PhD candidate in History of Religions
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Dover, NH.
What education did you receive before coming to the University of Chicago Divinity School?
I grew up in the New Hampshire public schools and then went to Williams, where I studied religion and political theory. After spending my junior year at Oxford, I was fortunate enough to win a fellowship to return there for my M. Phil.
Why did you choose to attend Chicago?
Its history—particularly as associated with my discipline, the history of religions—and its reputation for intellectual seriousness were both attractive to me. There aren't very many people who do substantial work both on religion and on the history of the study of religion, and so Bruce Lincoln was a particular draw.
What is your field of study? Please note briefly any highlights of your academic work at Chicago.
I am a historian of religions—but in a rather untraditional sense. I work mostly on the problem of secularization, and more particularly, on its intellectual-historical valence. I have profited a great deal from the excellent history department at the University, and—since I have chosen to focus on France—the Modern France Workshop and the France Chicago Center.
Please describe any special teaching activities, publications, or presentations you have worked on so far that you feel are noteworthy. Are there any professors in particular who have made a significant impact on your studies?
I am consistently inspired by my excellent students in the College's Humanities Core. Introducing great students to great books has been perhaps the great privilege of my time at the University of Chicago.
Besides my dissertation, I have an exciting second project that has spawned many conference presentations and publications. It relates to a homology between the argument justifying the sovereignty of the Church in Nicolas Malebranche (a c17 French theologian) and that justifying the sovereignty of the National Assembly in the Abbé Sieyès (perhaps the leading theorist of the French Revolution). The homology further broaches the claim of the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, who argued (apparently at least in part on the strength of this relationship) that the concepts of modern political theory were 'secularized' versions of theological concepts. I have presented parts of this project in New York, Montréal, Cambridge, Oxford, and Frankfurt; I've also published four articles on the subject.
I have been fortunate to work with many people at the University—I would particularly mention Bruce Lincoln and John McCormick (political science). Beyond Chicago, the work of Paul Friedland, Dale Van Kley and Patrick Riley has been important to me. I might also mention the scholars who have been kind enough to support my research in France (Louis Pinto and Camille Tarot come especially mind).
Please briefly describe the topic of your dissertation; elaborate on any aspects of the work involved in researching and writing it; and note your expectation for when you plan to complete your degree.
My dissertation recovers the Durkheimians' long-running engagement with the problem of moral motivation—that is, the question of how people can be induced to act beyond their own interests. Durkheim explains that sociology's object is to replace the theological concepts of morality with secular equivalents in order to establish a morale laïque. I tease out the various resources the Durkheimians assembled for this purpose, in their works and in the debates connecting them. In particular, I show that Durkheim and his nephew Mauss arrived at different solutions to the problem: Durkheim's involved asymmetrical relations of authority (our relationship to society as a whole), whereas Mauss' entailed symmetrical relations of mutual obligation (our relations to each other).
Behind these different models of moral motivation, though, were different imaginings of secularity. The ultimate stakes of my project pertain to the way that imaginings of a secular future informed the very consolidation of the nascent discipline of sociology. Not only is the disciplinarization of sociology a materialization of a secularization narrative; also, sociological method has been imagined and re-imagined in direct response to a sequence of constructions of secularity.
What activities do you participate in outside of the classroom? (community service, work, hobbies, etc.)
I used to be a very serious pianist, but I'm afraid I've had to give it up because of the demands of writing and teaching. I enjoy running and cooking, when I can find time for them.
What do you plan to do after you have graduated from Chicago?
I hope to teach—to continue teaching students as talented as those here would be a dream come true—and continue my research program. I project that my dissertation will become a book about secularization's imaginings in the consolidation of the discipline of sociology. I hope that my project about the Malebranche-Sieyès homology will eventually form part of a larger project considering Eucharistic theory in the political theory of representation of the eighteenth century.
More to the point, I am very interested in pursuing what I perceive to be the deep-level affinities between the Malebranche-Sieyès project and the Durkheim-Mauss project. In the first case, we see the way a secularization (in the 'transfer' sense) structures our sense of what an argument is; in the second, we see how secularization (in the 'project' sense) structures our sense of what counts as knowledge (or a certain kind of knowledge). 'Secularization' in both cases seems to name—among other things, of course—an epistemological operation. This point seems like it might cast light on both the relation between project-secularization and transfer-secularization, and on secularization more generally.