My main research projects right now are in the history of metaphysics of mind, especially in early modern philosophy. I'm particularly interested in problems surrounding idealism, intentionality, and panpsychism.
work in progress
Spinoza on Mind: Metaphysics, Idealism, and Intentionality, a monograph
I'm co-editor, with Justin Steinberg, of the mammoth Cambridge Lexicon to Spinoza, under contract with Cambridge University Press
published & forthcoming work
"How to be a mereological panpsychist", a paper for Systematicity in Metaphysics, ed. Aaron Segal and Nick Stang, Oxford UP / Mind Association Occasional Series. Penultimate version
Unlike most contemporary panpsychists, Cavendish and Spinoza think about panpsychism mereologically: for both, mindedness is fundamentally understandable in terms of parts and wholes endowed with mental capacities. So Cavendishian and Spinozistic minds are (proper) parts of larger mental wholes, and themselves have further mental parts. My focus in this paper is on how Cavendish and Spinoza understand the idea of mental parts and mental wholes, and use this mereological approach to establish panpsychism as well as to defend it against Jamesian worries about the intelligibility of mental division and mental combination alike. Cavendish traces our hesitation about the very idea of dividing minds to a mistaken assumption about the nature of minds: namely, the assumption that minds aren’t material, and, more generally, to an inadequate concept of matter itself. Spinoza in contrast proposes that there is a kind of divisibility proper to thought qua thought, one that follows from what he takes to be the mark of the mental, namely intentionality – the aboutness of thought, its ability to be directed at diverse objects.
"On looking for truth: Spinoza after Descartes", an invited contribution to the inaugural issue of the new Journal of Spinoza Studies.
One of the more puzzling of Spinoza’s epistemological commitments is his claim that any true idea is self-evidently true. He writes that the truth of a true idea requires no external “sign” since every true idea not only corresponds to how things are in the world, but also possesses certain “intrinsic denominations”. Unfortunately for his readers, Spinoza seems to fail to clearly specify what exactly those intrinsic denominations are. His doctrine is most often read as a variation on Descartes’ rule that true ideas can be made “clear and distinct”. On such readings, the mysterious intrinsic denominations of Spinozistic true ideas are identified with clarity and distinctness. I argue against such readings, first, by pointing out various disanalogies in Descartes’s and Spinoza’s respective understandings of how the properties of clarity and distinctness relate to truth. Second, I argue that, more generally, extant interpretations overlook the fact that Spinoza offers a fundamentally ontological characterization of the intrinsic denominations of true ideas. More precisely, I propose that we understand these denominations as the reality or being contained by true ideas. On Spinoza’s account, true ideas are self-evidently true because 1) they present us with things themselves and 2) do so in so complete a manner that no further questions can intelligibly be raised.
“Spinoza on expression and grounds of intelligibility" (2022), with Róbert Mátyási, in the Philosophical Quarterly. Published version: https://doi.org/10.1093/pq/pqab056. Penultimate version
Recent literature on Spinoza has emphasized his commitment to universal intelligibility, understood as the claim that there are no brute facts. We draw attention to an important but overlooked element of Spinoza’s commitment to intelligibility, and thereby question its most prominent interpretation, on which this commitment results in the priority of conceptual relations. We argue that such readings are both incomplete in their account of Spinozistic intelligibility and mistaken in their identification of the most fundamental relation. We argue that Spinoza is one of the first moderns to address the problem of conditions of intelligibility, and show that, in his metaphysics, expressive relations are best understood as relations of dependence for intelligibility: what a thing ‘expresses’ is its condition of intelligibility, that which determines how, through what concepts, it can be conceived.
“Representation and Mind-Body Identity in Spinoza’s philosophy” (2022), in the Journal of the History of Philosophy. Penultimate version Published version
The paper offers a new reading of Spinoza’s notorious claim that minds and bodies are “one and the same thing”, commonly understood as a claim about the numerical identity of a referent under two different descriptions. This paper proposes instead that Spinoza’s texts and his larger epistemological commitments show that he takes mind-body identity to be 1) an identity grounded in an intentional relation, and 2) an identity of one thing existing in two different ways.
“Spinoza’s epistemology and philosophy of mind”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Volume editor, Human, in the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series (Oxford UP, 2022).
“Spinoza on universals" (2021), in the Blackwell Companion to Spinoza, ed. Y. Melamed.
A chapter about what Spinoza thinks about one of the oldest problems in metaphysics, and why it’s a mistake to think that he doesn’t recognize rational and even true ideas of universals.
“Intentionality” (2021). Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences, edited by D. Jalobeanu and C. Wolfe. Published version:
A survey article about early modern theories of intentionality.
“Spinoza on the limits of explanation” (2021), in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
Published version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/phpr.12711.
