What is Philosophical Research?

All researchers look for interesting questions or puzzles and seek to answer them. In all fields of knowledge, being good at research requires knowing enough, and being creative and attentive enough, to find good questions, and knowing enough, and being imaginative and hard-working enough, to find good answers. It also requires a willingness to fail, as the more interesting questions tend to be the hardest to answer. 

In philosophy, just about any question or puzzle is potentially fair game. If the question can be answered quickly and easily by some empirical research or simple testimony, we will pass on it. (We won't, however, pass on the questions about what makes a question empirically tractable, or what counts as good empirical research or testimony, or why and how good empirical research and testimony manage to answer the empirically tractable questions.) But some of the big questions that are not clearly answerable by empirical study are the bread and butter of philosophical research: questions about what really exists and how existing things relate to each other, questions about what we are and how we should live, and questions about how, if at all, we can come to know and perhaps to understand these things.

Most philosophers spend most of their time thinking about more delimited versions of these questions. I'm primarily an historian of philosophy, which means that most of my research most directly concerns what some past philosophers have said. But this historical, interpretive research is not divorced from more direct philosophical research. Our best answers to the best questions are identified only in relation to other possible answers and questions. Historical work contributes to our grasp of what the possible questions and answers are.

The methods of philosophical research are primarily thinking, reading, writing, and conversation. But its ultimate goal, despite how narrowly our research can be focused, is ambitious. I like Wilfrid Sellars' way of summing it up, on the first page of "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man:"

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under 'things in the broadest sense' I include such radically different items as not only 'cabbages and kings', but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to 'know one's way around' with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, 'how do I walk?', but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.

Why do I do Philosophical Research?

I do philosophical research because I love to do it and because it is a big part of my job. (I'm one of those lucky people who really loves [most of] my job.) Research is part of my job in three overlapping ways.

First, I work at a research university, and research universities exist to foster knowledge and understanding, on the grounds that knowledge and understanding are worth having. So it's part of my job to contribute to what we human beings know and understand. I do research on some particular questions just because we (I mean we human beings) don't yet have a satisfactory understanding of them and having a satisfactory understanding of them would be worth having. The questions I settle on count as "my research projects," and every academic at a research institution has at least one active "research project." Hiring and promotion at research universities depends primarily on the success of these research projects, as judged by the researchers' peers.

Second, my job involves a lot of teaching and advising of students, both undergraduate and graduate. Some of this teaching overlaps heavily with one or another of my research projects, but most does not. Research tends to be more specialized than most courses. Also, some of my teaching involves guiding students who are doing their own research projects. So I have to do a lot of reading, thinking, writing, and conversing to be an effective teaching and advisor, both in general and before most class-sessions and advising meetings.

Third, much research is collaborative, and I do a lot of research on some other questions to collaborate with other philosophers. Much of this collaboration takes the form of critique, as a tremendous amount of an academic's job is assessing the work of others—commenting (on work in progress), refereeing (submissions for publication), reviewing (already published material), and evaluating applications (for graduate admission, faculty hiring and promotion, and grant-giving). But some of the collaboration is more convivial and less stressful than this, as, say, in a reading group that explores some text together or at a conference where people are presenting their work in progress. I'm hardly alone in this, but I really enjoy these reading groups and conferences, as difficult as it can be to squeeze them into a long list of other commitments. 

Since 1997, I have convened one of those reading groups, the St. Louis Area Group Reading Ancient Philosophy (SLAGRAP). We've read a lot of Plato (and some pseudo-Plato): the Alcibiades I, Charmides, Clitophon, Cratylus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Ion, Menexenus, Philebus, Protagoras, Republic X, Sophist, Statesman, Theages, and Theaetetus. But we've also read some Aristotle (Politics I, Nicomachean Ethics VIII-IX, Eudemian Ethics VII), the Aristotelian Magna Moralia, some fragments of Empedocles, Epictetus' Encheiridion, Epicurus' Kuriai Doxai and Letter to Menoeceus, Stobaeus' excerpts from treatises on marriage by a Stoic Antipater (either Antipater of Tarsus or Antipater of Tyre), and Anonymus Londinensis. We also started and aborted Plutarch's Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum. In 2018-2020, we are reading Plato's Timaeus. If you are interested in joining SLAGRAP, email me.

