Justin at Daily Nous has posted an interesting survey today asking what contemporary philosophy "The Greats" should read. The survey caught my eye in part because of a social media post I came across yesterday--a post in which a prominent philosopher remarked on how little contemporary philosophy appears to have any lasting influence. More exactly, they remarked on how a friend of theirs in another department noted just how once-influential philosophers like Dummett and Davidson have largely faded from view.
This got me thinking about Justin's poll. I dare say that if one were to ask philosophers in the 80's or 90's Justin's question ("what contemporary philosophy the Greats should read?"), many people would have rattled off names like Quine, Davidson, Dummett, Chisholm, Goodman, and so on, with great confidence. I say this because, having come of age in those times (I was an undergraduate in the mid-90's), these people were like gods back then. Although I was young at the time, I remember a very palpable sense that at least some of these people would be regarded as "Greats", and indeed, I recall a sense that the 70's were a kind of Golden Age in philosophy.
Yet, as influential as the above philosophers once were, and without disrespecting their work (I, for one, very much admire the philosophical abilities, arguments, and ideas of many of the people just listed), I could not help but note just how much many (most?) of them seem to have mostly faded from view. Maybe I'm wrong, but one simply doesn't seem to come across a great deal of philosophy nowadays that engages with the work of people who, just a generation ago, were considered towering figures in the field. Further, it doesn't seem (to me, at any rate) that this is because many of their arguments or theories have simply been accepted into the philosophical discussion as points of clear progress (as, say, once-towering people like Faraday, Planck, etc., have in physics). On the contrary, many of the most influential philosophical theories of just a few decades ago seem to have been set aside as something like "failed research programs."
What should we make of this? One possibility is that, however successful or unsuccessful some of these figures' arguments/theories were, they have nevertheless figured prominently into "philosophical progress", providing both new ideas to develop and demonstrations of approaches that don't work. Yet, I cannot help but worry about whether this is right. More so, it sort of seems to me that philosophy largely jumps from fad to fad. Consider epistemology. First there was the foundationalist movement, then the coherentist movement, then the externalist/reliabilist movement, now the knowledge-first movement, and so on. At each point in time, these theories' (influential) proponents seemed pretty darn sure that their approach to epistemology was correct--and yet, in each case, just a decade or two later the approach that was hailed as something of a breakthrough seems to have been rejected in favor of the "new breakthrough", rinse and repeat (okay, the verdict is still out on knowledge-first approaches, but it too seems to be developing its own severe critics--who, quite frankly, as no fan of knowledge-first, I'm inclined to side with).
Consequently, when we return to Justin's question, "What contemporary philosophy should the Greats read?", should we be at all confident of any answer? Does contemporary philosophy have any lasting breakthroughs we should have any confidence the Greats should read, or, is it more of a series of fads that continually fade from view? Or, is it something in between? I leave it to you to discuss!