We all get this thumbnail sketch of the history of philosophy that goes something like this: in the beginning were the Greeks. They were cosmologists and philosophers of nature until Socrates and the sophists came along and turned the whole thing around toward ethics and epistemology. Philosophy was also basically a way of life until it ran into its nemesis, Christendom, which demoted it to a supplementary activity practiced by the more bookish of the saints. Aristotle and/or Plato, wedded to systematic theology, ruled the roost until science, protestantism, and politics reawakened philosophy's independent aspirations in the person of Descartes. He and his “new philosophy” led to all the permutations of modern epistemology from British empiricists to German rationalists and idealists. Things took an even more decidedly epistemological turn after Kant and went along swimmingly in that vein until the twentieth century and the turn away from consciousness and toward language.
Another way of telling this story is to speak of which branch of philosophy was “first philosophy” in each era: ancient – metaphysics; medieval – philosophical theology; modern – epistemology; contemporary – philosophy of language (and then, some say, of mind).
This a schema that few perpetrate absolutely. Most professional philosophers would acknowledge (I hope) that each categorization is at best representative, that each claim must admit a hundred exceptions.
Yet the schema is curiously pervasive. The ethicists are perhaps best at insinuating an alternative historiography, as well they might be. But most philosophers, regardless of their specialty, seem intent on arranging their conception of the history of that specialty so that it falls into the schema. I think this is terribly silly. The histories of specific sub-discourses vary wildly with respect to each other and it's not at all clear to me that they can be coordinated according to each era's supposed first philosophy.
In particular, I am interested in the historiography that would emerge from tracing sub-disciplines immanently, without regard to standard periodization. What would a genuinely focused history of philosophy of history or of philosophical method look like?
Is it in fact meaningless to speak of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary philosophy “in general” and “as a whole”? One piece of evidence in favor of this possibility is the way in which, the moment one turns to a specific “philosophical” discipline — say logic or aesthetics — suddenly thinkers who aren't “philosophers” become necessary to tell the story properly.
(This can be a problem. Recently I was interviewed for a fellowship and asked to describe my research project. Speaking of philosophy of history and then of social criticism I mentioned, naturally, several historians and several sociologists as particular interests. “But why are you interested in them,” I was asked, “aren't you a philosopher?”)
Philosophy in general is a difficult thing to talk about without making up farcically imprecise and blatantly deceptive generalizations, unlike natural science in general or literature in general or religion in general.
Maybe philosophy isn't even really a thing?