Honours Seminars in the Department of Philosophy for 2015

Venue details for all of these units will be posted on the philosophy notice board, outside the Philosophy Common Room S413, Quadrangle A14 at the beginning of semester.

Semester 1

Mere Life
Associate Professor John Grumley

The 21st century sees a profound reassessment of the meaning and value of life. As biomedical research and objectifying scientific and technical appropriation of nature grows; with the political and social crises attending processes of globalisation that question former international guarantees of human rights, conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war and asylum seekers, philosophers have been compelled to readdress the question of life and the right thereto: its cultural definition, value and meaning. The concepts of "corporeal" and "bare life" serve a range of thinkers to express the exclusions and human suffering that attend the dominant humanist discourse and signal resistance to its alleged illusions and crimes. This course will examine a range of thinkers both literary and philosophical - Coetzee, Sebald, Benjamin, Agamben, Foucault and Todorov - to fully explore the concept of "mere" life, its various formulations, their philosophical and political implications, its critique of traditional humanism and its critics' responses.

Early Modern Persons & Consciousness
Dr Anik Waldow

What does it mean to be this rather than that person? How is it possible to think of oneself as persisting through time? What is the self and how can I find out about it? In the writings of early modern philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Hume and Condillac these questions were intimately related and an answer to one often yielded an answer to all of them. In this seminar we will examine the links between the concepts of identity, consciousness and self-concern. Central to our discussion will be to develop an understanding of how it is possible to distinguish one’s awareness of the self from the kind of awareness involved in the representation of ordinary objects.

Seminar format: This seminar will be taught in 3hr blocks, from week 1-6 of semester 1 (co-taught with Balint Kekedi from Aberdeen); a one-day workshop with international early modern scholars (30th March) is part of the seminar. Participation in the workshop is compulsory.

Semantic Scepticism
Associate Professor Nick Smith

One of the things that makes language so useful is that it reaches out to the world: this allows us to represent things as being thus-and-so by arranging words in certain ways on paper. Or so says common sense. Yet it proves very difficult to say how exactly it could come about that particular bits of language get connected up with certain bits of the world (e.g. 'zebra' picks out the striped animals and 'giraffe' picks out the long-necked ones) – and indeed there are powerful arguments to the conclusion that, contrary to common-sense, we do not in fact succeed in endowing our words with determinate application to objects in the world. In this course we shall critically examine such arguments – from Quine on the inscrutability of reference and the indeterminacy of translation, through Putnam's model-theoretic argument and Kripke's Wittgenstein's sceptical argument up to the current literature.

Intuitions in Philosophy
Professor Folke Tersman

Intuitions are commonly supposed to play a central role in philosophy. For example, some philosophical argumentation proceeds through the use of thought experiments. We are invited to reflect upon some often quite unrealistic scenario (Robert Nozick’s “experience machine”, Parfit’s examples with teletransportation, John Searle’s “chinese room”, and so on), and our intuitive responses to these scenarios are supposed to provide evidence for or against various philosophical claims. This picture of philosophical argumentative practice is presently the focus of an intense debate. Some question that intuitions deserve being treated as evidence, partly on the ground that recent empirical research indicates that our intuitions are affected by factors that seriously undermine their reliability. Others deny that intuitions play the important role that the picture suggests. They think that the potential worries about their reliability leave the credentials of philosophical argumentation intact. The purpose of this course is to focus on some of the questions that are addressed in this debate, including “What is an intuition?”, “What role do intuitions play in philosophy?”, “When, if ever, do they deserve being seen as evidence?, “If not intuitions, what can serve as evidence in philosophy?

Semester 2

Dr Luke Russell

What is forgiveness, and why is forgiveness commonly taken to be morally virtuous? In this unit we will engage with recent research on forgiveness, and try to make sense of the role played by forgiveness in interpersonal and political contexts. We will examine the relationships between forgiving and other possible responses to wrongdoing (e.g. punishing, excusing, justifying, being merciful, accepting, moving on, forgetting), and ask whether we should see forgiveness as involving an emotional change, or a behavioural change, or both. We will also think about the moral status of forgiveness. Is forgiveness always morally admirable, or, at least, morally permissible? Or are there cases in which it is morally wrong to forgive? Is forgiveness instrumentally good, or intrinsically good, or both?

Time, Agency & Causation
Associate Professor Kristie Miller & Professor Helen Beebee

We are the kinds of things that worry about what we ought to do. We deliberate, we plan, and we intend to act to make the world (or our bit of it) a certain way. We are agents. Our deliberating, planning, and intending, only makes sense if two things are true. First, if there is time, and, second, if there is causation. It is hard to see what it would mean to plan for the future if we did not think we could be causally efficacious in making things one way rather than another, or if we did not think that there is any temporal ordering of events. What’s more, it seems that the very feeling of being an agent is the feeling of being in time, and spread out through time, and being able to manipulate the world around us. In this course we will consider just what the relationship is between agency, causation and time. What should we say if, as some physicists suggest, there is no time? What does it mean to be causally efficacious? What account can we give of our phenomenology of agency? Why does it seem that we can causally affect the future but not the past, and, conversely, why do we know about the past but not the future?

The Second Person
Dr David Macarthur

Philosophers traditionally only discuss the 3rd-p perspective of scientific observation and the 1st-p perspective of self-consciousness. Now there is a growing awareness in a number of fields of the importance of the 2nd-p perspective; or, more specifically, of the importance of the intersubjective normative space characterised by relations of address and acknowledgment, of responsibility and commitment, between oneself and another, some others, or everyone. In this seminar we will explore the importance of the second-person in the moral philosophy of Stephen Darwall, the normative pragmatics of Rebecca Kukla & Mark Lance, and the dialectic of self and community in the work of Stanley Cavell.

Thought and the Hyperintensional
Professor David Braddon-Mitchell
To ask a question inspired by a claim of a fictional person, how many things can we dream of in our philosophy? As many as are possible is a natural answer. In other words if we individuate our thoughts by what they are about, we can have as many (and no more) thoughts as there are ways things can be, where that's understood as ways that things can possibly be. But that answer is problematic. It looks like there are quite distinct ways of thinking of things which don't correspond to different ways things can be (the hackneyed example is triangles and trilaterals. To think that something is triangular is a distinct thought from thinking that it is trilateral. Yet there's only the one way things can be: every triangle is a trilateral and vice versa. And here are lots more problems, even if they can't be put into a blurb on a website. We'll look at these problems. And at the menu of solutions, which includes:
(a) Insisting that there aren't that many distinct thoughts: arguing that we were mistaken in our ways telling our thoughts apart
(b) Denying that how things can be and what thoughts are about is connected in any interesting way or at least not in the accepted way.
(c) Accepting that there are genuinely distinct ways things can't be (sometimes called 'impossible worlds') or otherwise that the facts about reality are finer grained than how reality is.