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Episode 63: Michael Devitt discusses reference

Joining us this month to talk about a foundational topic in the philosophy of language is Michael Devitt, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Click here to listen to our conversation with him.

devittSome animals make noises to express emotions they’re having. But other animals–notably, we humans–make utterances that do more. We do more than cry out in anger, laugh, and greet each other; we also refer to things and states of things in the world. Reference, some philosophers would argue, is the basis of our being able to convey more than just what we’re feeling inside. The fact that some of the words we utter refer to objects in the world is what allows us to convey information about the world.

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Posted in Podcast.


Further reading on Hegel and Kant

If you’d like to read more about Hegel’s repsonse to Kantian ethics, you might take a look at the following two books by our distinguished guest:

Sally Sedgwick, Hegel’s Critique of Kant
Sally Sedgwick, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: An Introduction

Posted in Further Reading.


Rule-Following, Dispositionalism, and Functionalism

In “Kripke and Functionalism” (Episode 61), Buechner describes how Kripke’s criticism of the dispositionalist response to the ‘rule-following paradox,’ found in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,can be generalized as a criticism of functionalist accounts of mental states, the thesis that mental states are abstract computational states realized in physical objects, like a brain. Here, I’d like to give a sketch of the rule-following paradox, the dispositionalist response, and Kripke’s criticism in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, in order to give you a clearer idea of the criticism of functionalism Buechner points to.  (For those following along at home, the crux of the rule-following paradox can be found in §§185-202 of the Investigations; Kripke’s (articulation of what he takes to be Wittgenstein’s) criticism of the dispositionalist response can be found on pages 22-35 of Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.)

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Episode 62: Sally Sedgwick discusses Hegel’s critique of Kant

This month, we talk to Sally Sedgwick Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Affiliated Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago) about Hegel’s critique of Kantian ethics.  Click here to listen to our conversation.

sedgwickOver 200 years after Immanuel Kant published his work on ethics, it still represents one of the most influential perspectives in the field.  Kant thought that ethics was based on a fundamental, universal principle that held necessarily for all people, regardless of time or circumstance: respect the dignity of all rational nature.  What does that mean, exactly?  Something like: in deciding how to act, always do the thing which will allow you and everyone else to most fully express your freedom.  For example, don’t lie.  If you lie, you’ll be spreading misinformation around, and if misinformation is allowed to spread around, then you won’t know the things you have to know in order to act freely.  There’s something inherently self-undermining about the act of lying.

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Episode 61: Jeff Buechner discusses Kripke and functionalism

This month, we talk computers, brains, and minds with Jeff Buechner, Permanent Lecturer in Philosophy at Rutgers University, Newark.  Click here to listen to our conversation.

Jeff BuechnerBack in the 50s and 60s, a lot of philosophers were attracted to the idea that the human mind is basically a computer. Why would they find that idea attractive? Well, there was some excitement about the idea because it allowed us to characterize human minds not in terms of the stuff they’re made of (neurons, cells, brains, and so on), but in terms of what they do. Back when we were inclined to characterize human minds in terms of brains, we found it difficult to explain how e.g. I and my dog could both experience the same emotions, like fear or excitement. After all, we have totally different brains. But it seems comparably straightforward to say what a computer does in a way that abstracts over these distinctions: namely, it performs calculations. Think of a function as a rule that tells you how to transform an input into an output. In that case, you can think of what a computer does as computing the values of certain functions. For example, if you feed an adding machine the values 2 and 5, then it computes the value of the sum function for those two values, giving you 7. Thus, philosophers started calling the idea that minds are computers functionalism: if indeed the two are deeply similar, then maybe our minds are nothing more than mechanisms that compute certain functions.

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Further reading on oughts

If you’re interested in learning more about our distinguished guest’s proposed analysis of ‘ought,’ check out the following two papers:

Fabrizio Cariani, ‘Epistemic and Deontic Should
Fabrizio Cariani, ‘Deontic Modals and Probabilities: One Theory to Rule Them All?

Matt Teichman

Posted in Further Reading.


On the Probabilistic Problem for A Single-Meaning Account of ‘Ought’

A central distinction in “Thoughts About Oughts” (Episode 60) is that between epistemic and deontic uses of ‘ought.’ As a quick review, here’s an example of an epistemic use of ‘ought.’ Imagine that you open the window in the morning, feel a strong breeze and suffocating humidity, and see a massive, dark wall of clouds on the horizon. You declare to your roommate:

(Ep) It ought to rain today.

And for an example of a deontic use of ought: Imagine that you have a final exam tomorrow, which you need to pass in order to graduate. You’ve been invited to catch up with some friends at the bar. Your roommate, ever loyal, reminds you:

(Dn) You ought to stay in and rest tonight.

In (Ep), you’re expressing an expectation about how the world will be in the future, given what you know now (the current weather conditions, and what sort of weather tends to follow such conditions). In (Dn), your roommate is suggesting what the proper course of action is for you, given what your goals are.

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Posted in Supplements.


Episode 60: Fabrizio Cariani shares some thoughts about oughts

This month, Fabrizio Cariani (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University) comes back for his second appearance on the program, this time to tell us about the meaning of the word ‘ought.’  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

cariani3‘Ought’ is a pretty important word in human affairs.  Most famously, we use it to describe ethical obligations: when I say that you ought to be nice to your mother, I’m getting at the fact that some sort of moral rule is in place.  But interestingly, the word also has lots of non-moral uses: if I say, ‘my keys ought to be on the kitchen counter,’ no allusion to ethics is intended!  I’m simply saying something like, ‘I’m pretty sure the keys have to be on the counter, based on the information I have.’

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Posted in Podcast.


Further reading on reproductive risk

If you’d like read more about some of the issues we discussed with Rebecca Kukla, take a look at these two articles:

Measuring Mothering,’ Rebecca Kukla
The ethics and cultural politics of reproductive risk warnings: A case study of California’s Proposition 65,’ Rebecca Kukla

Matt Teichman

Posted in Further Reading.


Episode 59: Rebecca Kukla discusses reproductive risk

This month, we talk to Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, about some of her work on reproductive risk. Click here to listen to our conversation.

Rebecca KuklaA pregnant woman is usually advised to be cautious about what products to purchase, whether to drink alcohol, and which locations to frequent. We tend to think that a pregnant woman is responsible not just for her own safety–she’s also the responsible for the safety of her unborn child. And of course that’s all true. But in this episode, our guest argues that the story doesn’t end there, and that many of the further details to how we think about these issues are problematic.

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Posted in Podcast.