What is the Ockham Society?

The Ockham Society provides a forum in which graduate students in philosophy (particularly BPhil, MSt, and PRS students) may present their ideas to their peers at the University of Oxford. Our aim is to provide every Oxford graduate student with the opportunity to present their ideas in a friendly environment at least once during their time in Oxford. It is an ideal opportunity to gain feedback on your essays, and to gain first experiences in academic presenting. Small, experimental and unfinished papers are just as welcome as more advanced ones.

If you would like to present a paper to the society please send a title and abstract of 150 words maximum to Sean Costello (firstname.lastname(at)philosophy.ox.ac.uk). Oxford DPhil Philosophy students are highly encouraged to present at the DPhil seminar.

Programme for Trinity 2019

With the exception of Week 1 and Week 3, we will meet Thursdays 12 - 2 pm in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room. We will not be meeting on Week 1. On Week 3, we will meet Friday 1 - 3 pm in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Ryle Room.

Week 1
3 May
Chair: N/A
We will not meet Week 1


Week 2
9 May
Chair: Sebastian Liu
Pietro Cibinel (Jesus College)
On the Connection Between Ability and Safety

Does knowledge require that one’s safe belief be significantly creditable to the manifestation of one’s cognitive ability? Some authors (Pritchard 2012, 2017; Kelp 2013) have recently argued for versions of this requirement, partly to account for alleged flaws in simple theories of knowledge as safe belief (K=SB). 

In the first part of the talk, I argue that there is no such a requirement on knowledge. I first clarify different ways to cash out the suggested explanatory relationship between cognitive ability and safety. I then show that examples in which the safety of the agent’s belief is pre-emptively occasioned by external factors count as cases in which the agent may gain knowledge even if the safety of her belief has nothing to do with her manifestation of cognitive ability. I consider one line of reply, and argue that it entails unpalatable results, similar to the problems faced by K=SB itself. Since these results undermine (part of) the original motivation for introducing an explanatory link between cognitive ability and safety, this line of reply should be rejected. 

In the second part of the talk, I go on to explore five theoretical options available to the safety theorist vis-à-vis alleged flaws in the K=SB theory. I tentatively suggest that none of them fares significantly better than the others, but that each features among our current best hypotheses about the nature of knowledge. 

Week 3
17 May
Chair: Beatriz Santos
Lukas Lewerentz (St. Hugh’s College)
The Varieties of Expressive Presuppositions

The expressive presuppositions of a sentence are the conditions under which the sentence expresses a proposition. By looking at the expressive presuppositions triggered by third-person pronouns such as `she' or `he', I argue that we have to keep apart different kinds of expressive presuppositions, in particular for the purposes of providing an adequate account of presupposition projection, that is, of when presuppositions survive or disappear if the presupposition trigger is embedded in complex expressions. I sketch how this can be done if we assume that pronouns are semantically treated as variables. And I tentatively conclude that the existence of different types of expressive presuppositions shows that there is no grand uniform account of presupposition projection to be found.

Week 4
23 May
Chair: Richard Roth
Sebastian Liu (Merton)
The Skeptic and the Akrates

The external world skeptic denies that it is rational for me to believe that I have hands. For if it is rational for me to believe I have hands, then it must be rational for me to believe that I am not a (bodiless) brain in a vat. But – according to the skeptic – my evidence is perfectly consistent with my being a brain in a vat. And so it must not be rational for me to believe that I have hands after all.

Implicit in the skeptical argument is the thought that whether or not I am in the skeptical case my evidence is limited to how things appear to me. The externalist about evidence denies this: while in the skeptical case, my evidence is limited to propositions about how things appear, in the non-skeptical case, my evidence includes propositions about the external world. As long as my perceptual faculties are reliable, I can receive conclusive evidence that I have hands when I see them. So the skeptical argument is unsound.

The committed skeptic will likely deny externalism about evidence. Perhaps such a skeptic is beyond saving. But even the modest skeptic who is willing to grant evidence externalism remains unsatisfied: that our evidence can include propositions about the external world does nothing to establish the reliability of our faculties. Plausibly, if the proposition that I have hands becomes part of my evidence when I see that I have hands, then I need to have evidence about the reliability of my perceptual faculties. Hallucinating hands does not give me evidence about the external world, irrespective of whether I am in the non-skeptical case. All that I can claim is that if my perceptual faculties are reliable, then it is rational for me to believe that I have hands. To deny this is to maintain that it can be rational for me to believe something akin to 'p, and I am unsure whether my evidence supports believing that p', or even 'p, but my evidence does not support that p'. This looks like a paradigm of irrationality. The akrates defends that this combination of beliefs can be rational. This talk examines the plausibility of such a response to the skeptic.

