Honours Seminars in the Department of Philosophy for 2017

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

Themes from Wittgenstein
David Macarthur

In this unit we will look at some key ideas of Wittgenstein that are of continuing relevance for philosophy today. These include his radical (and much misinterpreted) vision of meaning as ‘use', the notion of a grammatical illusion, metaphysical quietism as a response to the problem of metaphysics, the philosophical illusions of contemporary scientism, a revolutionary conception of art and the close connection between the method of philosophy and Freudian psychoanalysis. Readings include Brandom, Cavell, Diamond, McDowell, Putnam, Stroud, and Travis.

Philosophy of “Mere” Life
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.

Philosophy of Action
Sam Shpall

If a person's head moves, she may or may not have moved her head. If she did move it, she may have actively performed the movement of her head or merely, by doing something else, caused a passive movement. And, if she performed the movement, she might have done so intentionally or not. Contrasts like these have motivated philosophical interest in questions about the nature of human action. This course will introduce students to the history of this field and its connections to issues in normative philosophy more broadly. Discussion topics will include the causal theory of action, the nature of intention, weakness of will, and moral responsibility.

Forgiveness
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 Travel
Kristie Miller

If it were possible for me to travel backwards in time, what would prevent me from murdering my grandfather before he sires my father, thus preventing my own birth and ultimately preventing me travelling back in time to murder said grandfather? The grandfather paradox is but one of many paradoxes that pose questions about whether time travel is logically possible and about whether, if time travel is logically possible it would pose objectionable constraints on the free will of time travellers by somehow requiring that their attempts at grand-patricide are always scuppered. This course will consider a number of such paradoxes including: if I were to travel backwards in time, could I meet my younger self in the past, or is such a meeting inherently problematic for accounts of identity through time? If I could meet myself in the past, could I tell myself what I will do in the future, and if so, does this pose issues for my free will, my powers of deliberation, or my psychological well-being? If our world were one in which the past and present do not exist, and the present is a thin sliver of reality, is it metaphysically possible for anyone to time travel in such a world, since there would seem to be nowhere to travel to? The course will focus on questions pertaining to the metaphysical nature of the universe, the nature of time, and issues pertaining to the freedom of the will.

Reimagining Epistemology
Moira Gatens

In recent years some philosophers have proposed that traditional approaches to knowledge and belief have been too exclusively concerned with the abstracted individual knower at the expense of taking into proper account the roles of social relations and institutions in the formation of beliefs and knowledge. It has been argued that once we take account of these social and institutional factors then the embodied particularity of the knower (e.g. sex, race, ethnicity, and so on) can be shown to affect what can be known and believed, and by whom. This unit will examine the work of three contemporary contributors to this attempt to ‘reimagine’ epistemology in a social frame: Miranda Fricker, Jose Medina and Sally Haslanger.
Main readings:

  • Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Haslanger, Sally. Resisting reality: Social construction and social critique. Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Medina, José. The epistemology of resistance: Gender and racial oppression, epistemic injustice, and the social imagination. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Semester 2

Happiness
Caroline West

This seminar will examine questions about the nature and value of happiness. Is there a correct theory of happiness; and, if so, how do we determine what it is? We will also consider the relationship of happiness to self-interest, and to morality. Questions to be addressed include: Are we rationally obliged to seek to maximise our own happiness? Are we morally obliged to maximise the happiness of others – or at least to refrain from making them unhappy? Is there a right to happiness? Should social and political institutions aim to promote happiness, even at the cost of other important values (e.g. freedom)?

Space, Time and Location
Kristie Miller

Are you identical to a region of space (or space-time)? Do you occupy a region of space (or space-time)? In this course we will consider two views about the relationship between space and time, on the one hand, and objects like you and me, on the other. The first, supersubstantivalism, says that you and I are identical to regions of space (and time). The second, traditional substantivalism, says that although regions of space-time are real and perhaps even fundamental, you and I are not identical to them: we occupy them. If we occupy regions, rather than being identical to them, that raises a whole host of further questions: can we occupy two distinct regions of space, at the same time? why is it that the region I occupy, has the same size and shape as I do? can I have parts, even if the region itself does not? What does the relationship between objects and space-time tell us about the way that objects like you and I persist through time? We will consider all these questions are more.

Epistemology and Democracy
Brian Hedden

We will look at questions relating epistemological with democracy including: Can democracy be justified on epistemic grounds, where decision-making by the many is expected to be more accurate than decision-making by a few? Can voting rules (and if so, which ones) be reliable and accurate ways of determining what the public good consists in? Is an 'epistocracy' (or rule by the wise) be justified, and if so how? The course will focus on David Estlund's book Epistemic Authority as well as a series of papers.

Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism
Peter Anstey

Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism traces the rise and fall of early modern experimental philosophy. It spans the period from the late 16th century to 1800 and covers almost all of the major figures from the period, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Denis Diderot, Christian Wolff and Immanuel Kant. It shows how the dominant way of approaching the philosophy of nature, moral philosophy and the ‘science of man’ was to apply the experimental method, as opposed to the speculative method. This experimental–speculative distinction, however, was eclipsed with the emergence of the distinction between rationalism and empiricism in the writings of Kant and his followers.

Threats to Autonomy? Silencing, Objectification and Negative Social Scripts
Prof. Natalie Stoljar (McGill)

This seminar will be taught in intensive format of 2 x 2.5hr seminars/week over 5 weeks (weeks of 31 July and 7, 14, 21 and 28 August).

We will explore how the recent ‘relational’ literature on autonomy intersects with three phenomena that philosophers – particularly philosophers of gender and race – have identified and analyzed, but have not explicitly linked to the notion of autonomy. The three phenomena are those of silencing, objectification, and negative social scripts. The silencing literature argues that the voices of subordinated agents are more likely than those of other groups to go unheard and therefore that these agents potentially suffer harm to their right to freedom of expression. The objectification literature proposes that objectification, or illegitimately treating a person as an object, fails to respect the right of all persons to equal moral status. The literature that explores the impact of negative social scripts – such as negative racist or sexist stereotypes – claims that such scripts have an invidious effect of agents’ self-conceptions and their senses of identity. We will investigate these phenomena to work out whether, in addition to the harms mentioned, they also potentially undermine autonomy. The first four to five seminars will introduce students to the relevant relational autonomy literature (e.g. Benson, Christman, Oshana, Westlund). The remaining seminars will read authors such as Hornsby, Langton, Maitra, McGowan and Fricker (on silencing); Fanon, Nussbaum, Papadaki (on objectification); and Appiah, Gooding-Williams, Velleman, (on negative social scripts, stereotypes and self-conception).