Paul Katsafanas

Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy
Boston University


I work in nineteenth-century philosophy and ethics.  My work centers on topics at the interface of ethics and philosophy of mind, including the way in which normative claims might be justified; the nature of self-consciousness; the nature of agency; the notion of drive; and the concepts of free agency and unified agency.

I address these topics in part by mining the work of certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers.  I draw especially on the work of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, arguing that by appropriating and developing aspects of their accounts, we can gain insight into the above topics. 

As these remarks may indicate, I treat the history of philosophy not merely as a subject of antiquarian interest, but as a wellspring of ideas containing the resources to shape debates currently at the forefront of our field.


      Book Reviews




     Agency and the Foundations of Ethics: Nietzschean Constitutivism
          Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Book Page at OUP     Book Page at Amazon
Constitutivism is the view that we can derive substantive normative conclusions from an account of the nature of action. Agency and the Foundations of Ethics explains the constitutivist strategy and argues that the attractions of this view are considerable: constitutivism promises to resolve longstanding philosophical puzzles about the metaphysics, epistemology, and practical grip of normative claims.  Yet constitutivism faces a challenge: it must employ a conception of action that is minimal enough to be independently plausible, but substantial enough to yield robust normative results. The current versions of constitutivism fall short on this score. However, we can generate a successful version by employing a more nuanced theory of action. Drawing on recent empirical work on human motivation as well as a model of agency indebted to the work of Nietzsche, the book argues that every episode of action aims jointly at agential activity and power.  An agent manifests agential activity if she approves of her action, and further knowledge of the motives figuring in the etiology of her action would not undermine this approval.  An agent aims at power if she aims at encountering and overcoming obstacles or resistances in the course of pursuing other, more determinate ends.  These structural features of agency both constitute events as actions and generate standards of assessment for action.  Using these results, the book shows that we can extract substantive normative claims from facts about the nature of agency.


[16]  Nietzsche on the Nature of the Unconscious

Inquiry: Special Issue on Nietzsche's Moral Psychology, forthcoming
Abstract       Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)
This paper argues that Nietzsche develops a novel and compelling account of the distinction between conscious and unconscious mental states: he argues that conscious mental states are those with conceptual content, whereas unconscious mental states are those with nonconceptual content.  I show that Nietzsche’s puzzling claim that consciousness is “superficial” and “falsifying” can be given a straightforward explanation if we accept this understanding of the conscious/unconscious distinction.  I originally defended this view in “Nietzsche’s Theory of Mind” (European Journal of Philosophy, 2005); since then, the view has been critiqued by Brian Leiter, Mattia Riccardi, and others. In this essay, I defend the interpretation in light of these objections.  I provide new textual evidence for the interpretation, show that Nietzsche extracted aspects of the view from Schopenhauer’s work on consciousness, consider the possibility that Nietzsche endorses a higher-order thought theory, and respond to Riccardi’s claim that unconscious thought can be conceptual.

[15]  Nietzsche and Kant on the Will: Two Models of Reflective Agency

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, forthcoming
Abstract       Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)

Kant and Nietzsche are typically thought to have diametrically opposed accounts of willing: put simply, whereas Kant gives signal importance to reflective episodes of choice, Nietzsche seems to deny that reflective choices have any significant role in the etiology of human action. In this essay, I argue that the dispute between Kant and Nietzsche actually takes a far more interesting form. Nietzsche is not merely rejecting the Kantian picture of agency. Rather, Nietzsche is offering a subtle critique of the Kantian theory, denying certain aspects of it while preserving others. On a standard reading, the Kantian theory of willing is committed to three claims: (1) choice causes action, (2) motives do not determine choice, and (3) reflective deliberation suspends the effects of motives. I argue that Nietzsche accepts claims (1) and (2) while denying claim (3). I show that Nietzsche's denial of (3) is premised upon a sophisticated conception of motivation. I contend that Nietzsche's denial of (3) leads him to a new model of reflective agency. This model preserves certain Kantian insights about the nature of self-conscious agency, while embedding these insights in a more complex and arguably more plausible account of motivation. The resultant theory of agency is considerably more sophisticated than has yet been appreciated.

[14]  Autonomy, Character, and Self-Understanding

Character: Multiple Perspectives, Iskra Fileva (ed.), Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Abstract        Paper (draft)

Autonomy, traditionally conceived, is the capacity to direct one’s actions in light of self-given principles or values. Character, traditionally conceived, is the set of unchosen, relatively rigid traits and proclivities that influence, constrain, or determine one’s actions.  It’s natural to think that autonomy and character will be in tension with one another.  In this paper, I argue that this is a mistake: while character influences and constrains choice, this poses no problem for autonomy. However, in particular cases character can affect autonomy by generating a particular kind of influence upon choice.   As a first approximation, character limits autonomy when it influences the agent’s choice in a way that were she aware of it, (1) she would disavow the influence, and (2) the influence could no longer operate in the same way.  Put a bit differently, I argue that character undermines autonomy when it generates reflectively unstable perceptions of warrant.

