Research

Research Overview

I work mainly in two areas: (1) contemporary social and political philosophy, and (2) the history of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy (and related political writing).

The central preoccupation of my research is the ideal of self-determination, or positive freedom—the aspiration not merely to be free of chains (literal or figurative), but to be able to follow one’s own will, rather than just the will of others. What is distinctive about my approach is that I focus on how this ideal, which has its roots in historical experiences of oppression and slavery, could be realized in uniquely modern conditions. To do so, I draw on the political thought of those who actively engaged in working class, anti-colonial, and gender liberation movements, which are often neglected in academic philosophy (more on my project to teach these here). I also draw on canonical figures like Marx and Rousseau who have frequently been misunderstood as enemies of freedom, but who I argue recognized distinctively modern problems for freedom.

Why is it a problem to apply the ideal of self-determination to modernity? Well, with good reason, there’s often thought to be a tension between being dependent on others and being one’s own master. What does it mean, for instance, to aim at self-governance when we are totally dependent for our needs on goods produced across the globe? Moreover, our world system is crisscrossed by profound hierarchies of race, gender, and class which expose some people in particular to being treated as mere tools for use. How can such divided and marginalized people actually attain self-governance?

Papers

Peer-Reviewed Publications

“Kierkegaard on Time and the Limitations of Imaginative Planning”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XCIV No. 1, January 2017. 144-169. | Download here

Abstract: In Practice in Christianity, Kierkegaard claims that the imaginative planning of projects that require ongoing effort over time always fails to represent them accurately. This paper explores one particular reason Kierkegaard gives for thinking this—that the imagination is incapable of capturing the temporality of such endeavors, and it is this temporality that constitutes their greatest difficulty. This is significant for Kierkegaard because he believes that the tasks involved in self-determination—including the tasks of the moral life and of the religious life—belong to this class of endeavors. But if true, his claim raises questions for all projects that use imaginative planning. This paper explores Kierkegaard’s texts on the matter and argues that his claim centers on the fact that in one’s imagination, one cannot face ongoing resistance that is entirely outside one’s control as one does in the actual world. This contributes to a picture of Kierkegaard’s moral psychology that presents having a powerful imagination alone as quite insufficient for practical striving, and that places practice and willful endurance in whatever task one is attempting as central to learning it. One cannot learn how to do such tasks from another or from one’s imagination, according to Kierkegaard—the only teacher is experience, and, crucially, time.

Papers Under Review/In Progress

“‘Racism without Races’—Socio-Cultural Racialization in Islamophobia and Beyond” | Under Review | Download draft here

Abstract: It is often claimed that ethnically diverse cultural groups like Muslims and Latinos are racialized in many contemporary societies. But this is puzzling if one takes racialization to involve assuming that members of a group share a biological essence. I offer an account of racialization that solves this puzzle. What I call socio-cultural racialization is the social construction of a fictional racial essence that is taken to be rooted in social facts rather than biological ones. It is this “racism without races”—racialization without the biological notion of race—that gets applied both to groups like Muslims and to groups like Black people that have also been biologically racialized. I argue that socio-cultural racialization has a wider justificatory force in our present world in which this biological notion of race is censured (at least officially) in most social and political institutions. I conclude by offering an original hypothesis as to why this form of racialization is less frequently recognized as ideological mystification than biological racialization.

“What is Kierkegaardian ‘Inwardness’? ‘Heartfeltness’ as Positive Freedom” | Email me about this paper

Abstract: Kierkegaard often exhorts his readers to cultivate their “inwardness,” but despite the centrality of this notion to his texts, he avoids directly characterizing it. In this paper I offer an account of inwardness as a type of positive freedom that is not on its own a moral ideal, but a morally-neutral ideal that is nonetheless crucial for morality.  Inwardness, it turns out, is a bad translation of the Danish word Inderlighed, which is better rendered as “heartfeltness.” Kierkegaard’s Inderlighed is complex positive freedom to internalize or “take to heart” particular ideals and transform one’s life in relation to them. Kierkegaard departs from his idealist predecessors in locating his freedom in the psychology of the finite, embodied subject, and I will argue that the psychology of inwardness is well-supported by recent empirical and philosophical work on the will, drawing on work by Michael Bratman and Richard Holton.

Dissertation

Made Into Strangers: A Marxist Account of Social Alienation

(A longer summary of my dissertation can be found here).

In my dissertation I offer a novel account of social alienation, rooted in a reading of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon. Social alienation is a deficient mode of relationship in which people systematically regard one another as “strangers” in a particular sense. That is, they regard one another either indifferently or as mere tools, rather than as having intrinsic value. In modern societies, I argue, we view most others as “strangers” in this way. On a daily commute, one sees many people who contribute to the fulfillment of one’s needs—transit workers, builders, grocery workers. But commonly, one doesn’t value these strangers as in themselves important to one’s life—that is, beyond what one gets from them, or for the unwanted moral duties they impose. In other cases, this indifference shades into hostility: for example, the long-time working-class resident in a neighborhood has to interact with developers and gentrifiers who are undermining their ability to live in their home.

This way of regarding others prevails despite the fact that we are deeply socially intertwined in contemporary societies—we are utterly dependent on those we don’t know for the fulfillment of both basic and complex needs. When we relate to people as strangers, however, we experience those social bonds as constraining, a form of unfreedom. Moreover, on my account, this deficient mode of relationship is not just bad individual behavior. Rather, we are made into strangers from one another—this mode is actually baked into our patterns of social interaction. One example (from Marx): competitive market arrangements pit us against one another in pursuit of livelihood and desirable work. Another (from Fanon): racist social conditioning trains us to unconsciously treat certain people as worthy of being instrumentalized.

In the dissertation, I make both historical and contemporary contributions. I offer a novel reconstruction of the concept of alienation fit for contemporary use, and I give new readings of Marx and Fanon on alienation. My contemporary reconstruction is significant because it explains the specifically political dimensions of an ill that is deeply felt, but not much discussed in recent political philosophy. I salvage the concept as resource for understanding how forms of structural domination and antagonism like race and class operate in our own context. Within historical scholarship, my project is significant because there is surprisingly little agreement on the meaning of “alienation,” despite its influence.

I plan to continue this project on alienation beyond my dissertation into work on Marx’s account of the social division of labor and Fanon on the relationship between self and collective history.

“Come Out!! Join the Sisters and Brothers of the Gay Liberation Front”, photo by Peter Hujar, 1970. (read about it here)

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