DAVID WOLFSDORF

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  OVERVIEW    
  WORKS    
  WORKS IN PROGRESS    
       
  The following description is in reverse chronological order. For chronological order, start from the bottom.    
 
   
  CURRENT    
 

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

The goal of the first project is to understand what "good" means in an effort to understand what goodness is. In pursuing this question I have been studying formal semantics and pragmatics. This orientation was 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 intensely studied gradable adjectives. But linguists have said little about "good" per se, and philosophers have almost entirely ignored the linguistic contributions. I have three polished chapters of the book project, which is tentatively entitled On Goodness, and three additional chapters in draft. The first chapter is accessible here be. Please contact me for subsequent chapters.

The second project, tentatively entitled Transformations of Pagan Virtue, is presently less well defined and will require considerably more time to hammer into shape. The project was originally motivated by the question: Do ancient ethical theories fundamentally differ from modern moral theories? Consideration of this question has led to me think about the extent to which the contents of ancient ethical theories are moral. This in turn requires consideration of the conditions of morality and of what we mean by "moral." In a recent contribution to a volume on the topic of character, I engage this question by examining the extent to which Aristotle's account of character has moral content. In pursuing the topic, I had to extricate from a range of secondary literature a set of conditions that the authors variously identify as moral. The results of this study can now be applied to other ancient figures. Conversely, the legitimacy of the derived conditions of morality must be evaluated by considering them in light of seminal contributions to modern moral theory. Further study along these lines will serve to clarify the important formal correspondences and differences between ancient ethical theories and modern moral theories as well as distinctions within various ancient ethical theories and within various modern moral theories themselves. For note that in talking here of ancient ethics and modern morality, I am not wedded to the view that each historical period is itself characterized by deep uniform commitments or internal consistencies. While the scope of this undertaking is already broad, in fact I do not think it should be limited to the periods of antiquity and modernity. The emergence of Christianity marks a decisive shift in the history of Western ethics. Some of the features that distinguish modern morality derive from the culture of Medieval Europe, while others strikingly break from it. So in fact, there are three rather than two periods in the history of ethics that are objects of examination. The title Transformations of Pagan Virtue is fitting if one appreciates that the virtue-ethical and eudaimonistic paradigm for ethical theorizing was retained in Medieval ethics and partially retained, but more significantly adjusted in Modern ethics.

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

 
  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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  TO 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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