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 and argumentation more broadly, 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 largely 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 transformation 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 descriptivist and non-descriptivist 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 yielded clearer and sounder foundations for value theory and constitute my third book, On Goodness.

My current research consists of historical and theoretical projects in practical philosophy: the former in late archaic and early classical Greek philosophical ethics, the latter in the foundations of normativity.

Regarding the work in ancient philosophy, over the last ten years I have written several articles and chapters in early Greek ethics, some of which inspired a volume, Early Greek Ethics, that I am currently editing and which I describe further below. In the wake of that volume, I would also like to assemble my own views of this formative period in a single-authored monograph.  

I have two projects on the foundations of normativity, each of which advances the work I did on goodness in a distinct way: one more deeply, the other more specifically. One of the central results of On Goodness is that value, the gradable property of which goodness is a measure, is purposiveness. In other words, something has value insofar as it serves a purpose. On Goodness suggests that there are four basic kinds of purpose: biological, characteristic artificial, ad hoc intention derived, and ad hoc desire derived. Biological purposes are biological functions and mind-independent. The other three kinds of purpose are mind-dependent. But beyond cursory suggestive remarks, the book does not attempt to explain what is common to these four kinds. So, it remains to clarify what purposes are and whether in fact the basic fourfold distinction should be maintained. For example, possibly "purpose" is ambiguous and there is no common superordinate type of which, say, biological and characteristic artificial purposes are sub-types.    

The other project on normativity aims to specify the account of On Goodness. In this case, I am interested in a kind of goodness and value, namely moral goodness and value. By "moral" I understand that which relates to the fundamental interpersonal practical values in a society. Accordingly, we speak felicitously of "Hopi morality" and "Roman morality." I am interested in the prevailing morality of post-Enlightenment Western culture. More precisely, I am interested in what I take to be a central characteristic of this morality: equality of persons. I first approached this topic in a sustained way in 2013-14 when I held an ACLS fellowship for a project entitled "Greek Eudaimonism and Modern Morality." As the title indicates, my central interest was the relation between ancient ethics and modern (Western) morality. One of the fruits of this research was a chapter, entitled "Morality and Aristotelian Character Excellence," which I contributed to a volume on character (Questions of Character, Fileva, ed., 2016). I argue that in several ways Aristotle's view of excellence of character differs from a modern conception of moral goodness of character. Aristotle's view both includes features that are non-moral and excludes features that are moral. One respect in which Aristotelian ethics (and most of ancient Greco-Roman ethics) differs from modern morality relates to the notion of equality of persons. My present interest is in what morally relevant respect(s) persons are equal; whether and if so how such moral equality is distinguishable from social, political, legal, and economic equality; and how, if at all, moral equality might be justified.    

Descriptions of my books and forthcoming edited volume follow in reverse chronological order.

 
  2014-2019  
 

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.

 

The governing question of my recently completed book On Goodness is: What is goodness? I pursue this question, which I regard as a metaphysical question at the foundations of value theory, by means of the semantic questions: What do the adjective "good" and the adjectival nominalization "goodness" mean? My central results are the following. The adjective "good" is fundamentally three ways ambiguous. Two of the three senses are gradable (for example, "good," "better," "best"); and both of the gradable senses are multidimensional (for example, there are not kinds of height, the dimension or gradable property associated with "tall"; but there are kinds of value, the dimension associated with one of the senses of "good").

I reject explanations of dimensional specification in terms of covert variables or indexicals in the so-called logical form of "good." Instead, I argue that in tokenings, the adjective is implicitly or explicitly 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 explains the peculiar inferential properties of "good" (and kindred terms) that 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 has additional scalar structure. Finally, it is well known in linguistics that mass nouns, like plural count nouns, can occur bare, that is, in argument positions without determiners and that such phrases admit various readings. I suggest a neo-Carlsonian explanation of the various readings.

Finally, the central metaphysical implication of the linguistic results is that an instance of goodness is, in Kit Fine's and Frederike Moltmann's terms, a qua object of a kind, more precisely a qua quantitative trope, and more precisely still one degree of value (which I argue in an earlier chapter and also on linguistic grounds is purpose serving) of a kind taken in relation to another degree of value of that kind, where the latter is a contextually determined standard of comparison, and where the former significantly 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 my first book 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 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, and 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 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 typically 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.