[13]  Kant and Nietzsche on Self-Knowledge

Nietzsche and the Problem of Subjectivity, João Constâncio (ed.), forthcoming
Abstract        Paper (penultimate draft)

Kant recognizes two distinct forms of self-knowledge: introspection, which gives us knowledge of our sensations, and apperception, which is knowledge of our own activities. Both modes of self-knowledge can go astray, and are particularly prone to being distorted be selfish motives; thus, neither is guaranteed to provide us with comprehensive self-knowledge.  Nietzsche departs from Kant in arguing that these two modes of self-knowledge (1) are not distinct and (2) are far more limited than Kant acknowledges.  In addition, Nietzsche departs from Kant in arguing that we can acquire self-knowledge by looking away from ourselves.  I provide a brief sketch of the ways in which this is so.  In particular, Nietzsche argues that genealogy enables a form of self-knowledge: it helps us to identify some of the subtle factors shaping our actions as well as the influence of our current conceptual repertoires on our perceptions and understandings of our actions.

[12]  The Problem of Normative Authority in Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche

Nietzsche's Engagements with Kant, Vol. I: Ethics, Tom Bailey and João Constâncio (eds.), forthcoming
Abstract       Paper (penultimate draft)

Kant and Hegel agree that normative claims are justified only if they are manifestations of freedom. Yet they develop this idea in strikingly different ways: Kant attempts to derive substantive content from a formal notion of autonomy, whereas Hegel argues that this approach fails.  I argue that Nietzsche develops a theory of normativity that incorporates aspects from both Kant and Hegel.  Like Hegel, Nietzsche denies that Kant can derive any content from the notion of autonomy. However,Nietzsche departs from Hegel in arguing that one norm can be extracted from the bare idea of freedom, independently of any facts about the particular system of values, practices, and institutions that the individual inhabits.  This norm is will to power.  Its connection to freedom and its independence from extant social norms gives it a position outside of our current system of ethical norms, making possible a radical critique of these norms.  Developing these points, I show that Nietzsche develops a theory of normative authority that proceeds, in part, by reconciling the most compelling aspects of the Kantian and Hegelian accounts—aspects that have seemed, to many interpreters, to be incompatible.  This results in a novel account of normative authority.

[11]  Ethical Thought in the Nineteenth-Century

The Oxford Handbook on Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy, Kristin Gjesdal and Michael Forster (eds.), Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Abstract       Paper (penultimate draft)

At the close of the eighteenth century, Kant attempts to anchor morality in freedom.  A series of nineteenth-century thinkers, though impressed with the claim that there is an essential connection between morality and freedom, argue that Kant has misunderstood the nature of the self, agency, freedom, the individual, the social, the natural sciences, and philosophical psychology.  I trace the way in which a series of central figures rethink the connection between morality and freedom by complicating the analyses of the aforementioned notions.  In particular, I discuss Schiller's demand for a unified self; Hegel's attention to the socially and historically situated agent; Feuerbach's and Büchner's turn to natural science; Marx's materialism; Schopenhauer's philosophical psychology; and Nietzsche's attempt to anchor normative demands in will to power.

[10]  Constitutivism and Practical Reasons

The Oxford Handbook on Reasons and Normativity, Daniel Star (ed.), Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Abstract        Paper (penultimate draft)

This paper introduces constitutivism about practical reason, which is the view that we can justify certain normative claims by showing that agents become committed to these claims simply in virtue of acting.  According to this view, action has a certain structural feature – a constitutive aim, principle, or standard – that both constitutes events as actions and generates a standard of assessment for action. We can use this standard of assessment to derive normative claims. In short, the authority of certain normative claims arises from the bare fact that we are agents. This essay explains the constitutivst strategy, surveys the extant attempts to generate constitutivist theories, and considers the problems and prospects for the theory.

[9]  Value, Affect, Drive

Nietzsche on Mind and Nature, Peter Kail and Manuel Dries (eds.), Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Abstract        Paper (penultimate draft)

Nietzsche associates values with affects and drives: he not only claims that values are explained by drives and affects, but sometimes appears to identify values with drives and affects.  This is decidedly odd: the agent's reflectively endorsed ends, principles, commitments--what we would think of as the agent's values--seem not only distinct from, but often in conflict with, the agent's drives.  Consequently, it is unclear how we should understand Nietzsche's concept of value.  This essay attempts to dispel these puzzles by reconstructing Nietzsche's account of value.  According to the view that I defend, an agent values X iff (i) the agent has a drive-induced affective orientation toward X and (ii) the agent does not disapprove of this affective orientation.  Additionally, I argue that drives generate thoughts about justification, thereby inclining the agent to regard pursuit of the drive's aim as valuable.  I contend that this interpretation makes sense of Nietzsche’s remarks about value and overcomes the difficulties inherent in competing interpretations.  I conclude by investigating the recalcitrance of drive-induced affective orientations.

