattle that list off without much reflection. (Even read a few of these; I am NOT a Gassendi scholar!) But I needed the help of google to be reminded of some papers (mostly by Sarasohn).
A second important point is that even when you are focusing on a canonical figure and a traditional topic, you can bring in a lot of contextually significant figures that are now basically unread. A few years ago, I published an article on Spinoza and motion. In it I discussed More, Clarke, Newton, and Maclaurin. For marketing purposes, I only put Spinoza and Newton in the title. In addition, not all Spinoza papers are equally narrowly canonical. There are a lot of papers on Spinoza and the attributes; not that many on Spinoza and Ibn Tufayl (even though some of his friends produced a translation of Ibn Tufayl). So, how we count papers on canonical figures can obscure what's happening. It would be much more illuminating (and perhaps equally depressing) to count what topics are discussed (rather than what figures).
Third, history of philosophy scholarship involves -- what economists call -- a lot of path dependance, barriers to entry, and sunk costs: involving the mastery of new languages, sometimes quite alien philosophical perspectives, and also lots of primary and secondary sources. In addition, to get an area/author/topic ready for scholarship involves a lot more work: preparing critical editions, visits to the archives, learning a lot about historical context, etc. (All the way, you have to develop your contemporary philosophy skills, too.) Most importantly, it involves creating an intellectual community of somewhat like-minded scholars who can engage in ordinary scholarly rivalry and collaboration (recall (here/here) the celebrations of Eileen O'Neill's life a few weeks ago.)
Even once such work is done, there is a real lag before it shows up in publication, especially journal publication (as I argued is the case in work on, say, Cavendish). I have been happily blogging about a lot of non-traditional figures and topics; but I know that it would take immense effort to turn, say, my blogs about say Islamic political philosophy into journal articles that meet the highest research standards. My vanity is pleased that some of my pieces are read and even cited by specialists, but the best I can hope for is spark interest in others. The point is: the leading history of philosophy journals are barely publishing work on early modern women or even early analytic women, that's not because there is no such work. (I know this because I have edited special issues that publish work on them.)
As an aside, people tend to ignore that Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant excepted, for many canonical figures real scholarship is a fairly recent phenomena. Even for Hume this is the case: it's only in the last decade or two that we're starting to see really finegrained work on, say, Treatise 1.4.2. Scholarship is by definition esoteric, alas.
Fourth, and this gets me back to Beaney. Journal publication is key for young scholars struggling to get hired and obtain tenure. But these (scholarly) youngsters, when making decisions to focus time and energy, have to make calculated bets on not just what their likely scholarly peers will find interesting and exciting, but (as Beaney notes) also have to take into account their future and direct colleagues. They make these bets in a period when they have the most time for pure research. The cumulative impact of path dependency and these calculated bets can be quite profound. Twenty years ago I contemplated writing a dissertation on Lucretius's impact on early modern philosophy; my committee discouraged me from this project on prudential grounds (it would never be finished and it would be very hard to find a job). But that means that to this day my knowledge of late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century philosophy is spotty [1550-1620 is a kind of bermuda triangle of the history of philosophy].
Finally, many appointments in the history of philosophy are driven by (very slowly evolving) curricular needs. The rationalists, empiricists, and Kant are often on the books in a way that (outside catholic institutions) medieval philosophy or neo-Kantianism are not. Hiring and tenure decisions shape the field and create lock-in. This is reinforced by rankings (a few years ago I noted that the PGR simply did not reward work on non traditional figures) and citation data. I once worked on Hume's autobiography and Smith's obituary of Hume--I presented it on the job market and was asked why this was philosophy. Even work that is at the intersection of science and philosophy (not a clean split in the early modern period), often gets desk rejected by history of philosophy journals (as belonging in history of science journals). For the dirty secret of working in history of philosophy is that if you work on Cavendish's poetry or Mandeville's dialogues you may well get a respectful hearing from your direct peers (and not always, then!), while you are less likely to pass the present ('argument is constitutive of philosophy') philosophical smell-test applied to aspiring professionals.