Sometimes as I stare at the blinking cursor while waiting for the coffee to kick in so I can write, I end up daydreaming a bit. At times the daydream takes the form of imagining I were conversing with various “great” philosophers from various points in history. I always end up wondering if they would understand or recognize as philosophy any number of contemporary philosophical methods, ideas, arguments, or positions. What would Plato, for instance, think of contemporary modal logic? How well would Kant or Anselm receive an explanation of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity? Or what would Aristotle think of feminist work in ethics of care?

Recently, there has been posts on Daily Nous and The Philosophers’ Cocoon on what contemporary philosophy should the “greats” read. The ensuing discussion has brought these daydreams to my mind’s surface. I agree that it’s a fun question to ask, since often imagine conversations with the “greats.” But if this question is to serve as a proxy for what works in contemporary philosophy are good or demonstrate progress in the field, then this is the right question. Instead I think there is a better question to ask, one that is more enlightening, even if unanswerable. What contemporary philosophy should the next great philosophers read? 

In philosophy, we carry on the great conversation (or several), some of which we inherited from the greats before us. But this conversation is largely one directional. The philosophers of the past speak to us, but we obviously can’t answer back. Instead, we answer one another and speak to the next generation. Consequently, if we want ask what current work the next great philosophers should read, we can do something to answer the question of where has progress been made in the field.

To clarify, this question is asking what current philosophy should the next generation read in order to be become good (or great) philosophers? What works are we producing that they’ll need to read in order to join the conversation? The question, then, is one of training. One way to answer that question is to look at what works are being assigned in PhD courses. That is how we are answering that question now. Of course, the next generation will also answer this question for themselves as they enter the discipline and start publishing. The contemporary works produced recently or now that they end up referencing often are the works they’ll regard as the ones that advanced the field.

Finally, this conversation reminds me of a comic about teaching contemporary science to the great scientists of the past: