Graduate Seminars 2015-16
A close reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, focusing on Parts 3 and 4. Topics include Spinoza’s theory conatus, the affects, control over the affects, and what Spinoza calls utmost blessedness. No previous knowledge of Spinoza is presupposed.
Natural Kinds at Every Level?
Scientific disciplines seem to divide the natural world into kinds—think of species, or of the chemical elements, or of fundamental particles. The goal of this seminar is to think about what natural kinds are, what role they play in the disciplines in which they are studied, and how natural kinds discovered by one discipline relate to those discovered by another discipline. We will start by considering some rival approaches to the metaphysics of natural kinds (e.g., conventionalism, naturalism, realism). Then, we will turn to a debate about whether the kinds investigated by the “special sciences” (e.g., biology, chemistry) are genuinely natural kinds, with special attention paid to how special science natural kinds (if there are any) might relate to fundamental natural kinds. No familiarity with the topic is presupposed.
Topics in Value Theory: Rationality and Action
This seminar will be organized around the first half of the manuscript of my (Hieronymi’s) book-in-progress, Minds that Matter. The aim of the book is to unwind the intuitive problem of free will and moral responsibility. The first half concerns the kind of freedom or control that we think both required for responsibility and in some way problematic. It argues for a specific understanding of the apparent problem (as a problem with what I call our “ordinary notion of control”), and then offers a solution. (The solution is not sufficient to ground all forms of responsibility. Addressing that objection is the subject of the second half of the book—and, I hope, the subject of my next graduate seminar.)
In the first week, we will begin to locate what I take to be the main contours of the problem of free will: the need for our actions to be up to us in some way, or for there to be available alternatives, if we are to be free and/or responsible; the need for actions to be ours in some way, to be intelligible in light of features of our psychology, if they are to be actions at all; and the question of what it is to be responsible. In the second week, we will consider two different kinds of counter-examples to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities presented by Harry Frankfurt, and we will consider his account of freedom and of what is required for moral responsibility. (I hope he will be in attendance.) In the third week, we will begin the manuscript, reading the introduction and the first chapter. We’ll consider, alongside, Pereboom’s four-case argument against compatibilisms such as Frankfurt’s. We’ll then turn to (certain articulations of what I call) “two standpoints” compatibilism, in the fourth week, and my response to it in the fifth. We will also consider Berislav Marušić’s contrasting treatment. In weeks six and seven we’ll consider my positive view, alongside Lucy O’Brien’s view of agency and self-knowledge. We’ll add material for weeks eight and nine, once we see what we are finding of particular interest. Week ten will be devoted to presentation of student paper topics.
Kant’s Moral Theory
With an eye to bringing people up to speed on Kant fundamentals, I want to use the first three weeks of the seminar as a kind of bootcamp, going through some of the major texts and arguments of The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, some of The Critique of Practical Reason, some of The Metaphysics of Morals. I plan to focus on areas where there has been a history of controversial reading and (to my mind) puzzling interpretation.
In the seven weeks that follow, the seminar will investigate topics in moral psychology and normative ethics, building out from the bootcamp discussions. Readings will be from Kant as well as some secondary literature.
Topics could include:
- Practical agency. The relation between will and desire (including inclination, emotion, rational feeling); free action; and rational choice.
- Kant’s formulas of the moral law, their meaning and their relation to one another.
- How in Kant’’s theory of our duties the political frames the ethical
- Perfect and imperfect duties — what they are and what they are for, focusing on lying and beneficence, issues of partiality in obligation, and making exceptions.
