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Department of Philosophy


Matthew Kisner

Title: Professor
Department Chair
Department: Philosophy
College of Arts and Sciences
Office: Close-Hipp 524
Resources: Curriculum Vitae
Department of Philosophy
Matt Kisner


PhD, UC San Diego, 2004

Research Interests 

Early Modern Philosophy

My research focuses on the rich, creative period in the history of moral philosophy between the decline of traditional eudaimonistic ethics at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the emergence of utilitarianism and Kantian ethics at the end of the eighteenth century. I am particularly interested in how moral philosophers during this period worked to ground moral concepts and commitments in human nature in the face of a rapidly changing conception of the natural world. This leads me to a related interest in philosophical accounts of the passions.

I am interested in this history because it is formative to our understanding of key moral concepts: freedom, happiness, the passions, the self, and the good life. In general, I am interested in the history of philosophy because it helps us to answer the question of how we got here, which is critical to answering the question of, where do we go from here. Thus, I see the history of philosophy as living in the present and as essential to philosophy today. Relatedly, I believe that philosophy, then and now, responds to the wider world, including science, the arts, culture, and social and economic conditions. Consequently, I see philosophy as inherently interdisciplinary, and I resist efforts to understand the history of philosophy in isolation from history generally, for instance, as a conversation among great minds about timeless big questions.

My book, Spinoza’s on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy, and the Good Life (Cambridge, 2011), examines how Spinoza builds a naturalistic ethics around the concept of freedom and autonomy. I am currently working on a book defending Spinoza’s legacy as the founder of modern secular moral philosophy, Spinoza’s Moral Revolution: The Fate of Virtue in a Godless World. I also write on Descartes and the British Moralists, especially Hobbes and Shaftesbury, and I am working on a book about the nature and moral importance of wonder, which is partly based on reflection about the history of ethics.

Environmental Ethics and Community Engagement

I agree with Spinoza and the republican tradition that political activity can be a form of virtue, and that the good life is political. I believe that the climate crisis is the greatest threat humankind has ever faced and that we are morally obligated to respond by taking political action. I am interested in reforming universities so that they play a greater leadership role in the transition to a more sustainable, resilient, and just society. These commitments have led me to collaborate with colleagues across the university in working to produce climate research that is useful and used by communities in achieving their resilience goals. It has also led me to work on building relations between the university and local governments, government agencies, non-profits, and community groups.

My community work has been supported by grants (approximately $100,000) from the Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology, and Society. This includes supporting the Climate Ready Columbia Conference (2021). My community work has also been supported by a five-year, $10 million grant ($1 million subgrant to the University of South Carolina) from the Environmental Protection Agency for technical assistance to South Carolina communities.

I have developing research interests in climate ethics, particularly its relationship to business ethics. The climate crisis shows the urgent need to revise our understanding of the natural world and our place in it. I think Spinoza offers the conceptual resources for such a revision, and someday I hope to develop these views in print.

Regularly Taught Courses

  • PHIL 304: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Philosophy
  • PHIL 502: Continental Rationalism
  • PHIL 501: The British Moralists
  • PHIL 103: The Ethics of Food
  • PHIL 324: Business Ethics
  • PHIL 370: Climate Justice in Columbia

Selected Publications

Recent Articles
  • “Shaftesbury’s Distinctive Sentiments: Moral Sentiments and Self-Governance,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, forthcoming.
  • “Spinoza’s Defense of Toleration: The Argument from Pluralism,” Roczniki Filozoficzne, special issue on Spinoza and toleration, celebrating the work of Ed Curley, 70 (4): 2022.
  • “Spinoza’s Guise of the Good: Getting to the Bottom of 3p9s,” Philosophical Explorations, 24: 2021, 34-47.
  • “Spinoza on Natures: The Metaphysics of Relational Autonomy,” in Spinoza and Relational Autonomy, eds. Andrea Sangiacomo, Keith Green, Aurelia Armstrong, University of Edinburgh Press, 2019.
  • “Spinoza Activities: Freedom without Independence,” in Freedom, Action, and Motivation in Spinoza’s Ethics, ed. Noa Naaman-Zauderer, Taylor and Francis, 2019.
  • “Descartes on the Ethical Reliability of the Passions: A Morean Reading,” Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, volume 8, eds. Don Rutherford and Daniel Garber, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Grants and Awards

  • Co-Principal Investigator with Lori Ziolkowski on the South Carolina subaward for the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grant ($10 million award for the Southeast region, $1 million subaward for South Carolina).
  • Engineering the City of the Future: Columbia and Climate Change, $37,700 Grant from the Ann Johnson Institute for course development, a speaker’s series, and a conference (2020-2022)
  • Theme Semester Course Development Grant for Climate Justice and Columbia from the College of Arts and Sciences, UofSC (2020)
  • Faculty Affiliate, Groningen Center for Early Modern Studies

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.