This week I finished reading a 90-year-old book, and wondering why I had read it, and what it had to do with philosophy today. The feeling scraped at a previously acquired irritation regarding philosophy in the academic setting.
During my recent conference travels, I ended up in a conversation about maintaining currency in the field of philosophy. I said something about feeling like I should read people like Badiou or Agamben, even though I can't see what people find so compelling about them (which is a nice way to put it). The person I was talking to said that didn't matter, that as philosophers, we specialize, and we don't need to take account of present day or contemporary philosophers, even within our so-called continental tradition.
I wonder. Perhaps philosophy does not "progress" in the way we seem to think sciences do: contemporary philosophers, even in taking account of previous philosophers in "the tradition" do not necessarily or even usually claim to be improving the state of human knowledge or wisdom. Why would that be? And if that's true, why do we expect our elite academic philosophers to publish "new" or "original" philosophical works? What would "new" contribute to a body of knowledge that does not "advance"?
One possible answer, that academic philosophers shouldn't approve of, is that the professional academic business of publishing is a sham. What that could mean about philosophy itself is a further question: What does academic philosophy have to do with philosophy?
On the other hand, what warrants philosophy as an undertaking at all? The last philosopher I can think of who claimed that philosophy was not only scientifically rigorous, but the model of scientific rigor itself, was Husserl. That is, Husserl claimed that philosophy had to do with truth. Other than a handful of very seriously addicted Husserl scholars, I don't know of anyone who continues to uphold this claim. In any case, if you have the truth, you don't have to read anyone who isn't telling the truth, and so, you can exclude contemporary pretenders. Isn't that convenient and cute?
If philosophy isn't warranted on the basis of a special access to truth (a method, or an insight - a low or royal road), then what does warrant philosophy? I believe that most academic philosophers practice philosophy as, basically, a sub-discipline of literature, with a canon of texts not grouped by nationality, but by a peculiar style and content. What academic philosophers do, in that case, is a form of literary criticism of these texts. Since there is no specific insight or method, it is harder to say why you should read some practitioners of philosophy and not others. You could say that you specialize in a particular major figure, and then your practice should involve staying current on what other specialists write about that figure's works - just like, say, Chaucer studies.
There once was a cultural warrant for this activity, but the legitimacy of that warrant ran out by the 1950s or so (as Bill Readings cogently argues), so now the only warrant for this practice is that it somehow serves capital accumulation. For instance, somehow, the practice of (to take a random name) Heidegger scholarship has the effect of preparing you to be able to train students either in some "critical thinking" or "communication" skill salable in the job market, or else to be able to produce consumers of Heidegger scholarship (i.e., graduate students). This leaves academic philosophy tremendously vulnerable to market demands for either salable skills or scholarship, and moreover, to the discovery that someone other than academic philosophers can provide the necessary products at a cheaper price - someone in another academic discipline, or someone off the street who happens to be a decent, and fairly logical, writer.
A final option is that philosophy is not warranted in any of these ways, and can only be the practice of radical questioning and doubt. No particular methodological commitment is important to this notion of philosophy, because methods are merely techniques of radicalism. There is no objective reason whatsoever to narrow or to broaden the scope of the philosophy you read, no objective reason to remain current in the published record of academic philosophy. There are subjective reasons, namely, that someone's method or book seems to work for what you're trying to do, or turns you on.
In this case, philosophy as practiced in academic institutions is completely at odds with philosophy itself. In fact, the aim of academic philosophy is almost entirely destructive of philosophy itself, for the simple reason that academic philosophy could not afford to be scandalized in this way in the contemporary university. It would be all too clear that the emperor has no clothes - that the system of credentialing and awarding of authority practiced in academia has no connection to philosophy as a practice of radicalism, and in fact works to eliminate radicalism. A "radical philosophy department" is a contradiction in terms, unless somehow a group of people have managed to extort or otherwise commandeer institutional resources in service to its own destruction. That would be very weird.
For myself, I've come to think that the last two answers are mutually compatible and close to the truth of things. It makes my status - a Phd in philosophy, teaching in a university - not very comfortable, yet - given my tenuous-track employment, in a university whose public support has rapidly diminished - more understandable.
I'm speaking of all this in terms that are far too totalizing. Obviously not every class taught in every philosophy department is either so dogmatic, or cynical, or nihilistic, as my discussion suggests. A few philosophers working in academic settings probably do manage to get away with being radical. Until one of them commits a serious felony, though, we're not likely to know their names.