First Research Project: Cosmopolitanism

Ancient Stoics claim that the world as a whole (the cosmos) is like a city (a polis) and that one should live as a citizen of the cosmos. I first became puzzled about these claims as a graduate student, when I was doing a directed study of Cicero's De Officiis one summer with Martha Nussbaum. I wrote an essay on the apparent tension between cosmopolitanism and patriotism in that book, which prompted Nussbaum to share with me the draft of an essay she was writing on Stoic cosmopolitanism. She encouraged me to investigate the Stoics' cosmopolitan claims for my dissertation, and I have been investigating them, off and on, ever since.

I maintain that the Stoics' cosmopolitan claims have three layers of meaning. First, to live as a citizen of the cosmos is a metaphor for living a good human life. Traditionally, a Greek lives well by living up to the norms of his polis. Chrysippus argues that one should live up to the norms of nature by living in agreement with right reason, which is, as rational coherence, the same as the right reason that governs the cosmos. Later Stoics deflate this metaphor. On their view, citizenship in the cosmos is not earned by agreeing with right reason but is conferred automatically to all human beings, by virtue of our rational nature. Second, the Stoics maintain that living as a citizen of the cosmos is not a mere metaphor because it requires showing what I call "cosmopolitan concern," which is the thought that every human being is worthy of special ethical concern. Stoics differ among themselves about what sorts of feelings and actions cosmopolitan concern requires, and about whether these or those special people (friends, family, compatriots in a local community) deserve special concern beyond cosmopolitan concern. But third, the Stoics argue that cosmopolitan concern entails that one should work to benefit human beings as such, at least in some circumstances. The most interesting evidence for this cosmopolitan beneficence emerges in Stoic discussions of what career a person should take up. They favor political engagement because it can benefit more people, and they typically urge that one could emigrate to engage politically and benefit people more readily. But, again, the Stoics disagree among themselves on whether the consideration to benefit humans as such by a political career needs to be balanced against special considerations to benefit these particular humans because they are compatriots in a local community. I argue that the Stoic texts that urge special obligations to compatriots (Cicero's De Officiis and various works by Seneca) are problematic, and that the Stoic texts that take a stricter line on benefiting humans as such (fragments of Chrysippus, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations) are more promising than most current discussions of cosmopolitanism would seem to predict.

I present my case for these interpretive claims through eleven chapters in:

Stoic Cosmopolitanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). (download a draft of chapter One [pdf])

I have also further explored a couple of Stoic cosmopolitanism's implications elsewhere:

"The Stoic Invention of Cosmopolitan Politics," in the Proceedings of the 2006 Frankfurt conference Cosmopolitan Politics (forthcoming). (download a draft [pdf])

"Cosmopolitans and Unmet Friends," for La philia dans la philosophie d'Aristote, ed. Pierre Destrée (Louvain: Peeters, forthcoming).

Finally, I've tried to relate Stoic cosmopolitanism to some other currents of thought in the following:

"Socrates the Cosmopolitan," Stanford Agora: An Online Journal of Legal Perspectives 1 (2000): 74-87. (link)

"Cynics," in The Routledge Companion to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Frisbee Sheffield and James Warren (London: Routledge, 2013), 399-408. (download a draft [pdf])

"Cosmopolitanism" (co-authored with Pauline Kleingeld),The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2002 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Revised in the Winter 2006 Edition. (link to the current version)

"Hellenistic Cosmopolitanism," A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Mary Louise Gill and Pierre Pellegrin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 549-558.

"The Emergence of Natural Law and the Cosmopolis," in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Political Thought, ed. Stephen Salkever (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 331-363.

"Cosmopolitanism" and "Justice," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 7 vols., ed. Michael Gagarin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2:307-208 and 4:164-166.