- Kant’s Rousseauian elements: moral development and education, ideas of moral progress and a progressive history
- Kant’s doctrine of the Highest Good
- “Duties with regard to” and animals
The Contents of Visual Experience
When you enjoy a visual experience, say, of a white coffee cup, you are aware of a cup, an ordinary mind-independent object, and its visible features. Many philosophers hold that visual experiences are mental states with representational contents. According to this view, usually called the content view, your visual experience of the coffee cup represents the cup as being a certain way. Representational contents of experiences are usually construed in terms of accuracy conditions. In other words, the content of your experience of the white coffee cup is given by the conditions under which it is accurate. When you enjoy this experience, it conveys to you that those conditions are satisfied. Prima facie, the content view provides explanations for many aspects of visual experience. Yet, the content view has recently received powerful criticisms, primarily from philosophers who defend a relational view. On this view, your visual experience of the cup is a non-representational relation, often construed as a relation of acquaintance, between you and the cup.
In this course, we will focus on the intense debate between defenders and deniers of the content view. We will discuss three questions:
- Do visual experiences have contents? Not long ago, the proponents of the content view accepted the idea that visual experiences have contents without, however, giving detailed arguments for this position. This situation has now changed dramatically. In the first section of the course, we will look at arguments in favor of the content view (e.g., Siegel, Pautz, Byrne) and consider a number of criticisms (Travis, Brewer, Johnston). We will also look at some reconciliatory views (e.g., Schellenberg, Logue).
- Assuming that the first question has been answered in the affirmative, what are the admissible contents of visual experiences? This is a complex question. We will focus primarily on the debate between proponents of the low-level view, that is, those who believe that only low-level properties, such as color, shape, and motion, can enter into the contents of visual experiences (e.g., Lycan, Price, Tye), and proponents of the high-level view, that is, those who believe that high-level properties, such as being a pine tree or being a dog (e.g., Siegel, Bayne, Prinz), can enter into the contents of visual experiences.
- What is the nature of a hallucination? Proponents of the content view can account for hallucinations in terms of non-veridical visual experiences. To hallucinate a coffee cup, according to this proposal, is to have a non-veridical visual experience as of a coffee cup. Proponents of the relational view cannot accept this account, however, and have developed various alternatives. In this part of the course, we will discuss some of these alternatives (e.g., Martin, Brewer, Fish).
Susanna Siegel’s book The Contents of Visual Experience (OUP 2010) will guide us through the first two topics. We will also read a range of other articles, including papers from two recent collections: Berit Brogaard (ed.), Does Perception Have Content? (OUP, 2014) and Katherine Hawley and Fiona MacPherson (eds.), The Admissible Contents of Experience (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
Formal Topics in the Semantics and Aesthetics of Movies
This seminar will investigate particular topics related to how movies convey meaning, and will additionally consider filmmaking choices that serve aesthetic goals. The aim is to add precision to the discussion of particular phenomena of interest, with an eye to constructing mathematical models that make falsifiable predictions. We will consider questions like: What is the precise sense in which the eyelines of the characters knit an edited scene together? Can we quantify aesthetic categories like flat space and deep space, or even visual intensity more generally? How does lens length (“zoom”) alter the apparent geometry of the scene, and can we explicate the key notion of apparent camera position? Can we start to provide a formal treatment of the conventions of gesture and facial expression (e.g., “actors never blink”) that do the heavy lifting in conveying the emotional reactions, beliefs and intentions of characters in film?
I’m serious about the mathematical part. We will be working through a fair bit of the mathematics that connects a shifting 2d array of coloured light to the geometry, textures and lighting of the changing 3d scene it depicts. This is good news for fans of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, because we will get to the bottom of, among other things, quaternions.
