Trinity Term 2022

This term, we will meet in the Ryle Room on Fridays from 10–11am. If you need the Teams link to attend, please get in touch. Talk titles and abstracts will appear here as we receive them.


Week 1 (April 29) – Julian Ratcliffe, “Forgiveness Without Contrition”

Chaired by Kyle van Oosterum

Week 2 (May 6) – Mariona Miyata-Sturm, “Beauty is a Heuristic, Not a Virtue”

Chaired by Matt Rosen

Week 3 (May 13) – Barnaby Burleigh, “Resolute Ethics and Political Exclusion? – Openness and Dogmatism”

Chaired by Mariona Miyata-Sturm

Week 4 (May 20) – Lewis Williams, “Recalibrating Moral Nihilism”

Chaired by George Webster

Week 5 (May 27) – Boaz Laan, “Understanding the semantic paradoxes via a possible-worlds semantics for modal predicates”

Chaired by Mariona Miyata-Sturm

Week 6 (June 3) – Andrea Buongiorno, “Ontological multivocity and ontological primacy in Metaphysics Z1″

Chaired by Mariona Miyata-Sturm

Week 7 (June 10) – Matthew Bradley, “Authenticity, aestheticism, and living one’s life like a work of art”

Chaired by Matt Rosen

Week 8 (June 17) – Thomas Ralston, “Disappearing GEN: a puzzle about the semantics of bare plurals”

Chaired by Matt Rosen


Week 1: Julian Ratcliffe, “Forgiveness Without Contrition”

Genealogy is a powerful tool in our critical arsenal. Genealogies attempt to undercut the rational bases of our discursive activities. They do this by providing causal explanations which reveal that the real reasons behind why we adhere to our discursive activities are evidentially disconnected from the reasons that would actually serve as reasons for or against them. This is a danger to rationalism because genealogy provides an account of discourse solely in non-discursive terms, thereby threatening to render reasons-talk explanatorily superfluous.

Genealogy thus poses a particular threat to Robert Brandom, one of the foremost rationalist philosophers working today. Brandom attempts to defuse that threat by arguing that it is precisely the incorporation of causal contingency into our rationally-governed discursive activities that makes them determinately contentful. Since genealogies must themselves assume the norms governing that process if they are to consider themselves determinately contentful accounts of our discursive activities, they appear to be self-undermining at a semantic level.

I argue, however, that the norms which Brandom contends govern the process of rational incorporation leave no room for critique of any kind. This both leaves us empty handed when analysing non-ideal discursive and institutional structures, and means that Brandom himself cannot chart a course from our present non-ideal social circumstances to the ideal discursive relations he contends we are implicitly committed to implementing. We thus have reason to remain sceptical of his proposed solution.

Week 2: Mariona Miyata-Sturm, “Beauty is a Heuristic, Not a Virtue”

A puzzling fact about scientific theory choice is that scientists show a strong preference for simple, elegant, or otherwise beautiful theories and a distaste for messy and gerrymandered ones. If we take scientists’ aesthetic evaluation of theories at face value, we have to confront the question of why we should think that these properties are indicative of the truth or even usefulness of theories. In this talk, I’ll explore a new way of thinking about aesthetic criteria for theory choice. Instead of taking them as theoretical virtues in their own right we should take them as heuristics – that is, rules of thumb or mental shortcuts – that are fallible but useful guides for theory choice. This shift in focus opens up both a more psychologically realistic account of the role of aesthetic criteria in theory choice and promising ways of accounting for the usefulness of such criteria. Spelling that out in detail will be left to another day; here I’ll only be concerned with showing what it might mean to take aesthetic criteria as heuristics for theory choice and that it makes sense to do so.

