DAVID CONAN WOLFSDORF

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I came up into philosophy through classics and so up into ancient philosophy. Along this path I brought a deep interest in language and philology as well as in philosophical methodology. These have remained abiding concerns.

I cut my teeth on Plato, first on the early dialogues, then working through the remainder of the corpus. My publications on Plato have principally engaged topics in epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophical psychology.

Presently I am well versed in the ancient tradition from the Presocratics through Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Old Stoics. My second book Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy and recent papers in ancient philosophy attest to this range and these interests. My interest in Late Antiquity is in some respects limited to the light it casts on earlier periods. However, I am interested in Late Antique conceptions of the will as well as in the expansion of virtue ethics through Judeo-Christian influences.

As I gained mastery in the field of ancient philosophy, I began to devote myself more intensively to non-historical areas of philosophy. Following up on my philological background, I turned to the philosophy of language. Along with my interests in ethics and philosophical psychology, this work immediately led me into the metaethical debates between cognitivist and non-cognitivist interpretations of evaluative and normative language. In pursuing this subject, I was increasingly drawn to the resources of contemporary linguistics, mainly formal semantics, but also pragmatic and syntactic theory. The results of this research have, I believe, yielded clearer and sounder foundations for value theory.

Having recently completed a book on the nature of goodness, I am now beginning new lines of research in practical philosophy. What form(s) this research will ultimately take is unclear to me. What I can say is that I am advancing on four distinct fronts. One is what constitutes the moral as opposed to the non-moral. Another follows from my view that there are no categorically binding moral principles. Given this, I wonder what, if any, sort of fundamental constructive contribution moral philosophy can make. A third issue concerns clarifying certain basic psychological features relating to human action, above all: desire, intention, and choice. The fourth issue is concerned with the nature of social and institutional agency. With respect to this last topic, I am trying to educate myself in economic theory and history.

Descriptions of my books follow.

 
  2013-2018  
 

I am completing a project in ancient philosophy, entitled Early Greek Ethics, which I began about five years ago. This is a collection of essays that I have commissioned and am editing. In the last twenty years and especially very recently, a lot of disparate scholarship has been done on Greek ethical philosophical thought and writing from the fifth century BCE to about the first third of the fourth-century BCE, in particular ethical philosophical thought and writing not authored by Plato. The ancient contributors include other associates of Socrates such as Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Xenophon; figures from outside the Socratic circle such as Democritus, Gorgias, Antiphon, and Archytas; and anonymous texts such as the Dissoi Logoi and Anonymus Iamblichi. Generally speaking, in assembling this work I am attempting to define the landscape of early Greek philosophical ethics and in doing that to advance it as a distinctive field of study.

The website for Early Greek Ethics is available here be.

Two of my chapters for the volume, "The Ethics of the Historical Socrates" and "On the Unity of the Dissoi Logoi" are available on the WORKS page.

 

My recently completed book On Goodness is concerned with the foundations of value theory. Its governing question is: What is goodness? I pursue this question by means of the semantic questions: What do the adjective "good" and the adjectival nominalization "goodness" mean? In virtue of the distinctive semantic properties of the adjective "good" and the nominalization "goodness," pursuit of the semantic questions has led to a focus on the following linguistic topics: ambiguity, gradability, multidimensionality, context sensitivity, mass nouns, and bare noun phrases.

In a nutshell, I argue that "good" is three ways ambiguous. Two of three senses are gradable. And both of the gradable senses are multidimensional. I reject explanations of dimensional specification in terms of covert variables or indexicals in the so-called logical form of "good." Instead, I propose that in various tokenings the adjective may, implicitly or explicitly, be supplemented with adverbial or nominal contents and that such supplements specify the associated dimension by means of directly or indirectly introducing an adverbial modifier of "good." This account explains the peculiar inferential properties of "good" and kindred terms, which have puzzled philosophers and linguists since Geach, if not Aristotle. It also shows, contrary to common opinion, that "good" is, in one important respect, not a context sensitive expression.

In contrast to "good," the nominalization "goodness" is not three ways ambiguous. It derives from only one of the three senses of "good." "Goodness" is a mass noun; its denotation is therefore representable as a join semilattice. But owing to the fact that the adjective from which it derives is gradable, the denotation of "goodness" has additional scalar structure. Finally, it is well known that mass nouns can occur bare, that is, in argument positions without determiners and that such phrases admit various readings. I incline toward a neo-Carlsonian explanation of the various readings of the bare noun phrase.

Finally, the basic metaphysical implication of the central linguistic results is that an instance of goodness is, in Fine's and Moltmann's terms, a qua object of a kind, more precisely a qua quantitative trope, and more precisely still one degree of purpose serving of a kind taken in relation to another degree of purpose serving of that kind, where the latter is a contextually determined standard of comparison, and where the former exceeds the latter.

The table of contents and Introduction to On Goodness is available on the WORKS page.

 

  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.

  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.