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nathan lauffer

Areas of Specialization: Epistemology; Philosophy of Science

Areas of Competence: Ethics; Political Philosophy; Philosophy of Religion; Logic 

Dissertation: Groundwork for a Theory Epistemic Hygiene

My dissertation motivates and applies a concept I call “epistemic hygiene:” one’s epistemic health in the way that one inquires given an interest in a variety of epistemic goods. Whereas some questions about knowledge relate to its nature (is knowledge fallible?) and others relate to its normative role (is knowledge the norm of assertion?), I argue that the norms of epistemic hygiene can help us address a question about the status of knowing itself: why some knowledge is suboptimal from a zetetic and broadly epistemic normative point of view. Equipped with that insight, I offer new angles on both “nature” and “normative role” questions about knowledge. The norms of good epistemic hygiene provide insights on whether knowledge is evidence, the place of knowledge in the theory of inquiry, whether purely statistical evidence is knowledge conducive, the viability of knowledge norms, and the epistemic significance of unpossessed evidence. 

Dissertation Advisors: Baron Reed (Chair), Jennifer Lackey, Sanford Goldberg, Fabrizio Cariani (UMD)

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Susan Bencomo

Research Areas: Ancient Greek philosophy (esp. Plato), ethics, moral psychology

Dissertation Title:  Desire and the Birth of the Self: What Plato’s Theory of Eros Can Tell Us About Value

Desire is perplexing due to its vexing marriage of our activity and passivity.  Further, desires exert an attractive pressure on us— what I call imperatival force— which we take to figure in desire’s role in the explanation of our action.  Some have thought Plato was the first to hold that desires are appearances of goodness, thereby explaining both our passivity and their imperatival force.  This Perceptual Model remains attractive to many today.  My dissertation argues that the Perceptual Model fails as a model of desire, and that Plato’s view differs importantly from it.  In the Symposium, Plato explains imperatival force in terms of the attractiveness of the self we recognize in a desired object.  When we value, we identify ourselves with another object.  This makes sense of desire’s role in our practical identities.  I argue Plato offers a cognitive theory of desire for the good (Erōs), explicated as correct belief (orthē doxa), but also that cognitive states are ultimately explicated as evaluative acts.  Plato offers a theory of valuing that informs his understanding of cognition.  I find this view reaffirmed in the Republic.  While his view that conation and cognition are the same principle is not viable by modern lights, Plato’s theory of the structure of valuing attitudes provides insight into how valuing differs from perception and belief.  Desires stem from valuing attitudes: sui generis, reflexive attitudes in which we do something to ourselves, namely create our selves On this account we are both active and passive. 

Dissertation Advisors:  Richard Kraut and Kyla Ebels-Duggan 




Kasey Hettig-Rolfe 

Research Areas: Kant; 19th-Century Philosophy

Dissertation: "The Transcendental Deduction: A Methodological Reading" 

The Transcendental Deduction is the heart of Kant’s critical epistemology. It is commonly believed to show that certain concepts of ours (viz., the categories) meet up with objects and thus have ‘objective reality.’ But there remains considerable disagreement about how this important argument works. In this dissertation, I argue in favor of a radical reframing of the Deduction. It does not prove that the categories have objective reality, but only that there is only one ground fit for such a proof. This methodological re-reading of the Deduction has two key upshots. First, it makes available new solutions to resilient puzzles about the Critique of Pure Reason; e.g., what is the relationship of the Deduction’s two parts? How do the stages of the Analytic hang together? Second, it vindicates the common intuition that the argument from apperception is unfit to support the kind of conclusions Kant seeks. Finally, it does so while shifting the justificatory burdens typically assigned to the Deduction to the sturdier ground of the System of Principles. 

Hettig-Rolfe, Kasey (2024). Swimming Problems: Hegel, Kant and the Demand for Metatheory. In the European Journal of Philosophy. Forthcoming. 

Hettig-Rolfe, Kasey. Review of François Raffoul, Thinking the Event Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, 2022, pp. 187–189. Link.

Dissertation Advisor: Rachel Zuckert  




Jonathan vandenburgh

Research Areas: Epistemology; Philosophy of Language

Dissertation: "Causal Models, Meaning, and Beliefs"

This dissertation develops a causal theory of the relevant alternatives in a situation and applies this theory to the semantics and epistemology of conditionals, the theory of knowledge, and the epistemology of stereotyping. The first chapter presents the theory, arguing that beliefs are causally structured and that the relevant alternatives in a situation are those consistent with the causal structure. The second chapter applies this theory to the meaning of conditional and counterfactual sentences, developing a semantic framework for conditionals with familiar logical properties. The third chapter argues that how people change their beliefs when learning conditional information depends on the causal background and provides a model for conditional learning. The fourth chapter uses the theory to develop a causal version of the relevant alternatives theory of knowledge, where something can be known only if it is true in all relevant alternative circumstances. The final chapter applies the theory to the epistemology of stereotyping, arguing that stereotypical judgments often rely on false causal models of group differences.

Dissertation Advisors: Sanford Goldberg and Fabrizio Cariani


CARRY Osborne

Research Areas: Epistemology, Social Epistemology, Ethics (Normativity and Responsibility)

Dissertation: "A Social Approach to Doxastic Responsibility"

We often hold one another responsible for our beliefs, even though they do not seem to be within our voluntary control. Rather than being a matter of control, I argue that this responsibility stems from the fact that agents are answerable to a demand for reasons for their beliefs. Responsibility for belief is therefore rooted in the social relations by which we depend on one another in our capacity as believers and the expectations we have of one another given those relations. This approach does better than other contemporary accounts in that it reveals the crucially social and interpersonal dimensions of responsibility for belief, and so allows us to do justice to how this responsibility is connected to our lives as social animals. 

Dissertation Advisor: Sanford Goldberg


Joshua Kissel

Research Areas: Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy
Dissertation: “Realizing Robust and Non-Moralized Freedom: Exit, Democracy, and an Egalitarian Ethos”

I defend an account of social freedom understood as the (robust) absence of (socially remediable) constraints. On this view, one is (completely) free just in case one is subject to no constraint or inability that could be alleviated by another agent. I use this conception of freedom to defend a set of social ideals: strong exit opportunities, democracy in collective institutions, and egalitarian social norms. Each ideal is justified ultimately as a means of limiting the constraints individuals are subject to. Exit and policies like open borders or universal basic income secure our freedom by ensuring we can leave those situations we reject. Democracy, whether in the form of a vote in one’s polity or union representation in one’s place of work, limits the constraints we must undergo in the institutions that are central to the functioning of our collective world. Lastly, the widespread realization of freedom must rely on informal norms that supplement, and sometimes even replace, formal legal mechanisms for the realization of freedom. In particular I argue that even where some individuals enjoy relatively superior status to others, an egalitarian ethos can prevent dominating unfreedom by the more powerful. Such an ethos, at its most powerful, makes it socially impossible to utilize one’s status in inegalitarian ways that would otherwise produce unfreedom in a way reminiscent of how effective sports teams deter ‘ball hogs.’

Dissertation Advisor: Kyla Ebels-Duggan