"Natural artificiality, niche construction, and the content-open mediation of human behavior,"
Biology & Philosophy (forthcoming; accepted Nov. 9, 2020)
Abstract: There are at least two senses in which human beings can be called “naturally artificial”: (1) being adapted for creation of and participation in niche constructed environments, and (2) being adapted for creation of and participation in such environments despite an exceptional indeterminacy in the details of the niche constructed environments themselves. The former puts human beings in a common category with many niche-constructing organisms while the latter is arguably distinctive of our species. I explain how this can be so by developing an account of supporting concepts of complexity, contingency, and content-openness, and show how to defend the position against a common style of objection by a single comparative case study: hermit crabs and their shells versus humans and their movable dwellings. Finally, I consider evidence that such a feature is indeed species-typical and evolved in human populations.
"All knowledge is orientation: Marjorie Grene's ecological epistemology."
(invited contribution to G. Bianco, G. Van de Vijver, and C. Wolfe (eds.), Canguilhem and Continental Philosophy of Biology, Springer, under review)
Abstract: In the course of a more than 70-year philosophical career and over 100 publications, Marjorie Grene (1910-2009) developed an original and coherent philosophical position that placed situated organic life at the center of the interpretation of reality and human affairs. Grene sometimes described this position as an “ecological epistemology” and summarized its central thrust in the expression “all knowledge is orientation.” However, Grene’s view incorporated a set of apparently or potentially opposed commitments such as naturalism and anti-reductionism, pluralism and realism, and both a critique and affirmation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This raises questions about precisely where Grene stood on the issues over which she argued and the coherence of her “ecological epistemology” as a whole. Here I review Grene’s work in the main research areas for which she is best known – history of philosophy, philosophy of biology, epistemology, and philosophical anthropology – with an eye to how these tensions were ultimately resolved in her account.
“Darwin among the philosophers: Hull and Ruse on Darwin, Herschel, and Whewell,”
HOPOS: Journal of the International Society for History of Philosophy of Science 8 (2): 278-309.
Abstract: In a series of papers and books published in the 1970s, David Hull (1935-2010) and Michael Ruse (1940- ) proposed interpretations of the relation between nineteenth-century British philosophy of science, on the one hand, and the views and methods of Charles Darwin, on the other, that were incompatible or at least in strong interpretive tension with one another. According to Hull, John Herschel and William Whewell’s philosophies of science were logically incompatible with Darwin’s revolutionary theory. According to Ruse, on the other hand, Darwin discovered and developed his theory through direct adherence to those philosophies. Here I reconstruct Hull’s and Ruse’s interpretations of the Herschel-Whewell-Darwin relationship and then, drawing on Hull and Ruse’s published papers and archival correspondence in the years 1968-1976 – particularly regarding reduction, laws, and species – I offer an explanation for their differences: namely, their different orientations to logical empiricism.
"Grene and Hull on types and typological thinking in biology,"
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 50 (2015): 13-25.
Abstract: Marjorie Grene (1910-2009) and David Hull (1935-2010) were among the most influential voices in late twentieth-century philosophy of biology. But, as Grene and Hull pointed out in published discussions of one another’s work over the course of nearly forty years, they disagreed strongly on fundamental issues. Among these contested issues is the role of what is sometimes called “typology” and “typological thinking” in biology. In regard to taxonomy and the species problem, Hull joined Ernst Mayr’s construal of typological thinking as a backward relic of pre-Darwinian science that should be overcome. Grene, however, treated the suspicion of typological thinking that characterized Hull’s views, as well as those of other architects of the New Evolutionary Synthesis, as itself suspicious and even unsustainable. In this paper I review three debates between Grene and Hull bearing on the question of the validity of so-called typological thinking in biology: (1) a debate about the dispensability of concepts of “type” within evolutionary theory, paleontology, and taxonomy; (2) a debate about whether species can be adequately understood as individuals, and thereby independently of those forms of thinking Hull and Mayr had construed as “typological”; and (3) a debate about the prospects of a biologically-informed philosophy of human nature.
