I’m working on a number of new research projects that include crisis exploitation, experiments in living, and political apathy. In what follows, I’ll focus on outlining an emerging research project that particularly excites me: developing a philosophical theory of what it is for a social tradition to degenerate. This project builds on my longstanding research interests in how philosophical theory relates to defective social practices. But it also breaks into the entirely new territory of exploring traditions. My research uses an interdisciplinary methodology. I bring the tools of analytic philosophy into dialogue with those of critical theory, colonial history, and the literature of Thomas Mann.
Faculty Research Profile
The most obvious way in which a tradition can degenerate is when certain of its features or rituals are detached from their original ends and (re)purposed for new and more problematic functions. This occurred when British officers of the East India company adapted the traditional Mughal ceremony of a durbar. In that ceremony, precious valuables were exchanged for a khelat (a type of ceremonial robe), which symbolized mystical and political incorporation into the rulers’ body. The British retained formal features of the ceremony, such as the donation of precious valuables, but changed its meaning into a form of economic exchange that signified subordination rather than mystical bonding.
I argue that conceptualizing defective practices in terms of the degeneration of a tradition, in this sense, is essential for capturing a distinctive type of injustice. Independent of the relation of colonial subordination that the British ultimately achieved in India, part of the wrongness of their actions consists in the fact that this was (at least partially) brought about by deceptively distorting a tradition that encoded a shared set of cultural and social expectations.
A second more subtle way in which a tradition can degenerate is elegantly captured in Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus. The novel is a reworking of the Faustian myth, in which Adrian Leverkühn, an avant-garde composer, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for artistic power; his ultimate downfall serves as an allegory for Germany’s catastrophic descent into Nazism. Mann enigmatically observes that if something is doomed it must be doomed from the outset. This idea informs his characterization of Leverkühn. His biography is modeled on Nietzsche, whom Mann ultimately came to believe was the source of German irrationalism, which, in turn, was the primary cause of fascism.
I explore different possible interpretations of Mann’s novel, and defend what I term a “genealogical diagnosis interpretation.” Namely, even if we don’t see the breakdown of a traditional social practice as causally determined by its cultural roots, there is value in interrogating the practice’s—even seemingly innocuous—cultural roots once it has broken down. For this holds out the promise of providing a more systematic picture of what is wrong with the degenerated practice. I show how this reading of Doctor Faustus has parallels with some strands of critical race theory. In particular, some critical race theorists have highlighted that when things go wrong it is dangerous to adopt the narrative that antecedently good practices have been corrupted at a certain point by evil actors. This is because such a narrative potentially obscures the deeper cultural and material roots of the breakdown.
Although most of my research focuses on contemporary political philosophy and ethics, my interests in philosophy have always been very broad. I’ve also worked on topics ranging from Plato’s late political philosophy to food aesthetics. Furthermore, I’ve done some interdisciplinary collaborative research on risk assessment in criminal sentencing that draws on empirical data from the state of Virginia. Much of my research is animated by the question of how normative ideals apply in actual political practice that is tainted with social injustice. My early research, which flowed out of my doctoral dissertation, focused on developing a new nonideal theory of justice that applies in unjust societies like the contemporary U.S. This theory hinges on an innovation termed “nonideal principles of justice,” which are forged using a Rawlsian contractualist framework. In contrast to most work on nonideal theory, I connect my theorizing about justice to policy questions such as affirmative action in a contemporary U.S. educational context; in doing so, I fill out the normative content of nonideal theory. This involves drawing on epistemology, economic theory such as statistical discrimination, and sociology in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. More recently I have published on related topics such as how justice applies in conditions of material scarcity. And I’m currently revising a paper that explores how epistemic limitations affect the conception of justice that is valuable in nonideal conditions.
Matthew Adams is an assistant professor of philosophy at Indiana University. Prior to taking up his present position, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in the Center for Ethics in Society. In 2017 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He specializes in political philosophy, ethical theory, and applied ethics.