Overview of Current Research

My research falls on both sides of the analytic-continental divide, a division that I try not to dwell on in my own work, as I find it artificial and restrictive. Most of my current research interests fall into four somewhat overlapping regions.

Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Philosophical Method

A lot of my work touches on the question of what we’re doing when we do philosophy, and how we can find the words to do this work with lucidity, and not get in our own way. I find the term “metaphilosophy” problematic because it suggests that questions about the nature of philosophy can be detached from “first-order” philosophical questions, and vice versa. I believe that questions of method and approach pervade any serious philosophy, and I’m most drawn to philosophers for whom doing philosophy is inseparable from reflecting on what philosophy is: Wittgenstein and Heidegger in the first instance, although I’ve been inspired for the same reasons by philosophers as diverse as Plato and Nietzsche, St. Augustine and Derrida.

The later Wittgenstein is particularly interesting to me in this regard. Making sense of what Wittgenstein achieves in the Philosophical Investigations can’t be separated from the question of how and why he writes in the way that he does. A central focus of my work on Wittgenstein is to unpack his methodological innovations and the style through which they find expression.

I first read Being and Time early in my doctoral studies and was astonished to find in Heidegger so many connections with Wittgenstein, and that despite the fact that Heidegger’s writings are in many ways stylistically the opposite of the austere, jargon-free prose and ahistorical stance of Wittgenstein’s.

I’ve written on both Wittgenstein and Heidegger independently, and have also co-edited a collection of essaysto which I contributed—touching on the pathways and provocations that reveal themselves when we put their work into contact. I have four further papers in progress that treat methodological issues in Wittgenstein—in connection with ideas in aesthetics, Heidegger, and St. Augustine.

My doctoral thesis explored the methodological basis for ordinary language philosophy, taking Wittgenstein and Austin as protagonists, and engaging extensively with Heidegger and other figures in the continental tradition as well. On the strength of the examiners’ report on my doctoral dissertation, Oxford University Press has approached me about adapting it into a book. A revised book manuscript, which focuses more narrowly on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is currently under review at OUP. In the meantime, I have a paper forthcoming that deals with some of the material on Austin that was cut from the thesis as it evolved into a book.

Games, Play, and Aesthetics

Human nature is deeply informed by our capacity for play. Its manifestations are variegated and surprising—and given surprisingly scant attention by philosophers. I’ve found that thinking carefully about the nature and structure of games and non-game play provides a powerful lens for thinking about a range of human activities, from art to religious practice. This research  extends my cross-pollinating work in continental and analytic philosophy: Gadamer, Derrida, Kant, Schiller, and Johan Huizinga are major inspirations, but so are Kendall Walton, Bernard Suits, and, of course, Wittgenstein.

I’ve found that philosophical aesthetics is particularly germane to this sort of thinking, and have been developing an approach to aesthetics that makes use of the conceptual framework that figures like Huizinga and Suits have developed in discussing play and games. For example, Huizinga defines the ‘magic circle’ of play as constituting a delimited spatial, temporal, and social region in which the rules of ordinary life are suspended. Artworks constitute similar magic circles with many of the characteristics of play spaces. Our attraction to the magic circles of play and art are similar: both establish a distance from ordinary life that can cast into relief overlooked aspects of that life and both express and reflect our values.

Elaborating on the connection between play and art offers a rich line of response to questions in philosophical aesthetics. At the moment, I am primarily focused on two issues regarding the nature of fiction. First, the analogy with play sheds new light on a number of puzzles regarding our emotional response to stories. We ordinarily experience states of high arousal as stressful and states of low arousal as relaxing, but in play we experience the reverse: states of high arousal are exciting and states of low arousal are boring—consider roller coasters. If we are engaged in a kind of play when engaging with stories, then the psychology of play may illuminate our emotional response to stories. The ‘paradox of horror’, for example, which confronts the question of why people are drawn to stories that provoke emotional reactions deemed inherently unpleasant, can be dissolved by reflecting on the different relation between pleasure and fear in play.

