(1) Leibniz and the history and philosophy of the life sciences in the early modern period; (2) The history and philosophy of anthropology and the problem of human diversity in the 17th and 18th centuries; (3) Early modern global expansion and its consequences for European natural philosophy; (4) Methodology of the history of philosophy; (5) Philosophy of history naturalized; (6) Comparative history of philosophy, with especial attention to Europe and India.
(1) Since completing my Ph.D. in 2000, I have principally been interested in the intersection between philosophy and the life sciences in the 17th and 18th centuries. The medical, anatomical, and life-scientific writings of G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) have served as an important point of access for me to this subject, and my research on them has recently culminated in a book entitled Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (Princeton University Press, 2011). At the same time as I have used Leibniz's work to seek to understand a cluster of questions in the history and philosophy of the life sciences (e.g., the concepts of organism and of biological individuality, the ontology of species, and the problem of functional teleology), I have also attempted to unravel some interpretative questions about Leibniz's broader philosophical project by approaching it from the perspective of his life-scientific concerns. These questions include that of the ontological status of corporeal substance within his mature philosophy (c. 1696-1716); the nature of his commitment to a modified version of the mechanical philosophy, which makes room for final-causal explanation; and the domain-specificity of his nominalism. Some of the issues that interest me in Leibniz's contribution to the philosophy of the life sciences have implications for current philosophy of biology, though for the most part I have so far only pointed the way to possible applications of his work in this area, rather than executing the application myself.
(2) Out of my work in the history and philosophy of the life sciences I have developed a parallel research interest in the history and philosophy of anthropology. In particular, I am concerned with understanding how the universalist model of the human race gave way over the course of the early modern period to a fractured picture of humanity, now conceptualized in terms of distinct 'races' existing in hierarchical relations the ones to the others. In my current book project, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Early Modern Philosophy in Global Context (under contract with Princeton University Press), one of my central concerns is to treat the emergence of physical anthropology and of a 'science' of human difference, which comes into full view with the work of Blumenbach and also to some extent of Kant, as an important shift in the history of that quintessentially philosophical question, Quid sit homo? Although my work on the history and philosophy of the concept of race is methodologically in continuity with my earlier work on the history and philosophy of the life sciences, here I am also interested in applying insights from cognitive science and from cognitive anthropology about the possible inborn constraints on the perception of human diversity, which may exist quite apart from what science since the mid-20th century has uniformly reported about the irreality or superficiality of racial difference. In this research, I am only minimally in contact with scholars working in the field of race theory, though I expect there is more potential for cross-pollination than has so far been realized.
(3) In the same book project, as well as in other venues, I am interested in accounting for the ways in which early modern global intercultural encounters led to the emergence of global knowledge networks, and in turn in the way these came to impact many of the central debates of European natural philosophy. Again, here, as in (1) and (2) above, I remain particularly interested in the problem of natural kinds, of the boundaries between kinds, and the understanding of the ontology of these boundaries. In global knowledge networks in the early modern period, the problem of natural kinds and the boundaries between them erupted onto center stage as a result of the rapid intensification of encounters with new and unfamiliar species of plants and animals, as well as with new and unfamiliar cultures. These developments have a direct echo in, e.g., the work of Locke on nominal vs. real essences, or of John Ray or Joachim Jungius on, variously, the fixity or malleability of species. In this work, I am consciously straddling the boundary between research in the history of philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, recent scholarship in the history and philosophy of science.
(4) Working as I do at the boundary of different scholarly traditions, I have inevitably been drawn into reflections on the nature of traditions, and on the grounds of the distinctions between them. I have defended, and continue to defend, a thoroughgoing contextualist approach to the sources of what we know about the history of philosophy. This approach manifests itself in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, it has convinced me of the value of paleographical work, and of dedicating oneself, at least for part of one's career, to the task of producing critical editions of historical texts based on manuscripts and on the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of authorial intentions. In this connection I am currently working on a critical edition and translation, together with François Duchesneau, of G. E. Stahl's Negotium otiosum, seu Skiamachia (Halle, 1720; edition and translation to appear from Yale University Press, 2012). Moreover, this approach has brought me into open and fruitful debate among my peers in the history of philosophy about the value of history-of-philosophy scholarship for current philosophy. This debate is now issuing in an edited volume for Oxford University Press, bringing together many of the most prominent scholars of early modern philosophy, on the methodological foundations, on the aims, and on the relevance to contemporary philosophy, of the work we do.
(5) Reflection on methodological questions in the history of philosophy has brought me, in turn, to the gradual awareness of an interest in the philosophy of history, even if this is tempered by a fundamental dissatisfaction with the best-known approaches within this sub-discipline (e.g., Hegel, Collingwood). In recent work, including my own contribution to the Oxford volume mentioned in (4) above, I am attempting to sketch out a naturalistic philosophy of history, which takes its cue more from recent important work on the philosophy of evolutionary theory (e.g., Elliott Sober), the philosophy of archaeology (above all, Alison Wylie), as well as from some work in archaeology itself (e.g., Bruce Trigger on the reconstruction of early civilizations). In this work, I am attempting to sketch out a view of history that displaces the text from its position of central importance, and instead embeds human history --which includes intellectual history-- within a broader context of material culture, ecological history, and natural history in the broad sense. In general, I am interested in the question of what it is we take ourselves to be doing when we set about 'reconstructing the past' (to use Sober's phrase), what our epistemological grounds for claims about the past are, and what our grounds for separating one sort of claim about the past (e.g., a text-based one) from another sort (e.g., one based on fossil evidence).
(6) Relatedly, I am interested in the comparative study of the emergence of philosophy in history as a feature of a particular kind of society (literate, textual, stratified). I am interested in investigating the conditions under which an activity that resembles what we think of as philosophy emerges, and I have come to think of this investigation as the best way of going about answering that most fundamental question, What is philosophy? In order to know what philosophy is, I have come to believe, one should study the conditions of its genesis, and its subsequent developmental history, in more than one historical and geographical context. To this end, since 2009 I have been learning Sanskrit and studying the philosophical traditions of ancient India, and in the Winter of 2012 I will be teaching a graduate seminar on classical Indian logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. Within the next five years, I aim to begin publishing research in this field.