Honours Seminars in the Department of Philosophy for 2013
Kant on Biology
Dr. Daniela Helbig, and Dr. Dalia Nassar
In the Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant is concerned with two central topics: beauty and life. While the first part of the book is concerned with distinguishing aesthetic judgment and pleasure, the second part seeks to determine the structure and distinctive character of living beings, and the way in which we can or cannot grasp them.
Kant’s turn to these topics is not only surprising from the perspective of his contemporaries, but also from the perspective of his own work. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), Kant had established the structure of nature as the structure of judgment, and in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), he offered an empirical account of nature as elaborated in the CPR. In these works, however, Kant does not only not concern himself with living beings and processes, but also appears to assume that life need not be a philosophical concern.
What inspired Kant to consider biological processes, and argue that such a consideration is a necessary part of his system? An adequate answer to this question can only be achieved if we grasp both the significance of the Critique of Judgment within Kant’s project as a whole, and the historical developments in the life sciences that inspired Kant to account for living processes.
The aims of the course are therefore twofold: on the one hand, we will seek to understand Kant’s understanding of biology in relation to his system and to his understanding of transcendental philosophy; on the other, we will seek to understand Kant’s encounter with the biological sciences of his time and his contributions to the history of human and non-human life.
This course will be team-taught by Dr. Daniela Helbig, a historian of the life sciences, and Dr. Dalia Nassar, who works on the history of German idealism. As such, it will offer students a unique opportunity to engage with Kant’s Critique of Judgment, from both a philosophical-systematic perspective, and a historical one.
Frege: The Invisible Realm
Seminars to be pesented in an intensive format in April and May 2013
Prof Charles Travis
The aim of this project is to develop and unfold four core ideas in Frege. These are less current common coin than - though they predate - Frege's two famous distinctions, Sinn-Bedeutung and concept-object, or his idea that truth is an identity under predication. They, and their significance - for these famous ideas, and for philosophy in general - are yet to be appreciated. They form a framework within which alone one can make the proper sense of these more well-known ideas of Frege. It is, moreover, a highly illuminating framework for discussing issues of representation in general - e.g., of the place of representing in perceptual experience, or of the sort of representing involved in our 'propositional' attitudes. The ideas thus matter, in ways yet untreated in the literature, not just to understanding Frege, but to philosophy of psychology, and of mind, more generally.
The ideas I have in mind are:
1. The essential invisibility of thoughts. A thought, for Frege, is what brings truth into question at all. It does this by making truth turn in some particular determinate way on how things are. Such a role for thoughts requires that these not be possible objects of sensory awareness. (See "Der Gedanke", 1918.) Part of the project is to say exactly why invisibility (not being an object of sensory awareness) is mandatory.
This point, together with the next, are the core of Frege’s conception of perception and its relation to thought, and of the fundamental difference in kind between the objects of each. It also contains within it many of the ideas commonly referred to as 'Frege’s context principle'.
2. The essential generality of thoughts, and of what thoughts are of. The sort of representing which brings truth into question is: representing something as (being) something. A thought (or what the thought is of - e.g., things being such that penguins eat fish) occupies the third place in this relation. For whatever occupies this place, there is a certain sort of generality intrinsic to it. As Frege puts it, it 'contains' something by which it reaches beyond the particular case to 'present this to consciousness' as falling under some particular generality. (See "17 Kernsätze zur Logik", Kernsatz 4.) By contrast, whatever occupies the second place in this relation (what Frege refers to as a 'particular case') precisely lacks such generality.
To gesture at the point about perception and thought, objects of perceptual awareness are sorts of things which might occupy the second place in this relation. What occupies the third place is an object of thought.
3. The essential shareability, or publicity, or social nature, of thought. "Der Gedanke" is an elegant argument for this. Elsewhere Frege goes so far as to say: "One can also understand by the existence of a thought that the thought can be grasped as the same by different thinkers." ("Die Verneinung", 1919) This theme in Frege belongs to his conception of objectivity. Among other things, it has consequences in philosophy of psychology, which are generally ignored by most people writing in that area today.
4. There is an idea which goes along with invisibility which can be put by saying: whole thoughts come first; one gets to concepts (or whatever thought-elements may be) by decomposing whole thoughts. (A thought is not built up of building blocks.) (See "Letter to Marty", 1882, "On Concept and Object", 1892, "Notes for Ludwig Darmstaedter", 1919.) This idea calls for considerable unpacking. But one corollary of it is that, as Frege insists, the same thought may (in general) be decomposed in many different ways. It is expressible in different, semantically non-equivalent, sentences.