Second, the analogy with play provides one line of response to the puzzle of truth in fiction. A sentence like ‘Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street’ is true in some sense (he lived on Baker Street and not in Utah) but also false in some sense (no one of that name ever lived at that address) and being faithful to both of these intuitions is difficult. Treating Doyle’s Holmes stories as a kind of game allows us to see fictional discourse as constituted by the magic circle of play. When we then approach questions of truth in fiction, we will not be stumped by an impoverished context of ‘failed reference’, but can draw on the richer—and familiar—sophistication of game practices and discourse. Outside the magic circle of basketball, what we call scoring a three-pointer is just a person throwing a round object from a certain distance through a hoop strung with netting. Nevertheless, we talk unproblematically about points and fouls without adding riders about these claims being only true-within-the-basketball-game. Seeing talk about fiction as a species of our more familiar talk about games helps clarify and resolve confusion about truth in fiction.

I am by no means the first scholar to remark on the connection between play and art—Kant’s Critique of Judgment connects the two. Kant inspired a rich debate that includes the Schlegels, Novalis, Schelling, and especially Schiller’s conception of a ‘play drive’ in On The Aesthetic Education of Man. This debate continues to ramify: many of the twentieth-century figures I mention above are profoundly influenced by these texts. Within the analytic tradition, Kendall Walton uses childhood games of make-believe as a model for representational art. His theory has had immense impact: almost every major figure in analytic aesthetics in the last twenty years has felt the need to respond to it (Levinson, Carroll, Gaut, and Currie, among others).

To my mind, neither of these strands of thought yet incorporates a sufficiently rigorous analysis of the nature of games and play. For example, Walton and his interlocutors focus primarily on the ‘make-believe’ part of ‘games of make-believe’, leaving the notion of a ‘game’ relatively unexplored. By failing to explore the game-like nature of artworks more seriously, this literature misses an opportunity—an opportunity my research on Wittgenstein, for whom games are a central and varied trope, puts me in a position to make good. To take just one example, the distinctive power of the theatre comes into view when, instead of investigating the kind of make-believe the audience may or may not be engaged in, we direct our attention to the transformative power of theatre as a magic circle or play space.

Conversely, thinking about games on analogy with artworks also expands our thinking about the possibilities of games. Artistic practice has been far more deeply influenced than game playing by an avant-garde that has experimented with the possibilities of form and genre. Reflection on artistic practice and aesthetic theory opens up new possibilities for thinking about games. For instance, found objects in art suggest by analogy that any aspect of ordinary life can be encompassed by the magic circle of play, and that the boundaries separating play spaces from ‘ordinary life’ may not be as sharp as often supposed.

I have published one paper in aesthetics already, and am currently revising my first paper developing the connections between art and play for resubmission to the British Journal of Aesthetics. I am working on two further papers that connect to these themes: one connecting questions regarding Wittgenstein’s method and cognitivism in the philosophy of literature, and one exploring how our understanding of the difference between humans and other animals might shift if we emphasize the ludic aspect of human nature.

Humans and Other Animals

Non-human animals occupy a perplexing range of roles in human life: they’re food, they’re friends, they’re pests, they’re experimental fodder, they’re the subjects of myths and children’s stories. Also, humans are animals. I’m gripped both by the ethical question of how we ought to treat non-human animals and the spiritual question of what sort of self-understanding is reflected in our ethical response.

Straightforward answers to these questions often elide what I take to be the more fundamental problem regarding animals: because our attitudes toward them are so complex and conflicting, it is far from clear how we’re supposed to approach thinking about these questions. I’ve found productive spurs to my own thinking not only in both the analytic (Cora Diamond, Mary Midgley) and continental (Derrida, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas) traditions, but also outside the philosophical tradition altogether. J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals provocatively raises the question of whether philosophers are even appropriately equipped to think honestly about animals. And for reflections on our own animality, I’d be hard pressed to name a philosopher who probes as deeply as Kafka. In another disciplinary direction, I’ve found that basic knowledge of biology is an indispensable remedy for many of the clumsy generalizations one sometimes finds in the philosophical literature.

I started pursuing these questions rigorously when I taught a course that engaged with a number of them at McMaster University in the winter of 2012. A year later, I co-convened a seminar at Oxford called “How Should We Think About Animals?” that drew a range of participants, from undergraduates to faculty. I’ve published on animals in a non-academic format, and am working on a book project that explores my preoccupation with animality, human and otherwise. I also have a paper in progress that explores the question of human animality in connection with play.