Week 3: Barnaby Burleigh, “Resolute Ethics and Political Exclusion? – Openness and Dogmatism”

It has long been recognised that Wittgenstein’s philosophy has important implications in ethics, and there is, by now, a considerable literature on this topic. In recent years, there has been particular interest in the ethical implications of the “new” or “resolute” reading of Wittgenstein’s philosophy (see, e.g., Diamond 2019). However, attempts to develop the resolute approach beyond Tractatus exegesis (e.g., Mulhall 2007, Read 2020) have been highly controversial, even among resolute readers (Conant and Bronzo 2018). This paper aims to provide some clarity concerning one way of characterising what it might mean to be resolute in ethics.

The central ethical disagreement between resolute and traditional readers of Wittgenstein’s work is that the former hold that there is a requirement to engage with others, where the latter are willing to be exclusionary. I show how this disagreement can be traced back to resolute Tractatus exegesis, which entails a commitment to anti-dogmatism: according to the resolute reading, nonsense cannot be exposed as such without an extensive consideration of the context of utterance (Bronzo 2011), which means that to understand whether or not there is sense in one’s opponent’s words, one must understand what prompted them to speak as they did. The central question I address is how far the ensuing requirement to engage reaches.

A tempting answer can be found in recent work by Rupert Read on community (Read 2021). Read contrasts communities which define themselves by what they are with communities which define themselves by what they are not. He argues against the latter conception, which provides the foundation for racist and speciesist worldviews, via a resolute reading of Wittgenstein’s remarks on private language. According to Read, these remarks invite us to see an “endless requirement to look into the other’s face” (p.225), which is to suggest that a good community is characterised by its willingness to engage, in some sense, with anyone. Read’s work can be read as embodying a vision of human dignity according to which every human being deserves to be seen and heard.

This sort of cataphatic vision of human dignity, I argue, is impracticable, insofar as it is in danger of expanding to the point of vacuity. Is it never permissible to exclude someone on political grounds? Does somebody’s demand to be heard always entail a requirement that we listen? I argue that these worries are best addressed by giving up the attempt to derive from the resolute reading a positive conception of what we owe to others. Instead, I advocate for an Anscombean conception (Anscombe 2005), which explicates human dignity in terms of absolute prohibitions. I show that such a conception is reconcilable with a resolute approach, while also accommodating the traditional reader’s insistence that sometimes it can be right to exclude someone because they are wrong.

Week 4: Lewis Williams, “Recalibrating Moral Nihilism”

The commitments of the moral nihilist are notoriously difficult to capture accurately and precisely. The term ‘moral nihilism’ has and continues to be associated with a range of views from the moral error theory to moral noncognitivism and to certain substantive moral views. The frequent conflation of these brands of moral nihilism can obfuscate analyses into the plausibility and the implications of moral nihilism. This paper aims to restore clarity by identifying the differences in scope between three oft-conflated definitions of moral nihilism. I proceed to defend an under-explored account of moral nihilism by demonstrating how it underpins a set of contemporary ethical debates and best befits the locution ‘moral nihilism’.

Week 5: Boaz Laan, “Understanding the semantic paradoxes via a possible-worlds semantics for modal predicates”

The semantic paradoxes have drawn much attention throughout the history of philosophy. There is something deeply puzzling about them. Something is going wrong; there is a dissonance/tension in what we philosophically uphold. Firstly, this is very interesting, and secondly, this needs to be dealt with. The first motivates, and the second requires before anything else a comprehensive analysis of the semantic paradoxes, i.e. an overview of their realm. This analysis consists of at least understanding when semantic paradoxes appear (characterise), what kinds of them there are (classify), what is causing them, and any (philosophical) implications thereof. It is overhasty to jump the gun and block the semantic paradoxes at first sight; and it is misguided to do nothing about them.

