And why not philosophy at the margin?

Given philosophy’s marginal status in American culture—a status it has variously and sometimes concurrently  suffered, struggled against, and sought—perhaps “philosophy at the margin” seems a more apt title. Indeed, even here in Cambridge, MA—home to two superb philosophy departments—the signs of philosophy’s remoteness from the larger culture are readily apparent. Back in the 1990s, books on analytic and continental philosophy filled both sides of a main aisle of the Harvard Book Store. Today, they have been squeezed into a quarter of that same space, supplanted by the public’s greater interest in biography and memoir.

A few blocks away, philosophy—although comfortingly not alone—rattles its chains from its banishment to the third floor of the Square’s other major bookstore, The Coop. Another madwoman in the attic or a fitting place for the texts of a discipline that from its beginnings characterized the pursuit of truth as a painful and difficult ascent?

Caveat lector—we must learn to live without hope. As the store’s sign boldly suggests, sojourners to the third floor are more likely to be driven by the needs of the body than of the mind.


And yet…

Doesn’t the very familiarity of this story prompt our suspicion? Don’t we—good skeptics that we are—recoil somewhat at the comforting fantasy that at some earlier time and place it was otherwise? Hasn’t the history of philosophy always been a history of the resistance to philosophy? Why then should we lament what has always been true? Shouldn’t we rather embrace and, attentive to the freedom and opportunity it affords, seek as much as possible to occupy this margin?

Perhaps. But as a philosophically inclined non-philosopher, a practicing librarian, and a specialist in early print and manuscript culture, my aims in this blog (and my reasons for titling it Philosophy in the Margin) are decidedly less ambitious and also more material. In the weeks to come, I hope to entertain readers with some of the materials from our library’s recently created marginalia collection, a collection that includes readers’ marks and annotations left by philosophers such as William James, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Charles Sanders Peirce, and many others. Along with these will also be the interesting and sometimes amusing marginalia left by the many anonymous readers who have passed through the library’s doors.

As a book historian with deep interests in the history and practice of reading, I have been drawn to these materials since my discovery that they were sitting on the shelves of our general collection. As the librarian for the Robbins Library of Philosophy at Harvard University, I also want to promote greater knowledge of and engagement with these materials. My hope, then, is that Philosophy in the Margin will appeal not just to historians of philosophy but to those interested in the history of the book broadly conceived, as well as to general readers.


Up Next: The Faces of Nietzsche