“On the Selection of Good Leaders in a Political Meritocracy” by Daniel Bell (24 Oct)

In this talk, I will assume that (1) it is good for a political community to be governed by high-quality rulers; (2) China’s one party political system is not about to collapse; (3) the meritocratic aspect of the system is partly good; and (4) it can be improved. On the basis of these assumptions, I will put forward suggestions about which qualities matter most for political leaders in the context of large, peaceful, and modernizing (non-democratic) meritocratic states, followed by suggestions about mechanisms that increase the likelihood of selecting leaders with such qualities. I will use the philosophical theory about the best possible political meritocracy in the context of a large, peaceful, and modernizing state as a standard for evaluating China’s actually-existing meritocratic system. I will argue that China can and should improve its meritocratic system: it needs exams that more effectively test for politically relevant intellectual abilities, more women in leadership positions to increase the likelihood that leaders have the social skills required of effective policy-making, and more systematic use of a peer review system to promote political officials motivated by the desire to serve the public.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 24 Oct 2013
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Daniel A. Bell, Center for International and Comparative Political Theory, Tsinghua University
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker:

Daniel A. Bell is Visiting Professor, Depts of Philosophy and Political Science, NUS. He is Professor of Ethics and Political Theory, and Director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Theory, Tsinghua University (Beijing). He taught at NUS from 1991-94. He has authored and edited 15 books, of which the latest (coedited with Li Chenyang) is The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He is currently writing a book on political meritocracy. He is a regular contributor to leading media outlets in China and the West and his works have been translated into 23 languages.

Philosophy Workshop on Justice and the Ethics of Dialogue and Debate (26 Mar)

The Department of Philosophy will be holding a philosophy workshop on Justice and the Ethics of Dialogue and Debate.

Date: Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Time: 10am – 3.30pm
Venue: Conference Room UT-25-03-06, Stephen Riady Centre (EduSports Center), U-Town, NUS (Click here to view map)

The papers presented in this workshop investigate the topic of justice by combining both epistemic and ethico-political perspectives. While all papers draw on the writings of various philosophers (from Abhinavagupta and Dharmakirti to Peter Strawson, from Wittgenstein to Hanfeizi) and various philosophical traditions (e.g. the Marxist, Aristotelian and Confucian traditions), each paper does not simply end up with stating the Chinese vs. the Indian or vs. the Western view of justice, but each presents an argument about some or another aspect of justice that can philosophically stand on its own. Justice and the ethics of dialogue and debate will thus be related to aspects such as the problem of epistemic access to a second person’s inner, especially, emotional states, the question of social change with regard to what each member of the group owes the group and vice versa, and the complicated relation of epistemic and political authority.

Being a workshop, the event seeks to practice what it theorizes, and is open for everyone to participate in active dialogue and debate. Presented papers:

Authority: Of German Rhinos and Chinese Tigers

Ralph Weber, URPP Asia and Europe, University of Zurich (10am – 11am)

This paper inquires into authority, both in its epistemic and deontic forms. I particularly seek to expand on the Polish Dominican logician and philosopher J.M. Bocheński’s The Logic of Authority by raising objections against his way of linking it to freedom and autonomy as well as by including in my discussion additional, unheeded aspects of authority (the authority of office, the authority of number), some of which have been discussed earlier in Alexandre Kojève’s La Notion de l’Autorité. In the course of my argument, I shall discuss the famous Russell-Wittgenstein episode about the possibility of knowing whether or not there is a rhinoceros in the room and draw on Wittgenstein more generally for disentangling the relation between authority and autonomy. An episode in the Han Feizi 韓非子 on believing whether or not there is a tiger in the market leads me to the topic of moral and political authority and its dependence on epistemic authority (which often involves different persons or institutions, but, for example, in the Guanzi 管子is invested in one and the same person, that of the sage-ruler). My goal is to explore those instances of authority in which both epistemology and politics can be said to interrelate, merge, or clash.

Justice and Social Change

Sor-hoon TanDepartment of Philosophy, National University of Singapore (11am – 12pm)

What might we gain from a comparative study of Confucianism and some Western philosophy on the topic of Justice? Some scholars have questioned whether there is any concept of justice in early Confucianism. One response is to either identify the equivalent concept, or find elements in Confucian philosophy that could be reconstructed into a Confucian theory (or at least perspective) on justice. However, going beyond the assumption that justice problems are universal, and exploring the possibility that problems arising from “circumstances of justice” might be understood differently by Confucians in their social criticisms, allows us to tap into deeper differences in social ideals, conceptions of human beings and social relations, that will provide more radically critical perspectives with which to interrogate contemporary experience.