A paper on why the standard readings of Spinoza’s attribute barrier doctrine are wrong, and why in particular we can appeal to physical things in order to understand mental things. Commentators standardly ascribe to Spinoza a belief in an exceptionless conceptual closure of mental and physical realms: no intention can allow us to understand a bodily movement, no bodily injury can make intelligible a sensation of pain. This counterintuitive doctrine, most often now referred to as Spinoza’s ‘attribute barrier’, has weighty repercussions for his views on intelligibility, nature of the mind, identity, and causality. I argue against the standard reading of the doctrine, by showing that it produces an inconsistent epistemological picture, contradicting Spinoza’s theory of mind and his commitment to universal intelligibility. The alternative account I propose is also philosophically more compelling and plausible as an account of thought in its essential intentionality.
“Spinoza on Intentionality, Materialism, and Mind-body Relations” (2019), in Philosophers’ Imprint. Published version: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/phimp/3521354.0019.043/ .
This paper examines a relatively neglected element of Spinoza’s theory of mind: the intentional relation between human minds and bodies. Prima facie textual evidence suggests, and some readers agree, that the existence of this intentional relation commits Spinoza to an ontological and explanatory dependence of certain properties of minds on properties of bodies. The paper argues that such materialist accounts of the human mind contradict Spinoza’s fundamental epistemological commitments (to mind-body identity, to an explanatory barrier between attributes, and to a causal account of cognition). The paper offers an alternative interpretation of the mind-body relation, one grounded in Spinoza’s theory of representation. It show that although Spinoza indeed appeals to physical properties in explaining the essential constitution of the human mind, such appeals should not be understood as references to an extra-mental reality. Instead, they should be understood as references to the body as the immanent essential intentional object of the human mind, that is, to the body as represented (or, to use Spinoza’s scholastic terminology, the body as merely “objectively real”). So understood, Spinoza’s account of the human mind in its essential intentional body-directedness does not commit him to an explanatory or ontological dependence of minds on some extra-mental reality, and thus also does not undermine the aforementioned more general epistemological and metaphysical commitments.
“Spinoza and the inferential nature of thought" (2019), in Mind, Body, Morality: New Perspectives on Descartes and Spinoza, ed. M. Reuter & F. Svensson.
The paper argues that for Spinoza thought as such is inferential: to think is to grasp the consequences or implications of what is being represented. It argues that approaching Spinoza’s epistemology through this inferential framework allows us to see many prima facie disparate epistemological doctrines – bearing on understanding, truth, adequacy, mental causality, and the difference between intellect and imagination – as part of a single, unified account.
“The trouble with feelings, or on Spinoza’s identification of power and essence" (2017), Journal of History of Philosophy. Published version: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/646400.
Spinoza claims both that a thing’s essence is identical to power, and that emotions are fundamentally variations in this power. The conjunction of these two theses creates difficulties for his metaphysics and ethics alike. The three main worries concern the coherence of Spinoza’s accounts of essence, diachronic identity, and emotional “bondage”, and put in question Spinoza’s ability to derive ethical and psychological doctrines from his metaphysical claims. In response to these difficulties, the paper offers a new interpretation of Spinoza’s account of affects and his doctrine of the identity of power and essence. It shows that what is fundamental to his ontology of affects is the relation of modification or determination, a relation central to his ontology more generally. The paper argues that we cannot simply identify power and essence but should instead take affects to modify or determine essences as particular exercises of power (particular desires, appetites, volitions). That is, Spinozistic essences should be viewed as intrinsically determinable with affects supplying the determinations, and as consisting not in rigid sets of determinate properties, but in ranges of variable properties.
“Spinoza on essences, universals and beings of reason” (2015), Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
Published version: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/papq.12087.
The article proposes a new solution to a long-standing dispute concerning the universality of “essences” or “natures” in Spinoza’s metaphysics. Contrary to the standard reading, it argues that Spinoza recognizes the existence of fully rational general notions, which represent mind-dependent ‘beings of reason’ (merely ideal but non-illusory entities). I show that Spinoza holds that we construct such notions on the basis of similarities among particular things in nature, and that he regards this as a key constituent of reasoning. The paper argues that the unique essences of formally-real particulars coexist in Spinoza’s view with merely ideal more general essences, endowed with objective reality alone. The article proposes a new interpretation of Spinoza’s view of universals and general notions more generally: contrary to the standard reading of Spinoza as uniformly rejecting all such notions, it shows that Spinoza takes some of them to be rationally valid – just in case they are constructed on the basis of an adequate idea of an actual resemblance obtaining among the properties of formally-real particulars. Finally, the paper argues for the importance of two overlooked elements of Spinoza’s ontology – universals and beings of reason.
