Research

I work primarily on early modern moral psychology. Some of the questions most central to my research include: What motivates human action? What is the nature of desire, how are we able to control our desires, and to what extent do we need to do so? What is it to be free? What is it to be a person? I currently have two major research projects in which I take up these questions in the philosophical writings of John Locke and Ralph Cudworth.

Locke. My first project builds on my dissertation, John Locke and the Demand for Self-Determination. Locke is convinced both that desire determines us in willing all of our actions and that our desires are often irrational. Taken together, he worries that these two claims threaten to undermine human freedom, rendering us slaves to the vicissitudes of desire. One of Locke’s chief tasks in the Essay’s discussion of human agency, therefore, is to explain how our rational capacities (reason, judgment, and the power to suspend desire) render us free despite the pervasive influence of desire. One upshot of my interpretation is that these rational capacities end up playing a much larger role in Locke’s account than is usually recognized.

Cudworth. My second project takes up similar questions in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth, perhaps the most philosophically sophisticated of the so-called “Cambridge Platonists”. Best-known for his magnum opus, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, Cudworth also left behind a series of five manuscripts containing his notes on a variety of topics in psychology, which he intended to turn into a treatise defending human freedom. The shortest of these manuscripts was published in 1838 as A Treatise of Freewill, but the rest remain unpublished. Cudworth argues that traditional accounts of the mind have failed to offer an adequate explanation of human freedom, a failure that he attributes in large part to the misguided distinction between understanding and will. Cudworth thus proposes to discard this distinction and, in its absence, to develop an entirely new psychological framework centered upon his own novel views about what he calls “consciousness” and “self-consciousness”, terms that Cudworth himself introduced into the English language. He then uses this framework to offer a new account of human freedom and of the mind’s power of “freewill”, which consists roughly in its ability self-consciously to reflect upon its desires and deliberate about what is best. Along the way, he develops sophisticated (and often prescient) views on a number of other philosophical topics. In moral epistemology, for example, he argues for a position that in some ways anticipates 18th-century moral sense theory. He also distinguishes the self (or person) from the soul to which this self is related, in some ways anticipating Locke’s celebrated discussion of “personal identity” in Essay 2.27.

Publications

“Locke on Persons and Other Kinds of Substances,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (forthcoming).

Locke’s commentators are divided about whether Locke thinks that the idea of a person is a substance-idea or a mode-idea. I use Locke’s theory of kinds to argue for an intermediate interpretation on which the idea of a person is a substance-idea that contains a mode-idea. As a result, while proponents of the substance interpretation correctly claim that ‘person’ designates a kind of substance, proponents of the mode interpretation are nonetheless correct in insisting that mode-ideas play an important role in Locke’s account of persons and personal identity.

“Locke’s Arguments against the Freedom to Will,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25:4 (2017), 642-662.

In sections 2.21.23-25 of An Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke considers and rejects two ways in which we might be “free to will”, which correspond to the Thomistic distinction between freedom of exercise and freedom of specification. In this paper, I examine Locke’s arguments in detail. In the first part, I argue for a non-developmental reading of Locke’s argument against freedom of exercise. Locke’s view throughout all five editions of the Essay is that we do not possess freedom of exercise (at least in most cases). In the second part, I argue that, when Locke asks whether we possess freedom of specification, his question is intentionally ambiguous between two readings, a first-order reading and a higher-order reading. Locke’s view is that, on either reading, we do not possess freedom of specification (at least in any interesting sense).

Under Review

Two papers on Locke’s theory of motivation.

In Progress

I’m now working on what I expect to be a series of three papers on Cudworth’s moral psychology:

  • “Cudworth on Freewill”
  • “Desire in Cudworth’s Account of Human Agency”
  • “Cudworth on Personality”

I’m also writing a review of Locke and Cartesian Philosophy by Philippe Hamou and Martine Pécharman (eds.) for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Dissertation

John Locke and the Demand for Self-Determination

Download abstract.

Presentations

  1. “The Role of Desire in Cudworth’s Account of Agency”, Agency in Early Modern Philosophy Workshop, University College Dublin, September 2018*
  2. “Locke on the Motivation to Suspend Desire”, Atlantic Canada Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, Dalhousie University, July 2018*
  3. “Locke’s Gatekeeper”, The 8th Margaret Dauler Wilson Philosophy Conference, SUNY Buffalo, June 2018 *
  4. “Locke and the Possibility of Self-Control”, 2018 Annual Congress of the Canadian Philosophical Association, Université du Quebec à Montreal, June 2018 *
  5. “The Gatekeeper of the Will: On Locke’s Claim that Judgment and Desire Both Determine the Will”, 2017 Annual Congress of the Canadian Philosophical Association, May 2017​ *
  6. “Locke on Persons, Kinds, and Composite Ideas”, History of Early Modern Philosophy Working Group, University of Toronto, March 2017
  7. “Locke on Persons and Substance-Mode Composites”, Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy IV, University of Groningen, February 2017 *
  8. “Locke on Judgment, Desire, and Weakness of Will”, History of Philosophy Works in Progress, Harvard University, November 2016
  9. “Cudworth on Personality”, Personal Identity in the History of Philosophy, University of Melbourne, August 2016 *
  10. “Locke, Cudworth, and the Vulgar: What’s Wrong With Really Distinct Faculties?”, Atlantic Canada Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, Dalhousie University, July 2016 *
  11. “Cudworth on Reason and Moral Knowledge”, The 7th Margaret Dauler Wilson Philosophy Conference, Northern Arizona University, June 2016 *
  12. “Cudworth on Reason and Moral Knowledge”, Scottish Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy VII, University of St. Andrews, May 2016 *
  13. “Cudworth on Reason and Moral Knowledge”, Harvard-Yale Graduate Workshop in the History of Philosophy, Harvard University, April 2016
  14. “Reconciling Freedom and Suspension: Locke on freedom of the will and ‘the source of all liberty’”, Locke Workshop, Yale University, October 2014

Comments

  1. On Elisabeth Thorsson, “Revisiting Locke’s Thinking Matter: A Third Way?”, 2018 Locke Workshop, Mansfield College, University of Oxford, July 2018
  2. On Ruth Boeker, Chapter 2 of Locke on Persons and Personal Identity, Book Workshop on Locke on Persons and Personal Identity by Ruth Boeker, Columbia University, March 2018
  3. On Julie Walsh, “Malebranche and the Tension Between Virtue and Goodwill”, The Society for Early Modern Philosophy at Yale (SEMPY), November 2015
  4. On Stephen Darwall, “Cudworth, Shaftesbury, and Leibniz”, The Society for Early Modern Philosophy at Yale (SEMPY), October 2015
  5. On Kenneth Winkler, “The Scope of Sensitive Knowledge”, The Society for Early Modern Philosophy at Yale (SEMPY), December 2014
  6. On Martha Bolton, “Locke on Substance and Identity: a Univocal and Internally Consistent Theory”, Locke Workshop, Yale University, October 2014