DAVID WOLFSDORF

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I divide my research into three periods. The first focuses on Plato and culminates with my book Trials of Reason. The second focuses on pleasure from the Presocratics to the Stoics. It includes contemporary philosophers since World War II and culminates with my book Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy and my manuscript Hedonic Studies. My current work lies in metaethics and the history of ethics.

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2013-PRESENT

2007-2013

1998-2007

 

   
  2013-PRESENT    
 

My current research focuses on two related projects, one in metaethics, one in metaethics and the history of ethics.

The goal of the first project is to understand what "good" means and the implications of the semantic results for the metaphysical question what goodness is. In pursuing the semantic question, I have been studying formal semantics and pragmatics. This orientation was initially motivated by the recognition that "good" is a gradable adjective. We speak of things as more or less good, that is, better or worse, as well as very or somewhat good. In other words, "good" admits modification by various degree morphemes. Since the seventies, formal semanticists have intensively studied gradable adjectives. But linguists have said little about "good" per se, and philosophers have largely overlooked the linguistic contributions. Having made significant headway on gradability, I am presently studying polysemy. "Good" is polysemous. In fact, "good" appears to be polysemous in multiple ways. In considering this, I have been focusing on cognitive linguistics, where polysemy has been a fundamental concern since the eighties. Additional linguistic topics that I have broached and intend to pursue further include: antonymy (specifically, how "good" is related to "bad"), multi-dimensionality (the fact that attributions of "good" often depend on multiple factors, for example, a car may be good with respect to its mileage, comfort, and safety), and genericity (the fact that "good" often appears in generic sentences, for example, "The Dutch are good at sailing"). I have two polished chapters (amounting to 35000 words) of this book-length project, which is tentatively entitled On Goodness. As I said, I intend to use my linguistic results to determine what goodness is. Doing so will require a theory of the reference of "goodness." Presently I find intriguing Friederike Moltmann's recent work Abstract Objects and the Semantics of Natural Language (OUP 2013), in which she argues that bare adjectival nominalizations do not refer to abstract entities that are properties, but plurally refer to modalized tropes.

The second project, tenatively entitled The Greeks on Good and Bad, has several obvious points of contact with the work On Goodness. The second project is more inchoate, but it is basically motivated by the questions: How do the Greeks conceive of goodness and badness and— to the extent that they engage the question— what do they take "good" and "bad" to mean? Presently the historical scope of the research extends from the Pythagorean Table of Opposites to Chrysippus' view in On Providence that goodness and badness are interdependent. As these references suggest and insofar as it explicitly focuses on goodness and badness and "good" and "bad," the inquiry is also interested in the Greeks' conceptions of opposition. For instance are goodness and badness taken, as Chrysippus seems to take them, to be conceptually interdependent? Or are they taken, as perhaps the Pythagoreans take them, to be metaphysically independent principles? Naturally I am also interested in topics such as the Platonic conception of goodness as unity, Aristotle's view that "good" is said in as many ways as "being" is, and Epicurus' and the Cyrenaics' apparent conceptions of goodness and badness in terms of desire and aversion, among other related matters. As I say, this project is inchoate, hence less well defined. But these remarks provide a sense of the general direction of the research.  

Research relating to both projects was funded by an ACLS Fellowship for 2013-14 under the title Greek Eudaimonism and Modern Morality. be

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  2007-2013    
 

Around the time that most of the research and writing of Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy had been completed, I turned my principal attention to the subject of pleasure. My motivations were manifold, but primarily two. First, I wanted to shift focus from an author or figure or school to a topic or theme. Second, I found in the topic of pleasure a nexus of two growing interests, in ethics, especially metaethics, and in philosophy of mind or philosophical psychology. In 2012 I completed Pleasure in Ancient Philosophy (CUP), which examines pleasure in ancient philosophy from pre-Platonic figures through Plato, Aristotle, Epicureans, Cyrenaics, to the Old Stoics. The study also includes some Roman and late Antique authors who contribute to and discuss the work of these earlier schools and figures. The book examines two basic questions, which I call the identity and kinds questions: What is pleasure? And what kinds of pleasure are there? I hope to have made a strong case that the various ways these figures and schools answer these questions are dialogically continuous. For example, Aristotle’s formulations involve criticisms of Plato, and Epicurus develops Aristotelian contributions. In the penultimate chapter I discuss treatments of the identity and kinds questions in contemporary Anglophone philosophy, precisely from Ryle’s contributions in the late 40s and 50s up to the present. Then, in the final chapter, I discuss the relations between the ancient and contemporary treatments. One fundamental, remarkable conclusion of this comparison is that ancient treatments tend to focus on what I call the objects of pleasure, whereas contemporary treatments focus on the attitude toward such objects. I explain this distinction in view of the distinct contexts in which ancient and contemporary treatments of the identity and kinds questions have occurred, namely, within ethics and philosophy of mind respectively.

Here is an interview, for a lay audience, in which I discuss the book be.

Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy was pitched at a non-specialist audience. More recently, I have completed a collection of essays on pleasure in ancient Greek philosophy that is intended for specialists in ancient philosophy. The collection is entitled Hedonic Studies, and it is currently under review at Oxford University Press. Since this contribution is a collection of essays rather than a monograph, it is not possible to describe the contents in brief. The introduction to Hedonic Studies provides an overview . That said, a few general points about the collection can be made. The chronological sweep of the essays is relatively broad, from Hesiod to Epicurus. In addition, a great deal of material from Late Antiquity is included in the study of these earlier figures. Within the overarching theme of pleasure in ancient Greek philosophy, the topical range is also broad. Essays variously pursue ethical, psychological, and metaphysical problems. Finally, the essays are original and creative. Most engage a topic or problem that has received little or no discussion in the secondary literature.

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  1998-2007    
 

The first stage of my professional career focused on Plato’s thought. In line with my historical background, my principal interest was understanding Plato on his own terms. My articles on Plato up to about 2008 represent attempts to achieve the objective. They focus on a wide range of Plato’s thought, his ethics, methodology, epistemology, metaphysics, and psychology, as well as on the problem of interpreting any aspect of Plato’s thought given the distinctive challenge and complication of the dialogic form of his writings. Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy (OUP 2008) culminated this vein of research. The book pursues two questions: What is Plato’s conception of philosophy? And how is the dialogue form employed in Plato’s presentation of this conception? In brief, I maintain that Plato conceives of philosophy as a kind of motivation, specifically a desire for wisdom, which he conceives as ethical knowledge. The book is then organized as a discussion of Plato’s conception of desire, ethical knowledge, the means of pursuing such knowledge, including the so-called elenctic and hypothetical methods, and the aporetic conclusions in which these pursuits inevitably end. In his early dialogues, Plato introduces philosophy (as he conceives it) and in doing so contrasts philosophy with what I call “counter-philosophical” approaches to life. This contrast serves to explain the dialogic character of Plato’s work. As I put it in the book: Plato’s dramatizations “are not wholly situated within the sphere of philosophical discourse. Rather, one of the basic functions of the texts is to craft philosophy. As the dialogues unfold, philosophical discourse emerges out of the various discourses of the polis. In the process, Plato works to establish why philosophical discourse must be the authoritative political discourse.” As such, I suggest, Plato’s dialogues are as much works of meta-philosophy as philosophy. In short, then, my deepest concern in this early work might be expressed in this way: I was interested in the idea that philosophy is a cultural-historical kind, and I wanted to examine one of its earliest and most important forms. I wanted to understand philosophy by examining one of the seminal ways in which it came into being. My approach to the topic was therefore inextricably historical and philosophical.

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