In The New York Times (May 22, 2011), Justin E. H. Smith raises for discussion, “The Flight of Curiosity” from philosophy, noting that today’s budding philosopher may not even find curiosity an asset, compared to showing colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school,” and how little she knows of anything “that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.” A far cry, he says, from the days when science was called, for good reason, “natural philosophy”:
… tellingly, among the articles in the Philosophical Transactions of 1666, the first year of the journal’s publication, we find titles such as “Of a Considerable Load-Stone Digged Out of the Ground in Devonshire,” and “Observations Concerning Emmets or Ants, Their Eggs, Production, Progress, Coming to Maturity, Use, &c.” Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers studying the properties of magnetism continued to refer to their area of interest as “the magnetical philosophy,” and as late as 1808 John Dalton published “A New System of Chemical Philosophy.” A year later Jean-Baptiste Lamarck brought out his “Philosophie zoologique.” Yet by the early 20th century, this usage of the word philosophy had entirely vanished. What happened?
Smith had the misfortune to be dismissed as a “post-modernist” because he was writing about a false theory of medicine – and someone at the journal must have assumed that he could only be writing about it if he thought it was true or that everything is true or that nothing is. His defense, as readers will see, is that what’s true is that the man believed it and that fact had consequences. Perhaps that isn’t a truth for these censorial times.