“Motivation for Human Excellence: Is Infinite Utility the Trigger?” by Mitradutta Mohapatra (5 Mar)

The very notion of ‘Infinite Utility’ has always been eclipsed with dubious philosophical credentials. The term ‘Infinite’ is extremely loaded and therefore, one is generally advised to use the word with enough care and caution. In this paper, I shall try to examine the driving force behind the motivation for exemplary human excellence. Human and philosophical history has shown us time and again that the force that drives an agent on the path of extra-ordinary excellence carries a sort of resolve that is beyond human comprehension. What is the motivation that makes Jesus seek divine pardon for his adversaries at the time of his crucification? How can an Ibn Arabi at the face of the hard-coded canon laws of Islam, spread the message of supreme love, consistently throughout his life, unafraid of the likely violent repercussions? What motivates Buddha to be uniquely consistent throughout his life with his exemplary practice and message of supreme human conduct? What is driving this motivation? Is there a case to examine whether at the core of such motivation does lie the concept of ‘Infinite Utility’? Using the analytic techniques of decision theory, I would argue that there possibly remains a case prima facie.

Graduate Seminar Series.
Date: Tuesday, 5 Mar 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Mitradutta Mohapatra, PhD Student

Mitradutta Mohapatra holds an MA from University of Mumbai and he is exposed to both Indian and Western philosophical traditions. He is keen to look at various aspects of moral philosophy and more particularly, his interest lies in ‘applied ethics’. His current research interest at NUS is to have a closer look at the evolution of compliance governance in the contemporary business world and examine its compatibility with the ethical theories and the traditional tenets of human morality.

Updates to the Department’s List of Modules

We are happy to announce that the Department of Philosophy has new undergraduate modules to offer! We have also made some changes to a few existing modules!

Here are the updates:

Changes to Modules

PH2110/GEM2006 Logic

New description: An introduction to classical logic. The first half of the course introduces propositional logic, using the techniques of truth-tables and trees. The second half of the course extends the use of trees to predicate logic and basic modal logic. Emphasis is placed on applying the techniques to philosophical arguments, and on philosophical questions raised by the study of logic.

PH4212 Issues in Philosophy of Mind (Module Title Changed)

Description: This module will explore in depth an advanced topic in the philosophy of mind. Possible topics are the unity of consciousness, the relationship between consciousness and time and the relationship between phenomenology and intentionality. The course may also focus on alternative conceptions of the mind to physicalism, such as dualism, panpsychism, or phenomenalism, issues from the philosophy of perception, such as the problems of illusion, hallucination, and the inverted spectra, or issues from philosophical psychology and cognitive science, such as the modularity of mind, the nature of tacit knowledge, or the relationship between neural states and mental states.

PH4211 Issues in Epistemology (Module Title Changed)

Description: This module will explore an advanced topic in epistemology in depth. Some possible topics are the problem of scepticism, including realist and anti-realist responses to it, the nature of certainty and the relationship of knowledge to chance and credence, the internalism versus externalism debate about the nature of knowledge and justification, and the definability of knowledge in terms of truth, belief, justification and their cognates. The module may also explore a problem from formal epistemology, such as the lottery paradox, the problem of logical omniscience, or probabilistic approaches to the problem of induction.


New Modules

PH2111/GEK2048 Effective Reasoning

Description: What is good reasoning? We will try to answer this question by studying the mechanics of reasoning. Students will learn what an argument is, what the difference between validity and soundness is, and what it means to say that an argument is valid in virtue of its form. They will also be introduced to various strategies and pitfalls in reasoning. In addition, to hone their analytical skills, students will be given arguments—drawn from philosophy and other areas—to unpack and evaluate. It is hoped that in the process of learning what counts as good reasoning, one will become a better reasoner.

PH4240 Issus in Metaphysics

Description: This module will explore in depth some advanced topics in metaphysics. Some possible topics include whether similar things have universals in common, whether time flows, whether past and future exist, whether a whole is something over and above the sum of its parts, whether chance is objective, whether there are other possible worlds, and whether numbers, gods, or chairs and tables exist.

PH4241 Issues in Philosophical Logic

Description: This module will explore in depth some advanced topics in philosophical logic. Possible topics include extensions to classical logic, such as modal logics and higher order logics, non-classical logics, such as intuitionistic, many-valued and relevant logics, or philosophical questions about logic.

PH4242 Issues in Philosophy of Language

Description: This module will explore in depth some advanced topics in philosophy of language. Possible topics are the nature of truth, Dummettian anti-realism, contextualism, relativism, or two-dimensionalism. We may also consider the application of philosophy of language to issues in other areas of philosophy, such as the debate between cognitivists and non-cognitivists in metaethics, or the question of whether metaphysical disputes are merely verbal.

PH4243 Issues in Aesthetics

Description: This module will explore in depth an advanced topic in aesthetics. Possible topics are the ontology of art, the nature of the imagination, the definition of art, subjectivism about beauty, relativism about taste, or the appreciation of nature. Alternatively, we may consider the aesthetics of a particular artform, such as music, film, fiction, painting or dance, or of a particular philosopher, such as Immanuel Kant or Nelson Goodman. Finally, we may consider issues that arise at the intersection of aesthetics and other areas in philosophy, such as the debate over fictionalism in metaphysics.


To view the entire list of modules offered by the Department of Philosophy, click here!

Hume Workshop (21 Feb)

The Philosophy Department will be organising a one-day workshop on David Hume:

[Talk 1. 2.00 – 3.10pm]

Ideas and Impressions Revisited by Tamás Demeter (Hungarian Academy of the Sciences), Isaac Manasseh Meyer Fellow, 11-25 Feb 2013

It is probably the first textbook wisdom on Hume’s philosophy that impressions and ideas are not different qualitatively but only in degree, i.e. in their force, liveliness and vivacity. Based on textual evidence, I am going to argue that there is a crucial qualitative distinction to be drawn between the two groups of perceptions: ideas, but not impressions, are distinct and atomistic. In my talk I will illustrate the significance of this difference in relation to the example of the ‘missing shade of blue’, arguing that the example itself presupposes this qualitative distinction. Then I will generalize the consequences of this insight and argue that it has implications fundamental to our understanding of Hume’s psychology as it drives toward a reading of Hume as a faculty psychologist rather than the arch-associationist he is frequently taken to be.

About the speaker: Tamás Demeter is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Philosophical Research, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Previously, he taught at the Universities of Miskolc, Budapest (Eötvös University), Cambridge, and Pécs, and has held research fellowships at the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh (as a Mellon Visiting Fellow), Helsinki, and Wassenaar. In 2008-2010 he was the Lorenz Krüger Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. He has written extensively on early modern philosophy and science, the philosophy of psychology, and Central European intellectual history.

[Talk 2. 3.15 – 4.20pm]

Hume’s Doxastic Involuntarism by Hsueh Qu (New York University)

In this talk, I examine three mutually inconsistent claims that are commonly attributed to Hume: (a) that all beliefs are involuntary; (b) that some beliefs are subject to normative appraisal; and (c) that ‘ought implies can’. I examine the textual support for such ascription, and the options for dealing with the puzzle posed by their inconsistency. First, I will put forward some evidence that Hume maintains each of the three positions outlined above. I then examine what I call the ‘prior voluntary action’ solution (henceforth PVA) endorsed by Passmore (1980), Norton (1982, 1994, 2002), Falkenstein (1997), Owen (1999), Williams (2004), and McCormick (2005), among others. I argue that PVA in any form fails to account for synchronic rationality. I then raise more specific objections depending on how we disambiguate PVA. PVA can be read as either granting beliefs derivative voluntariness, or as denying their normative significance; the former version fails to satisfactorily accommodate even diachronic evaluations of beliefs, while the latter falls to a regress given Hume’s thesis regarding the inability of actions and passions to possess epistemic normativity. I then briefly propose to reject (c) instead for three reasons: first, the weakness of textual support for such an ascription; secondly, the implications of Hume’s is/ought distinction; and thirdly, Hume’s explicit recognition of the irrelevance of involuntariness to normative evaluation in the moral case.

About the speaker: Hsueh Qu is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at New York University. He previously completed the BPhil and PPE degrees at the University of Oxford. He is currently working on a PhD dissertation on normativity in Hume’s philosophy.

[Talk 3. 4.30 – 5.30pm]

‘No species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life…’: Recent Work on Hume’s Epistemology of Testimony by Axel Gelfert (National University of Singapore)

Recent years have witnessed a thorough reassessment of Hume’s views concerning one of the most pervasive sources of knowledge: the testimony of others. Traditionally, Hume had been cast in the role of ‘global reductionist’, who demands that each of us must have first-hand, non-testimonial evidence of the reliability of (relevant reference classes of) testimony, before accepting any new instance of it. Indeed, most contemporary epistemologists of testimony –reductionists and anti-reductionists alike – still take it for granted that this is Hume’s position. However, a number of scholars have recently disputed the accuracy of this interpretation of Hume on testimony. The upshot of these new interpretations is that Hume is not nearly as ‘individualistic’ about what constitutes good grounds for empirical knowledge as has traditionally been thought; rather, he is willing to regard testimonial acceptance as a natural (default) response to testimony – given certain general constraints (e.g., exclusion of ‘miraculous’ testimony, prevalence of favourable social conditions, etc.). Support for this reassessment comes from textual evidence (especially if one looks beyond Hume’s Enquiry), Hume’s account of the role of sympathy in belief formation, his take on curiosity as the love of knowledge, and recent attempts to interpret Hume as a virtue epistemologist.

About the speaker: Axel Gelfert is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at NUS. He received his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge in 2006, and has held visiting research fellowships at Collegium Budapest (Institute of Advanced Study) and the University of Edinburgh (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities). His main areas of research are historical and social epistemology and the philosophy of science and technology.

“Hutcheson and the Experience of Pure Benevolence” by Christina Chuang (14 Feb)

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) is often associated with moral sentimentalism, which argues that our moral distinctions are determined by sense perceptions, rather than reason. Some contemporary ethicists have claimed to find the origin of non-cognitivism in moral sentimentalism and thus have claimed Hutcheson’s work as one of the first non-cognitivist theories in the history of ethics. But it is debatable whether being a sentimentalist necessarily entails being a non-cognitivist.

In this talk I do not specifically engage the issue of cognitivism but I make a connection between Hutcheson and classical Indian thought as an alternative way of addressing the debate. I argue that Hutcheson’s moral knowledge can be accessed through non-discursive meditation. This is because meditation captures the decisive elements of the experience of benevolence in Hutcheson’s theory: pre-reflective, non-propositional and immediate. Hutcheson’s pure benevolence is analogous to Purusha in Samkhya Philosophy. It is a pre-reflective awareness where things are directly experienced without the attachment of the “I.” There is a deeper connection between ethics and spiritual practice in Hutcheson that scholars have not noticed previously – Hutcheson’s writing style has a meditative element as he employs inductive argument and thought examples to invoke his readers to contemplate their mental states. Meditation cannot inform us of what the “good” is but the “good” has a meditative access.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 14 Feb 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Christina Chuang, Assistant Professor, Philosophy Group, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: 

Christina received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, in June 2012 and moved to Singapore in August 2012.  Her main research interests are the history of ethics, moral psychology and classical Indian Philosophy.  She is currently working on developing a more holistic account of the nature of moral judgment that incorporates philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.  She is also a certified yoga teacher and an avid rock climber, and hopes that her passion for yoga and philosophy will merge in the near future.

“The Essence of Truthmaking (and a Quandary for Quasi-Realism)” by Jamin Asay (7 Feb)

Conventional wisdom in truthmaker theory is that which propositions an object makes true is a function, in part, of its essential properties. For instance, Socrates himself is a truthmaker for <Socrates is human> but not <Socrates is a philosopher> because while Socrates is essentially human, he is not essentially a philosopher. I’ve argued previously that we can make sense of a different kind of truthmaking that relies not on essential properties, but on the kinds of projectivist practices at work in quasi-realist accounts of metaethics. Such a distinction enables quasi-realists to distinguish themselves from realists (in particular, naturalistic “Cornell” realists). But what if modality itself is best understood quasi-realistically? What would this mean for truthmaker theory? In this talk I’ll explore what the ramifications of anti-realism about modality are for truthmaker theory. In particular, I’ll argue that this perspective offers an argument for a nominalist-friendly approach to truthmaker theory, but that comes at the expense of clouding the distinction between realism and anti-realism. A further consequence of this shows that quasi-realists may be on shaky ground if they pursue their quasi-realism about both morals and modals.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 7 Feb 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Jamin Asay, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: 

Jamin Asay is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He has also taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he recently earned his Ph.D. He has published in the areas of metaphysics, philosophy of science, metaethics, and philosophy of language. His monograph entitled The Primitivist Theory of Truth will be released by Cambridge University Press in summer 2013.

Exhibition Opening: Textures, Tones & Timbres – Art of Chong Fahcheong (31 Jan, 6.30pm)

Mr. Chong Fahcheong, an alumni of our Philosophy Department, will be showcasing his artworks at the NUS Museum from 1 Feb to 28 Apr 2013. Do make a trip down to the NUS Museum to have a look!

There will also be an exhibition opening, which will be held on Thursday, 31 Jan 2013, 6.30pm at the NUS Museum. You are warmly welcomed to attend this event. If you are coming, please RSVP by calling 65168817 or by e-mail to museum@nus.edu.sg

“Group Agency in the Real World” by John Matthewson (31 Jan)

Group agents are agents composed of parts that are themselves agents. In the book Group Agency, Christian List and Philip Pettit argue that such group agents ought to be included in the ontology of the social sciences. For example, they claim we can talk about the beliefs, preferences and even blameworthiness of a corporation (as opposed to just the members of that corporation), where this talk is at least sometimes literally true. List and Pettit extend these ideas, outlining ways in which group agents should be structured in order to meet particular norms of agency.

However, there is some tension between the book’s methodology and its purported findings. Many of the arguments presented in Group Agency involve formal treatments of highly idealised and abstract scenarios, the results of which are intended to secure claims regarding actual group agents. The use of such abstract scenarios is a well-established and effective research method in both philosophy and science, but complexities arise when we attempt to deploy this type of research in the real world. I will examine the extent to which these complexities might cause trouble for List and Pettit’s claims, emphasising the importance of how their formal models generalise across actual and possible cases.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 31 Jan 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: John Matthewson, Lecturer in Philosophy, School of Humanities, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: 

John completed his PhD at the Australian National University in 2012 and is now a lecturer at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. His thesis was regarding the use of scientific models, with a focus on the negative interactions that hold between certain desirable properties of these models. John works in philosophy of science, particularly scientific explanation and representation, as well as philosophy of biology and some applied ethics. He has a background in clinical medicine, and beginning in 2013 will be lucky enough to combine all of these interests working on a collaborative project in the philosophy of evolutionary medicine. He plans to eat a lot of food while in Singapore.

Call for Applications: International Interdisciplinary Summer School 2013 – Religion and Secularism in Modern Democracies

The University of Tübingen, Forum Scientiarum, is organising a one-week International Interdisciplinary Summer School on the “Religion and Secularism in Modern Democracies”: with Charles Taylor (McGill University, Montreal, Canada) which will take place during this year’s Unseld Lectures from 3-7 June 2013.

For more information (and for those interested in applying), please visit http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/en/facilities/zentrale-einrichtungen/forum-scientiarum/events/unseld-lectures/2013/summerschool.html



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“The True and what might be the truth about ‘is true’: A critical examination of Frege’s views” by Matthias Schirn (24 Jan)

What Frege has bequeathed to us regarding the concept of truth is not a homogeneous, coherent and systematically worked out conception. It is rather an agglomeration of remarks, scattered throughout several of his writings, on the nature of judgement and assertion, the conception of the two truth-values the True and the False as the references of assertoric sentences (as objects), the relation of a (true) thought to the True, the role and the purportedly unique sense of the word “true” and its alleged redundancy on the level of both sense and assertion, the characterization of logic as the science of the most general laws of truth, the “truth-conditional“ approach concerning the semantics of his formal language — to mention some issues, but not all.

The core of my talk will be a critical examination of what Frege says in some key passages about truth, the True and “is true”. I shall only touch upon his treatment of the True in Grundgesetze since a proper analysis of it would require a separate talk. Where it seems useful and enlightening, aspects of the current discussion of the concept of truth (for example, the role of this concept in minimalism about truth) will be taken into account. I shall argue among other things (a) that Frege’s reflections on the relation of a (true) thought to the True are incoherent; (b) that he fails to offer a convincing argument for rejecting the view according to which a sentence of the form “The thought that p is true” expresses the subsumtion of a thought (qua object) under the concept is true; (c) that Frege seems to overlook the fact that in such a sentence, even if it is interpreted as expressing a subsumtion of this kind, we still have the relation of sense to reference, of a thought to a truth-value; (d) that he falls short of providing a cogent argument for the purported synonymy of “p” and “The thought that p is true” and thus for the alleged redundancy of “is true” on the semantic level; (e) that, contrary to what he says, he has to concede that the word “true” makes an essential contribution to the thought expressed by “The thought that p is true”; (f) that there are indispensable uses of the truth-predicate anyway, not only in sentences such as “Everything Peter says is true” but also, for example, in informal “metalogical” discourse (g) that, contrary to what Frege appears to claim, he is committed to acknowledging that true is a property (of true thoughts); (h) that it remains unclear what truth qua that which is acknowledged (not predicated) in a judgement is supposed to be if it is possibly neither the True nor the concept is true.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 24 Jan 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Matthias Schirn, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Munich
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: 

Mathias Schirn is a professor of analytical philosophy at the University of Munich. His research interests are in the philosophy of logic and mathematics, the philosophy of language, epistemology and the more recent history of philosophy and logic with particular emphasis on the work of Gottlob Frege.

He held visiting positions at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Berkeley, Minnesota (Twin Cities), Mexico City (UNAM), Buenos Aires, São Paulo and several other universities in Europe, the United States and Latin America.

He published in The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Mind, The Philosophical Review, Synthese, Erkenntnis, History and Philosophy of Logic, Logique et Analyse, The Bristish Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Metascience, Dialectica, Axiomathes, Kantstudien, Theoria, Crítica, Manuscrito and other international journals.

He published two books on the philosophy of language (one in German and one in Portuguese with Guido Imaguire), edited several books including Frege, Importance and Legacy, de Gruyter, Berlin New York, and The Philosophy of Mathematics Today, Oxford University Press, Oxford and he is now preparing a book with the title Foundations of Logic and Mathematics. Essays on Frege and another with the title Zahl und Begriff, Untersuchungen zu Freges Philosophie der Mathematik.

Among his hobbies are chamber music (especially string quartets), jazz, Roman languages, visits to Latin America and sports (especially bike racing competitions).

“Confucian Role Ethics: A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism” by Roger T. Ames (17 Jan)

In the introduction of Chinese philosophy and culture into the Western academy, we have tended to theorize and conceptualize this antique tradition by appeal to familiar categories. Confucian role ethics is an attempt to articulate a sui generis moral philosophy that allows this tradition to have its own voice. This holistic philosophy is grounded in the primacy of relationality, and is a challenge to a foundational liberal individualism that has defined persons as discrete, autonomous, rational, free, and often self-interested agents. Confucian role ethics begins from a relationally constituted conception of person, takes family roles and relations as the entry point for developing moral competence, invokes moral imagination and the growth in relations that it can inspire as the substance of human morality, and entails a human-centered, a-theistic religiousness that stands in sharp contrast to the Abrahamic religions.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 17 Jan 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Roger T. Ames, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: 

Roger T. Ames is Professor of Philosophy and editor of Philosophy East & West. His recent publications include translations of Chinese classics: Sun-tzu: The Art of Warfare (1993); Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare (1996) and Tracing Dao to its Source (1997) (both with D.C. Lau); the Confucian Analects (1998) and the Classic of Family Reverence: A Philosophical Translation of the Xiaojing (2009) (both with H. Rosemont), Focusing the Familiar: A Translation and Philosophical Interpretation of the Zhongyong, and A Philosophical Translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant (with D.L. Hall) (2001). He has also authored many interpretative studies of Chinese philosophy and culture: Thinking Through Confucius (1987), Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture (1995), and Thinking From the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture (1997) (all with D.L. Hall).  Recently he has undertaken several projects that entail the intersection of contemporary issues and cultural understanding.  His Democracy of the Dead: Dewey, Confucius, and the Hope for Democracy in China (with D.L. Hall) (1999) is a product of this effort. Almost all of his publications are now available in Chinese translation, including his philosophical translations of Chinese canonical texts. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary (2011), his most recent monograph that evolved from the endowed Ch’ien Mu lectures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is an argument that this tradition has a sui generis vision of the moral life. He has most recently been engaged in compiling the new Blackwell Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, and in writing articles promoting a conversation between American pragmatism and Confucianism.