I was exposed to the Quinean view of philosophy as technical exercise in my undergraduate days in Sydney University (especially in my first two years, in 1972 – 1973). One “Quinean” professor told me that what I was doing was “not philosophy” and that “perhaps some form of navel-gazing in India” would be more appropriate. I was sad and depressed for several years because of this attitude, but I did not drop out as so many others did. I finally emigrated to France, where there is a more rounded image of the philosopher. France was my “India”, if you will. And attending the seminars of Deleuze, Foucault, Serres, and Lyotard was my “navel-gazing”.
Whatever the cause of philosophy becoming sidetracked, over the course of the twentieth century philosophers increasingly followed W. V. O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the public.
While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) non-academics, among the mass of philosophers a lack of societal engagement is treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness. As Quine put it in a 1979 Newsday piece, the student who “majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual consolation is misguided and is probably not a very good student.” For him, philosophy does not offer wisdom, nor do philosophers “have any peculiar fitness for helping… society.”
We think philosophers do have a peculiar fitness for helping society.