“Negation and the reality of the finite”, in The Young Spinoza: A Metaphysician in the Making (2015), ed. Y. Melamed (Oxford UP). Published version:
This article tackles the problem of the relation of thought to being, illuminating the role of beings of reason in Spinoza’s metaphysics, and engaging with German and British Idealist readings of Spinoza’s metaphysics. The paper shows that several common responses to the charge of acosmism (according to which only an infinite, undifferentiated substance genuinely exists, and all representations of finite things are illusory) fail. It also tackles a prominent argument for acosmic interpretations, according to which a finite thing’s constitutive reference to negation (the fact that by definition it is limited by, and limits, other things) excludes it from a purely positive realm of Spinozistic reality. I argue that we can avoid an acosmic conclusion by appealing to the idea of rational beings of reason, and by denying that negation is necessary either for the metaphysical constitution of finite things or for their being known. I show that we must distinguish the well-founded ideality of representations of finite things from mere illusoriness, insofar as for Spinoza we can have true knowledge of what is known only abstractly. Finite things can be seen as well-founded beings of reason. The article proposes that within Spinoza’s framework it is possible to represent a finite thing without drawing on representations of mind-dependent entities. The paper clarifies how Spinoza understands (i) finitude; (ii) the role of negation in metaphysical constitution; (iii) the distinction between illusion and mind-dependence; and (iv) the difference between finite and substantial thought. It also explores the idea that according to Spinoza finite thought and substantial thought represent reality in different ways.
“On the significance of formal causes in Spinoza’s metaphysics" (2015), in the Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie. Published version: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/ 10.1515/agph-2015-0008/html.
This paper challenges the prevalent view that Spinoza’s idea of a “cause” is fundamentally that of a mechanistic cause. On such a view, Spinoza’s metaphysics is modeled primarily on the physical sciences, and the paradigmatic case of causality is an inertial collision of two bodies. I argue that Spinoza instead models causality on formal causality, that is, on inferential relations between essences and properties that necessarily follow from these essences. The paper also enters into the long-running debate over the relation of causality to thought within Spinoza’s metaphysics, arguing that a framework of formal causes is necessary to provide any potential purely logical characterization of causal relations with the necessary constraints.
“Spinoza’s parallelism doctrine and metaphysical sympathy" (2015) in Sympathy: Oxford Philosophical Concepts, ed. Eric Schliesser, series ed. Christia Mercer (Oxford UP).
This paper offers an interpretation of Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism. It argues Spinoza reinterprets the ancient doctrine of metaphysical sympathy among ostensibly disconnected and distant beings in terms of fully intelligible relations of 1) identity between formal and objective reality, and in terms of 2) “real identity,” grounded in Spinoza’s substance-monism. Finally, the paper argues against the standard reading of mind-body pairs as “numerically identical”.
“Spinoza’s thinking substance and the necessity of modes” (2014), Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Published version: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/phpr.12149.
The paper pursues two problems: that of the relation of being to thought in Spinoza’s metaphysics, and that of acosmic criticisms of that s metaphysics offered by German and British Idealists. It offers a new account of Spinoza’s conception of “substance”, the fundamental building block of reality. It shows that, within Spinoza’s metaphysical framework, it can be demonstrated apriori that (i) contrary to the Idealist readings, for Spinoza there can be no substance that is not determined or modified by some other, dependent entity produced by this substance; and that (ii) there can be no substance that is not a thinking substance (and hence no being that does not participate in thought).
“Spinoza on being human and human perfection” (2014), in Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, ed. Matthew Kisner and Andrew Youpa (Oxford UP).
This paper combines foundational interpretative investigation into Spinoza’s notion of “essence” with a further inquiry into the relation between Spinoza’s metaphysics and ethics. I show that contrary to prevailing interpretations, Spinoza’s metaphysics does have room for a rational conception of a shared human nature (so for a ‘species-essence’ common to multiple individuals). I also argue that Spinoza associates being “human” with the possession of the causal power to reason (that is, to produce adequate general ideas). The article also offers a new account of one of the most perplexing concepts of Spinoza’s ethics, that of an ideal “model” of human nature, arguing for the coherence of thinking of human beings as entirely free in Spinoza’s framework.
“Spinoza’s unorthodox metaphysics of the will” (2013 online, 2018 in print) in The Oxford Handbook on Spinoza, ed. Michael Della Rocca (Oxford UP). Published version: http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195335828.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195335828-e-015.
The article examines the consequence of a non-teleological account of human action for Spinoza’s moral philosophy, and in particular for our understanding of the nature of the three moral phenomena that Spinoza grounds in “striving” or conatus: volition, desire and appetite. The article combines foundational interpretative work on Spinoza’s theory of causality with an inquiry into the relation between Spinoza’s metaphysics and his ethics. It examines how two of Spinoza’s basic metaphysical commitments result in highly unorthodox and counter-intuitive ethical doctrines. More specifically, it shows that Spinoza’s naturalism (the belief that all things are subject to the same rules) and his rejection of purposefulness in nature result in a nontraditional understanding of the nature of will and desire: these become universal in scope (and so come to characterize animals and even inanimate objects as much as human beings), but at the same time cease to be end-directed (such that we can no longer rationally claim that we do p because we desire some “good”).
(2019). Review of Ursula Renz, Explainability of Experience (Oxford UP), Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
(2019). Review of Samuel Newlands, Reconceiving Spinoza (Oxford UP), Mind (with Róbert Mátyási)
(2016). Review of Elhanan Yakira, Spinoza and the Case for Philosophy (Cambridge UP), Journal of the History of Philosophy 54 (1): 170-1.