Second Research Project: Eudaimonism

Ancient Greek philosophy, at least after Socrates, is first and last obsessed with the question of how one should live. I began taking the ancient Greeks more and more seriously because I thought that what they said about how one should live is more plausible and interesting than modern moral philosophy. So my research and teaching constantly return to the question of how Greek philosophical ethics serves as an alte to modern moral philosophy. In recent years, I have come to be dissatisfied with the standard answer to this question, and much of my research is now focused on redefining Greek ethics as an alternative to modern moral philosophy.

On the standard view, Greek ethics is "eudaimonist," according to which one should act always for the sake of one's own success or happiness (eudaimonia). As this dictum is usually understood, one should act always so as to bring about one's own success. So eudaimonism is an egoistic version of consequentialism. Unfortunately, this construal encourages debates about whether this or that Greek really was a eudaimonist, and it discourages the thought that the Greeks have a plausible alternative to modern moral philosophy. But fortunately, it is a misconstrual of most Greek philosophers' views. Only a few Greeks, Epicurus and some misguided Peripatetics being the plainest examples, subscribed to consequentialist eudaimonism. Most, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, followed Plato's Socrates and argued that because success is nothing but virtuous activity, one should act for the sake of success simply by acting virtuously.

So close, and yet so far. Photo by Irem Kurtsal Steen

I have now drafted about twelve of sixteen planned chapters for a book called The Eudaimonist Alternative, whose first goal is to show that the ancients faced the alternative I just articulated and whose second goal is to illuminate how the Socratic version of eudaimonism is an interesting and viable alternative to modern moral philosophy. The main interpretive claims also appear in

"Contemplative Withdrawal in the Hellenistic Age," Philosophical Studies 137 (2008): 79-89.

Other parts of the project have been aired publicly. I've worked on how Plato, the Cynics, and the Stoics relate to Socrates:

"Socrates the Stoic? Rethinking Protreptic, Eudaimonism, and the Role of the Socratic Dialogues." (download a draft [pdf])

"Cynics," in The Routledge Companion to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Frisbee Sheffield and James Warren (London: Routledge, 2013), 399-408. (download a draft [pdf])

"Socrates in the Stoa," in A Companion to Socrates, ed. Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2006), 275-284.

I've worked on how Plato's dialogues develop and stand by Socratic eudaimonism. In addition to the paper on the Euthydemus just listed and the longer list of papers on the Republic below, see especially the overview in

"Plato on Well-Being," in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being, ed. Guy Fletcher (London: Routledge, 2016), 9-19.

I've tackled Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, too, in

"Wishing for Fortune, Choosing Activity: Aristotle on External Goods and Happiness," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 22 (2006): 221-256. Due to an editorial error, this was originally published without its notes in vol. 21 (2005): 57-81.

I've tried to bolster the case for Epicurus as a consequentialist eudaimonist in

"Epicurus on the Value of Friendship (Sententia Vaticana 23)," Classical Philology 97 (2002): 68-80. (link to article at JSTOR)

"Politics and Society," in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. James Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 179-196.

Finally, I've been giving thought to the challenges that face Socratic eudaimonism as an alternative to modern moral philosophy. See, for instance,

"'Virtue Ethics' and the Problem of Advising Fools." (download a draft [pdf])

Other Research Projects

Much of my work on Stoic cosmopolitanism and eudaimonism concerns the ancient literature dedicated to the choice of a career, which the philosophers agreed to be a choice between politics and private philosophy. This literature is enormously important to ancient ethics, and someone needs to write a good study of it, since the best available, Robert Joly's Genres de Vie, is riddled with errors. Many of the above-listed works already contain much of the necessary homework, including especially chapters seven through ten of Stoic Cosmopolitanism, and I've tackled the issue directly in these two essays:

"False Idles: The Politics of the 'Quiet Life,'" in A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, ed. Ryan Balot (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 485-500.