Apart from the maths problems that will occupy us for the early parts, I want those enrolled to develop their own precise model of an aesthetic or semantic phenomenon in film, which they will present to the rest of the class at the end of the quarter. Throughout the course, we will be wading through examples, from the beginnings of cinema, when the conventions of continuity style were being laid down, through to what’s showing on our screens today. There will be weekly watching “assignments” that it might be fun to do together as a group. I’m also hoping to arrange some hands-on experience on a film set, and perhaps fit in some experiments to test out our hypotheses. A great place to start looking for ideas is film theorist David Bordwell’s blog:
History of Ancient Philosophy
Metaphysics Gamma famously characterizes first philosophy as the discipline which aims to achieve a science [episteme] of being qua being. Aristotle proceeds (apparently) to articulate the conception of being on which this characterization is based. And after explaining that the science aspired to must also be a science of unity, and treat certain ‘per se attributes’ of being, Aristotle turns his attention to the ‘most certain principle of being’ (roughly: the principle of non-contradiction), ‘Protagorean’ relativism, ‘Hericlitianism’, and the nature of truth. Our seminar studies Metaphysics Gamma with some attention to its place in the project of the Metaphysics as a whole.
Aristotle: Metaphysics Book Gamma (= Book IV)
Happiness and Morality in 13th-Century Thought
What is the relation between happiness and morality? Does moral behavior bring about
happiness, or does it limit the pursuit of happiness? Is being moral egoistic, or is it the
exact opposite of egoism?
As the name of Julia Annas’s well known book suggests, in antiquity “Morality of
Happiness” prevailed. In modern theories morality is often seen in sharp contrast or at
least as distinct from the pursuit of happiness. The point of this seminar is to look at the
situation in the middle ages, in the light of 13th century theories.
- According to the theory I call Augustinian, the aim of morality is to achieve happiness
for the agent him or herself individually. Morality may require revision in one’s
understanding of what one’s self is, and what makes one happy. Morally one ought to
learn that the self is the soul, and body is an instrument. (Weeks 2.-4.)
- According to the theory I call Aristotelian, the aim of morality is to achieve happiness
for the whole in which the agent is embedded and included. This too may require
revision of one’s understanding of what one’s self is, but it seems that ordinary
happiness with eg. good food is accepted as genuine happiness in this theory. (Weeks
- According to the theory I call voluntarist, morality is not about achieving happiness, it
is about justice. Unlike Augustinian and Aristotelian theories, voluntarist theory is
committed to a relatively strong duality of practical reason: prudential and moral
reasoning are separated. The agent is free in self-understanding and can become
genuinely happy in various ways, and moral considerations appear as some kind of
“rule” regulating where or how one ought to seek happiness. (Weeks 7.-9.)
Readings include medieval texts in English translations and selections from my
forthcoming book manuscript.
- Week 1:
Introduction and vocabulary; Eudaimonism. Self-interest. Duality of practical reason? In
what sense the three discussed theories are alternatives? What does this imply about
the theory of morality that would be right for us?
Reading: Irwin, “Scotus and the possibility of moral motivation”
- Week 2:
Augustine: “But all who are happy have what they will, although not all who have what
they will are always happy (beata); but they are always miserable who either do not
have what they will or who have what they do not rightly will.” (On the Trinity XIII, 4)
In Augustine’s conception, happiness requires that you desire the right things, and that
you get them.
Readings: Augustine, Confessions X; On the Trinity XIII.
- Week 3:
William of Auvergne: “What is a good life but the correct road leading to eternal
In William of Auvergne’s theory, happiness is a state at which humans naturally aim. Its
achievement requires re-understanding the self as a soul for which the body is an
instrument. Virtues are to be compared to the health of the soul. This conception is
fundamentally individualist: true happiness is a state of the individual, and it is sought
for and achieved as an individual. Moral behavior is thus fundamentally egoistic
happiness-seeking. The central difference to bad egoism is that moral goodness
associates with correct conception of the self, because only with correct conception of
the self real happiness can be distinguished for apparent happiness.
Readings: Selections from On the Soul; On Virtues,
- Week 4:
Henry of Ghent: “No agent ought in accord with right reason to choose that which
makes him unhappy”. Happiness is in Henry of Ghent associated to what he calls
“spiritual good”, or “good of virtue”. In his treatment, the individualism and egoism of the
understanding of morality as search for real happiness becomes obvious. As Henry of
Ghent shows, one’s own spiritual good must be preferred to the common good – and to
the spiritual good of others.
