My research focuses on the implications of biological science for broader humanistic concerns and commitments. What new lessons and constraints do empirical sciences like biology and neuroscience pose to our self-understanding? What changes do they motivate in our philosophical theories of action, knowledge, rationality, value, selfhood, or society? What role do human factors such as subjective experience and culturally contingent epistemic frameworks play in the development and justification of the sciences themselves?
My previously published work has addressed various aspects of this relationship – for instance, the influence of philosophical commitments in Darwin interpretations (HOPOS, 2018); the role of biologically questionable “typological thinking” in discussions of biological species and human nature (Studies C, 2015); the tension and mutual consistency of the “natural” and “artificial”; 19th and 20th century rhetoric on the human “place” in nature; the promises and dangers of seeking to ground ethical commitments in facts about human nature; and a biologically-engaged strain of European philosophy known as “philosophical anthropology” (Palgrave, 2016)
In my current book project, I address this relation between the naturalistic worldview and human concerns in a fundamental and original way. In the first half of the book, I argue for a single empirically plausible but controversial biological hypothesis – namely, that species-typical human life-histories are characterized by “second-order plasticity”: in short, a plasticity feedback loop between an especially plastic developmental, behavioral, and cognitive repertoire, on the one hand, and the especially variable artifactual and social environment that mediates that development, behavior, and cognition, on the other. If true, the thesis entails that contingency, mediacy, and variability are the natural condition of human beings. In the second half of the book, I draw the consequences of this hypothesis for philosophy of mind, action, knowledge, normativity, technology, and society. The result challenges many canonical philosophical views. For instance, it affirms both the legitimacy of modern natural science’s epistemic authority and the inevitable subjectivity and historical-cultural contingency of all human knowledge and evaluation, including the norms and commitments of modern sciences themselves.
One major focus of my previous research has been a tradition of modern European thought known as “philosophische Anthropologie” (philosophical anthropology): for instance, the work of Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, and Adolf Portmann. My work on these figures has explored the relevance of their ideas to contemporary debates about naturalism, the ontology of living things and processes, philosophies of nature, culture, and technology, and embodiment and animality. Another strain of my previously published research has focused on the history of the philosophy of biology, mostly since 1950. This work has examined the limits of the fields of biology and philosophy and their epistemic relations to one another, including negotiation of boundaries, contests over epistemic authority, collaborations, and conceptual, thematic, and other epistemic borrowings.