Hilary Term 2023

This term, the seminar will meet on Wednesdays from 4–5pm in the Ryle Room, Radcliffe Humanities.

Talk titles and abstracts will appear here as we receive them. Current DPhil students interested in giving a talk during Trinity Term should feel free to get in touch with a title, abstract, and any preferences for weeks.

Week 1 (18 January) – cancelled due to speaker availability change

Week 2 (25 January) – Kyle Van Oosterum, “The Limits of the Human Rights Obligations of Social Media Corporations”

Abstract. Nowadays, there is a lot of public scrutiny directed at social media corporations (SMC’s) and the moral, legal and social responsibilities they may possess. The concept of human rights (and their correlative obligations) has also become popular as a way of articulating what SMC’s may owe us and how they may wrong us. In this talk, I want to examine how human rights help us identify the nature of an SMC’s moral obligations. I start by briefly analyzing the concept of human rights and how it can be plausible to say a corporation has human rights obligations. I then ask whether SMC’s (and corporations in general) should have human rights obligations and identify three desiderata for an account of these obligations and their limits. These desiderata draw attention to the fact SMC’s make decisions about our rights in a similar manner to states which distinguishes them from other corporations.

I then analyze a famous proposal of corporate human rights obligations – John Ruggie’s ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework which formed the basis of the UN’s Guiding Principles for Human Rights and Business – and evaluate how and whether it satisfies my desiderata. Overall, I hope to illuminate and explore the idea of corporate human rights obligations for SMC’s.

Week 3 (1 February) – Nathan Elvidge, “Ethical Porn and the Right to Withdraw Consent”

Abstract. This paper explores the requirements of consent for pornography to be genuinely ethical. I discuss the scope of sexual integrity and explore some puzzles about the nature of sexual contracts. I ultimately argue that the consumption of pornographic materials requires the ongoing consent of the performers, who I argue have a right to withdraw consent from consumption of their material. I argue that these considerations render most pornography contracts unjust and invalid, and conclude that genuinely ethical porn would require a radical overhaul of the industry. I finally conclude that until such changes can be made, the private consumption of pornography is almost always wrongful.   

Week 4 (8 February) – Daniel Rowe, “Modal Potentialism and the ‘Deep-Problem’ at the Core of Mathematics”

Abstract. ZFC set-theory is often seen as a foundation for all mathematics. Yet many philosophers worry that at its core there is a ‘Deep-Problem’: to avoid the paradoxes that plagued naïve set-theory, the axiomatic versions have been developed ad-hoc. They do not offer a philosophically reasonable account of what it is about the nature of sets and mathematics that allow some entities to be collected but not others. The ‘Iterative Conception’ of the set is often thought to provide such an explanation. Sets are formed at stages. A set can only collect that which exists at a ‘lower’ stage, but not that which only exists at a ‘higher’ stage.  

For a growing number of philosophers (especially Linnebo, Shapiro and Studd) this motivates Modal-Potentialism, which says that at no stage is all of mathematical reality present. Thus the paradoxical sets never form. It is not that they cannot be collected; it is that they can never be there all at once to be collected. At face value this sounds like a potentially infinite universe where all mathematical facts cannot be true all at once.  Such an approach could have profound philosophical implications, not just for mathematics. 

Soysal (2020) has offered an important critique of this (and related) positions. Arguing that the ‘Deep-Problem’ is not quite so deep after all, and that the very definition of set that is central to any understanding of the iterative conception can suffice to diffuse the problem. Modal-Potentialism, on this account, is not well-motivated, and there is no need to take the iterative metaphor quite so literally.  

I want to argue that there is an important way to view the ‘Deep-Problem’ in which Soysal’s answer does not suffice. I argue that not only does Modal-Potentialism offer a compelling answer to the problem, but that Soysal’s own answer can in fact be reinterpreted as something akin to the Modal-Potentialists answer. I also argue that Modal-Potentialism has the resources to offer a different philosophical way of thinking about mathematics in general and numbers in particular that could be deeply illuminating and philosophically very exciting. 

