My research focuses on twentieth-century philosophy, where I have a strong interest in work on both sides of the analytic-continental divide, while also drawing on a number of earlier figures. My major research project to date culminated in a book manuscript, The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Moving on from that project, my research is expanding in three distinct but related directions.
Method, Dogmatism, and Philosophical Soteriology
An underlying theme of my book, which I am now developing further, is that Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s work is soteriological. They aren’t just animated by a concern with human flourishing, but by the deeper worry that something embedded in the human condition stands in the way of that flourishing, and the conviction that overcoming that impediment requires radical self-transformation.
The term “soteriology” originates in theology but what I find striking about Wittgenstein and Heidegger is that they seek to provide a secular and distinctively philosophical conception of salvation. Their diagnosis of our imperfect state has theological resonance: both draw attention to the prideful tendency to want to exceed our own limits, to transcend our nature and gain a vantage point on ourselves and our world from the outside. But what makes theirs a philosophical soteriology is the conviction that this tendency is particularly pronounced in philosophical dogmatism—the conception of philosophy as embodying a doctrine expressible in positive truth-claims—and that a reformed philosophy might be a means to addressing this tendency. Both disavow the notion that philosophy is primarily in the business of advancing truth-claims, preferring to conceive of philosophy as an activity that brings about a change in ourselves, and not in our knowledge of the world.
Their anti-dogmatism is an intensification of the Kantian critique of metaphysics. The struggle against dogmatic metaphysics takes so many turns in the Kantian and post-Kantian traditions because overcoming dogmatism is a slippery business: metaphysical commitments can creep into the work of even the most resolutely anti-dogmatic philosophers. Wittgenstein is especially sensitive to the way in which his contestation with philosophical dogmatism presents a challenge regarding method. If he wants to inveigh against the notion of philosophical truth-claims he can hardly advance his own agenda in terms of truth-claims. His unusual style—a frustration to many—is best seen as an attempt to pursue an anti-dogmatic philosophy with rigorous consistency. Central to my interest in Wittgenstein in particular is the question of how form and content are entwined in his philosophical work, and how his style is tied to his soteriological aims.
My interest in philosophical soteriology isn’t simply scholarly. I, too, am drawn to philosophy for the consolation it provides, and I’m interested in Wittgenstein and Heidegger primarily for the stimulation they offer to my own thinking on this topic. Nor are they the only sources of stimulation in this regard. Nietzsche is more explicitly committed to this project of a secular and anti-metaphysical soteriology than either of them, and I have begun work on a paper that approaches Nietzsche’s conception of self-overcoming in connection with the pervasiveness of animal imagery in his work (I discuss my philosophical interest in animals in greater detail below). The contestation with metaphysics is also a central theme in both analytic and continental philosophy in the twentieth century and I draw on a number of figures besides Wittgenstein and Heidegger in thinking through this topic. Both Austin and Derrida featured prominently in my doctoral thesis and I have a forthcoming paper on Austin. I touch on Carnap’s relation to Wittgenstein and Heidegger in my book and have begun work on a paper that explores that triad in greater detail.
Further afield, I have started to explore the pursuit of a non-theistic and non-dogmatic soteriology in the Buddhist philosophical tradition. Non-attachment to views is a central tenet of all Buddhist thought. But like the anti-dogmatism of the post-Kantian tradition, staying true to this tenet proves difficult. I have become particularly intrigued by efforts within the Madhyamaka tradition to see through this anti-dogmatism rigorously, and the methodological challenges such efforts present.
Literature, Games, and Play
My interest in the stylistic challenge of advancing a non-dogmatic philosophy dovetails with an interest in the relation between philosophical and literary writing. For instance, I am revising a paper (“Wittgenstein’s Fictions”) on the imaginary scenarios that pepper Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, in which I argue that these scenarios are best understood as literary experiments rather than as thought experiments. A preparatory study for this paper, in which I refute arguments that equate literary fictions with thought experiments, was published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
I also have a free-standing interest in the nature of literature and the question of how and why stories work on us in the way that they do, which is informed by my own engagement with the arts and literature as a playwright and writer of creative non-fiction. In this connection, I have found a fertile point of comparison between stories and games, and have been developing an approach to aesthetics that makes use of the conceptual framework provided by scholars of play and games like Johan Huizinga and Bernard Suits. 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 cast overlooked aspects of that life into relief and both express and challenge our values. I am currently revising for resubmission my first attempt (“Games and Stories”) to articulate the connection between games and stories, for the British Journal of Aesthetics.
Clearly, other scholars have remarked on the connection between art and play. Kant’s Critique of Judgment connects the two, and Kant inspired a debate that includes August and Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Schelling, and especially Schiller’s conception of a “play drive” in On The Aesthetic Education of Man. This debate continues to ramify: Gadamer, Derrida, Fink, and others in the continental tradition have made use of the concept of play. In 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.
To my mind, neither of these strands of thought incorporates a sufficiently rigorous analysis of games and play themselves. 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—one which my research on Wittgenstein (for whom games are a central trope) puts me in a position to make good. To take 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. Although my primary ambition in the next year or so is to flesh out some of this thinking in the form of journal articles, I intend to develop a book-length project on the relation between art and play within the next five years.
Humans and Other Animals
I have an additional long-standing interest in animals and the complicated ways in which animal lives are entwined in our own. They’re food, they’re friends, they’re pests, they’re experimental fodder, they’re the subjects of myths and children’s stories. And they’re us: humans are animals. I’m gripped by questions about how we ought to treat non-human animals and by what sort of self-understanding is reflected in this ethical response.
Straightforward answers to these questions often elide what I take to be the deeper problem concerning animals: because our attitudes toward them are so complex and conflicting, it’s unclear how we’re supposed to think about these questions. I’ve found productive spurs to my thinking in both the analytic (Cora Diamond, Mary Midgley) and continental (Derrida, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas) traditions, and also outside philosophy. J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals provocatively raises the question of whether the traditional philosophical toolkit is 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.
This last point suggests a connection between my interest in animals and my interest in literature. But my concern with animals and animality has two stronger links to the interests I discuss above. First, coming to grips in an honest and rigorous way with our animality is essential to the sort of philosophical soteriology that I am developing. On this score, I find Heidegger’s attempts to draw a sharp distinction between the “worldliness” (Weltlichkeit) of human existence and the “poor in world” (weltarm) being of animals deeply problematic. Heidegger is hardly unusual in this regard: most philosophers seem to have difficulty assimilating human animality into their thinking about human nature. I have begun work on a paper that interrogates Heidegger’s treatment of animality in connection with his thinking about “captivation” (Benommenheit) and inauthenticity.
Second, I think one step toward understanding our relation with other animals lies in recognizing the pervasive presence of play in human culture. We share our capacity for play with many animals, but most animal play is concentrated in the juvenile stage of development. Humans devote an unusual amount of energy to play, and continue to play as adults. This point becomes particularly salient if we accept Huizinga’s claim that many key cultural practices—like the arts and religious ritual—are structurally homologous to play. I am currently working on a paper (“Homo neotenicus and Homo ludens”) that argues that our outsize capacity for play is a marker of human distinctiveness.