[8]  Philosophical Psychology as a Basis for Ethics 

Journal of Nietzsche Studies (Special Issue containing the Proceedings of the North American Nietzsche Society), 44 (Summer 2013), 297-314.
Abstract        Paper        Paper (penultimate draft)

Near the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes that “psychology is once again the path to the fundamental problems” (BGE 23). This raises a number of questions. What are these “fundamental problems” that psychology helps us to answer? How exactly does psychology bear on philosophy? In this conference paper, I provide a partial answer to these questions by focusing upon the way in which psychology informs Nietzsche’s account of value. I argue that Nietzsche’s ethical theory is based upon the idea that power has a privileged normative status: power is the one value in terms of which all others values are to be assessed. If this is the correct interpretation of Nietzsche’s ethical theory, though, it raises a question: how could power have a privileged status, given that Nietzsche denies that there are any objective facts about what is valuable? I argue that Nietzsche’s account of psychology provides the answer: he grounds power’s privileged status in facts about the nature of human motivation. In particular, Nietzsche’s account of drives entails that human beings are ineluctably committed to valuing power. So Nietzsche’s ethical theory follows from his philosophical psychology.

[7]  Nietzsche's Philosophical Psychology    

The Oxford Handbook on Nietzsche, John Richardson and Ken Gemes (eds.), Oxford University Press (2013), 727-54.
Abstract       Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)

Freud claimed that the concept of drive is "at once the most important and the most obscure element of psychological research." It is hard to think of a better proof of Freud's claim than the work of Nietzsche, which provides ample support for the idea that the drive concept is both tremendously important and terribly obscure.  Although Nietzsche's accounts of agency and value everywhere appeal to drives, the concept has not been adequately explicated.  I remedy this situation by providing an account of drives.  I argue that Nietzschean drives are dispositions that generate evaluative orientations, in part by affecting perceptual saliences.  In addition, I show that drive psychology has important implications for contemporary accounts of reflective agency.  Contemporary philosophers often endorse a claim that has its origins in Locke and Kant: self-conscious agents are capable of reflecting on and thereby achieving a distance from their motives; therefore, these motives do not determine what the agent will do.  Nietzsche's drive psychology shows that the inference in the preceding sentence is illegitimate.  The drive psychology articulates a way in which motives can determine the agent's action by influencing the course of the agent's reflective deliberations.  An agent who reflects on a motive and decides whether to act on it may, all the while, be surreptitiously guided by the very motive upon which he is reflecting.  I show how this point complicates traditional models of the role of reflection in agency.

[6]  Nietzsche on Agency and Self-Ignorance    

Journal of Nietzsche Studies (Special Issue containing the Proceedings of the North American Nietzsche Society), 43 (April 2012), 5-17.
Abstract       Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)

Nietzsche frequently claims that agents are in some sense ignorant of their own actions. But what exactly does Nietzsche mean by this claim, and how would the truth of this claim affect philosophical models of agency? I argue that Nietzsche intends to draw attention to the fact that there are influences upon reflective episodes of choice that have three features. First, these influences are pervasive, occurring in every episode of choice. Second, these influences are normatively significant, in that their presence typically affects the outcome of deliberation. Third, these influences are difficult to detect, in that one needs to acquire a great deal of self-knowledge in order to begin to counteract their effects. I briefly sketch the way in which these claims follow from Nietzsche's philosophical psychology.

[5]  The Relevance of History for Moral Philosophy: A Study of Nietzsche's Genealogy

Nietzsche's 'On the Genealogy of Morality': A Critical Guide, Simon May (ed.), Cambridge University Press (2011), 170-192.
Abstract        Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)

The Genealogy takes a historical form. But does the history play an essential role in Nietzsche's critique of modern morality? In this essay, I argue that the answer is yes. The Genealogy employs history in order to show that acceptance of modern morality was causally responsible for producing a dramatic change in our affects, drives, and perceptions. This change led agents to perceive actual increases in power as reductions in power, and actual decreases in power as increases in power. Moreover, it led agents to experience negative emotions when engaging in activities that constitute greater manifestations of power, and positive emotions when engaging in activities that reduce power. For these reasons, modern morality strongly disposes agents to reduce their own power. Given Nietzsche’s argument that power has a privileged normative status, these facts entail that we have a reason to reject modern morality.

