Current Research

What is the relationship between the ability to reason demonstratively and the capacity to know?

This question fuels my research, which lies at the intersection of epistemology, the history of analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mind and language. In my dissertation, “Logic and Intelligibility,” I argued that the relationship between reasoning and knowing is the source of a deep disagreement in epistemology concerning the sense in which beliefs have objective content. I evaluated this disagreement by examining three major accounts of why any being capable of acquiring knowledge must be capable of valid inference: Frege’s constitutivism, Quine’s naturalist pragmatism, and Davidson’s interpersonal humanism. (The full text is available on request.) Two articles that evolved from this research, “Frege’s Alleged Pragmatism” (under review) and “Distinguishing W.V. Quine and Donald Davidson” (Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy) are available here and here.

wvq-age27aNaturalists, I showed in my doctoral work, must appeal to their status as members of a community of inquirers in order to count their own investigations “objective.” I examine the responsibilities that they thus incur in “Taking Care with Quine’s ‘Don’t-cares.’” In this paper, I bring social epistemology to bear on Quine’s account of explication. To “explicate” a useful expression that lacks a clear referent, one shows how it may be taken to refer to something that is well understood. Quine dismissively uses the neologism “don’t-cares” to refer to any novel, unforeseen features of such substitutions, crediting it in passing to “computer-machine scientists.” In fact, Quine became aware of the neologism in grasping the significance that an algorithm he developed in the 1950s (now known as the Quine-McCluskey algorithm) had to computing. However, I explain that the computer science community has abandoned the “don’t-care” attitude in favor of an organizing principle that trades the individual programming freedom of its members for greater community coordination. In turn, I argue, explicators who take care with their suggested linguistic emendations by flagging them as revisable and anticipating how they may affect others’ inquiries better serve their naturalist community.

CarnapI extend my interest in explication in “Carnap, Explication, and Social History.” A.W. Carus has recently advocated Rudolf Carnap’s conception of explication as a tool for social epistemology. By replacing poorly understood concepts with ones that can be cleanly integrated into a constructed language, he maintains, agents are better positioned to resolve their disputes and declaim their knowledge. I examine this suggestion by applying it to 20th century debate about the social institutions of marriage and adoption. Against Carus, I argue that not all participants in such disputes would accept the pragmatic thrust of Carnap’s ideal of explication. Explication is valuable, rather, as a way of reconstructing and refining past debates, and so, of writing social history.

In one of the papers I am currently working on, “Modest Transcendental Externalism,” I examine Davidson’s account of the triangular relationship between speakers and the world they share. Davidson’s bold transcendental externalist view that talking with another person is necessary for the emergence of thought has been widely rejected. But what I call “modest transcendental externalism” seeks only to establish that believing oneself to have talked with others is necessary for thought. I defend this claim by showing how Davidson’s triangulation figure exposes that various solipsistic scenarios cannot be coherently entertained. From what I call Davidson’s “humanist” perspective—his insistence that the correct application of our concepts (such as “truth,” or, here, “knowledge of other minds”) is determined by our (human) use of those concepts—solipsistic scenarios need not be considered, because we cannot consider them. Humanism thus motivates Davidson’s own transcendental externalism, and explains his confident assertion that we can know other minds. But epistemologists unwilling to adopt Davidson’s humanism, I argue, must still confront modest transcendental externalism, which suffices to motivate a program that treats what we call “knowledge” as a fundamentally, not accidentally, social phenomenon.

Another of my current projects, “Objectivity Socialized,” assesses whether Carnap privileges the knowledge of individuals at the expense of the social nature of inquiry, an emphasis that distorts his ultimate conception of science and philosophy. I show that this challenge may be detected in Charles Morris’s call for semiotic, the science of signs, rather than syntax, the formal investigation of languages, to ground scientific philosophy. Drawing out the challenge in Morris’s proposal requires examining a neglected influence on this neglected philosopher: his advisor George Herbert Mead’s social theory of mind. This paper will contribute to the growing literature examining the hitherto neglected relationship between logical positivism and pragmatism.

wittgensteinOnce I have completed these pieces, I plan to examine naturalist accounts of rule-following. John McDowell objects that Crispin Wright’s appeal to behavioral dispositions is an inadequate surrogate for genuine rule-following, one that creates the “illusion” of obligation. Gary Ebbs develops a parallel objection to what he calls Quine’s “idiolectical” conception of language, claiming that Quine cannot do justice to the way that users of a language follow linguistic rules. But I intend to show that Wright and Quine each have the resources to make sense of normativity. By providing an account of how animals evolve to share dispositions, naturalists may explain the emergence of so-called “normative behaviors” (such as dispute-resolving practices). Since these behaviors originate in groups rather than individuals, both McDowell’s talk of “illusion” and Ebbs’ “idiolectical” label are inappropriate: naturalists may insist that we are obliged to other members of our community. Beyond these immediate projects, I want to deepen the engaged form of tolerance that I believe naturalists and non-naturalists owe each other’s epistemological programs by contrasting it with the proposals of other figures from recent history (such as Rudolf Carnap’s celebrated principle of tolerance), and by drawing on the literature on the epistemology of disagreement. I also plan to return to the use I made of “intelligibility” in my doctoral work, with any eye to clarifying the distinction between logical and conceptual possibility.

davidsonIn addition to my main research program in epistemology, I have a side interest in examining how other areas of philosophical inquiry are shaped by the relationship between reasoning and knowing. My publication “Interpreting Disturbed Minds: Donald Davidson and The White Ribbon, for instance, explored the way that “mind” is used as a metaphor in film studies to think about the consistency of a filmic argument. I extend my investigation of how film represents the intelligibility of other minds in Could a Heptapod Act? Language and Agency in Arrival. I am also interested in the question of how environmental philosophers and philosophers of mind should think about beings with limited reasoning ability, such as animals and artificial intelligences.