When I look back at the projects I pursued during my career, a certain pattern becomes evident. In several cases I was drawn to an idea, or a theory, that had been declared dead. In each case, when I looked at the death certificate, it seemed to me that the victim deserved to be resuscitated. I devoted myself to this project of bringing the dead back to life.
That’s Fred Feldman, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in an interview with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at the What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? site. The interview is interesting throughout, with Feldman describing his life and education—including not getting into a college owing to its quotas on Jews, his itinerant graduate studies, a wonderful description of Roderick Chisholm as a teacher, being put in his place by Ruth Barcan Marcus, being convinced out of an area of specialization by a colleague who he thought could do it better, and the rest of his career up to what sounds like an amazing retirement party, and beyond.
Following the quote above, Feldman describes how, contrary to the historical consensus (and what he perceived to be the opinion of his colleagues), he took up and defended unpopular or discarded views. I think this is one of those things that shows off both what’s good and what’s bad about philosophy. It’s great because it’s a part of that philosophical spirit to not let the popular or conventional be mistaken for the true. But it is also, I think, an effect of the contrarianism than philosophers are often drawn to, sometimes unconsciously, as an occupational hazard. We love to argue, and we love to be smart. What better way to get into a philosophical argument than to try to defend an unpopular view, and what better way to be smart than to be frustratingly good at defending it? (Note: this is not to say that people consciously pick views to defend because the views are dead or unpopular.)
That philosophers can be so ingenious at “bringing the dead back to life” is a sign of the rigor of the discipline; it’s a way of double and triple and n-tuple checking our results. But that some philosophers can be so good at it does make one suspicious of the possibility of progress in philosophy.