Week 5 (15 February) – Thomas Ralston, “Plural Predication and the Pragmatics of Bare Plurals”

Abstract. There is an orthodoxy in formal semantics, which is to treat bare plural generics (sentences of the form, ‘Ks are F’) as covertly quantificational, in the style of Lewis’s analysis of adverbs of quantification (1975). On the covert quantification account, generics have a tripartite structure, along with some kind of ‘quasi-universal’ quantificational force. The only alternative which has drawn serious attention is the kind-predication account, on which generics have the simple form of the predication of the name of a kind. In this paper, I sketch the beginnings of an alternative regimentation of bare plurals, which takes their surface form at face value and analyses them in terms of plural predication, by analogy with plural definite descriptions.  

Like generics, plural definite descriptions exhibit a tolerance for exceptions. This property is known as non-maximality (Brisson, 2003). Appending ‘all’ to a definite plural has a “maximising effect” (Dowty, 1987): ‘the townspeople are asleep’ admits exceptions, whereas ‘all the townspeople are asleep’ does not. ‘All’ has the same effect on generics: ‘dogs have four legs’ admits exceptions, whereas ‘all dogs have four legs’ does not. I suggest that these are cases of a single pragmatic phenomenon; the members of each pair of sentences have the same truth conditions, but ‘all’ reduces how much “pragmatic slack” they allow (Lasersohn, 1999). Through the analogy with definite plurals, we can account for three puzzling features of bare plurals: (i) tolerance of exceptions; (ii) context-sensitivity; and (iii) interaction with negation.  

Week 6 (22 February) – Hermann Koerner, “Phronesis as the Soul’s Original Nature in Plato’s Phaedo

Abstract. Plato employs the concept of an original nature (archaia phusis) in several of his writings (Symp. 191d1–2, 192e9, 193c5 and d4; Rep. 611c7–d1; Tim. 90d5). In its original Hippocratic context, ‘archaia phusis’ denotes the body’s correct, normal, and healthy condition. This state is in accordance with the body’s nature, was typically present before the occurrence of a given disease or injury, and is the normative aim of the restorative treatment prescribed by the doctor. Plato’s ultimate interest in this medical notion, as especially Republic X and the Timaeus confirm, is in its possible application to the soul. 

In my paper, I argue that the concept of the archaia phusis, although reference to it is absent from the Phaedo, presents an attractive way of reading the role which phronēsis plays in this dialogue. Phronēsis, the soul’s full and exclusive cognitive contact with the forms, is the soul’s correct, normal, and healthy condition, which it once possessed, is currently lacking, and desires or should desire to restore in the future. ‘Phronēsis seems a particularly apt expression to denote this state, as in Hippocratic medicine it denotes soundness of mind, the psychical analogue of physical health. I show that acknowledging the pervasiveness and centrality of the concept of phronēsis in the Phaedo helps to make better sense of the progression of the dialogue’s argument. It clarifies both particular and general issues, and underlines the central importance of the dialogue’s ethical concern.

Week 7 (1 March) – Jen Semler, “Can AI be a Genuine Source of Moral Action?”

Abstract. Discussions of artificial moral agency seem to take something for granted: to be a moral agent, an entity must be an agent in the first place. But it’s not immediately clear that artificial systems have the capacity for action, let alone moral action. In this talk, I will present a minimal account of moral agency (“simple moral agency”), according to which being a source of moral action requires the capacity for action as well as the possession of moral concepts. I will then consider the extent to which AI might qualify for simple moral agency.  

Week 8 (8 March) – Julian Ratcliffe, “Four Kinds of Genealogy”

Abstract. The blossoming literature on genealogy in Anglophone philosophy has come as somewhat of a pleasant surprise to the historically inclined among us. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, there have been some teething problems when it comes to the accurate apprehension of important genealogies by philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Butler. As I see it, the literature on genealogy is guilty of two conflations, both of which are the result of inadequate typological maps used to organise genealogies according to perceived common features. Consequently, what makes many genealogies philosophically interesting and distinctive often remains obscure.

In response, I propose a new typology which helps us to avoid these conflations and, in so doing, to break free of the epistemological paradigm which has thus far stymied an accurate apprehension of many genealogies which populate the literature. By getting clear on what different genealogies are actually attempting to do, we can both get a clearer understanding of the problems they face and of their critical potential. It may also, with any luck, help us see what light some of the typically misapprehended genealogies can shed on issues in the philosophy of language such as natural language semantics and rule-following.