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Philosophy Department Speaker Series

Winter Term, 2020

***All talks have been cancelled for the remainder of the Winter term***


January 10th

Our regularly scheduled Speaker Series has been suspended for the month of January to accommodate our job candidates for our Assistant Professor position in Feminist Philosophy.

Our talks will pick up again on February 7th , 2020

January 17th
January 24th
January 31st


7 February: Jacqueline Feke (University of Waterloo)

14 February: No Speaker due to Winter Break

21 February: No Speaker due to Winter Break

28 February: Larissa Katz (University of Toronto)

“Offices and Horror Vacui”

Abstract: Offices are a crucial building blocks of a legal order. And yet there is a tension between the idea of office and its normative significance within a legal order that I highlight in this paper: whereas offices are always capable of vacancy because they are impersonal positions of authority separable from the officeholder, the law abhors vacancies in principle. This paper develops an account of how and why vacancy in office amounts to a defect in the legal order itself—in brief because vacancy undermines the effectiveness and ultimately the legitimacy of law as a system for allocating authority. It argues that the potential for vacancy in offices combined with law’s horror vacui leads to possession as a default procedure for appointment to offices generally.

6 March: Paula Schwebel (Ryerson University)

“Sovereign/ creature: Neostoicism in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel and his response to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology”

Abstract:  This talk is based on a chapter of my current book project on the political theology of sovereignty. In his 1922 text, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Carl Schmitt argues that the modern concept of state sovereignty derives from the transposition of an originally theological concept into secular politics. Schmitt argues for a notion of legislative sovereignty, according to which the sovereign, who creates the law, also has the power to suspend the system of normal laws in its entirety if he deems this necessary for the common good. Schmitt contends that the sovereign’s ‘decision on the exception’ is systematically analogous to the voluntarist God’s ‘miraculous’ suspension of the laws of nature.

We find a significant response to Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty in Walter Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play (1928). In his discussion of the sovereign hero of these plays, Benjamin makes prominent reference to Schmitt’s Political Theology. Yet, as other scholars have noticed, the sovereign figure in Benjamin’s study is characteristically indecisive, and thus incapable of carrying out his sacrosanct role. Much of the secondary literature on Benjamin’s engagement with Schmitt reads this as Benjamin’s ‘subversion’ of Schmitt’s argument, perhaps so as to demonstrate the failures and breakdowns of sovereignty. However, as I argue, Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque sovereign rests on a fundamentally different metaphysical idea than Schmitt’s, and introduces a distinct set of philosophical, political, and theological considerations. Beyond simply giving a different characterization of Benjamin’s response to Schmitt, my ultimate goal is to open up an alternative genealogy of modern sovereignty, and concomitantly, a different set of political theological considerations. While Schmitt’s conception of sovereignty has had an outsized influence on contemporary discussions of sovereignty, I hope to create a place within this discussion for the different historical and conceptual possibilities that emerge from Benjamin’s study.

CANCELLED: 13 March: Brian Leiter (University of Chicago)

“Bernard Williams’ Debt to Nietzsche:  Real or Illusory?”

Abstract: Bernard Williams was one of just two prominent figures within the mainstream of Anglophone moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th-century to devote serious attention to Nietzsche. (Philippa Foot was the other comparably famous figure to do so, and she, unsurprisingly, shared with Williams skepticism about many orthodoxies of analytic moral philosophy during this time.) My aim is to assess the Williams-Nietzsche relationship, and the extent to which Williams learned from Nietzsche, and the extent to which he retreated from or ignored Nietzsche’s actual views. I argue that the alleged influence is mostly superficial, and that Williams’s limited engagement with Nietzsche tells us something about the distinctive and conservative nature of Anglophone philosophy over the last century.

CANCELLED: 19 March: Amie Thomasson

27 March: Gordon Christie (University of British Columbia)

**1 April: Emily Thomas (Durham University) **Please note talk is taking place on Wednesday of this week at 4:30 pm in CNH 607B

“Evolution and Revolutions in the History of British Metaphysics”

Abstract: Around the turn of the twentieth century British metaphysics of time saw two revolutions. First, from the 1870s to 1900s, philosophers became convinced time was unreal. Philosophers en masse denied the reality of time, from F. H. Bradley to J. M. E. McTaggart.  Second, from the 1900s to the 1930s, philosophers began to embrace time, and developed newfangled theories. C. D. Broad invented the ‘growing block theory’. May Sinclair defended ‘presentism’. Arthur Eddington argued for the ‘arrow of time’, that time intrinsically has direction, independent of entropy. Samuel Alexander claimed that space and time are the very fabric of reality, out of which everything else emerges.  Why did these two revolutions occur? This paper advances a surprising answer: ‘evolution’ is at the heart of both shifts.

CANCELLED: 3 April: Karen Stohr (Georgetown University)

Fall Term, 2019

13 September: Richard Healey

Immoral Promises”

 Abstract: An important feature of our power to promise is that we have significant latitude in deciding the content of the promises we make. We can promise to perform an indefinite range of actions in an indefinite range of contexts and with varying degrees of solemnity. In this talk I investigate how far this latitude extends. In particular, I ask whether some promises fail to bind in virtue of their immoral content. For example, can I make a morally binding promise to you to kill an innocent person? I aim to show that there are notable drawbacks to the positions held by those on both sides of this debate, and then begin – tentatively – to develop a better account.

