Of the many "minor figures" in the history of philosophy who have diverted my attention over the years, I am especially fond of Karl Leonhard Reinhold. Famous as a populariser of Kant, for attempting to give the critical philosophy a foundation and to accomplish scientific and systematic certainty in its context (an effort which gave a strong impetus to work by Fichte and others), Reinhold also had a number of less well-known later stages in his career after his expressly Kantian beginning. Serious criticism led Reinhold to set aside his so-called Elementary philosophy, but his pursuit of certainty, as well as a religious bent (he had been educated by Jesuits, took Roman Catholic holy orders, and was a Freemason) took him through a number of subsequent philosophical systems. He wanted, he said, a philosophy "without epithet." He engaged by turns with Jacobi and Fichte, then with Bardili (speaking of "minor" figures ...) and finally expounded an approach more grounded in linguistics, critiquing his own earlier standpoints from philosophy of language (in this respect, at least, not unlike the work of Herder and Hamann), until he died in 1823. His considerable influence on German philosophy arguably extended until the death of his student Trendelenburg in 1872.
Hegel's main engagement with Reinhold is in the early work on the difference between Fichte and Schelling, and it does not leave a flattering impression of Reinhold. Hegel faults him for inconsistency, for being a bad reader, even for not recognizing his own footprints (he cites a review of Reinhold that suggests that Reinhold's infatuation with Christoph Bardili (whose work, he said, helped purge him of the influence of the transcendental philosophy) was really unwittingly "going to school with himself" because -- surprise! -- Bardili had been influenced by Reinhold first! This is a double-whammy of a critique, because it's hard to avoid noticing that Hegel's estimate of Bardili is already not high, so he's really saying that Reinhold stands behind this second- or third-rank philosopher, and then adding that Reinhold isn't sharp enough to notice this himself. (Nothing by Bardili has been translated into English, to my knowledge, but there are a few secondary sources if you dig around. To spell it out in detail would be the matter for another post, but suffice to say I don't feel Hegel has been fair -- though scholarship does acknowledge that Reinhold may well have influenced Bardili first [he was, after all, the older thinker and had a head-start].)
Hegel is not alone in proffering the charge of inconsistency as reason for not taking Reinhold seriously, but you can't help but feel from the "Difference" essay that a good part of Hegel's polemic is just a little mean-spirited, which casts some doubt on his motives (even if Reinhold's reading does have some blind spots). In any case, Reinhold made no secret of his serial conversions, and inconsistency (when owned and acknowledged) is not a philosophical disqualification; it's hard to imagine this being held against Wittgenstein or Russell or Putnam, for instance. Speaking for myself, Reinhold's shifting stances were an effect of the reason I myself am so fond of him, and of why I feel close to him temperamentally: he read his contemporaries enthusiastically and broadly and as if they might genuinely teach him something. There is, to me, something very winning in Reinhold's unsettledness, and if we smile at his readiness to proclaim each of his successive lodestars the answer, one may still admire his perpetual openness, his hope, his willingness to begin again.
Now it's true that I read differently than Reinhold, who really did seem to have a series of discrete positions (though there's also a continuity from phase to phase). I turn repeatedly to one "new name" after another (new to me, anyway), not because I believe that the key to all the mysteries is just one elusive master thinker away, but because I'm not in the market for a master thinker at all. I'm hungry for serious engagement with the questions, and the names I haven't heard before tend to give me a slant (and sometimes much, much more than a slant) that I haven't yet encountered. It doesn't matter if this is an off-center contemporary or an overlooked or eclipsed past figure; I'm far more likely to get something unanticipatable from them than from someone like Heidegger or Quine precisely because of the ubiquity of Heidegger or Quine. (The suggestion that I'm just going to get watered-down, derivative Heidegger or Quine from most of my contemporaries is one of those dangerous half-truths that would require another post to engage it fully; for now let's leave it at saying that I do tend to shy away from reading secondary literature and "applications" ["...a Deleuzian account of..."] but I also do not regard thinkers as merely functions of, or reducing to, their "predecessors.")
Some read and re-read only (or almost only) the "big names" in the canon (or commentary on them), or some subsection thereof. Others read in their "field" -- keeping up to date in aesthetics, ethics, bioethcs, political philosophy, ecophilosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of.... I am both more scattered, and more focused. My interest is philosophy per se, When I read a thinker who is definitely doing that, with the unspecifiable je ne sais quoi that is the hallmark of thinking -- a weird high-wire act of Kantian confidence and Keatsian negative capability -- the question of whether I "agree" or not becomes secondary. The example -- not the method, not the content, but the thinking -- is so invigorating, and essential to this is the fact that it's someone else, not me -- a thought I couldn't have anticipated and never would have.
Perhaps part of Reinhold was looking for the next "big name," but I think most fundamentally, he just needed that encounter. And to me, that feels just so much healthier than a one-man show like Kant or Hegel.