My work has always been deeply interdisciplinary, but I remain first and foremost a philosopher. My approach to philosophy draws significantly on scholarship in the domain of HPS, which usually abbreviates 'History and Philosophy of Science'. I prefer to read the abbreviation as 'History of Philosophy and Science', since the conjunct on this latter reading in fact denotes the variety of inquiry that for much of history was conceptualized as natural philosophy. I study the problems and controversies of natural philosophy in 17th-century Europe, and have focused in particular on the relationship between the experimental life sciences and philosphical reflection in that period. Much of my work has focused on this relationship in the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Increasingly in my work, I am investigating questions at the intersection between natural philosophy on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other, focusing particularly on the way philosophical ideas about the nature of human diversity, and about the nature of the human-animal divide, have played a role in conceptions of the boundaries of political community. Finally, in my recent work I am developing a metaphilosophical approach, which draws heavily on approaches borrowed from anthropology, to the study of the nature of philosophical inquiry. I am seeking to answer the questions, What constitutes a philosophical culture? What are the historical and social conditions in which such a culture emerges? Is 'philosophy' a proper noun describing a tradition that descends from Greek antiquity? Or is it something that emerges independently in a number of different 'advanced' civilizations? Or is it something in which all human beings engage qua human beings? A significant motivation for this recent work is my commitment to transforming the current understanding of the discipline of philosophy: providing a rigorous, historically well-grounded intellectual basis for the de-Eurocentrization of philosophy, a desideratum that is often affirmed, even as it proves exceedingly difficult to bring about.
In addition to various edited volumes and translations in progress, I currently have five book projects in various stages of completion. Three of these books are currently under contract. All will appear between 2014 and 2020.
1. Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: The Concept of Race in Early Modern Philosophy (under contract with Princeton University Press, to appear 2014). In this book I seek to expose the full intellectual background that made modern racial realism possible in general, and that also made the particular racial distinctions between, e.g., blacks and whites, possible. It is my hypothesis that a crucial feature of the emergence of the modern race concept was the collapse of a certain universalism about human nature, which had been sustained by a belief in the transcendent essence of the human soul, and this belief's gradual but steady replacement over the course of the early modern period by a conception of human beings as natural beings, and thus as no less susceptible to classification in terms of a naturalistic taxonomy than any other natural being, plant or animal or mineral. The peculiarly modern ontologization of human difference, then, was made possible by the rejection of human nature, and the parallel insertion of humans into nature.
2. The Philosopher: A Short History (under contract with Princeton University Press, to appear 2015). This, book written for a popular audience, will survey the history of the various self-conceptions of philosophers in different historical eras and contexts. That is, it will seek to uncover the different ‘job descriptions’ attached to the social role of the philosopher in different times and places. It will include some autobiographical interjections, but the principal purpose will be to enrich our current understanding of what the project of philosophy is, or could be, by uncovering and critically examining lost, forgotten, or undervalued conceptions of the project from philosophy’s distinguished past.
3. A Global History of Philosophy, to 1750 (under contract with Princeton University Press, to appear 2017). This is not a 'multicultural redux' of the famous surveys of the history of philosophy from, e.g., Russell or Copleston. Rather, it is a comparative examination --drawing significantly on the work of historical and cognitive anthropologists, classicists, Sinologists, Indologists, and experts in other fields-- of the historical development of philosophical cultures. The polemical goal is to give an account of the history of philosophy in which non-Europeans do not simply show up as supporting characters, but indeed in which the basic elements of philosophy --abstraction, speculation, dialectic, an appearance-reality distinction-- are shown to be far more universal than is acknowledged in the canon-based conception of philosophy that currently dominates academic curricula. This book is a huge undertaking, and in it I rely heavily on the expertise of other scholars, particularly specialists in Chinese and in Arabic philosophy. I draw on my own work on Indian philosophy, which I began in 2008 and in which I am now relatively proficient, alongside my specialization in early modern European philosophy.
4. By Sweet Fellowship with Men: Towards a Political Philosophy of Animal Domestication. In this work I take off from Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka's groundbreaking 2011 book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. The authors argue compellingly that animal-rights theory is limited to the extent that it only emphasizes negative rights of 'animals', a category that is conceived as universal and without any distinctions of moral significance within it. They argue instead that theorists would do well to focus on relational obligations that human beings come to have to animals that figure in different ways in human society. What Donaldson and Kymlicka do not do is to provide an account of the historical development of the human institutions in which animals figure. Drawing on the research on the origins of ancient civilizations, undertaken in connection with my work on #3 above, I provide an account of animal domestication that places it within the history of the development of political systems and institutions. In particular, I argue that it cannot be understood without a parallel consideration of the emergence of institutions such as private property and slavery. I aim to show, finally, that such a genealogy has broad implications for our understanding of the current system of meat production, one which most agree is at least seriously problematic if not abhorrent, even as its eradication or transformation continues to seem utopian in the extreme.
5. Three Philosophers of Biology: Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant. In this project I return to my first specialization as a historian of philosophy interested in the crucial role of the life sciences in the development of certain core philosophical problems. Intentionally deploying the anachronistic term 'biology' (which did not come into common usage until after Kant's death), I attempt to show that for all three of these canonical philosophers, questions that we today would consider as 'biological' were in fact at the heart of some of their most central philosophical concerns. In particular, I take Aristotle's idea that biological entities are capable, thanks to sexual reproduction, of eternity "in kind if not in number," as a sort of leitmotif that shows up in Leibniz's commitment to "unity in multiplicity," which again is articulated by Kant in terms of the "unity of the generative power." Throughout, I aim to show that for much of the history of philosophy, biology may properly be seen as the foundational science of nature, a fact that is still evident at the end of the 18th century, and that is only subsequently obscured by a historiography that gives pride of place to mechanical physics.
I am currently working on three major translation projects (Latin to English):
1. The Leibniz-Stahl Controversy, with François Duchesneau (forthcoming, Yale University Press, 2014).
2. Pierre Gassendi's Physics: Part II of the Syntagma Philosophicum, with Rodolfo Garau (under consideration at Oxford University Press).
3. Anton Wilhelm Amo: Selected Works (with Stephen Menn).