20 September: Robert Stern (University of Sheffield)

“A Moral Argument against Freedom”

Abstract: A moral argument against free choice, which draws on Luther to argue that the good moral agent has no choice about how to act, as for them following the good is the only option – so the moral agent lacks free will in this sense. I contrast this argument with more traditional determinist arguments against freedom, and also consider how this view still leaves room for responsibility and imputation.

27 September: Wil Waluchow (McMaster University)

“The Misconceived Quest for the Elusive Right Answer Or Dedication to a Process, Not a Result” 

Abstract: Among the long-standing questions of legal theory is whether judges ever make new law when they decide legal cases. Many legal theorists believe that judge-made law is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. They think this is so even in modern constitutional democracies rooted in the common law, where deliberation and voting among elected legislators is widely accepted as the principal means through which laws are created.  Other legal theorists reject both the necessity and desirability of judge-made law. Ronald Dworkin was perhaps the foremost contemporary proponent of this view and set out to develop a complex theory that purports to eliminate the need for judges ever to create new law. According to Dworkin’s famous right answer thesis, there is always, in a mature legal system, an antecedently existing right answer to the pivotal legal question on which a case might turn. And it is the duty of the judge to find and apply it in deciding her case. Democratic legitimacy demands nothing less.  It is the aim of this paper to dispute the necessity of right answers. I will argue that democratic legitimacy may not, contra Dworkin, require antecedently pre-existing right answers. In developing this argument, my focus will be on constitutional cases involving charters of rights, where the possibility of significant indeterminac, and hence judicial creativity, loom large. The worry is that judges, in applying the abstract, morally charged provisions found in charters of rights, invariably make the law up as they go along, thus threatening the democratic legitimacy of their decisions. Indeed, the worry is that discretionary decision-making at this level will undermine entirely the very legitimacy of our constitutional democracies and the institutions of judicial review they typically include. My aim is to go some way towards quieting this worry by arguing that legitimacy may not always require right answers. In many instances it may require only that answers be derived in the right way.

4 October: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

“Should we abolish religious freedom”

Abstract: Religious freedom has long been a protected right in liberal democratic nations and is standardly included within international conventions on human rights.  Freedom of thought and association are basic liberal principles, but the naming and institution of religious freedom in particular singles out religion as a unique category of belief and practice, requiring special protection – as well as special exclusion, we should note, via the correlative principle of secularism.  Is this singling out legitimate?  Is there truly something unique about religious belief, identity and/or practice that warrants special regulative measures?  Or is the existence of such measures merely the artefact of a specific period of Western history?

I argue that, in operation, the legal and political positioning of religion as subject to special protection as well as exclusion is not warranted and can have pernicious effects.  In practice, legislative guarantees of religious freedom tend to privilege and thereby incentivize particular forms of religion at the expense of others.  In addition, courts and legislators have been increasingly hard-pressed to determine what counts as “religion” and to justify accommodative measures for religious beliefs over non-religious ones.  In many cases, terms such as “belief,” “lack of belief,” and “philosophical belief” have been added to protections for religion, which have often already included conscience, but these modifications raise the question of whether religion should be taken as paradigmatic for the protections in question.  I propose that we should move towards a model based on the broader principle of protection for minority beliefs and practices against laws of general application that purport to be neutral but are the product of majoritarian decision-making processes that sometimes compromise equality.

11 October: No Speaker

18 October:Reading Week – No Speaker

25 October: Ethan Meanor (McMaster University)

“Nietzsche and Gorgias on Non-Being”

ABSTRACT: The rejection of the concept of “being” is one of Nietzsche’s central philosophical commitments, and he makes much of the affinity between himself and Heraclitus on this point. He seems, however, to have overlooked the fact that this rejection has another important precursor in Gorgias of Leontini (c. 483-375 B.C.), who argued in his lost work On Non-Being that there is no being, and that even if there is, it cannot be known. Despite the striking similarities between many of their arguments, almost no scholarly attention has been paid to the affinity between Nietzsche and Gorgias. I show not only that they both reject the concept of “being” as incoherent, but that they further deny the capacity of concepts to adequately represent reality. I go on to consider the different ways in which Gorgias and Nietzsche respond to these conclusions: the former by renouncing philosophy because it can never arrive at the truth about being, the latter by attempting to conceive of philosophy as aiming not at the attainment of such a truth, but at the most comprehensive interpretation of reality that is possible within the limits of human thought. I suggest that Nietzsche makes an innovation insofar as he is able to see a way forward for philosophy even in the face of skepticism about being, which Gorgias apparently was not. But, this difference notwithstanding, their arguments against being belong together in the history of ideas. It is only unfortunate that, in tracing his philosophical lineage back to Heraclitus, Nietzsche overlooked another important ancestor. I hope that this study goes some way toward correcting that oversight.

