Research Program

My research lies at the intersection ethics and political philosophy, the theory of agency and normativity, and the history of philosophy, especially 19th and 20th Century European philosophy. In recent years, I have been working primarily on Foucault’s ethical views and his conception of subjectivity or agency. My current research program is organized along three interrelated publication projects, each of which I will briefly describe in what follows.

 

The first project, my current priority, is defense of my interpretation of Foucault’s ethical views through a book and a series of articles. The core of my reading of Foucault, developed through my time in graduate school, can be characterized by two theses. First, that Foucault’s contended notion of an “aesthetics of existence” is an attempt to offer a novel conception of the normative force of ethical claims which corresponds, mutatis mutandis, to his conception of power: on Foucault’s view, the normative force of ethical claims is productive rather than prohibitive, and norms and standards of conduct are to be understood not as restrictions on an otherwise unbound space of freedom, but as productive instruments for the pursuit of a genuine and robust form of autonomy. The second claim is that in his later work, Foucault offered the rudiments of a substantive ethical theory centered around his novel conception of normativity, a closely related, distinctively Foucauldian conception of autonomy, and what he referred to as “the virtue of critique.” In the book, Subjects to Selfhood: Foucault, Subjectivity and the Possibility of Autonomy, I offer a historical reconstruction of the emergence of Foucault’s conceptual framework and its development over the course of his career. I argue that his intellectual project is best understood as a lifelong effort to account for the possibility of breaking free from traditional ways of thinking and being, and thereby constitute oneself as a genuinely autonomous subject—a subject, that is, who hasn’t merely internalized the ways of being and ‘prohibitive norms’ that are dominant in her historical-cultural setting, but who has successfully created new ways of being by (i) engaging in a systematic critique of the traditional, dominant ones, and by (ii) subscribing to a set of ‘productive norms’ in order to give her life a novel form that can genuinely be called her own. In the articles, each of which focuses on one of the key elements of Foucault’s conceptual framework (the concepts of obedience and obligation, of “subjectivation” or self-constitution, and of autonomy), I offer a supplementary defense and clarification of my interpretation of Foucault’s ethical views. Two of the articles are currently under review, and I expect to finish two additional ones by the end of the summer 2018, and the book manuscript by the end of that year.

The next publication project is also a book, Minimal Subjects, Substantive Commitments. I offer a systematic development and defense of a Foucault-inspired ethical theory and a corresponding account of agency and normativity. The minimalist theory, as I call it, is centered around four theses: (1) there are no ends or aims that are constitutive of human agency; (2) a norm or standard has binding force over an individual exactly insofar as that individual is committed to the pursuit of an end whose attainment requires compliance with that norm; (3) in any given cultural-historical context, there is some distinctively moral end, such that what is counted, within that context, as a moral norm or standard, are those norms compliance with which is required in order to attain (what in that context is regarded as) the moral end; (4) within ‘our’ cultural-historical context (roughly, our post- Enlightenment, Euro-American context), the moral end is to treat people as autonomous agents. The first two theses, supplemented by a theory of commitments centered around a distinction between de facto and de jure commitments, constitute the core of the minimalist theory of normativity. The third and four theses characterize the core of the minimalist ethical theory. I have presented some of this work at a capstone conference at the University of Chicago on December 2016 and at the Vermont Ethics Group on September 2017. Yet I think of it as a mid to long-term project, one that I will continue to work on in parallel with the other two, but which I will not be able to dedicate my full attention to until the beginning of 2019, and which is likely to take two or three additional years to complete.

The third project consists in a series of independent articles, the unifying feature of which is that they bear on social and political issues of contemporary interest. The goal of this third project is twofold: to display the explanatory force of the minimalist theory of agency and normativity by applying it to such issues, and to make positive interventions in ethically and politically substantive debates. In this initial phase, I’m preparing an article on immigration, “Arguing Against Deportation: The Case of Forced Irregular Migrants in the United States,” where I analyze various argumentative strategies deployed in philosophical discussions about immigration and, in light of the results of these analyses, develop a comprehensive argumentative strategy against the deportation of a particular type of so-called irregular migrants. In “Performing Genders: Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the Minimalist Approach to Resistance,” a draft of which I presented at conference at Gettysburg College last year, I distinguish between prescriptivist and non-prescriptivist approaches to political resistance, analyzing, as a case study, theoretical and critical discourse about film’s potential as an instrument for the perpetuation of gender disparity. While acknowledging that prescriptive approaches can be indispensable in the face of morally intolerable practices, I argue that when ethically viable, non-prescriptivist appraches are ethically and strategically superior.