My current research project focuses on the history of relations between biology and “first philosophy” (metaphysics and epistemology), especially in the late modern period (19th-20th century). It’s undeniable that biology and philosophy have influenced one another in this period, as evidenced by central commitments of the philosophical schools of American pragmatism, vitalism, life-philosophy, and German philosophical anthropology (on the one hand), and the persistent engagement of biologists like T.H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Richard Lewontin with the philosophical foundations and implications of biology (on the other). My research employs historical, philosophical, and STS methods to explore this relationship and test favored philosophical theses about naturalism, the scope and limits of epistemic authority of the natural sciences, the utility and social value of philosophy, and models of interdisciplinary science and its evaluation. From 2016-2018 I’m funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue these topics.
Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology
While conducting pre-dissertation research at the Humboldt University in Berlin, I discovered a German tradition known as “philosophische Anthropologie” (philosophical anthropology). By that time I’d developed significant interests and training in modern European philosophy from Kant and Hegel onward, as well as contemporary analytic philosophy of mind and action. I was struck by the potential relevance of German philosophical anthropology to contemporary debates about naturalism, the nature-culture relation, and human animality. American philosophers had barely heard of the tradition and I resolved to inform them.
In the dissertation I conducted a critical review of the theories of organic life, culture, and the human vs. non-human animal distinction in three major representatives of mid-twentieth-century philosophical anthropology: Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen. I also developed the outlines of a substantive position on nature-culture and human distinctiveness, emphasizing humans’ biologically supported capacity for historically contingent artifactual mediation, coupled with more-or-less elaborate artifactual systems effecting this mediation, as the primary factors explaining the distinctiveness of human animal life.
This work has led to several publications including an edited collection of new essays, Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Biology and Philosophy, 1800-2015
Since the dissertation I’ve been increasingly active in the history and philosophy of science. The philosophical anthropologists’ own example of engagement with the empirical sciences of their day seems to me especially well exemplified, in the contemporary world, by philosophers of science, as well as many researchers in HPS and STS.
In 2014 I began planning a project on the history of the philosophy of biology from 1950 to the present. This project was awarded funding by the National Science Foundation in 2016.
With the help of Michael Dietrich (the postdoctoral mentor on the grant), this project has employed not only the traditional philosophical methods of close reading and analysis of arguments but also archival research, oral history interviews, and bibliometric and text analysis. The resulting history uses this diverse array of data-sources to reveal the variety of ways in which the “scientific” discipline of biology and the “humanistic” discipline of philosophy have related to one another since 1800 -- including establishment and negotiation of boundaries, contests over epistemic authority, collaborations, and conceptual and thematic borrowings.