In part, of course, we historians must take a good part of the blame, since we’re the ones with the training and proclivities to rectify the situation. But in part the problem arises because decisions in philosophy are made by a non-historical majority who have no idea how parochial our standard histories are, and who often don’t care much about that history anyway. Imagine if philosophy were folded into science departments and hiring decisions were made by a bunch of physicists, drawing on their undergraduate memories of what the central questions are. --Robert Pasnau, interviewed@3AM.
Pasnau understates the problem in three ways. Often, and this is even true of our most well-meaning colleagues, there is a further assumption that the history of philosophy performs a service, first, by teaching bread and butter courses to students, and, second, by supplying colleagues who can help advance debates on core issues (by supplying useful background knowledge, or by recalling important versions of current debates, etc.) What did Reid say about direct realism; Can Locke really ground powers? (etc.) Because philosophy has a very steep economic and status hierarchy, the structure of core and non-core service, reinforces what I have called (here) servility toward the core (see also Amy Olberding's brilliant response).
In addition, in all areas of philosophy most hiring happens at the junior level. But in addition to non-core hiring being relatively rare at any level, in non-core areas there is very little movement of and interest in hiring scholars at the senior level. That means that some of the most important folks who end up innovating in those sub-fields often never gravitate to the research powerhouses of the profession. And this kind of reinforces Pasnau's point about how expectations about non-core fields are never challenged.
Were I asked who are the living metaphysicians that I would want to hire (say, if a wealthy philanthropist gave me a huge grant), Michael Della Rocca, L.A. Paul, Kris McDaniel, Jody Azzouni, Abe Stone, Rae Langton, and Jonathan Schaffer would all immediately spring to mind. That's no surprise, of course, because many of them are quite famous and influential and (more important for present purposes), despite their many differences, they conform to my biases about what matters in philosophy -- historical and topical breadth, an unease with the intellectual status quo, a stereo-scoping mixing of history and contemporary stuff, and an existential sense that philosophy really matters and is not a mere game.+ (Jody and Abe were teachers, Kris a colleague, so that's an additional source of bias.) I know enough of professional philosophy that my list of names is a mixture of folk deemed quite central and folk deemed rather quirky.
What I also know, and this is to reinforce a point Pasnau makes, is that for more than a decade I have been working at the margins of the PGR ecology and more recently in a political science department. I was lucky to catch wind of the fashion for grounding relatively early when it was just picking up steam (in part by reading a brilliant paper by Jessica Wilson mocking it), but I have no idea either what the new hot topics are or who are developing the key moves that will endure beyond a fashion epicycle. My ignorance about contemporary metaphysics is akin to the ignorance that most professional philosophers have about what the exciting developments in the history of philosophy are. (I am stipulating they don't read my blog!) And, in fact, odds are that if they talk to a some of my senior history of philosophy peers, who are, in fact, at leading departments, they may well hear some of these new trends -- the revival of woman's voices, the trend toward comparative philosophy, the use of digital humanities techniques, etc. -- be poo-poohed or undervalued. That's to say, if I had any intellectual integrity about such matters, I would have to decline the philanthropist's grant to me.
Pasnau's point generalizes: in many sub-disciplines of philosophy (one thinks of aesthetics, 'non-western' [hate the term], feminism, etc.) key hiring decisions are, in fact, made by folks who were not just ignorant, but also previously indifferent or hostile to the very projects being developed. In Europe this issue generalizes more widely for a slightly different reason, because the discipline is being shaped by the decisions of grant agencies. (This entails, for example, that in Holland and Belgium we have almost no metaphysicians, but a lot of ethics of technology, bio-ethics, and logicians.)
Now, to be sure, there are lots of folks who can make extremely competent decisions about research promise in, say, early modern who are not themselves early modern specialists. (After all, they hired me once!) I have been interviewed by metaphysicians who published influential papers on, say. Berkeley and Leibniz.
But, and this is the real point I wish to extract from Pasnau's comments, when a sub-field's major hiring decisions are made by those with no true interest in seeing it develop, then it's those who are best capable of speaking to (in Pasnau's terms) 'the majority' who will look most promising and interesting; who in a way seem to be doing what the majority is already doing.+ And this, perversely, reinforces and entrenches what I call the servility that is a consequence of all the hierarchies which operate in the profession. The more general epistemic problem with this is this: rather than turning non-core areas into fields of lively experimentation that can feedback, as it were, into the majority's outlook, they risk becoming dull backwaters. Those of us who live and breath in those waters do share the blame if we allow that to happen.
*My interest in L.A. Paul's philosophy is well documented, but it's little known she also wrote a gem of a paper on Mill (see here).
+I think this, in part, accounts for the fact that so many of the trends in history of philosophy tend to echo the trends of the leading non-historical lights of the previous generation.