For several years, I have been posing the following choice for my fellow philosophers: if Mephistopheles offered you the following two options, which would you choose?
(A) You solve the major philosophical problem of your choice so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history).
(B) You write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.
Some philosophers reluctantly admit that they would have to go for option (B). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. Like composers, poets, novelists, and other creators in the arts, they tend to want their work to be experienced, over and over, by millions (billions, if possible!). But they are also tugged in the direction of the scientists’ quest. After all, philosophers are supposed to be trying to get at the truth.
When I have presented the same Faustian bargain to scientists they tend to opt for (A) without any hesitation—it’s a no-brainer for them.--Daniel C. Dennett (2013) “A Faustian Bargain” Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, p. 411.+
Daniel Dennet was one of my undergraduate teachers, and I am pretty sure I heard him try out versions of the “Faustian Bargain” on visiting scholars. (In his book, Intuition Pumps, he describes further variants.) I mention this because at some point, while I was completing my dissertation, I articulated a descendant of the Bargain that I have tried out on some fellow historians of philosophy. It goes something like this:
(A*) You conclusively settle all interpretive problems about the relationship between the infinite and finite in Spinoza’s metaphysics (like Descartes's Circle a notorious problem) such that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, Spinoza becomes easy, and you get a footnote in history).
(B*) You generate interest in a previously overlooked text so that it (not you) gets on the required reading list for centuries to come.
Most scholars happily and promptly settle for (A*); that’s what we are trained to aim at. The spirit of contemporary scholarship in the history of philosophy has its origins (mediated via Quentin Skinner, perhaps) in Germanic Wissenschaft, after all. But a few respondents are, after some hesitation, tempted by (B*). For, ever since some professional philosophical historians of philosophy started to read canonical works in context, it was likely they would stumble across texts that might seem candidates for (B*). And while getting the past right is a non-trivial task, doing justice to the past and thereby shaping a better future is nobler yet.
Moreover, (B*) is also a near-self-less-act; in it one is the nearly anonymous hand-maiden to another's success. Even if it is motivated (one concludes after reading Nietzsche) by a strange kind of desire for revenge or (echoing Walter Benjamin) by a desire to speak for history's losers, it remains the case that one uses one's skill and judgment to make somebody else's previously overlooked views, insights, or arguments available for discussion. Of course, plenty of scholars are motivated by the true and the good, and (B*) might be one way to promote these. Even so, there is also something quixotic about (B*) because it is so unlikely to succeed. After reflecting on canon-formation throughout history, I suspect that enduring novelty is introduced into the curriculum and people's reading habits not by the conjoined efforts of scholars, but by the ideological and curricular needs of history's proverbial winners who write and rewrite the past to give their own commitments an air of inevitability, the so-called (to adopt a fine phrase by Michael Kremer) 'royal road to me' (recall).