Dissertation Abstract | Works in Progress | Upcoming Projects

I am developing accounts of some ancient philosophical approaches to the following questions: (1) What kind of value does education have, and, in particular, what role do knowledge and learning play in the life of the educated person? (2) What motivations should educators have for educating others? (3) What is the appropriate response, on the part of the student, to the educator?

My current and future projects focus on Plato’s response to the first two questions and Seneca’s response to the third, and eventually I hope to expand my research to other ancient figures. The overarching aim of my work is to draw attention to the novel responses that Plato, Seneca, and other ancient philosophers had developed to some of the special ethical and axiological questions that arise in education. I am also developing two contemporary projects that explore how the insights of these thinkers can help us address all three questions outlined above.

Dissertation Abstract

Learning Virtue: The Value of Knowledge and Learning in Plato

Socrates famously claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” My dissertation provides an account of why Socrates thinks this claim is true. On the basis of close-readings of four of Plato’s dialogues (the Laches, the Protagoras, the Meno, and the Euthydemus), I show that Socrates relies on observations about the nature of skill (technē) to give both instrumental and non-instrumental arguments for the value of knowledge and philosophical inquiry. Although Socrates’ reliance on skills as paradigmatic cases of knowledge might suggest that he accords knowledge and philosophical inquiry only instrumental value, I argue that Socrates’ account of skill also gives him the resources to show that philosophical inquiry and the knowledge it ideally results in both have final value.

Link to longer abstract (PDF).

Works in Progress

“The Euthydemus on the Value of Philosophizing”

Abstract. Why does Socrates remain committed to philosophical inquiry despite the fact that it has not (so far) yielded knowledge? I argue that Plato’s Euthydemus offers a defense of the value of inquiry that explains Socrates’ optimism. The arguments of the Euthydemus show that engagement in philosophical inquiry is an expression of a kind of knowledge; they also show that engagement in skillful activity has final value for knowers; thus, engagement in philosophical inquiry is valuable for the philosopher even when the inquiry fails to achieve its aim. [*This paper is at an advanced stage: I am happy to provide a draft upon request.]

“The Discipline of Virtue: Learning and knowledge in the Protagoras

Abstract. Scholars have debated whether the arguments Socrates gives in the Protagoras are supposed to show that the virtues are identical with a single kind of knowledge (knowledge of good and bad) or with mutually entailing kinds of knowledge. I argue that Socrates’ arguments do not support either of these claims. All they show is that virtue is (some kind of) knowledge. Recognizing this brings into focus Socrates’ central goal in the Protagoras: showing that knowledge has non-instrumental value with respect to virtue. [*This paper is at an advanced stage: I am happy to provide a draft upon request.]

“Seneca on Education and Gratitude”

Abstract. A number of passages in Seneca’s De Beneficiis (DB) and Epistulae Morales (EM) suggest that Seneca considers education to be a benefit (beneficium) and thus that students owe their teachers gratitude. However, Seneca appears to be uncertain about what the object of the student’s gratitude is: is it the education the student has received or the manner in which it was bestowed? I argue that Seneca’s uncertainty is due to a tension between his view that in general the object of gratitude is not the thing given but rather the good intentions of the giver and his view that education (especially an education in philosophy) has immense value. I claim that, at least in the case of education, Seneca needs a different account of the object of gratitude: it is not just education and not just the manner in which the education is given that is the object of gratitude; it is rather “education’s being given in a certain manner.”

“A Mysterious Case of Mistaken Identity: Hume’s account of belief in body”

Abstract. This paper is on Hume’s account of the coherence and constancy of our impressions, and how they yield belief in the continued existence of body (in Treatise 1.4.2). I argue that while scholars are right to think that Hume has a unified explanation of belief in body at his disposal, they are wrong to think that this explanation should be made in terms of causal reasoning plus the galley mechanism. My central claim is that all cases of coherence and constancy that give rise to belief in body involve a mistaken opinion of identity. [*This paper is at an advanced stage: I am happy to provide a draft upon request.]

Upcoming Projects

The motivations of educators. My main historical project after my dissertation will be a series of articles that explore how my interpretation of the account of knowledge and inquiry in Plato intersects with his portrayal of the educator’s motivations. In my dissertation, I argued that education in Plato is frequently treated as a matter of expertise while the educator is treated as an expert, someone who is skilled at making others virtuous. However, when experts exercise their skills on behalf of others, they typically do so for some kind of remuneration (e.g. money). Plato’s conception of the educator thus raises an important question about the educator’s motivation: what moves (or should move) the educator to make others virtuous? Is self-interest a permissible motivation? What about a sense of obligation or necessity? What is required for an educator to count as educating others for their own sake? The first two articles in this series will be case studies of the portrayal of the educator in the Symposium and the Republic. In the third article, I will turn to the enigmatic practice of Socrates himself.

A contemporary project on the value of knowledge and inquiry. Many people are engaged in inquiries that aim at the acquisition of knowledge or understanding of the world around them. Some of them will make great advances in their fields, but equally some will devote their lives to projects that fail to bear epistemic fruit. What should we say about such people? Have such people failed or is there a sense in which they can be said to have succeeded? If they have succeeded, in virtue of what have they been successful? My interpretation of Plato and Socrates on the value of philosophical inquiry offers us a philosophically rich explanation of what makes such a life valuable, one that grounds the value of inquiry in the value of skillful action. One of my long-term contemporary projects is to defend a Socratic account of inquiry, according to which learning and inquiry are valuable both because they enable us to acquire knowledge and because, when properly systematized, they are themselves ways of knowing.

A contemporary project on educational motivation and response. I will argue that the motivations appropriate to the educator and the attitudes appropriate to the student (in relation to the educator) depend on what kind of occupation the enterprise of education is (or is taken to be by its practitioner). I will first develop an account of education as an occupation, focusing on differentiating two important kinds of occupation: vocations (e.g. pastoring) and professions (e.g. banking). I will argue that education is, first and foremost, a vocation, but that it can also be practiced as a profession. I will also argue that it is permissible for educators to practice education either as a vocation or as a profession. However, educators are only owed gratitude if they are practicing education as a vocation.

[pictured: an art installation in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, CA]