About

I mainly work on early modern philosophy and history of philosophy of science.

Overall, I'm interested in the points at which systems of thought, practices, etc. break down and fail.

I'm currently alternating between a BOF-funded postdoc at Ghent University, Belgium and a research position within Ursula Renz's project on Spinoza and the human lifeform at Alpen-Adria-University, in Klagenfurt, Austria.

Before that, I was a research fellow at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, working on early modern life sciences and teaching early modern philosophy.

And before that, I did a PhD on Descartes and nonreductionism. It argued that, despite all his commitments to reductionism, Descartes was a nonreductionist about various things, especially biology. I tried to make the point that this isn't just inconsistency on Descartes's part, by arguing for nonreductionism in his epistemology of natural philosophy and, in a certain sense, in his metaphysics (via the union of mind and body).

Headshot

Research

Journal articles

‘Descartes, corpuscles and reductionism: Mechanism and systems in Descartes' physiology’

Abstract

I argue that Descartes explains physiology in terms of whole systems, and not in terms of the size, shape and motion of tiny corpuscles (corpuscular mechanics). It is a standard, entrenched view that Descartes' proper means of explanation in the natural world is through strict reduction to corpuscular mechanics. This view is bolstered by a handful of corpuscular–mechanical explanations in Descartes' physics, which have been taken to be representative of his treatment of all natural phenomena. However, Descartes' explanations of the ‘principal parts’ of physiology do not follow the corpuscular–mechanical pattern. Des Chene has identified systems in Descartes' account of physiology, but takes them to ultimately reduce down to the corpuscle level. I argue that they do not. Rather, Descartes maintains entire systems, with components selected from multiple levels of organization, in order to construct more complete explanations than corpuscular mechanics alone would allow.

‘Descartes and the dissolution of life’

Abstract

I argue that Descartes is not a reductionist about life, but dissolves or eliminates the category entirely. This is surprising both because he repeatedly refers to the life of humans, animals, and plants and because he appears to rely on the category of life to construct his physiology and medicine. Various attempts have been made in the scholarship to attribute a principled concept of life to Descartes. Most recently, Detlefsen (forthcoming) has argued that Descartes ‘is a reductionist with respect to explanation of life phenomena but not an eliminativist with respect to life itself’ (4–5). I show that all these attempts either result in arbitrariness or force Descartes's wider philosophical project into incoherence. I argue that Descartes's ontological commitments make a principled concept of life impossible, that he does not need such a concept, and that his project ends up more coherent without one.

‘Does Descartes have a principle of life? Hierarchy and interdependence in Descartes’s physiology’

Abstract

Descartes repeatedly refers to a ‘principle of life’ and appears to make grand claims for its role in his natural philosophy. These claims have been taken at face value in the literature. This paper argues that there is no single principle underlying the operation of the Cartesian body. I show that Descartes's account of physiology explains the operation of the living body through multiple interdependent systems, with no one system more fundamental than any other. As such, Cartesian physiology is incompatible with a hierarchical conception of a body whose operations are driven by a single underlying principle.

Invited papers

‘The embodied Descartes: Contemporary readings of L'Homme

  • Descartes' Treatise on Man and its Reception, eds Delphine Antoine-Mahut and Stephen Gaukroger (2016, Dordrecht: Springer)
  • With Charles T. Wolfe and Christoffer Basse Eriksen
  • (Book)
  • (Download draft)

Abstract 

A certain reading of Descartes, which we refer to as ‘the embodied Descartes’, is emerging from recent scholarship on L'Homme. This reading complicates our understanding of Descartes's philosophical project: far from strictly separating human minds from bodies, the embodied Descartes keeps them tightly integrated, while animal bodies behave in ways quite distinct from those of other pieces of extended substance. Here, we identify three categories of embodiment in contemporary readings of Descartes's physiology: 1) bodily health and function, 2) embodied reflex and memory, and 3) embodied cognition. All present more or less strong versions of the embodied Descartes. Together, they constitute a compelling reading of a Cartesian natural philosophy that, if not expressly antidualist, is an awfully long way from the canonical picture.

‘Descartes on Psychology and Cognitive Science’

  • The Cartesian Mind, eds Jorge Secada and Cecilia Wee (forthcoming, New York: Routledge)

‘"Everyone knows what life is": Life as an irreducible in Descartes’ biology and metaphysics’

  • Life and Death in Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Susan James (forthcoming 2019, Oxford: OUP)

Abstract 

The literature treats Descartes’s position on life as either reductionist or eliminativist. Here, I argue instead that Descartes treats life as an irreducible notion (but avoids giving it a role in his treatment of biology). This makes sense of some otherwise incongruous claims: Descartes makes explicit, if weak, metaphysical commitments to the existence both of a category of ‘life’ and of specifically living creatures. He appears to recognise life but has no way to account for it reductively. This is a problem for Descartes as long as we take his epistemology to be purely reductionist. However, Descartes’s treatment of the union of mind and body suggests that he can allow nonreductionist knowledge. If we do take him to have nonreductive knowledge of life, then we can consider him as a (very weak) kind of vitalist with respect to life itself, while still being an eliminativist about life when it comes to accounting for the operation of the body.

‘Knowledge for Humans and the Epistemological Role of the Notion of God’s Intellect’

  • The Blackwell Companion to Spinoza, ed. Yitzhak Melamed (forthcoming, Oxford: Blackwell)
  • With Ursula Renz
  • (Commissioned)

Encyclopaedia articles

‘Life, Mechanization of’

  • The Springer Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences, eds Dana Jalobeanu and Charles T. Wolfe (forthcoming, Dordrecht: Springer)
  • (Commissioned)

Translations

Maurice Halbwachs, The Social Frameworks of Memory

  • With Charles T. Wolfe, ed. John Sutton (Forthcoming 2018, Oxford: OUP)