These four ideas are constants throughout Frege’s work. They form Frege’s conception of (the general case of) representing something as something. Such notions as Sinn and Bedeutung, and such doctrines as Frege’s anti-psychologism, or his conception of logic, can only be understood rightly in terms of these more fundamental ones. It is through them, too, that one can make out Frege’s full significance for philosophy of psychology and of mind. This project aims to say just how these things are so. In doing so it covers as yet untrodden ground.
Cosmopolitanism and Community
Dr Thomas Besch
Should we think of our moral and political obligations as limited by our membership in particular communities? Should we define our conceptions of moral and political community according to particular cultural or national characteristics, or in terms of a shared common humanity? Do we have special obligations to our compatriots or general obligations to humanity as a whole? What is the relation between universal principles and local practices, and what are the consequences for our conceptions of practical reason? We shall explore these questions, and others, through an engagement with the arguments of leading contemporary moral and political philosophers.
Philosophy and Genetics
Prof Paul Griffith
The philosophy of genetics provides a window into many key debates in the philosophy of science. This seminar will deal with questions concerning scientific explanation, causation, the relationship between theories, models and real world systems, the status of theoretical entities, reduction, emergence, the nature-nuture debate, and the conceptual change in science. Genetics is no longer a single discipline within the biological sciences. Almost all work in the biological sciences has 'gone molecular' and genetic concepts and methods can be found throughout biology and biomedicine. Nevertheless, it is still possible to identify some kinds of scientific work whose primary focus is on genes, genetic transmission, or on the nucleic acids and other molecules from which genomes are composed. The seminar will be organised around a series of these 'genetic disciplines'. Explainiing the philosophical issues raised by genetics necessarily involves explaining the relevant scientific material, and in some cases giving a historical perspective on the current state of science. Organising the book around particular kinds of genetic work enables us to provide this material in a timely fashion, as and when the reader needs it. The seminar will not presuppose prior acquaintance with genetics, but lectures and readings will describe specific examples of work in genetics in some detail.
Dr Nick Smith
In this seminar we'll look at a series of the most important and influential papers in formal semantics - the study of meaning in natural language using techniques from logic - from the emergence of this field in the 1970's up until the present century.
Happiness, Welfare and Meaning
Dr Caroline West
What does it take to lead a worthwhile life? What is the connection between happiness and welfare? What makes a life meaningful? Should social and political institutions aim to promote (some or all of) these things? We will consider these and related questions by reading some influential recent books on these topics, starting with What is This Thing Called Happiness? by Fred Feldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). (Free access to an electronic copy of this book is available to students via the library website.)
The Philosophy and "mere" Life
Dr John Grumley
The 21st century sees a profound reassessment of the meaning and value of life. As biomedical research, 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 objections.
Pragmatism: The Kantian Legacy
Dr David Macarthur
One of the abiding myths of pragmatism is that it opposes Kantianism. Rorty writes, “The great pragmatists should [be seen] as breaking with the Kantian epistemological tradition altogether.” In this course we will show that, on the contrary, Peirce’s reconception of epistemology on the model of scientific inquiry – adopted by all the leading pragmatists, including Quine and Putnam – has deep Kantian roots. Following this path we will be in an ideal position to explore the connections between epistemology and political theory and the importance of Kant’s idea of public reason.
Personal and Temporal Perspectives on Living Well
Dr Tom Dougherty
This seminar will cover ethical issues with personal and temporal dimensions. What is the ethical significance of the fact that you have particular attachments to certain people and projects? What reasons do you have to persist with your current attachments? Readings may include Williams, Parfit, Wolf, Korsgaard, Frankfurt, Raz and Buss.
Dr Anik Waldow
This unit will consider ancient, Renaissance and early-modern forms of scepticism and investigate the connections with modern scepticism. We shall be particularly concerned to discover the anti-dogmatic, belief-reconciling and moral implications of sceptical arguments. Our discussion will be centred around the question of whether and to which extent our ordinary epistemic practices rest on something we might call 'rational faith' and we how this sort of belief can be distinguished from other species of (religious, dogmatic and superstitious) faith. (Literature: Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, ed. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge: University Press, 2007; Michele de Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Penguin, 1993; Rene Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, trans. D. Clarke, Penguin)
Venue details for all of these units will be posted on the philosophy notice board, outside the Philosophy Common Room S413, Main Quad A14, at the beginning of semester.