1 November: Charlie Cooper-Simpson (University of Toronto)

“Life, Individuality and Logic”

ABSTRACT: In this talk, I examine why the concept of life occupies such a prominent place in both Kant’s and Hegel’s thoughts about logic. I argue, in particular, the conception of life as organized without being designed (a desideratum of Kant’s) must be captured in the terms of self-determining individuality, something that is determined in and through its relations to both itself and its environment. This idea of a self-determining individual, I argue, is incompatible with Kant’s understanding of the conditions under which our (human) thought can relate to its object, and thus presents a problem for Kantian logic. Finally, I argue, resolving this problem would require a revision to Kant’s conception of logic (as purely formal), a revision that would produce something much like what Hegel presents us in the Science of Logic. In this way, by attending to their respective treatments of the concept of life and its consequences for their logical systems, we can come to understand the mature Hegel’s critical reception of Kant’s transcendental philosophy.

8 November: Gary Hatfield (University of Pennsylvania)

“Phenomenally Converging Railway Tracks: A Misperception?”

Abstract: Railway tracks appear to converge into the distance. Is this appearance a misperception? Typically, observers don’t believe that they do converge physically. These statements thus far are consistent with treating the apparent convergence as a case of illusion, like the Mueller-Lyer illusion. One line looks longer than the other, an appearance widely considered to be illusory, yet we are not taken in and so we don’t misperceive in the sense of making a false judgment about the actual length of the lines – or about the actual physical width between the tracks. Here, one might say that there is phenomenal misperception of line length but no judgmental misperception. Good enough. But I intend to pursue the idea that the converging train tracks are not a misperception in this phenomenal sense. Construing them as a misperception depends, in my estimation, on a particular task analysis of phenomenal perception: that it aims to present physical scenes in a way that conforms to their mind-independent physical structure. This is a widely held conception, found in theorists as disparate as Gibson and Burge. My idea is that the contraction of visual space, as with the tracks, is not a mistake brought about by inadequate information about distance, but rather a phenomenal accommodation of the decreasing information with distance, an accommodation that presents the tracks in a manner which reveals action-guiding information and is ecologically efficient.

15 November: Kristin Gjesdal (Temple University)

“An Unruly Woman: Hegel and Madame de Staël”

Abstract: Responding to the prevalence of Hegelian thought in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud promote their distinctively non-idealist alternatives. Be it terms of morality (Nietzsche), social justice (Marx), or psychology (Freud), no part of life, they argued, evades the scrutiny of critical reflection. One question left out by these hermeneuticians of suspicion, however, is the  curious absence of women in what has been established as the (Hegelian) canon of modern philosophy. There was, however, no shortage of women philosophers in this period. Their voices were many and their contributions of high quality. This presentation focuses on one such voice: that of Germaine de Staël. Contrasting Staël’s philosophy with Hegel’s approach in the Phenomenology, it surveys her approach to the history of philosophy, her discussion of the need for intercultural understanding, and her appreciation of the outlook of the émigré. It discusses Staël’s non-idealist approach to German philosophy and contrasts her methodology to Hegel’s. It concludes by asking how Staël, a hugely influential writer at the time, got written out of the history of nineteenth-century European philosophy—a history that she had helped bring to existence.

22 November: Aaron Preston

“The Philosophical Roots of Martin Luther King’s Moral Vision”

Abstract: Martin Luther King’s moral vision had many sources, but he identified only one of these as his “basic philosophical position”: a view called  Personalism or Personal Idealism.  Like analytic philosophy, personalism originated in a rejection of Hegelian monistic idealism, and in fact several of Moore and Russell’s teachers were personal idealists. Despite this, and despite the fact that personalism was directly involved in solving global socio-political problems with which the later Russell was deeply concerned,  personalism as a distinct tradition has never really been recognized from within the analytic tradition, and it is now almost completely forgotten.  In this talk, I discuss the history and nature of personalism, puzzle over its demise in academic philosophy, and consider its relevance to crucial matters confronting us today – in our discipline, the academy, and the broader world.

29 November: Cheryl Misak (University of Toronto)

“Moral Progress II: The Construction of Moral Norms”

Abstract: This paper is the second of three on pragmatism and moral progress. The first, “Moral Progress I: Nothing Scoundrelous About Truth” argues that we need a conception of truth for morality and that a pragmatist account of truth is the right one. This current paper will argue, in reply to Henry Richardson’s Articulating the Moral Community: Towards a Constructive Ethical Pragmatism, that moral norms are introduced into our evolving body of moral belief in a variety of ways, not merely in the one rights-and-duties way that Richardson countenances. We need to take pointers 1) from Peirce and C.I. Lewis and think about the role of experience; 2) from Dewey and think of democratic ways in which we might introduce and ratify a moral norm and 3) from Holmes and think about the role of law.

Visiting Speaker Series 2018-2019

Visiting Speaker Series 2017-2018

Visiting Speaker Series 2016-2017

Visiting Speaker Series 2015-2016

Visiting Speaker Series 2014-2015

Visiting Speaker Series 2013-2014

Visiting Speaker Series 2012-2013

Visiting Speaker Series 2011-2012