Nietzsche and Buddhism after the Death of God

More than a century ago, Nietzsche announced the death of God, by which he meant that “the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable.” This news was no cause for celebration, however. Instead, Nietzsche saw it as presaging a spiritual crisis with potentially dire repercussions. With the death of God, he argued, Christian Europe became severed from a conception of good and evil not merely as categories of moral judgment, but as metaphysical absolutes that are woven into the fabric of reality at its deepest level. Abandoning this view confronts us with a universe that is ultimately devoid of meaning or purpose. Nietzsche foresaw in a godless universe the danger that humankind would lose its sense of purpose and slide into contented mediocrity, a diagnosis that is surely even more pertinent to the early twenty-first century than it was to the late nineteenth.

I am in the preliminary stages of a project on Buddhism and Nietzsche’s own philosophy as two competing visions for how we might survive the death of God. Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that demands no necessary commitment to a God or a metaphysical conception of morality, and thus proves attractive to Westerners who seek to square their spiritual needs with atheism. In his writings, Nietzsche attempted to forge his own way forward, seeking a “revaluation of all values” that locates the source of value not in metaphysical absolutes but in creative self-overcoming. Playing Buddhism in counterpoint with Nietzsche provides a rich field of exploration for the spiritual future of a post-Christian West.

On the surface, Nietzsche could not be farther removed from Buddhism. His references to Buddhism are often critical: his Zarathustra describes the Buddha as a “preacher of death,” who sees only suffering in life, and nothing to celebrate. Nietzsche associates Buddhism with nihilism and with Arthur Schopenhauer, for whom Nietzsche felt a youthful enthusiasm but whom he later criticized for his pessimism. Nietzsche’s conception of the eternal recurrence—which he considered to be the crowning achievement of his philosophy—stands in arguably deliberate contrast with the Buddhist conception of nirvana: where Buddhists seek an end to the cycle of death and rebirth, Nietzsche claims no wish could be nobler than the wish to relive the same life perpetually and without alteration.

At a deeper level, the picture becomes more complicated. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche recognizes in Buddhism a crucial connection with his own project: in lacking a metaphysical conception of morality, Buddhism “stands beyond good and evil.” Both Nietzsche and the Buddhist tradition conceive of a godless cosmos that is constantly in flux. Human thought is characterized not by rational reflection, but by the conditioning of competing drives, whose nature and influence we only dimly sense. Nietzsche echoes the Buddhist conception of anatta, or non-self, when he claims that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” For both Nietzsche and the Buddha, human life is veiled in illusion bred from seeing as fixed what is only fleeting, and both offer a route to a spiritual salvation of sorts that comes with acknowledging and embracing the fundamental flux of existence.

What interests me in developing the dialogue between Nietzsche’s thought and Buddhism are not the deep similarities that underlie the seeming disagreements on the surface, but rather the even deeper disagreements that underlie the deep similarities that underlie the seeming disagreements on the surface. Precisely because Nietzsche shares so much with Buddhism, his fundamental divergence from Buddhism is of great instructive value. Building upon the successful work of scholars who have enriched our understanding of the parallels between Nietzsche and Buddhism, I will explore what I take to be the fundamental differences between them.

In freeing practitioners from objects of attraction and aversion, Buddhist practice aims to awaken them from a state of illusion (the Pali word for Enlightenment, bodhi, literally means “awakened”) and achieve the clarity to live fully in every moment. Nietzsche diverges from this Buddhist soteriology in two radical ways. First, precisely in offering a soteriology, Buddhism offers a refuge from the uncertainties and disappointments of life. By contrast, Nietzsche disavows the desire for any kind of refuge. He celebrates the constant struggle of self-overcoming rather than a final, settled end state. Second, the Buddhist conception of Enlightenment manifests what Nietzsche calls a will to truth: a desire to see things as they really are. Rather than pursue truth, Nietzsche critically interrogates the will to truth itself, asking where it comes from and in what way it may or may not act in the service of life. Where the Buddhist ideal of Enlightenment aspires to see the world with perfect clarity, a degree of blindness, in Nietzsche’s view, may better serve us than an unexamined will to truth.

Of course, the matter is not so simple on either side. Nietzsche’s views are more complicated than this brief sketch suggests, and some forms of Buddhism—Zen in particular—approach the Nietzschean outlook I have sketched in intriguing ways. Investigating just how Nietzsche diverges from Buddhism is as important to the proposed project as evaluating those differences.