Research and Scholarship

My research falls into three related areas: Russian Philosophy and Psychology, Concepts of the Self, and Moral Philosophy. Recently, I have woven these three areas of research together in work on the philosophy of education.

1. Russian Philosophy and Psychology

When I first became interested in Russian thought, I was struck by a remarkable gap in the philosophical literature. While there existed a few sovietological surveys of Russian Marxism that aspired to chronicle the ideology of the alien superpower, there was no reliable history of the philosophy of the Soviet period, nor was there a book that conveyed what Soviet philosophical culture was like from the inside. I set out to remedy this lacuna in my doctoral dissertation, and in my subsequent book, Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy (Cambridge, 1991). To capture the insider’s perspective, I focused on the work of a particular figure, Evald Ilyenkov, who was instrumental in the rejuvenation of the Soviet philosophical tradition after Stalin. Evald IlyenkovAlthough Ilyenkov had committed suicide in 1979, I had good contacts among his friends and colleagues, who introduced me to the oral culture that sustained philosophical inquiry in the Soviet era. With their help, I was able to set Ilyenkov’s contribution against the background of the bitter debates that divided Soviet philosophers in the 1920s, the “socio-historical” psychology of Vygotsky and his followers, controversies over Lenin’s philosophy, and the legacy of Stalinism. I explored Ilyenkov’s vision of Marxism, his passionate critique of reductionism and naturalism in the philosophy of mind, and his tense relationship with the Soviet philosophical establishment. 

The book was well received and I was gratified to be invited to contribute entries on Russian philosophy to a number of prominent reference works, including The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and The Cambridge History of Philosophy. Since its publication, I have continued to explore the scope and limits of Ilyenkov’s thought, the philosophical significance of Vygotsky’s ideas, and related themes. My most recent work in this area is my paper “Il’enkov’s Hegel” in Hegel in Russia, a special issue of Studies in East European Thought, which I edited with Ilya Kliger (NYU).  

2. Concepts of the Self

Consciousness and Revolution stimulated interest among scholars in cognate disciplines – such as Psychology, Communication, and Education – who were drawn to the theory, advanced by both Vygotsky and Ilyenkov, that the appropriation of culture is a precondition of the development of our distinctively human mental capacities. I therefore began to explore similar arguments in the work of a number of Western thinkers, particularly Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor, and John McDowell. These and other views are debated in the collection, The Social Self (Sage, 1995), which I edited with Christine Sypnowich. Contributors included Jerome Bruner, Ian Hacking, and Adam Swift.

jerome brunerCollaborating with Bruner on this project led me to a sustained examination of his work, which issued in another volume, edited with Stuart Shanker: Jerome Bruner: Language, Culture, Self (Sage, 2001). Contributors included Howard Gardner, Clifford Geertz, and Michael Tomasello. Such edited collections are an excellent vehicle for interdisciplinary work, as the contributors can write from their respective disciplinary perspectives while the editors weave the individual essays into a meaningful dialogue of contrasting approaches.

My concern with questions of self and identity led me to the phenomenon of social or collective memory. I engaged in a collaborative project on this topic with colleagues from Spain and Italy, resulting in the publication of a volume of essays in Spanish and Italian editions in 2000. I have also explored questions of personal identity in more analytic mode in articles devoted to the conception of personhood in the works of Wittgenstein and David Wiggins.

3. Moral Philosophy

My interest in moral philosophy derives in part from my belief that philosophy should illuminate life, enhance self-understanding, and further well-being. But more particularly, my work on the relation of culture and mind forces me to consider the nature of normativity and the strengths and weaknesses of naturalistic approaches in philosophy and psychology. This in turn motivates a concern with the nature of ethical reasons and the place of moral values in the world. I have published several papers on ethical themes, focusing especially on “moral realism”, the idea that ethical reasons are genuine features of reality to be discovered, and “ethical particularism”, the view that moral decision-making cannot be reduced to the following of rules but must essentially involve the exercise of creative judgement. In the most recent of these writings, I have been concerned with the formation of moral character and the development of ethical sensibility. These issues are represented in the collection, Thinking about Reasons: Themes from the Philosophy of Jonathan Dancy, which I edited with Brad Hooker and Margaret Olivia Little,  and which was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

4. Philosophy of Education

In recent years, my work in all three of these areas has come together in research on topics in philosophy of education. This is reflected in my 2011 book, The Formation of Reason (Wiley-Blackwell) and in a number of other recent writings, including a papers on the social epistemology of teaching and learning, and my recent Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture on “Training, Transformation, and Education” (podcast at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXeF7kxZ8xM).
In 2013, I was awarded funds by the Spencer Foundation for the project Education, Conversation and New Learning Technologies.  This includes the production of a volume on conversation and learning, edited with my colleague, Paul Fairfield.  The book will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.

For the 2015-16 academic year, I have been granted a Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain 50th Anniversary Research Fellowship to support the writing of a sequel to The Formation of Reason.

I say a little more about my philosophical interests in a 2013 interview with 3am magazine.