James Ferguson Conant (born June 10, 1958) is an American philosopher who has written extensively on topics in philosophy of language, ethics, and metaphilosophy. He is perhaps best known for his writings on Wittgenstein, and his association with the New Wittgenstein school of Wittgenstein interpretation initiated by Cora Diamond. He is currently Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago.
Conant was born in Kyoto, Japan to American parents. At 14, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. He received his A.B. in Philosophy and History of Science from Harvard College in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1990. He joined the philosophy faculty at the University of Pittsburgh from 1990-1999, and then became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he continues to teach. Conant is the grandson of former Harvard University president James Bryant Conant.
Since the mid 1990s Conant, together with Cora Diamond has advanced a “resolute reading” of Wittgenstein's early work which seeks to expose neglected underlying continuities between the philosopher's early and later approaches to philosophy, especially between his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and his later Philosophical Investigations. This resolute reading is meant to show that even in the Tractatus, the purpose of philosophy is the clarification of philosophical problems, aimed at the elucidation of the sentences of the language through which we express ourselves rather than at propounding philosophical theses. This reading subjects the traditional interpretations of Wittgenstein, particularly that of Peter Hacker and Gordon Baker, to severe criticism. Hacker, as well as others like Ian Proops and Michael Forster have in turn criticized Conant's representation of them.
Conant has contributed to other areas in the history of analytic philosophy, writing particularly about the work of Gottlob Frege, of Rudolf Carnap, as well as about the relation between the views of both of these figures and those of Wittgenstein. A related theme running throughout Conant's work is the relation between the ideas of Immanuel Kant, and the Kantian tradition more broadly, and the analytic tradition.
Although his philosophical orientation is largely that of someone trained in the analytic tradition, Conant has also written a series of widely discussed essays on various so-called “Continental" Philosophers, most notably on Kierkegaard and on Nietzsche. In his readings of specific texts by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, he explores the theme of how the literary form of a philosophical text is intertwined with its philosophical content. Relatedly, Conant has written a number of essays exploring the treatment of philosophical ideas in literary texts, ranging from the short stories of Franz Kafka to the novels of George Orwell.
A recurring topic throughout Conant’s work is that of philosophical skepticism. In this connection, he has drawn an influential distinction between two varieties of skepticism, which he calls “Cartesian skepticism” and “Kantian skepticism” respectively.
In 2012 James Conant received the Humboldt Foundation Anneliese Maier Research Award, a five-year award to promote the internationalisation of the humanities and social sciences in Germany.
In summer 2011, the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Porto in Portugal hosted a conference titled The Logical Alien at 20, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the publication of James Conant's paper "The Search for Logically Alien Thought".