When I studied philosophy in graduate school [in the 1990s--ES], my peers and I went to classes where we were made to read Kripke and Davidson and Quine and Putnam. Then, duty done, we met together at a coffee shop and discussed the latest paper from Millikan, pens in hand, arguing passionately. I cannot even recall how we found her work and knew we had to study it, but somehow there was consensus among us that she was producing the most exciting philosophy happening right then. Sometimes we were convinced that Millikan got a problem wrong... more often we felt she had offered a solution to some problem that other philosophers had mostly just obscured. But that was not what made us study her work so eagerly. The important thing was that Millikan gave us tools. Her theory of proper functions was something we could actually use. It had wide and general utility...And, as we contrasted her work with what our instructors considered the contemporary canon, we felt certain that Millikan represented the vanguard.
I mention all this because the second striking feature of Millikan's responses to these thirteen criticisms is that she still seems the radical maverick. If it is fair to consider her critics in this volume as representative of current philosophy, then one gets the impression that most of us are still catching up with Millikan....To see her respond to this pressure, however, is very helpful to understanding the details and applications -- and, ultimately, the novelty -- of her approach.--Craig DeLancey, reviewing Millikan and Her Critics [the volume includes a chapter by our very own Mohan--ES]
I sometimes wonder how common DeLancey's experience is of graduate students discovering and debating exciting work unrelated to one's instructors' sense of significance. I often have the disheartening sense that it is more common that graduates recycle the shared and undoubtedly sophisticated commitments of their graduate instructors (despite the now relatively easy access to other people's works). This recycling is often itself very sophisticated with accompanying mini-narratives that bolster the priority claims of privileged participants (see, for example, this interesting review). There is nothing dishonest about this kind of recycling and it allows the generation of progress, but one wonders if more frequent intellectual parricide/matricide wouldn't be healthier for the discipline.
DeLancey rightly treats Millikan as a hedgehog (in Berlin's sense), and one that "will be one of our most enduring contemporary philosophers." I am less certain about the future than DeLancey in this judgment. Not because I doubt his claims about the intrinsic merits of Millikan's work and his sense that in the discipline there remains a lot to "catch up" on. Unlike the far more frequent lip-service to evolutionary naturalism, hers is the real article. Viewed from the perspective of last twenty-five hundred years, however, philosophy has always been very ambivalent about really serious, thoroughgoing naturalism.
I have taught Millikan, and I found that even her most accessible work is extremely demanding on students. It's possible, of course, that this is due to the fact that her work remains "radical;" as her views get assimilated it should be easier to teach her. But one must also recognize that in expressing genuinely "novel" thoughts, Millikan also struggles to find relatively clear prose to articulate her "complex, and often very subtle (no doubt, sometimes too subtle)" ideas. History sometimes forgives demanding prose, of course. But the authors that exemplify this (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc.) were all foxes not hedgehogs. Of course, history has a way of proving us all wrong, not the least my judgments. Millikan, who despite a brief spell at Michigan has spent most of her career at UConn, does supply her readers with "tools," and this ought to help sustain the enduring relevance of her work to future, intellectually hungry graduate students in search of the real deal over work by folk that created little schools of thought in more prestigious departments.
*It's interesting that David Lewis is also missing in his list. Lewis was also relatively absent in my graduate education; I was in for quite a shock when I joined the profession.