Philosophy is a peculiar discipline and, if possible, the history of philosophy is even more peculiar. Since the beginning of its course, philosophy asked questions concerning the intrinsic nature and functioning of the world (e.g., Thales, Heraclitus, the Confucianist commentators of the Yijing, their Daoist readers, and so on), the better way to act and govern according to human nature (e.g., Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and Mozi, and many others), and the ways by which something true can be said about the context of all this, the universe. Throughout history, competing systems of thought, as meaningful ways to envision nature, humans, and the universe, have proposed different answers to these basic questions expanding on almost all the topics of human knowledge. Some of these systems became shared intellectual frameworks used by practitioners of different sorts – sometimes for centuries, like with Aristotle in the European Middle Ages and Zhu Xi roughly at the same time. That was the gilded age of philosophy. Nowadays, the sciences have become specialised, rigorous, and autonomous disciplines, often considered far more prestigious than philosophy and the humanities. And from below, a question seems to loom, asking what the point is of studying philosophy. In a more trenchant fashion, some might also wonder why anyone should study the history of philosophy, and especially medieval philosophy, which seems so outdated and even out of touch when one considers the needs of our societies.
I do not pretend to have any answers to these questions, but I share the feeling that something is missing. It may be a problem of communication – not an easy one to resolve. While the sciences have developed refined strategies to popularise their research, the situation is quite different with the humanities. Among them, historians have dedicated time and effort to disseminate the results of their research nurturing both specialised and non-specialised readers through different sets of products. With philosophy and especially the history of philosophy the situation seems more problematic. On the one hand, by popularising philosophy one risks trivialising problems and theories that constitute the core of the discipline itself. On the other, popularising the history of philosophy may work, perhaps, with specific periods and with potential readers who have already an interest (often of historical nature) in that period. In both cases, inquisitiveness about philosophy (as a discipline) must be nurtured within our societies. This means that philosophers (both theoretical and historians of philosophy) shall climb the ivory tower down to meet the people (who happen to be their stakeholders) where they are. But how?
As I said, I do not have answers to any of these questions. I just share the doubts arising from asking them. Yet to give answers, one must ask the question. And to answer the question, one must look at meaningful cases and relevant data that may contribute to the problematisation of what is at stake. This page is focused exactly on this aspect. It expands on the crossroads of academia and society, the intersections among disciplines that at first might appear to be quite disconnected, and the junction between the humanities and the “real world” which, like for Mulder and Scully in a famous TV series, “is out there” although we seem to appreciate pieces and fragments only from time to time. By doing this, the page will be a reminder of Thales’s Thracian handmaid and how, by looking at the stars alone, sooner or later we will necessarily fall into a ditch. Being such a reminder, do not consider the contents of this page as bearing the epistemic value of Thales, but rather that of the handmaid. This means that, at least in part, the following thoughts correspond to a doxastic wandering which may or may not become something steadier. Yet, exactly because the perspective is that of the handmaid instead of Thales’s (the perspective of a worker, not an intellectual) it might very well be the case that the outcome of all this will be not only steadier, but also better-grounded than a mere exercise of erudite knowledge and refined skills.