Essay in early modern philosophy earns York professor prestigious award

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A York University professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies is the recipient of a highly prestigious award that recognizes original research in the history of early modern philosophy.

Matthew Leisinger
Matthew Leisinger

Assistant Professor Matthew Leisinger (Department of Philosophy) has earned the 2020 Sanders Prize in Early Modern Philosophy for his essay “Cudworthian Consciousness.” Leisinger joined York University in July 2019.

The prize is a biennial essay competition open to scholars who are within 15 years of earning a PhD. Students currently enrolled in a graduate program are also eligible. This highly prestigious and selective award is sponsored by the Marc Sanders Foundation and comes with a prize of $5,000 as well as a publication of the winning article in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy.

According to the Marc Sanders Foundation, submitted essays must “present original research in the history of early modern philosophy, interpreted as the period that begins roughly with Descartes and his contemporaries and goes to the end of the 18th century.”

The following is an overview of Leisinger’s winning article:

Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) is credited with the first instance of the English word “consciousness” used in a distinctively philosophical sense. While Cudworth says little in the System about the nature of consciousness, he has more to say in his (largely unpublished) freewill manuscripts. Leisinger argues that, in these manuscripts, Cudworth distinguishes two kinds of consciousness, which Leisinger calls “bare consciousness” and “reflective consciousness.” What both have in common is that each is a kind of reflection or reflexive perception that therefore involves a “duplication” of the soul as both subject and object. While it is less clear how Cudworth takes these two kinds of consciousness to differ, Leisinger argues that the central difference for Cudworth is that, whereas bare consciousness is always directed towards individual cogitations, reflective consciousness is the kind of consciousness that the soul achieves through reflection upon itself as a whole. As a result, he says, reflective consciousness introduces a unity into our experience that is not present at the level of bare consciousness.

Leisinger earned his PhD from Yale in 2018. His areas of research are early modern philosophy and moral psychology, focusing in particular on John Locke and Ralph Cudworth. He has published in a number of academic venues, including the British Journal for the History of Philosophy and the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.