About

Ancient Philosophy, Ethics, Normative Epistemology

Katja Vogt by Jens Haas
Photo by Jens Haas

My current research is in the philosophy of action, ancient and contemporary. I’m writing a book, entitled Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory, where I take issue with prominent trends in Aristotle-inspired accounts, which seem to me to work with an impoverished conception of the ways in which agents figure out what to do. I argue that a compelling version of the Guise of the Good must account for inter-related motivation on three levels: the largest-scale motivation to have one’s life go well, the motivation of pursuits, and the motivation of small-scale actions. I aim to show in which sense it may be true that human beings are “the measure” such that this is not a relativist proposal, but an insight about the nature of ethics.

In 2016/17 and 2017/18 I will devote a considerable amount of time to Imagination and Agency, funded by the Templeton Foundation and part of a larger project on Happiness and Well-Being. Contemporary action theorists tend to neglect a dimension of decision-making that is the subject of extensive empirical research: imagination. Figuring out what to do, I argue, is not entirely a matter of weighing reasons. It involves what I call imagination-tests: envisaging oneself in possible future scenarios. I aim to clarify the dictum that deliberation is about the possible and to account for trying to achieve what one does not antecedently know to be possible. I argue that what I call Agency Imagination is a distinctive kind of imagination, that one can be good at it, and that representing positive future scenarios affects present and future well-being.

A related, long-term project is entitled Ignorance and Action. Discussions of ignorance and action often presuppose that we have a good grasp of what ignorance is. Against this, I argue that we can make progress in epistemology, action theory, and philosophy of law by thinking about the nature of ignorance. A first paper, co-authored with Jens Haas (who comes to this from the perspective of legal theory) and entitled Ignorance and Investigation was published in (2015). We defend two premises. First, ignorance is absence of knowledge, not lack of knowledge as it is often assumed. Second, normative considerations call for a distinction between kinds of ignorance, which our wider and less pejorative notion of ignorance can accommodate.

In my recent book Belief and Truth: A Skeptic Reading of Plato (2012), paperback (2015), I defend a perspective on ignorance, belief and knowledge, and truth that is inspired by ancient skepticism. The core of ancient skepticism, I propose, is a commitment to on-going investigation. This commitment seems attractive to me: the methods and intuitions of ancient skepticism are close to how we do philosophy today.

I have published on ancient skepticism, Plato, Stoic philosophy, and ethics. I am the author of the SEP articles on Ancient Skepticism and on Seneca, and the editor of Pyrrhonian Skepticism in Diogenes Laertius: Pyrrho (DL 9.61–116). Text and Translation (Greek-English) with Commentary and Essays (SAPERE Vol. XXVII, 2015).

My first book Skepsis und Lebenspraxis (1998) was reissued as a paperback in (2015). It discusses skeptical belief, language, and action (abstract in English, pdf). In a new final chapter, I offer a sketch of research on skepticism since the book’s first publication. I also formulate 20 premises that summarize the views on skepticism that I hold today. One theme from my early work is as of yet under-represented in my publications: the skeptics’ language. I’m planning to get to this soon. The skeptics, on my reconstruction, invent a language in which one doesn’t assert anything that one doesn’t know. My second book Law, Reason, and the Cosmic City (2008), paperback (2012) looks more closely at the philosophy of the most forceful ancient critics of skepticism, the Stoics. Though I think that the Stoics lose against the skeptics as far as epistemological questions are concerned, I consider their ethical outlook and conception of reason eminently interesting.