DAVID CONAN WOLFSDORF

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Until relatively recently most of my research was in ancient Greek philosophy. And I continue to work on various projects relating to antiquity, including several invited chapters and papers as well as a volume I am editing entitled Early Greek Ethics be.

I also have interests in other historical periods, in particular in the history of modern and twentieth century ethics and philosophical psychology. For example a significant portion of my 2012 book Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy compared twentieth century philosophical conceptions of pleasure with the ancient Greeks' contributions. And during a 2013-14 sabbatical as an ACLS fellow I pursued research under the title Greek Eudaimonism and Modern Morality be.

Since about 2013 the heart of my research has turned to more strictly contemporary issues. Broadly speaking these lie in value and practical philosophy. I am completing a book On Goodness (OUP, forthcoming), which focuses on the semantics of "good" and the metaphysics of goodness. And I have begun to mull over a new project on agency and equality.

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2013-PRESENT

2007-2013

1998-2007

 

   
  2013-PRESENT    
 

The original impetus for my book On Goodness was the familiar long-running debate between cognitivist and non-cognitivist interpretations of ethical language. But in the process I began reading more and more literature by linguists, especially formal semanticists; and I became convinced that there are sizeable gaps in the current philosophical literature that the linguistic contributions can aid in filling. In the case of "good" this especially includes work on gradability, polysemy and homonymy, multi-dimensionality, context-sensitivity, and adjectival nominalization.

The Introduction to On Goodness is available here 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. 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.

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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 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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