“Why Do We Have to Read This Stuff? Lessons from Frederick Douglass on the Purpose of Studying History.The New England Journal of History, Volume 77, Issue 1 (Fall 2020):122-132. (pdf) (The publisher’s version is behind a paywall, but I’d be happy to share a pre-publication draft upon request.)

Abstract: Like anyone teaching a required course full of dusty old books, I have to anticipate the many students who will wonder why the study of history matters. Indeed, what value should we as contemporary readers find in such material? To take this question seriously, students must engage with history themselves, in part by reading and reflecting on primary source texts. My favorite text to assign for this purpose is Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” It is brief enough to assign in full and to demand close reading, and it is rich and accessible enough to reward sustained engagement. Its content makes it suitable for inclusion in a wide range of classes or units. It includes literary references, and it is itself a work of literature. It includes a discussion of American history, and it is itself a dynamic piece of that history. It discusses the philosophical foundations of American government and the religious foundations of American Christianity, and it is itself an important contribution to American philosophical and religious thought. But most importantly, this text engages directly with the question of the value of learning about history, and in so doing, it tells us how we can fruitfully read and engage with it as a piece of our own history.

Philosophy Hitherto: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.”Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 85-91. (web) (pdf) (See also Frodeman and Briggle’s response “Toward New Virtues in Philosophy” and my brief reply “Rhetoric and Philosophy, Socrates and the Sophists.“)

Abstract: Early in his career, Karl Marx complained that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Philosophers Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle have recently issued this same complaint against their contemporaries, arguing that philosophy has become an isolated, “purified” discipline, detached from its historical commitments to virtue and to public engagement. In this paper I argue that they are wrong about contemporary philosophy and about its history. Philosophy hitherto has always been characterized both by a concern with practical engagement and by serious misgivings about such engagement. I show that reluctance to engage with practical affairs was a feature of philosophy long before the advent of the modern university and that a wide range of contemporary philosophers are concerned with virtue and public engagement. Finally, I argue that Frodeman and Briggle’s own account of contemporary philosophy makes it unsuitable both as the subject of their title (“When Philosophy Lost Its Way”) and as the object of their call to action.

Free Range Philosophers Web series (2016 – 2017) (website)

Abstract: Free Range Philosophers hosts interviews of people with advanced training in philosophy who are either working outside of traditional academic jobs or engaged in philosophical outreach or other philosophical activities outside of the academic classroom. Interviews are conducted via e-mail and edited for web presentation. In addition to serving as a resource for graduate students and PhDs who are exploring other career options, the hope is that these interviews will help philosophers inside and outside the academy expand our conception of what philosophy is and what it can be.

Derek Bowman on Planescape: Torment.Aesthetics for Birds: 100 Philosophers, 100 Artworks, 100 Words (2016) (web)

Abstract: My contribution to the 100 Philosophers, 100 Artworks, 100 Words series, reflecting on narrative art in the video game “Planescape: Torment.”

Utopian Social Models and the Ideal Theory Debate. [Doctoral Dissertation, Brown University Department of Philosophy] (2013) (pdf)

Abstract: There are serious disagreements about the role of idealization in political philosophy, but the real issues are often obscured by the usual opposition between ‘ideal’ and ‘nonideal’ theories. These limits to the ideal theory debate have been widely recognized. And yet the debate persists because its underlying concerns are vital for determining which features of our social worlds to endorse, which to grudgingly accept, and which to struggle against. This dissertation defends an account of Utopian Social Models as a more nuanced framework for understanding the role of idealization in political philosophy.. On this account normative political theories model desirable ways of responding to salient human problems. In so doing, they raise the Basic Utopian Question: If this represents a better way of living together, why are we not living together in that way? When the utopia is rightly constructed, this question serves to highlight ways in which existing institutions and individuals are failing to live up to normative standards that apply to them. Appropriate idealizations will thus be those that allow the Basic Utopian Question to play this normative diagnostic role. In this way, the framework allows us to replace the conceptual muddle of the current ‘ideal theory’ debate with a more nuanced discussion of which human problems are worth addressing and which actions are worth subjecting to normative evaluation. Chapter 1 lays out the framework. Chapter 2 explains the role of feasibility constraints, arguing that utopian models must present counterfactually workable solutions to real human problems, but that those solutions need not be politically achievable. Chapter 3 shows how a revised account of the ‘circumstances of justice,’ originally found in Hume and Rawls, can be used to identify a number of salient human problems for such models to address. Chapter 4 explains the importance of the agent-role, and shows that even paradigmatic ‘non-ideal’ theories are committed to assuming full compliance on the part of those agents the theory addresses. Finally, Chapter 5 offers a brief conclusion.