About My Research

I am a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University. My main area of research is 14th century philosophy of language and mind, with particular emphasis on the philosophy of Walter Burley (died c. 1345). Burley’s philosophical program — which, among other things, is committed to the reality of universals — represents a nice contrast to the nominalist philosophical programs that come to dominate the fourteenth century, such as those of Ockham and Buridan. Like those of his nominalist counterparts, Burley’s philosophical approach reflects the “linguistic turn” that occurs around the turn of the fourteenth century at Oxford and spreads quickly to the continent (indeed, Burley himself might be one of the driving forces of that turn). In contrast to his nominalist counterparts, however, Burley maintains that a compelling semantic program requires the existence of universals, as the contents of general expressions. Consequently, my research into Burley’s philosophy raises interesting and important questions about nominalism and realism in the fourteenth century, and their relationship.

I also have strong research interests in the philosophy of religion (religious epistemology, issues of divine aseity) and the philosophy of language (theories of reference, the normativity of meaning), and also in their intersection, namely, the nature of religious discourse. I also focus on the thought of Augustine. I have lately been thinking about the nature of propositions and propositional attitudes, and mental representation more generally.

Current Research

A lengthier discussion of my dissertation and current research interests can be found here.

My dissertation research focused on Walter Burley’s theory of the proposition, and its relation to thought and language. That project included righting many a wrong about his account that I saw in the secondary literature–a project I remain engaged in today! While scholars disagree on which aspect of Burley’s account is central, or how it develops, almost all hold that Burley’s account of propositional content is a fairly standard late medieval account, according to which propositional contents are mental propositions, formed by combining nominal and verbal concepts together. In contrast, I argue that, for Burley, propositions are complex entities composed of things outside of the mind (such as Socrates and the property of wisdom) and are structured by the mind’s predicating one thing of another, such that propositional content is constituted by the referents of expressions in natural and mental language. The mind’s predicating one thing of another is, for Burley, the exercise of a capacity of the mind to conceive of things’ being identical to or different from each other in some respect: for example, to conceive of Socrates’ being identical to wisdom (or, what amounts to the same thing for Burley, to conceive of Socrates’s being wise). Consequently, for Burley, the truth-aptness of a proposition is not primitive; rather it is explained in terms of the exercise of a mental capacity to represent. Besides providing a more satisfying reading of the relevant texts, I believe this account reveals Burley is be a highly innovative philosopher of language and mind. It provides an account of propositional content that we can find motivated and compelling even today; indeed, theories of propositional content have recently been proposed by Scott Soames, Fredericke Moltmann, and Peter Hanks.

Burley’s theory of the proposition, besides its intrinsic philosophical interest, sheds significantly light on other areas of his philosophy, and the implication of the theory for these other areas demand most of my research attention today. For example, Burley’s account of the relationship of the mind’s exercise of an ability to represent in a propositional manner to the proposition itself evolves significantly over the course of his career. My own view is that that evolution, while motivated by the fact that earlier versions of the theory require a suspect metaphysics, requires a significant change in Burley’s articulation of the correspondence theory of truth. Likewise, Burley’s commitment to mental language—that is, the thesis that the mind is able to make statements out of its concepts—can’t be meant to give an account of the metaphysics of the proposition, as it does with many of his contemporaries, nominalist and realist alike. Rather, I argue that it serves as a response to certain criticisms of his philosophy of science. And, finally, his account of the proposition—and his more general commitment to referentialism—have immediate implications for his metaphysics. In particular, it becomes clear that his commitment to the reality of universals in the second half of his career is in fact motivated entirely by his semantic commitments, and (unlike other realists in the medieval period) not also by a metaphysical concern about the natures of things, explaining why things are the kinds of things that they are. Consequently, but for semantic and epistemic considerations, Burley appears to have been happy to accept the ontology of his nominalist colleagues.