For most of the history of Western civilization, philosophy was, if not vital, at least relevant, and usually more than that. From the first philosopher, Thales, who lived in the 6th Century B.C., until the 19th Century, philosophers asked important questions about the nature of reality and the role of people in the world.
But in the 20th Century many academic philosophers somehow got off the track--at least in the English-speaking world. Most professional philosophers ceded many of their traditional questions to the sciences, particularly physics, and apparently became bored with many others. They turned instead to increasingly smaller and less-relevant inquiries into the nature of language and how it describes reality. By concentrating on these highly technical questions, philosophy lost its sweep and grandeur and has become something of a footnote to intellectual life. Is there a contemporary philosopher who follows in the tradition and fills the footsteps of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and William James? You'd have to search long and hard to find one. Nowadays academic philosophy increasingly speaks only to its practitioners and has become moribund.
So it is a pleasure to read the lead article in the summer issue of The American Scholar in which Stephen Toulmin, a physicist turned philosopher at Northwestern University, notes with approval the revival of "practical philosophy"--public debates about environmental policy, medical ethics, judicial practice and nuclear politics.