- Week 5:
- Week 6:
Godefroid of Fontaines
- Week 7:
- Week 8:
- Week 9:
History of Set Theory
We will study the development of set theory and the philosophical issues that arose as it developed. Students do not need to have any previous acquaintance with set theory. The reading list will consist of papers by the historical figures responsible for the developments being discussed, but the more technical parts of these papers—and of the related material I will provide—are only optional reading.
We will proceed pretty much in chronological order. Below, in semi-chronological order, are most of the topics we will discuss.
Cantor’s theory of infinite sets and numbers: His distinction between the determinate infinite and the absolute infinite. His view (“Cantorian finitism”) that the determinate infinite can be reasoned about in the same way as the finite. His arguments for this view. His theory of cardinal and ordinal numbers. His use of abstraction to define cardinal and ordinal numbers.
The paradoxes. How their significance has been exaggerated. The positive and negative ways they affected Zermelo’s work.
The ZFC Axioms. The process that led to first-order ZFC: Cantor; Zermelo; Skolem, Fraenkel, and von Neumann. The categoricity of Zermelo’s “2nd order” version of the axioms. Zermelo’s arguments for the Axiom of Choice. Zermelo versus Skolem on first-order axioms versus 2nd order axioms.
The well-ordering theorem. Its somewhat curious history: Cantor’s proof; Schmidt’s proof; Zermelo’s proofs; the modern proof.
Skolem’s paradox. Skolem’s critique of axiomatized set theory. Skolem’s paradox: the alleged relativity of countability.
The iterative concept of set. Its history. Whether and how it yields the ZFC axioms.
The Continuum Hypothesis. The theorems of Goedel and Cohen showing that CH is consistent with and independent of the ZFC axioms. Does CH have a truth-value? Goedel’s view. “Goedel’s program.”
Philosophy Legal theory
In analytic philosophy of language, conversation is usually described as a joint rational enterprise that aims at the accumulation of knowledge. Here’s a fairly typical formulation (courtesy of Craige Roberts): the language game is essentially a cooperative endeavor, whose participants have common goals—roughly, the accurate sharing of information.” I’ve had trouble finding this model adequate to philosophical and normative conversation. I’m hoping we can explore some alternatives that might be more (or at least additionally) illuminating. Please feel free to suggest additions to the preliminary schedule of readings below.
Grice, “Logic and Conversation”
Optional: Lewis, “Scorekeeping in a Language Game”
Optional: Stalnaker, “Common Ground”
Burgess & Plunkett, “Conceptual Ethics 1”
Burgess & Plunkett, “Conceptual Ethics 2”
Optional: Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts”
& optional secondary TBD
Moss, “The Doctor and the Pastry Chef ”
& optional secondary TBD
Ferrari, from Listening to the Cicadas
& optional secondary TBD
- W6: Flex (continue with Plato, or make more room for one of the topics below)
- W7: Persuasion (readings TBD)
- W8: Power (readings TBD)
- W9: Resistance (readings TBD)
- W10: Freedom/friendship/love/utopia (readings TBD)
- What do people have in mind when they contrast “real” or “genuine” conversation with, e.g., mere small talk, talking-past, etc.? Is there any useful notion of “conversation” that isn’t contrastive? That isn’t normative?
- Is (good/“real”/“substantive”) normative conversation possible between people with different metanormative assumptions or commitments?
- How can we think about conversation between people who disagree about e.g. what concepts to use, what questions to ask, what is interesting and what is boring, what is important and what is unimportant, what stands in need of explanation and what doesn’t? Is it possible to distinguish “substantive discussion” from “metalinguistic negotiation” in the presence of disagreements and conflicts along these lines? If so, how can we think about the interaction between the two?
- How do power relations between interlocutors affect the possibility/nature/norms of conversation?