"Aristotle on the Choice of Lives: Two Concepts of Self-Sufficiency." in THEORIA: Studies on the Status and Meaning of Contemplation in Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Pierre Destrée and Marco Zingano (Louvain-La-Neuve: Peeters), 111-133. (download a draft [pdf])

I mentioned earlier that much of my research is tied to my teaching. Sometimes that research gives rise to published results, too. I teach Plato's Republic more than any other text, and indeed, I would've written a dissertation on it had I not not been talked out of it by Chris Bobonich, who urged me to work in Hellenistic philosophy. But I did sneak some material on the Republic into the first chapter of my dissertation, and in my courses over the years, I have worked on a lot of its puzzles. Here are some fruits of that work:

"Justice and Compulsion for Plato's Philosopher-Rulers," Ancient Philosophy 20 (2000): 1-17.

"Minding the Gap in Plato's Republic," Philosophical Studies 117 (2004): 275-302.

"Plato on the Rule of Wisdom," in Spindel Conference 2004: Ancient Ethics and Politics, ed. Tim Roche (Southern Journal of Philosophy 43 s.v. [2005]), 84-96.

"Ethics and Politics in Plato's Republic," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2003 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Revised version, archived in the Fall 2009 Edition, available here.

"The Unity of the Soul in Plato's Republic," in Plato and the Divided Self, ed. Rachel Barney, Tad Brennan, and Charles Brittain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 253-273. (download a draft [pdf])

Here is another effort that I first lectured in class and then wrote up more formally for conferences:

"Plato on the Unity of Politics (Statesman 258e-259c)." (download a draft [pdf])

Finally, there are some smaller research projects that emerge from the collaborative side of what we do. My work on Epicurus on friendship, listed above, under Eudaimonism, was inspired by an essay I read for a friend, John MacFarlane. Another essay stems from a seminar I participated in as a graduate student in Cambridge:

"A Defense of Plato's Argument for the Immortality of the Soul at Republic X 608c-611a," Apeiron 30,3 (1997): 211-238. Reprinted in Essays on Plato's Psychology, ed. Ellen Wagner (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 297-322.

And there have been book reviews, including

Review of Robert Mayhew, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 99.2.11 (1999). (link)

Review of Morag Buchan, Women in Plato's Political Theory, Ancient Philosophy 22 (2002): 189-193.

Sometimes one is lucky enough to get an attractive invitation to think harder about something one wasn't planning to think harder about. Here are a few on topics I hope to return to:

"Knowing the Whole: Comments on Mary Louise Gill, 'Plato's Phaedrus and the Method of Hippocrates,'" in The Metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, The Fifth Henle Conference in the History of Philosophy, Part II, ed. Scott Berman (The Modern Schoolman 80,4 [2003]), 315-323.

"On Harte on Plato on Parts and Wholes." (download a draft [pdf])

"Even More Aporetic Reflections on Philebus 48a-50b: Comments on Mitchell Miller, 'The Pleasures of the Comic and of Socratic Inquiry: Aporetic Reflections on Philebus 48a-50b.'" (download a draft [pdf])





The first two sections of this page are written for people who are curious about what philosophical research, in general, involves, and why philosophy professors, in general, engage in research.

In the third section, I describe the various research projects that I have been and am working on. But this section is pitched for a broader audience, as an intellectual autobiography, not merely because I am feeling self-indulgent, but also to give an example for current or potential graduate students of how research projects can start and stop. I have included links to drafts of the essays ("pre-prints"), to give a fuller picture of this research, but many of these drafts have been published in revised form. So while I welcome your questions and criticisms of the drafts, please check with the published versions or with me before citing them.

If you want to skip the verbiage here and get to a list of publications with links to the published versions, check out my page at PhilPeople.

If you are curious about what other people have said about some of this research, you might start with the imperfect citation tracker at Google Scholar

I have a page on the commercial website, too, but I don't update it. I maintain my access there only to find some work posted by people who are not well represented at PhilPeople. 

If you have any further questions, don't hesitate to contact me at eabrown AT wustl DOT edu.