DAVID CONAN WOLFSDORF

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Most of my research has been in ancient Greek philosophy.

I continue to work on several projects relating to antiquity.

I also have interests in other historical periods, in particular in the history of ethics and philosophical psychology. During a 2013-14 sabbatical as an ACLS fellow I pursued research under the title Greek Eudaimonism and Modern Morality be.

At the moment the primary focus of my work lies in semantics, metaethics, and metaphysics.

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2013-PRESENT

2007-2013

1998-2007

 

   
  2013-PRESENT    
 

My present research principally focuses on the meaning of the adjective "good" and on the metaphysical implications of the semantic results, on what goodness is. The well-worn question of the truth-aptness of ethical and normative sentences was the initial motivator. But linguistic and psychological investigations have since broadened and encouraged my thought in several directions. I am busy pursuing these leads and assembling the results in a monograph entitled On Goodness.

Formal semantic literature on gradable adjectives was the first spark. Studies of polysemy, genericity, predicates of personal taste, and adjectival nominalization have followed. Most recently I have been mucking around in modality. I have come to think that "good" constructions require contextually variable purposes. In that case the explanation of "good" requires an account of teleological modality.

Preliminary results can be found in "The Meaning of Good" and "Polysemous Good" under WORKS.

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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.

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 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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