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March 18, 2011

Richard Feldman honored at conference dedicated to his work


Richard Feldman, a professor of philosophy and dean of the College, was recently recognized by his peers with an academic conference in his honor. Titled “Feldmania,” the event celebrated Feldman’s contributions in the field of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. It was held Feb. 18 and 19 at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he is this year’s Brackenridge Distinguished Visiting Professor.

Feldman’s work challenges assumptions about knowledge, rationality, and how people form their beliefs. With his Rochester collaborator Earl Conee, a professor of philosophy, Feldman developed a widely discussed theory known as evidentialism. The concept is considered essential to the theory of knowledge and is based on the notion that beliefs are worth only as much as the evidence supporting them. A key feature of their view is that evaluative properties of a belief, such as being reasonable or justified, are entirely dependent upon objective or descriptive properties about the evidence the believer has concerning the belief. If two people have the same evidence, then they should have the same beliefs.

“He has also made the topic of reasonable disagreement one of the hottest topics in epistemology. It is fitting that his work should be the subject of a major conference,” says Randall Curren, professor and chair of the philosophy department. In 2009, Feldman coedited the book Disagreement, which focused on the general issues that arise from informed disagreement. A forthcoming collection of essays and critical discussions based on his collaboration with Conee titled Evidentialism and its Discontents is scheduled for publication in July.

“Richard’s work is at the center of a lot of different areas right now,” says Trent Dougherty, who completed his dissertation in 2009 under the direction of Feldman. “At a time when our country is in rancorous disagreement, he has kept the focus on the importance of understanding that you can’t believe what you want, ignore everyone else, and still be a rational person.”

Now an assistant professor of philosophy at Baylor University, Dougherty invented the conference’s nickname “Feldmania” and was one of 10 scholars from around the country to present papers that touched on a variety of topics that Feldman has written about over the years. The conference was organized by Clayton Littlejohn, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The two-day event concluded with a keynote by Feldman, titled “Evidence of Evidence is Evidence.”

“When he’s examining the views of others, he often does the opposite: he shows that just where you thought everything was OK, there’s a problem,” says Dougherty.

A topic that has been on Feldman’s mind for several years, his address asked the questions: How can you reasonably think something is true when people as informed as you can look at the same evidence and come up with a different conclusion? On what basis can you think you have it right and they have it wrong? Doesn’t the mere fact that they believe as they do give you new evidence against your belief?

According to Feldman, “It is rewarding to see people take into account the work that Earl Conee and I have collaborated on over the years and the influence it has had on their contributions to the theory of knowledge.”

Feldman joined the University in 1975 and served as chair of the philosophy department for 13 years before he was named dean of the College in 2006. He continues to teach courses on the theory of knowledge for both graduate and undergraduate students. “He has been and continues to be one of the department’s most successful and popular teachers and a valued colleague,” says Curren.

Feldman is the author, coauthor, or editor of six books and sits on the editorial board of several journals, including Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and Phenomological Research, and Episteme. He is also scheduled to present his work at the College de France this June. For more information about Feldmania, visit

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