My recent research has focused on the role perception plays in Aristotelian epistemology—how much it contributes to the more advanced cognitive states that make up our intellectual lives, and how we should understand the nature of its contribution.
I’ve written a book that tackles these questions, and considers more broadly the form of empiricism Aristotle endorsed:
- Aristotle’s Empiricism, Oxford University Press 2021
abstract·published copyAristotle is famous for thinking that all our knowledge comes from perception. But it’s not immediately clear what this view is meant to entail. It’s not clear, for instance, what perception is supposed to contribute to the more advanced forms of knowledge that derive from it. Nor is it clear how we should understand the nature of its contribution—what it might mean to say that these more advanced forms of knowledge are “derived from” or “based on” what we perceive. Aristotle is often thought to have disappointingly little to say on these matters. I argue here that this thought is mistaken: a coherent and philosophically attractive view of perceptual knowledge can be found in the various texts in which Aristotle discusses perception’s role in animal life, the cognitive resources on which it does and does not depend, and the relation it bears to practical and theoretical modes of understanding. This book offers a sustained examination of these discussions and their epistemological, psychological, and ethical implications. It defends an interpretation of Aristotle as a moderate sort of empiricist, who thinks that we can develop sophisticated forms of knowledge by broadly perceptual means—and that we therefore share an important part of our cognitive lives with nonrational animals—but also holds that our intellectual powers allow us to surpass these animals in certain ways and thereby develop distinctively human forms of understanding.
And here are some papers on related topics:
- Aristotle on Intelligent Perception
Philosophers’ Imprint forthcoming
abstract·penultimate draftAristotle presents perception as a potentially intelligent form of cognition—a form of cognition that allows us to respond in knowing ways to a range of different situations, or to develop certain insights into some topic of scientific inquiry. But it’s not clear how we should understand the interaction between our rational and perceptual powers in these cases, or how widespread we should take their interaction to be. In this paper I argue against views on which human perception would always involve the use of our rational powers, or on which the value of our perceptual powers would always be understood in terms of the rational modes of thought they might promote. I then develop an alternative account of intelligent perception that seeks to do justice to the role Aristotle assigns nonrational uses of perception in his account of our learning, and to his emphasis on the continuity between animal and human forms of cognition.
- Conviction, Priority, and Rationalism in Aristotle’s Epistemology
Journal of the History of Philosophy 58(1) 2020
abstract·penultimate draft·published copyIn this paper I argue against rationalist readings of Aristotle’s epistemology, according to which our scientific understanding is justified on the basis of certain demonstrative first principles that are themselves justified only by some brute form of rational intuition. I then investigate the relationship between our intuition of principles and the broadly perceptual knowledge from which it derives. I argue that, for Aristotle, perceptual knowledge helps justify our intuition of principles, and also serves as an authority against which these principles and their consequences must be assessed. I end by considering how we should understand the justificatory role played by perception, and sketching the nuanced, empirically-minded sort of foundationalism I take Aristotle to endorse.
- Aristotle on the Perception of Universals
British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27(3) 2019
abstract·penultimate draft·published copyAristotle claims that “although we perceive particulars, perception is of universals; for instance of human being, not of Callias-the-human-being” (APo II.19 100a16-b1). I offer an interpretation of this claim and examine its significance in Aristotle’s epistemology.
- Aristotle on Induction and First Principles
Philosophers’ Imprint 16(4) 2016
abstract·published copyAristotle’s cognitive ideal is a form of understanding that requires a sophisticated grasp of scientific first principles. At the end of the Analytics, Aristotle tells us that we learn these principles by induction (epagōgē). But on the whole, commentators have found this an implausible claim: induction seems far too basic a process to yield the sort of knowledge Aristotle’s account requires. In this paper I argue that this criticism is misguided. I defend a broader reading of Aristotelian induction, on which there’s good sense to be made of the claim that we come to grasp first principles inductively, and show that this reading is a natural one given Aristotle’s broader views on scientific learning.
I’ve lately also been revisiting some interpretive ideas concerning the notions of perfection and self-sufficiency Aristotle invokes in his ethical works.
- Perfection and Finality in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
draft·abstractIn this paper I attempt to reconcile the claims Aristotle makes about the teleion (variously rendered “perfect,” “complete,” or “final”) character of various goods—among them, the claim that virtuous activity is unqualifiedly teleion, that contemplative activity is more teleion than other forms of virtuous activity, and that crafts and productive undertakings are more teleion than their products, but less teleion than virtuous activity. In defending these claims Aristotle is often taken to rely on different senses of teleion. I argue that we can understand his views without doing so, and that there is a univocal notion of perfection at play throughout the Nicomachean Ethics.
- Aristotle on Self-Sufficiency, External Goods, and Contemplation
Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 102(1) 2020
abstract·penultimate draft·published copyAristotle tells us that contemplation is the most self-sufficient form of virtuous activity: we can contemplate alone, and with minimal resources, while moral virtues like courage require other individuals to be courageous towards, or courageous with. This is hard to square with the rest of his discussion of self-sufficiency in the Ethics: Aristotle doesn’t generally seek to minimize the number of resources necessary for a flourishing human life, and seems happy to grant that such a life will be self-sufficient despite requiring a lot of external goods. In this paper I develop an interpretation of self-sufficiency as a form of independence from external contributors to our activity, and argue that this interpretation accounts both for Aristotle’s views on contemplation and for the role self-sufficiency plays in his broader account of human happiness.
Finally, I’m interested in contemporary philosophy of math, particularly in questions concerning mathematical explanation, and structuralist approaches to mathematical ontology.
Here’s a paper on the latter of these topics:
- Structuralism and Its Ontology
Ergo 2(1) 2015
abstract·published copyA prominent version of mathematical structuralism holds that mathematical objects are at bottom nothing but “positions in structures,” purely relational entities without any sort of nature independent of the structure to which they belong. Such an ontology is often presented as a response to Benacerraf’s “multiple reductions” problem, or motivated on hermeneutic grounds, as a faithful representation of the discourse and practice of mathematics. In this paper I argue that there are serious difficulties with this kind of view: its proponents rely on a distinction between “essential” and “nonessential” features of mathematical objects, and there’s no good way to articulate this distinction which is compatible with basic structuralist commitments. But all is not lost. For I further argue that the insights motivating structuralism (or at least those worth preserving) can be preserved without formulating the view in ontologically committal terms.
And here’s my CV.