- How to think about the connections between conversation and relationships (e.g. of friendship, love, political solidarity, aesthetic affinity)?
- Does the notion of “intrapersonal dialogue” make sense? If so, what are the differences between interpersonal and intrapersonal dialogue? Can a sufficiently rich intrapersonal dialogue be a substitute for conversation with another person (and if so, when)?
- Does it make sense to think in terms of single conversations stretched out over multiple occasions? With changing casts of participants?
- Why are people in the habit of talking about the history of philosophy as a “conversation”? How has this idea influenced philosophical and exegetical practices? How seriously should we take talk about authors being “put into conversation” with one another by third parties?
- Is there a sense in which philosophy is “essentially dialogical”?
- Is conversation essentially cooperative? If not, is there a tenable distinction between cooperative and adversarial conversation? If the distinction is tenable, why does it matter? (Are we supposed to confine ourselves to fully cooperative conversations? To subordinate adversarial elements to a larger cooperative aim, such as truth or practical coordination?) Why are so many theorists so concerned to promote nonadversarial
verbal exchanges, while at the same time advocating violent coercion when these exchanges
- Is there a tenable distinction between rational and non-rational persuasion? If so, is it ethically or epistemically important, or both, or neither? If both, is its ethical significance rooted in its epistemic significance, or vice versa, or are they independent?
- How should we think about the role of questions? E.g. what is the difference between the use of questions to initiate a new discussion or inquiry vs. to advance an existing one? Is the distinction between “open” and “closed” questions ethically significant?
- What to make of the metaphor of conversation as a game? Of concepts as tools?
History, and Value Theory
The course is listed as a History seminar; it may also be taken to satisfy Value requirements.
Aristotle’s Practical Philosophy
Aristotle has a distinctive approach to practical philosophy—the philosophy of human living. It involves distinctive positions in action theory and rationality, positions that have largely dropped out of sight in modern philosophy, to the latter’s impoverishment. This has been rectified, to some degree, in the last 60 years, initiated by Anscombe’s `Modern Moral Philosophy’ and other work; and carried further by John McDowell and David Wiggins. Indeed neo-Aristotelianism has in certain respects become a somewhat sloppy band-wagon.
In this seminar we shall focus on aspects of the Nicomachean Ethics, in connection with some of my own mainly still on-going papers. The rough plan, from which we may decide to deviate as we proceed, is this. Weeks 1-3 we will look at the overall argument of the Ethics and the conception of the good/good that Aristotle is working with. In Weeks 4-8 we will try and bring out the main points of Aristotle’s approach, with a special focus on his account of practical wisdom, and preferential choice (prohairesis). In Weeks 9-10 we will consider aspects of his view of the best human life, in particular his bizarre notion of “theoria”, contemplation, and the notion of an actus intellectus; and then on the importance and centrality of free time.
In more detail, the provisional schedule is this.
W1 Introduction. Some key distinctions in Aristotle. Overview of the argument and strategy of the Ethics. Two principal struts of the approach.
Reading: `Introduction’ to Collected Papers
W2 The Ideal Life in the Ethics: A Central Problem, Dominant vs Inclusive Conceptions of the Good Life
Reading: `Dealing with Conflict and Loss’.
Subsidiary: `Aristotle and the Ideal Life’
W3. Aristotle’s Conception of the Good.
Reading: Part 1 of `Human Function and Human Good’.
`The Teleological Conception of the Good.’
Nicomachean Ethics 1.1-2; 1.6; Eudemian Ethics 1.8.
W4-5. An overview of the main elements of Aristotle’s Practical Philosophy in the Ethics and Politics, and its Contrasts with modern moral philosophy.
Reading: `Aristotle’s Practical Philosophy’
W6. The Traditional Conception of Practical reason. The notion of practical evaluation. Overview of NE Book 3.2-3; Book 6.
