Research Summary: Doing History with Concepts

Many historians of philosophy work on people, aiming to illuminate the significance of underappreciated thinkers. I do something similar with concepts. As a historian of philosophy, I am interested in how given occasions in which philosophers appeal to certain concepts force us to acknowledge different ways in which those concepts are and can be used.  Accordingly, I like to describe my approach to doing history of philosophy as ‘doing history with concepts’.


This approach has given me a wide forum for my research so far, enabling me to contribute creatively to diverse literatures on a variety of figures. My publications include essays on Aquinas’s understanding of the causal role of privation; interpretations of Leibniz on unconscious perception; Spinoza’s early thoughts on relations; and C.S. Peirce’s views on the link between predication and intelligibility.


In addition to giving us a finely structured perception of the contents of an individual's thought, doing history with concepts reveals how such an individual maneuvers and controls their thinking. It also makes us aware of how we deploy our own philosophical and interpretive commitments in trying to understand a person’s unique intellectual choreography.


These ideas undergird one of my chief ongoing research projects—understanding Spinoza’s puzzling concept of expression. This is a central concept for Spinoza’s views on intentionality, causation, inherence, power, definition, identity, part-whole relations, and the foundation of ontology. Many have struggled to offer a cogent interpretation of how this idea operates in Spinoza’s thinking and which other of Spinoza’s key concepts it is related to. My 2017 article in Philosophers’ Imprint, “Spinozistic Expression,” seeks to remedy this. In it, I explore overlooked connections between expression and Spinoza’s notion of conceivability. This has led me to uncover a fundamental tenet of his thought: for Spinoza, the ultimate explanation of any fact must appeal to how the underlying natures of things are expressed in nature. There is increasing interest in Spinoza’s views on expression in recent literature, and I hope to write a book—Spinoza: The Metaphysics of Expression—which contributes further to this conversation.


Some of my research also concerns the way in which the structure and use of concepts can be explored as part of the philosophical study of literature and art.  I am currently at work on two papers in this vein. One concerns the way in which George Eliot’s notion of a "balance of separateness and communication" underwrites conceptions of sexual, political, and religious difference as part of a cohesive aesthetic, moral, and political viewpoint in her novel, Daniel Deronda. In tune with this project, I recently served as an assistant editor for the first published edition of George Eliot's translation of Spinoza's Ethics (edited by Clare Carlisle; Princeton University Press, 2019). Another literature-focused paper explores linkages between William Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey" and Psalm 23, uncovering neglected liturgical underpinnings and novel philosophical implications of the poem’s speaker’s nature-inspired musings on personal immortality.

Publications (for a full list, see my CV):


  • "Spinoza on Relations," in A Companion to Spinoza, ed. Yitzhak Y. Melamed (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021).  FinalPenultimate

  • "Brandom's Leibniz," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 102 (2021): 73-102.  FinalPenultimate

  • "On the Causal Role of Privation in Thomas Aquinas's Metaphysics," European Journal of Philosophy 28 (2020): 306-322. Final / Penultimate

  • "Intelligibility and Subjectivity in Peirce: A Reading of His 'New List of Categories'," Journal of the History of Philosophy 50 (2012): 581-610. Final.


   Select Reviews

  • Review of Samuel Newlands, Reconceiving Spinoza (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), British Journal for the History of Philosophy, DOI: 10.1080/09608788.2019.1649246.

  • Review of Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics Proved in Geometrical Order, edited by Matthew J. Kisner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27 (2019): 1243-1247.

  • Review of Michael LeBuffe, Spinoza on Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press), European Journal of Philosophy 26 (2018): 1453-1457.

  • Review of Alexander X. Douglas, Spinoza and Dutch Cartesianism: Philosophy and Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Leibniz Review 27 (2017): 157-67.

  • Review of Mateusz W. Oleksy, Realism and Individualism: Charles S. Peirce and the Threat of Modern Nominalism (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25 (2017).

  • Review of Hazard Adams, The Offense of Poetry (Seattle: University of Washington Press), Modern Language Notes (Comparative Literature Issue) 124 (2009): 1211-15.


Work in progress (under review or in preparation):

  • Ethica more logico demonstrata” (with Justin Bledin and Yitzhak Melamed)

  • "Spinoza's Definition of Faith"

  • "Spinoza on Truth as Authenticity"

  • “Kant’s Twofold Ground of the Distinction between Phenomena and Noumena”

  • “‘The faith that looks through death’: Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and Psalm 23”

  • “Notes on a Neglected Distinction: Ponere and Tollere in Spinoza”

  • “Order’s Discord? The Multiple Resonance of ‘Order’ (Ordo) in Spinoza”

  • “Spinoza and Hobbes on Ingenium

  • “Spinoza on Chimeras, Square Circles, and Beings That, by Virtue of Their Essence, Do Not Exist”

  • “The Priority of Balance: Aesthetics, Morality, and Politics in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda