“Human Nature and Social Construction: 17th-Century Cases” by Knud Haakonssen (19 Apr)

Does language presuppose social relations, or do social relations presuppose language? During the Enlightenment, there was an intense preoccupation with the relationship between linguistic ability and sociability. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was a common idea that communicative interaction was the core of social living and, as largely a distinctive feature of humanity, this meant that human life without society was seen as an idle fiction (Hume). These theories of the character of social phenomena had a pre-history in seventeenth-century contract theories, and it is with aspects of this earlier story that I am concerned in this paper.

Early-modern contract theory did not come into the world fully fledged, nor was it one theory, but several significantly different ones. The articulation of a language in which social relations, especially authority, could be understood in contractual terms of some sort was a difficult process and by no means a coherent and linear one. We have to attend to individual episodes when particular argumentative needs were met through adaptation of the general language of contract. Against the background of a brief sketch of Thomas Hobbes’s commonly misunderstood idea a demonstrative science of morals and its implication for his idea of contractual explanation, I will look in particular at the use that Locke’s great contemporary, Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), made of a comparable methodology in a situation that was different from that faced by Hobbes. For politico-theological reasons Pufendorf was motivated to eliminate not only metaphysical assumptions about the individuals in contractual relations, but also ‘naturalistic’ assumptions such as those of Hobbes. This led him into radical ideas of the minimal imaginable requirement for being a human agent capable of having contractual relations.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 19 Apr 2012
Time: 2-4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 Level 5)
Speaker: Knud Haakonssen, Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History, University of Sussex
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker: Knud Haakonssen is Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History at the University of Sussex, Honorary Professor of History at University College London, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, and a Long-term Fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences & Letters, and the Royal Historical Society. Professor Haakonssen has worked extensively on the history of moral, political and legal thought with special emphasis on the Enlightenment in Scotland, England, Germany and Scandinavia.

 More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

“Epistemic and Ethical Conditions for Media Freedom” by Onora O’Neill

Philosophy Seminar Series: 23 Feb 2012, 1-3pm, AS7 Seminar Room B; Speaker: Onora O’Neill, Professor, University of Cambridge; Moderator: Dr. Loy Hui Chieh

Classical arguments for media freedoms do not converge on a shared view of acceptable constraints. Miltonian arguments stress the importance of meeting epistemic requirements for truth seeking, but take too thin a view of these demands and exaggerate the effectiveness of absence of censorship. Millian arguments for rights of self expression minimise ethical and epistemic demands, but cannot plausibly be extended to the media. Arguments that take the epistemic and ethical needs of readers, listeners and viewers into account are more plausible and suggest that media regulation should constrain process but not content.

About the speaker: Baroness O’Neill comes from Northern Ireland and was educated at Oxford and Harvard, where she worked under the late John Rawls. She has taught in the US and the UK, was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge until 2006 and teaches Philosophy in Cambridge. She was President of the British Academy, the UK National Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences from 2005-9, and chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998-2010. She has been a member of the House of Lords since 1999, and is an independent, non-party peer. She has served on the Select Committees on Stem Cell Research, BBC Charter Review, Genomic Medicine, Nanotechnology and Food and Behavioural Change. She writes on ethics and political philosophy, with particular interests in international justice, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and bioethics. Her books include Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, Development and Justice (1986), Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy (1989), Towards Justice and Virtue (1996) and Bounds of Justice (2000), Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (2002), A Question of Trust (the 2002 Reith Lectures) and Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics (jointly with Neil Manson, 2007). She is currently working on practical judgement and normativity, trust and accountability in public life; and the ethics of communication.
More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

“Self and Personal Identity in the Zhuangzi” by Cheng Kai Yuan

Philosophy Seminar Series: 14 Feb 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Cheng Kai-Yuan, Professor, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

There are two parts in this talk. In the first part, I will present a new interpretation of the butterfly dream in the Zhuangzi (Philosophy East and West, forthcoming). The novelty of this interpretation lies in identifying a line of reasoning in the “Qiwulun” chapter which embodies a deep puzzle about the nature of self, and in unpacking how the butterfly dream passage at the end of that chapter addresses the puzzle in question. Such a reading is cast within a larger context of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi where death is a major theme. In the second part, I will present some of my ongoing works on deciphering some of the difficult passages in the Zhuangzi. I shall argue that those passages can be best understood in terms of a theory of personal identity developed by Mark Johnston (2010). I shall also highlight some important contrasts between Zhuangzi and Mark Johnston with regard to thinking and suggesting how a person may survive death, given a naturalistic world view. I hope that, by taking these two parts together, a compelling case can be made for the importance and relevance of Zhuangzi’s philosophy in a contemporary context.

About the speaker: Kai-Yuan Cheng is currently Professor at the Department of Philosophy of National Chung-Cheng University in Taiwan. He obtained his Ph.D in Philosophy from City University of New York Graduate Center in 2002. His research areas include Philosophy of Language and Mind, Metaphysics, and Zhuangzi’s Philosophy. Dr. Cheng was a recipient of Academia Sinica Research Award for Junior Research Investigators, and a visiting fellow at Princeton University, University of Bristol, Kyung-Hee University, and University of Vienna.
More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

“Problems in Epistemic Space” by Jens Christian Bjerring

Philosophy Seminar Series: 9 Feb 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Jens Christian Bjerring, Lecturer, Aarhus University (Denmark); Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

When a proposition might be the case, for all an agent knows, we can say that the proposition is epistemically possible for the agent. In the standard possible worlds framework, we analyze modal claims using quantification over possible worlds. It is natural to expect that something similar can be done for modal claims involving epistemic possibility. The main aim of this paper is to investigate the prospects of constructing a space of worlds—epistemic space—that allows us to model what is epistemically possible for ordinary, non-ideally rational agents like you and me. I will argue that we cannot successfully construct such a space of worlds without giving up core tenets of the standard possible worlds framework. In turn, this will make a case for the conditional claim that if we want to model epistemic possibility for ordinary agents, we must look for alternatives to the possible worlds framework.

About the speaker: Dr. Bjerring was awarded the PhD degree in philosophy from the Australian National University in November 2010. Currently, he is lecturing at Aarhus University (Denmark). He is particularly interested in issues in epistemology, philosophy of language, logic, mind and metaphysics.


More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

“Bodily Sensation Objects” by Kranti Saran

Philosophy Seminar Series: 26 Jan 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Kranti Saran, Fellow in Philosophy, Harvard University, Department of Philosophy; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

According to the dualist, bodily sensations are mental objects. On the ‘accepted view’ of sense-data spelled out by Moore (1953) they only exist when they are perceived, are private to the perceiver, have no distinction between their appearance and reality, and do not exist in physical space. In contrast, physicalist theories of bodily sensations are motivated by the desire to avoid positing mental objects (Kim (1972)). Physicalists typically hold that all bodily sensations are only properties or states of the body (Aune (1967), Nagel (1965)), or brain events (Smart (1959)). Against the dualist, I argue that bodily sensations are not mental objects; against the physicalists I argue that (some) bodily sensations have an objectual character. I speak of those that do as bodily sensation objects. I explain the sense in which such sensations are objects and defend the cogency of the idea of bodily sensation objects from a slew of objections. I then go on to provide a positive argument for the existence of bodily sensation objects: if some experiences of bodily sensations representing bodily sensation objects are veridical, then bodily sensation objects exist; some experiences of bodily sensations representing bodily sensation objects are veridical; hence bodily sensation objects exist. In addition to defending each step of the argument, I also defend the claim that experience represents bodily sensation objects at all, by using the method of phenomenal contrast as developed by Siegel (2010).

About the speaker: Kranti completed his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University in May 2011 and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard University. Kranti’s dissertation focused on the nature of bodily sensations. More generally, he is interested in questions about the metaphysics and epistemology of experience.


More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

“Among Prelates and Primates: From Darwin to Rousseau” by Paul Thomas (19 Jan 2012)

Philosophy Seminar Series: 19 Jan 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Paul Thomas, Professor in Political Science, UC Berkeley; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

Rousseau is integral to my argument here—he is no pendant, no “bonus,”—because Darwin’s concept of natural selection, for all its originality, perhaps unexpectedly brings to the fore the lesser-known, less notorious concept of perfectibility that Rousseau arrayed in his Second Discourse (the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality). Perfectibility too, on Rousseau’s prescient understanding of it, “is no design, no plan, no blueprint.” It has no aim, no goal; it opens no doors for us. Like Darwin’s natural selection, it reminds us that patterning is one thing, purpose or design something else again. Darwin, that is to say, is of invaluable assistance in helping us understand one of Rousseau’s most central, but least understood concepts, perfectibility; and it is this very concept of perfectibility that can, in its turn, help us assess what is, and what is not, of presentday significance about Darwin’s deployment of natural selection.

About the speaker: Professor Thomas received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1973. He specializes in Marxism and Political Theory. His books include Karl Marx and the Anarchists (Routledge, 1980), Alien Politics: Marxist State Theory Retrieved (Routledge, 1994), Rational Choice Marxism (co-edited with Terrell Carver, Macmillan, 1995), and Culture and the State (co-authored with David Lloyd, Routledge, 1998). His numerous articles on Marx and Marxism include contributions to The Cambridge Companion to Marx and to the 1998 Socialist Register. He has also written on Rousseau, cinema and other socio-cutural themes. He is currently at work on a book called Scientific Socialism: Career of a Concept.
More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.


“Progressive Confucianism” by Stephen Angle (10 Jan 2012)

Philosophy Seminar Series: 10 Jan 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Stephan C. Angle, Professor, Wesleyan University, USA; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

In recent years, political philosophy has emerged as a key locus of debate for contemporary Confucian philosophers. This lecture surveys some of the competing approaches and then introduces a new alternative, “Progressive Confucianism.” According to Progressive Confucianism, ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue. The institutions advocated by Progressive Confucians are valued not because of their ancient pedigree but because of their capacity to assist in the realization of the fundamental human virtues that Confucians have valued since ancient times. Social structures that set barriers to the realization of virtue, therefore, need to be critiqued and changed. Progressive Confucian criticism of social, economic, or political oppression will often resemble the criticisms raised by other sorts of progressivism, but Progressive Confucianism remains true to the founding insights of Confucianism in many ways. It endorses versions of hierarchy, deference, ritual, and state-sponsored ethical education. Progressive Confucian political philosophy argues that our narrowly political institutions and values must be understood to exist in a balanced, mutually dependent relationship with two other distinct sources of value and practice, the ethical and the ritual.

About the speaker: Stephen C. Angle received his B.A. from Yale University in East Asian Studies and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan. Since 1994 he has taught at Wesleyan University, where he is now Professor of Philosophy. Angle is the author of Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry (Cambridge, 2002), Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (Oxford, 2009), and Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: Toward Progressive Confucianism (Polity, 2012), as well as and numerous scholarly articles on Chinese ethical and political thought and on topics in comparative philosophy.
More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

Talk by Stephan Leuenberger (5 Jan 2012)

Philosophy Seminar Series: 5Jan 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Stephan Leuenberger, Lecturer, University of Glasgow; Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

Philosophical theses are sometimes put by saying that one class of facts grounds another such class. Recently, several authors have tried to clarify and regiment such talk of grounding, and have asked about what features the relation of grounding has. The orthodox view is that grounding is a necessary connection among facts: if some facts ground another fact, they necessitate it, and the grounding fact itself is non-contingent. I shall challenge this view by presenting potential counterexamples. Finally, I will sketch a positive account of grounding that allows it to be contingent.

About the speaker: Stephan Leuenberger is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, specializing in metaphysics. Before joining Glasgow in 2008, he studied at the Universities of Bern (Lic. Phil), Oxford (B.Phil), and Princeton (PhD), and held postdoctoral fellowships at the Australian National University and the University of Leeds.
More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

Libertarian Potential in Rawls, By Murali (15 Nov 2011)

Graduate Seminar Series: 15 Nov 2011, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Murali, Current M. A. student, Department of Philosophy, NUS; Moderator: TBA

In this paper, I examine the criticism of Rawls’s theory made by Loren Lomasky in his article Libertarianism at twin Harvard. Lomasky argues that from the original position, the parties would have chosen libertarian principles of justice rather than the canonical set. Lomasky argues that the liberty principle which canonically excludes the economic liberties would be expanded to include them as economic activity is paradigmatically private. He also argues that the difference principle would not be chosen because the restrictions placed on the better off would produce intolerably high strains of commitment and that a modified utilitarian principle which guarantees a decent minimum would be chosen instead. He further argues that the difference principle would be rejected in favour of strong property rights and the impartial enforcement of contracts given recent advances in the social sciences which demonstrate their salutary effect on the well-being of the worst off. I will be broadly focusing on two arguments against Lomasky.

I argue that there are salient differences between the economic liberties and the basic liberties which are pertinent to the argument for the liberty principle and its priority over the second principle of justice. This difference gives us reason to only include something like Rawls’s canonical set of basic liberties within the list of basic liberties. Furthermore, I argue that the economic liberties pre-suppose an institutional framework that is premature to assume from within the original position.

With regards to the difference principle, I argue that while none of Rawls’s actual defences of the difference principle vis a vis the strains of commitment work, Rawls has the resources to defend the difference principle as the one best able to satisfy the concerns posed by strains of commitment on the stability of society.

murali anna 2About the speaker: Murali is a current M. A. student in the Department of Philosophy. He is working on a masters thesis that has to do with Rawls and justification of the original position.

God and Logical Space: Logical Pantheism, by István Aranyosi (3 Nov 2011)

Philosophy Seminar Series: 3 Nov 2011, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: István Aranyosi, AssistantProfessor, Bilkent University, Ankara; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

Abstract: In the first section I expound a formalization of the modal ontological argument based on a formulation by Alvin Plantinga that assumes S5 modal logic, after which, in the second section, I explain an objection against it, which I call the “the objection from modal depth”, due to Michael Tooley’s (1981) discussion of Plantinga, but also present in some more recent literature on the issue of whether conceivability entails possibility (Stephen Yablo 1999, David Chalmers 2002). This is a very powerful objection from modal epistemology, given that it can grant even a modal logic as strong as S5 to the supporter of the ontological argument and still have the same bite. According to this objection, though one can conceive of God, and hence of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, one cannot conceive of the necessary God. The reason is that the conceivability of God not existing is a modal epistemological fact that is at a more fundamental level than the alleged conceiving of a necessary God. Conceiving of the necessary God has more modal depth than conceiving of His nonexistence. According to the objection, modal epistemological claims have to be based on modal epistemological facts of the lowest-order, hence God’s nonexistence, which is a first-order fact should drive all other higher-order modal epistemological claims, like whether the necessary God is conceivable. I argue that the only way to deal with this objection is by equating God with the Absolute Everything, that is, with Logical Space itself. Thereby we get to a new doctrine that I propose and defend, called “Logical Pantheism”. Given certain peculiarities of my notion of logical space, it will be apparent that the only entity that satisfies the Anselmian description for God, “the being greater than which nothing can be conceived”, is Logical Space itself. Finally, several issues related to how Logical Pantheism could be thought as closer to classical theism than traditional Pantheism will be briefly explained.

aranyosi officialAbout the speaker: István Aranyosi is an assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy, Bilkent University, Ankara since 2007. He received his PhD in 2005 from the Central European University, Budapest, and in 2006-2007 he was a research fellow at the Centre for Consciousness Australian National University. His areas of research are metaphysics and philosophy of mind, areas in which he has published extensively. He is currently working on two monographs, The Peripheral Mind. Philosophy of Mind and the Peripheral Nervous System and God Mind and Logical Space.

More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.