P. Honenberger (ed.), Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016)
Abstract: What is a human being? The twentieth and twenty-first century tradition known as 'philosophical anthropology' has approached this question with unusual sophistication, experimentalism, and subtlety. Such innovations as Arnold Gehlen's description of humans as naturally 'deficient' beings in need of artificial institutions to survive; Max Scheler's concept of 'spirit' (Geist) as the physically and organically irreducible realm of persons and spiritual acts; and Helmuth Plessner's analysis of the way human embodiment transcends spatial locations and limitations ('ex-centric positionality') have inspired generations of European intellectuals. This edited collection from an international network of scholars critically engages the philosophical anthropologies of Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen, Blumenberg, and others in unparalleled detail, showing their applicability to the themes of nature and naturalism, organic life, comparative primatology, cultural anthropology, paleoanthropology, the body, addiction, and death.
Author's typescript [editor's Introduction]
"Animality, sociality, and historicity in Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology," International Journal of Philosophical Studies (2015) 23 (5): 707-729.
Abstract: Axel Honneth and Hans Joas claim that Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is problematically ‘solipsistic’ insofar as it fails to appreciate the ways in which human persons or selves are brought into being and given their characteristic powers of reflection and action by social processes. Here I review the main argument of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie (1928) with this criticism in mind, giving special attention to Plessner’s accounts of organic being, personhood, language, sociality, and historicity in that text. I argue that Honneth and Joas’s criticisms understate the extent to which Plessner takes sociality to be a constitutive condition of human forms of life within the structure he calls ‘ex-centric positionality’. This reading of Plessner also provides resources for answering a more common criticism of his philosophical anthropology – namely, that it is problematically ‘essentialist’, paying insufficient heed to the historical variability and contingency of human forms of life.
"Naturalism, pluralism, and the human place in the worlds," in Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology, ed. P. Honenberger (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016)
Abstract: I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of four late-modern strategies of answering the question, ‘What is the human place in nature?’, through discussion of historically significant examples of these strategies. These include naturalism as represented by Thomas Henry Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863); non-naturalism, as exemplified by Max Scheler’s philosophical anthropology; pluralism, as recently proposed by Huw Price and Helen Longino; and emergentism, represented by Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology and Lenny Moss’s metaphysics of detachment. In critically comparing these alternatives, I note a crucial distinction between place-as-location and place-as-role within discussions of the 'human place in nature'. I further draw on Ernst Cassirer’s notion of the ‘law of the series’ and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guitarri’s notion of ‘planes of consistency’ to relate various kinds and conceptions of a human ‘place’ in nature or the world.
"Eccentric investigations of (post-)humanity" [essay review of Jos de Mul (ed.), Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology: Perspectives and Prospects. Amsterdam University Press / University of Chicago Press, 2014] , Philosophy of the Social Sciences (2016) 46 (1): 56-76.
Abstract: In 1928, a German zoologist and philosopher named Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985) published a book titled Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie. Almost 100 years later, Jos de Mul has edited a collection of 26 new essays on Plessner’s text, titled Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology: Perspectives and Prospects. The volume offers a variety of advanced discussions of its theme. In this review essay of de Mul’s collection, I provide a critical overview of the contents of the new volume and some speculations on the possible motives and future directions of the current “Plessner renaissance.”
"The poverty of neo-pragmatism: Rorty, Putnam, and Margolis on realism and relativism," in Nordic Studies in Pragmatism 2: Pragmatism, Metaphysics, and Culture -- Reflections on the Philosophy of Joseph Margolis, ed. Dirk-Martin Grube and Robert Sinclair. Helsinki: Nordic Pragmatism Network, 2015.
Abstract: A prominent late twentieth-century debate between Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam focused on evaluating the cogency of realisms and relativisms of various sorts. Both Putnam and Rorty rejected traditional forms of realism, but Putnam went on to defend two alternative varieties of realism (in turn), while Rorty abandoned realism of any kind. At the same time, both Rorty and Putnam rejected relativism as putatively incoherent. In the midst of these developments, Joseph Margolis proposed a position that was (self-avowedly) simultaneously realist and relativist, and argued for its superiority over Rorty’s and Putnam’s alternatives. In this paper I review Putnam’s, Rorty’s, and Margolis’s arguments for their positions on the issues of realism and relativism. Mostly in agreement with Margolis, I argue for an empirically enriched construal of epistemic situations that includes attention to historically-contingent mediating factors within these situations (where these factors include languages, conceptual schemes, artifacts, and institutions, among other things). Theories formed within such contingently mediated situations lack closure, primarily due to this contingency, and thus familiar anti-realist and anti-relativist arguments (including internalist, ethnocentric, and deflationist arguments) do not succeed.
Available online here.