Reading: `On becoming a grown up’ Section 1
`Aristotle on Wisdom’
Subsidiary: `Reason, Intention, and Choice’.
W7. Success in deliberation. NE Book 6 chapter 9.
Reading: `A Commentary Essay on NE 6.9’
W8. Choice and Action; and the Profiles of Wickedness.
Reading: Anscombe’s `Thought and Action in Aristotle’
`Wickedness in Anscombe?’
W9. Contemplation and the Best Human Life. The idea of an Actus intellectus.
Reading: `The Grammar of Contemplation’
Subsidary: `Snakes in Paradise: Problems with the Ideal Life’
W10. The Centrality of Free Time in Practical Philosophy.
Reading: `Aristotle: Free TimeCian Restaurant, and the Paths of Perfection’.
To be discussed: friendship and the value of knowing yourself through your knowing a second person who knows you; the morality of interpersonal rights or personally directed duties and the value of respecting a second person who owes or shows you the same respect; the very idea of an irreducibly relational, irreducibly personal relation between two persons (of which friendship and mutual respect seem to offer two examples); exchange, contract, promise, conversation. cooperation as further examples of such relations; slavery and (bad, old) marriage as examples of fucked-up person-to-person relations–failed mutual recognition; the problems of circularity and self-reference that trouble some though not all of us when a person says “I’ll do it if you will” or where each party’s participation in a venture or relation apparently presupposes, in its ground or nature, the participation of the other; the individuation and interpenetration of selves and of lives; the truth in the conjecture that morality and friendship are respectively the thin and thick forms of an ideal of two persons’ knowing one another and acting from that mutual knowledge; the truth in the claim that, to be a person and/or to live fully as a person, a person needs to be personally related to some second person.
We are likely to read Aristotle on friendship, Thomson and Thompson on bipolar morality, Kant and Korsgaard on contract and marriage, Hegel on the dialectic of recognition, Sartre on the look, Beauvoir and Fanon on subjugation, Nagel on mutual justification, Grice on conversation, Shiffrin on promising, Gilbert on exchange, Velleman on love. We will also read through a short outline to be parceled out as handouts week by week. We’ll spend about an hour each time going through a couple of my pages and the rest of the session in a freer discussion of the week’s main reading.
Topics in Political Philosophy
Monday and Wednesday
2-3:50 PM in
The course will focus on an in-depth analysis of liberal theories of justice. We will discuss both theories of distributive justice as well as theories of civil rights. The focal point of the course will be on John Rawls’ classic work A Theory of Justice and a variety of criticisms of that work by leftist, centrist, and conservative critics.
Topics in Ethical Theory: Metaethics
Lecture: Monday and Wednesday 12-2 PM Dodd 161
Graduate Discussion Section: 10/29, 11/5, 11/19, 12/3 12-2 PM Dodd 325
Study and analysis of basic concepts, selected problems, and contemporary issues in metaethics. Topics may include analysis of moral language, justification of moral beliefs, moral realism, skepticism, free will, moral motivation, etc.
Philosophy Legal Theory
Tuesday 3:30-6:30 PM
This seminar will explore contemporary philosophical literature about contracts. It will use the theory of contract law to explore the relationship between morality and law and specifically between promises and contracts. It should be of interest for those students interested in issues about consent, voluntariness, promising, and law.
Language and the Social
Thursday 4-7 PM
The focus of this seminar will be on recent work on the nature of language. Following the influential discussions of Noam Chomsky, it has often been maintained that the study of language is the study of the organization and development of the *human language faculty*—an innately constrained cognitive capacity for recursively pairing linguistic forms with meanings. The seminar will begin by attempting to both clarify and to motivate this picture of language. We will then work to correct a common presupposition that the existence of the human language faculty entails a form of *individualism* about the nature of language. Correcting this mistaken presupposition opens up the possibility of integrating work on the language faculty with a social conception of language. The seminar will close by considering two recent attempts to carry out this integration.