[4]  Deriving Ethics from Action: A Nietzschean Version of Constitutivism

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 83 (November 2011), 620-60.
Abstract       Paper

This paper has two goals. First, I offer an interpretation of Nietzsche’s puzzling claims about will to power. I argue that the will to power thesis is a version of constitutivism. Constitutivism is the view that we can derive substantive normative conclusions from an account of the nature of agency; in particular, constitutivism rests on the idea that all actions are motivated by a common, higher-order aim, whose presence generates a standard of assessment for actions. Nietzsche’s version of constitutivism is based on a series of subtle claims about the psychology of willing and the nature of satisfaction, which imply that all actions aim at encountering and overcoming resistance (this is what Nietzsche means by “will to power”). Second, I argue that Nietzsche’s theory, thus interpreted, generates a new, a posteriori version of constitutivism that is not vulnerable to certain familiar objections. If this is right, then we can deploy Nietzschean ideas in order to make a substantive contribution to issues that are currently at the forefront of ethics and action theory.

[3]  Activity and Passivity in Reflective Agency

Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Volume 6, Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Oxford University Press (2011), 219-54.
Abstract        Paper       Paper (penultimate draft)

Lately, a number of philosophers have argued that agents can be more and less active in the production of their own actions. Some actions—principally reflective, deliberative ones—are said to involve agential activity; other actions—principally unreflective, non-deliberative ones—are said to be brought about in a more passive fashion. In this essay, I critique these claims. I show that philosophers employing the notion of agential activity have relied on one or more of the following claims, which have not been clearly distinguished in the literature: (1) that choice causes action, (2) that motives do not determine choice, and (3) that reflective deliberation suspends the effects of motives. These claims are closely related, and are often conflated in the literature. However, I argue that they are importantly distinct. I explicate and assess each of these claims, arguing that while there are precisifications of the first and second claims that render them true, there are philosophical arguments and results from empirical psychology indicating that the third claim is false. Moreover, I argue that the third claim is the crucial one; its truth is necessary in order to support the idea that reflective agency is paradigmatically active. As a result, the traditional accounts of agential activity must be rejected. I close by suggesting a new model of agential activity.

[2]  The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller *
                * Selected by Philosopher's Annual as one of the ten best papers published in 2011

Journal of the History of Philosophy 49 (January 2011), 87-113.
Abstract       Paper (Copyright © 2011 Johns Hopkins University Press; posted with permission)

This paper examines Nietzsche’s concept of unified agency. A widespread consensus has emerged in the secondary literature on three points: (1) Nietzsche’s notion of unity is meant to be an analysis of freedom; (2) unity refers to a relation between the agent’s drives or motivational states; and (3) unity obtains when one drive predominates and imposes order on the other drives. I argue that these claims are philosophically and textually indefensible. In contrast, I argue that (1*) Nietzschean unity is an account of the distinction between genuine actions and mere behaviors, rather than between free and unfree actions; (2*) unity refers to a relation between drives and conscious thought; and (3*) unity obtains when the agent’s attitude toward her own action is stable under the revelation of further information about the action’s etiology. I show that Nietzsche develops this notion of unity by drawing on Plato’s and Schiller’s accounts of unified agency.

[1]  Nietzsche's Theory of Mind: Consciousness and Conceptualization      

European Journal of Philosophy 13 (April 2005), 1-31.
Abstract       Paper

I show that Nietzsche's puzzling and seemingly inconsistent claims about consciousness constitute a coherent and philosophically fruitful theory. Drawing on some ideas from Schopenhauer and F.A. Lange, Nietzsche argues that conscious mental states are mental states with conceptually articulated content, whereas unconscious mental states are mental states with non-conceptually articulated content. Nietzsche's views on concepts imply that conceptually articulated mental states will be superficial and in some cases distorting analogues of non-conceptually articulated mental states. Thus, the claim that conscious states have a conceptual articulation renders comprehensible Nietzsche's claim that consciousness is "superficial" and "falsifying."

Book Reviews

[5]  "On Humuncular Drives and the Structure of the Nietzschean Self" (contribution to a review symposium on Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick, The Soul of Nietzsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil' [Cambridge, 2012]).
              Journal of Nietzsche Studies, forthcoming
             review (penultimate draft)

[4]  Review of Christopher Janaway and Simon Robertson (eds.), Nietzsche, Naturalism, Normativity (Oxford, 2013)
            European Journal of Philosophy 21: Reviews Supplement 4 (December 2013), 9-14.


[3]  Review of Christopher Janaway, Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's 'Genealogy' (Oxford, 2007)
             Mind 122 (April 2013), 553-560.

             review     review (penultimate draft)

[2]  Review of Craig Dove, Nietzsche's Ethical Theory (Continuum, 2008)
             Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, May 2009

[1]  Review of Brian Leiter and Neil Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality (Oxford, 2007)
             Mind 118 (January 2009), 191-4