In this talk, I will explore an attempt to understand the semantic paradoxes by means of a possible-worlds semantics for modal predicates. Specifically, I will make a start at characterising them. In modal logic, there are two main ways of formalising the notion of ‘modality’. The prominent approach is that of viewing modality as a sentential operator. In this approach there are no paradoxes that are like the semantic paradoxes. However, an alternative approach is that of viewing modality as a predicate in some syntax theory, such as PA. Usually, such a syntax theory proves some version of the diagonal lemma. Hence, in this second approach we do get such ‘semantic-like’ paradoxes, by diagonalising in exactly the same way as with the semantic paradoxes. Examples include the Liar Paradox and the Knower Paradox/Montague’s Paradox, and more subtle paradoxes involving the interactions of multiple distinct modal predicates. Moreover, if we introduce a possible-worlds semantics for the predicate approach, I claim that we can intuitively characterise (and classify) the semantic-like paradoxes, and hence the semantic paradoxes, according to their frames; I will give a partial proof of a characterisation theorem which states that a frame admits a model iff the frame is converse well-founded. This seems to suggest that converse ill-foundedness lies at the heart of the semantic paradoxes, as opposed to only circularity as some logicians think.

Week 6: Andrea Buongiorno, “Ontological multivocity and ontological primacy in Metaphysics Z1″

In Metaphysics Z1 [1028a10-31], Aristotle advances two main theses. The first is that being is said in many ways. Call this thesis ‘OM’ (‘Ontological Multivocity’). The second is that substances alone are in an unqualified way, and therefore are primarily. Call this thesis ‘OP’ (‘Ontological Primacy’). It is far from obvious how either thesis should be interpreted, or how they should be understood to relate to one another. My talk will address both questions. First, I aim to defend what I take to be a radically new reading of OM, which has predicative underpinnings. Secondly, I aim to defend and possibly expand upon a recent reading of Z1, which interprets OP along essentialist, as opposed to merely existential, lines. Thus interpreted, these two theses seem to be mutually connected via the insight that, of all things, substances alone qualify as genuine subjects of predication.

Week 7: Matthew Bradley, “Authenticity, aestheticism, and living one’s life like a work of art”

The ideal of authenticity has been dogged by the charge that it gives rise to a pernicious attitude of ‘aestheticism’. That aestheticism represents a threat, and that it is one to which authenticity might succumb, is agreed upon by both defenders and critics of authenticity alike. But there is less agreement on what is supposed to be ‘aesthetic’ about aestheticism, and how authenticity is supposed to give rise to this attitude. In this talk I first suggest that if giving rise to aestheticism is to be a serious and distinctive challenge, the notion of aestheticism must be cashed out in terms that are what I’ll call (I hope not question-beggingly) genuinely aesthetic. I then discuss some forms of aestheticism which might fit the bill. Being authentic, I’ll argue, doesn’t require adopting any of these forms of aestheticism. Through the discussion I draw attention to an interesting feature of authenticity – that the ideal of authenticity is a bad guide, and the more that agents attempt to pursue an ideal of authenticity, the further away they are drawn from instantiating it. In this respect there are interesting analogues between authenticity and what e.g. Williams & Mill have said about integrity and happiness.

Week 8: Thomas Ralston, “Disappearing GEN: a puzzle about the semantics of bare plurals”

Bare plural generics are a ubiquitous part of natural language, allowing us to communicate about many different aspects of the world around us. We use them to express biological facts (“mammals give birth to live young”), normative judgments (“boys don’t cry”), causal relationships (“sugary sweets rot your teeth”) and even political slogans (“black lives matter”). Despite their prevalence in natural language, they have proven resistant to systematic semantic theorising.

Examples in the literature on generics are usually given in isolation, unembedded. When we consider cases where bare plurals are embedded under certain modal operators, we find that GEN, the unpronounced generic operator posited by just about every semantic analysis of generics, exhibits some unusual features. For example, there are readings where GEN appears to “disappear”, being replaced by a variety of modal auxiliary verbs and adverbs. In this talk, I present this data and ask what it means for the semantics of generics and modals.

I draw several conclusions from the data: (i) much about the semantics of GEN is still poorly understood; (ii) there is a close analogy between generics and Kratzer’s restrictor analysis of conditionals (2012); (iii) at least in some cases, the generic interpretation of bare plurals may be a ‘post-semantic’ mechanism, enabling us to interpret sentences with free variables.