Lunch Break

(12pm – 1.30pm)

Our Knowledge of Other People’s Feelings

Arindam ChakrabartiDepartment of Philosophy, University of Hawai’i at Manoa (1.30pm – 2.30pm)

Understanding the feelings of other people is not only a condition for caring social practice, and Buddhist altruistic compassion, it is the pre-condition for any successful dialogue, even philosophical dialogue, especially across cultural and linguistic barriers. Yet philosophers still do not know how we manage to do it. Neither perception nor inference seems capable of yielding knowledge of what another self—the second person—is currently experiencing, wanting, feeling, thinking. And whether at all another body is enlivened by a self, though not myself, remains hard to “prove”. In this paper, the intricate argumentation by Dharmakirti – the Sautrantika-Yogacara Buddhist philosopher – to prove by an inference that streams of consciousness other than one’s own exist will be examined, side by side with J.S. Mill’s version of the Argument from Analogy and its decisive refutation by P.F. Strawson. After a brief discussion of Max Scheler and Edith Stein’s views on sympathy and empathy, we turn to Kashmir Shaivist epistemology of imagining what it is like to be another self. Inspired by a detailed examination of Abhinavagupta’s insights on how we know, identify with and empathically feel other people’s feelings, the paper will propose assigning the work of knowledge of other selves to imagination, a means or faculty of knowing at least as powerful and indispensable as perception, inference and testimony.

Other Minds, 1946: Interpersonal and Interpretative Justice Among Philosophers

Chuanfei Chin, Department of Philosophy, National University of Singapore (2.30pm – 3.30pm)

A 1946 symposium on ‘Other Minds’ between John Wisdom, J.L. Austin and A.J. Ayer marked a shift in the analytic debate about our knowledge of other minds – from a sceptical orientation to a naturalist one. I focus on two aspects of their dialogue.  First, both Wisdom and Austin argue that the traditional concern with other minds fails to account for the depth and difficulty of our interpersonal relations, particularly our access to others’ emotional states. This is partly because our epistemology is normally dependent on an ethics of trust and vulnerability. Second, Ayer’s response is remarkably rude. He misconstrues their arguments, then uses their conclusions. I use this interpretative injustice to clarify the very norms of interpersonal justice which Wisdom and Austin highlight. Then I assess how far naturalist assumptions are responsible for these insights and conflicts. I take the symposium to illustrate the challenge of philosophical dialogue – in this case, between a Wittgensteinian philosopher influenced by psychoanalysis, an ordinary language philosopher, and a post-positivist philosopher intent on solving the problem.


“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.

“Liberty and Diversity” by Chandran Kukathas

Philosophy Seminar Series: Tuesday, 17 Apr 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Chandran Kukathas, Chair in Political Theory, Department of Government, London School of Economics; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson


The Mill of On Liberty is convinced that diversity, far from being a threat to liberty, gives liberty its point. What could matter more than human development in its richest diversity; and how better to promote it than by a regime of liberty that leaves people to pursue their own goals as they see fit? But the Mill of the Considerations worries that, left to their own devices and desires, people will not become sufficiently alike to be governed as a single collectivity, or develop sufficient virtue to be governed at all. Libertarian though he is, Mill cannot help think that the government of a free society must take upon itself the task of fostering the qualities necessary for all individuals to possess for the society to prosper.

If freedom matters, and matters above all, should we seek to ensure that a free society is populated by people who appreciate its importance, or at least possess the qualities and attitudes needed to sustain it? Or, if freedom matters, and matters above all, should we let freedom find expression in the great diversity of human attitudes to all things, including freedom? Should people be forced to be free? Or if not forced, at least induced (threatened, tricked, cajoled, bribed, manipulated, or generally educated) into that condition? This paper offers an answer.

About the Speaker: Chandran Kukathas holds the Chair in Political Theory in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and is Visiting Professor in the Departments of Political Science and of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of The Liberal Archipelago.

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

“Democracy and Epistemic Peerhood” by Anantharaman Muralidharan

Graduate Seminar Series: 20 Mar 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Anantharaman Muralidharan, MA Student


In democracies, policy is enacted either directly or in-directly according to voters’ preferences. However, voters have different preferences. Two things, therefore, seem legitimate in a democracy: First, that policy be the aggregation of the preferences of all the voters, and secondly, that voters, in the face of disagreement, stick to their guns and not moderate their views. The legitimacy of democracy is therefore in part determined by the notion that each voter is equally likely to get policy questions correct. i.e. voters are taken to be epistemic peers. This implies that a lack of peer-hood among voters can potentially undermine the legitimacy of democracies. This would especially be the case if voter ignorance tended to result in systematically unjust policies. A second, related threat to the legitimacy of majority rule is whether voters should in fact stick to their guns. It is often supposed that epistemic peers who disagree and find out that their disagreement is not isolated should moderate their views or even reserve judgement. If voters were to reserve judgement on a large number of contested issues, then everything else being equal, they should be indifferent between candidates and therefore not vote. Democratic theorists are therefore faced with a dilemma: Either, voters are epistemic peers in which case they should reserve judgement and not vote, or, they are not peers, in which case some voters are in a better epistemic position to determine what the best policy is. This essentially results in an impossibility theorem. Democracy is incompatible with epistemic rationality. Epistemic rationality on the part of voters would tend to undermine epistemic defences of democracy.

murali anna 2About the Speaker: Murali is a Masters student concerned with trying to find a more general justification for the Rawlsian framework. He is interested in broadly trying to derive and defend a free-standing theory of justice; democracy and the justifications for it; as well as social epistemology and its implications for democracy.

More information on the Graduate Seminar 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.