Elijah Millgram

Copyright © 2017 Elijah Millgram.
All Rights Reserved.

Publications -- History of Philosophy

My projects tend to cut across the usual taxonomy of areas of specialization; for instance, work on practical rationality tends to come out as moral philosophy when you're engaging philosophers who are alive, but looks like history of philosophy when they're not. However, I realize that fellow academics often want to find reading matter in a standard subfield (usually the one they are themselves working in). So to make it easier to find a journal article or book chapter that matches a particular AOS, you'll find subheadings for my publications in history of philosophy in the sidebar to the left; below is a quick overview of how they fit together.

I maintain an ongoing research interest in two historical figures, and I am developing an interest in a third.

While history of philosophy has many uses, one of them seems to me to have been largely neglected; I'll appropriate Friedrich Schlegel's term, Characteristic, for what I have in mind, intellectual biography as a mode of philosophical argument (although that wasn't exactly what Schlegel meant by it). A Characteristic is a treatment of the life and work of a figure that exhibits what a philosophical position comes to, by showing how it plays out within a life.

Not every life, or part of one, can be retold as an argument with a philosophical point. But I am proceeding on the working assumption that John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde are, each in their own way, good candidates.

Mill was not only one of the most important and influential philosophers of the nineteenth century, but someone whose life exemplified to a surprising degree a view about the meaning of life that is widespread among both philosophers and nonacademics: that projects are what make your life meaningful, and that if a single project is large enough to occupy center stage in it, that is the meaning of your life. His brilliant career notwithstanding, Mill's life was, as we say nowadays, a train wreck, and the intellectual energy and philosophical ingenuity which he devoted to figuring out what had gone wrong make him a fascinating object lesson.

My second ongoing historical research interest is Friedrich Nietzsche. Analytic moral philosophers today almost all share the view that one's decisions and activities should -- and for the most part do -- make up a coherent and integrated whole. Nietzsche found that he was by no means a unified agent, and his ingenious literary and philosophical constructions were in the first place an attempt to manage a disintegrating personality. Thus Nietzsche poses the deepest philosophical challenge that I know to the widely shared presumption that unified agency is a good thing. I expect that in reconstructing the moves he made, one can make them speak to contemporary work on agency. I have a secondary objective as well. Although Nietzsche has come in for increasing attention within the field, analytic historians of philosophy have still not mastered the knack of reading his work. I hope to make his writing readable to analytic philosophers, which thus far it has not been.

I have also done more traditional work on David Hume, primarily in the service of figuring out his (anti-)theory of practical rationality, and what he thought its upshots were for ethics and politics. Hume is the most powerful philosopher to defend the view that there is no such thing as practical reasoning -- reasoning about what to do -- at all. Even if you don't think he can be right, it's very important for developing a sustainable view of practical rationality to figure out why not.

Finally, I have written on a handful of recent figures, including Bernard Williams and Iris Murdoch, in both cases focusing on their views of rationality. In addition I have discussed Robert Nozick's attempt at constructing a philosophical persona, meant as an alternative to theory, and the consequences of his antimetaphysical treatment of moral status.