The discussion appears, largely, to be framed within a more ‘analytic’ discourse, and my sense is that the ‘continental’ tradition has tended not to see the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy in such a strict manner. Indeed, some of what’s being said, especially in the comments, doesn’t fit with the Philosophy departments I know, journals I read or the conferences I go to, but I am almost certain they are in a minority.
It also got me thinking of my own adoptive discipline, Geography. I still don’t quite self-identify as a geographer, and think that basically I remain, for the most part, someone who does the history of ideas. I used to do this in a Politics department; now I do it in Geography. It’s one of the reasons I like the approaches of Medieval Studies, and why thinkers like Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and Reinhard Koselleck, despite methodological and political differences, are inspirational.
But back to Geography. As a discipline, it doesn’t seem to have a very clear sense of its own history. There are exceptions, of course, of whom David N. Livingstone and Charles Withers are two of the most remarkable current exponents. Denis Cosgrove, who sadly died in 2008, was a major figure in this regard. The history of cartography project led by Brian Harley and David Woodward, and continued after their deaths is one of the most important projects in this vein. When I was working on Kant, and his Physische Geographie, there were relatively few geographers who could have been asked to contribute. Charlie ended up writing the contextual essay on Kant in relation to human geography; and Michael Church wrote the one on physical geography. David wrote one of the endorsements. Alongside this work I sent a paper on Kant’s geography to the Journal of Historical Geography. One of the referees said that it wasn’t really historical geography, but rather history of geography, and suggested it didn’t fit the journal. Fortunately the other referees were more positive, and the editor, Felix Driver, supported its publication. But if not that journal, where else could you send something on the history of geography?
Historical geography is sometimes claimed to be a threatened field, but there are plenty of good people doing work in that regard – too many to name. But where are the historians of geography, as a subfield within the history of ideas or the history of science? Apart from those I’ve already mentioned, I can’t think of many more. Some of the work of Miles Ogborn, Felix Driver and Chris Philo; some good works in the history of geology, earth sciences, physical geography. So I suppose if you were to draw parallels to the open letter, you’d need to say that this isn’t where the jobs are, and not necessarily a good career move at any stage. But a sense of the discipline’s history – even its very recent history – is often lacking.
What is being said in the letter is closer to my sense of Politics departments, where political theory (especially contemporary ‘John Rawls and after’ justice debates) is often privileged over the history of political thought. This is despite the way almost all degrees seem to have some component of the Hobbes-Marx type canon as a compulsory element. Also worth mentioning the language issue, which puts people off working on anything that can’t be read in a modern, English, critical edition. The last line of the letter is reductive – translation is only ever rarely one-to-one equivalence – but the general sentiment seems a good one.
[update – interesting response at the APPS blog here]