Joshua Pearson (Trinity College)
Contextualism and Defeat

Contextualists, like Greco and Neta, have argued that Contextualism (and in particular contextualism about 'evidence') can solve problems concerning defeat in interesting ways. In the first part of the talk, I'll argue that this isn’t true. These contextualists attempt to explain defeat through context-shifts. But context-shifts require a shift in speakers' epistemic standards, whereas defeat intuitively does not.

In the second half of the talk, I'll tie the above issue to Salow's paper 'Elusive Externalism'. Salow argues that contextualism about evidence can reconcile denying the negative access principle (i.e. if e is not part of X's evidence, then X has conclusive evidence that e is not part of her evidence) with the claim that akratic subjects (i.e. subjects who believe something like 'p, but I shouldn't believe that p') are irrational. Salow's reconciliation suffers from a similar issue concerning epistemic standards that the above contextualist accounts of defeat face. I'll explore what options, if any, the contextualists have for vindicating Salow's strategy.

Week 5
30 May
Chair: Sara Chan
Otto Räsänen (Lady Margaret Hall)
Understanding and Using Concepts

In this talk, I will identify a putative principle concerning the relationship between understanding a concept and the ability to use that concept in one’s own thinking. I call this the Use-Understanding Principle (UUP):

(UUP) Thinker S understands concept φ iff S has the capacity to use or employ φ in their own thoughts at their own leisure.

This principle is a way of capturing the idea that a distinctive feature of thought is that it leaves no room for a certain kind of gap that exists between understanding and the exercise of other capacities (e.g. action, perception). I will argue that UUP underwrites a number of common philosophical commitments such as the force-content distinction, the impersonal character of reason, and what the relation between thought and action is. Further, I will claim that UUP is not well supported, and this gives us a reason to re-examine these other commitments.

Week 6
6 June
Chair: Sean M. Costello
Kiril Maltsev (St. Catherine’s College)
On Computational Theories of Mind

Advances in computer science raise the question whether the human mind itself operates as a computing machine. In this talk we will focus on two prominent computational-representational theories of mind: 

(1) Fodor’s Language of Thought (LOT) hypothesis, and

(2) Connectionism.

LOT postulates that thinking takes place in a mental language, which consists of a system of representations, and proceeds by forming symbolic-syntactic relations between these representations.

Connectionism aims to describe the nature of cognitive information processing by interconnected networks of simple units of neurons. This approach is inspired by both the physiological structure of neural connections in the brain and the applications of AI such as Deep Learning.

We will first contextualize computational theories of mind in the general functionalist approach to mental phenomena, and clarify the notion of a Turing machine. Thereupon, we will address the following questions: Does the systematicity of thought require a Language of Thought (LOT) hypothesis? Is Connectionism a viable alternative account? Are these computational theories of mind mutually exclusive, or may they be regarded as complementary to one another? 

We will close by hinting at limits of computational theories of mind, in particular the problem of consciousness.

Week 7
13 June
Chair: Patricia Elena Cipollitti
Anna Lee Bartsch (Lincoln College)
In-kind Transfers

Many government transfers programmes are in-kind, not in cash. Eligible citizens in the UK and many other rich countries receive healthcare, housing assistance, student loans, council vouchers for food, clothing and petrol as well as pre-paid cards for heating and utility bills. Despite the ubiquity of many different in-kind transfers, many philosophers reject in-kind transfers outright on the grounds that they are paternalistic. The argument is often that restrictions placed on welfare programmes presuppose that the recipient is untrustworthy, and that all transfers should instead be made in cash.

First, I argue that libertarian critiques of all in-kind transfers are too simplistic, and that in many cases the charge of paternalism is misplaced. Instead, I think that the existing worries around in-kind transfers are highly context-dependent. I propose a broad systematisation of these worries to capture our intuitions that some in-kind transfers are less problematic than others (e.g. student loans vs food vouchers). Some of the factors that make a difference in the assessment of the moral status of in-kind transfers include attitudes expressed about the recipient’s reliability, universality of the programme and quality of the in-kind transfer. Second, I think that this last factor speaks to an underexplored argument in the discussion around in-kind transfers. In-kind transfers that are of inferior quality than what would be available under cash regimes cause status harms, and chip away at relational equality. In many cases, this is a more successful argument in favour of cash than the argument from paternalism.

Aglaia von Götz (Merton College)
Stereotype Enhancing Generics

Sentences (1) and (2) are both generic claims and have the same structure: a bare plural is combined with a verb phrase. Further, a low percentage of black people is criminal and a low percentage of sharks attacks people.

(1) Black people are criminal.

(2) Sharks attack people.

Still, there is a difference between (1) and (2). While (2) is accepted as true, many people think that (1) is bad, whereupon by "bad" I mean that a sentence is either false or problematic in a pragmatic way. I will call sentences such as (1) stereotype enhancers.

We can either account for the badness of stereotype enhancers in semantics or in pragmatics. I will argue that it is not possible to account for their badness in pragmatics. This is because treating stereotype enhancers as only pragmatically bad has bad ethical implications. I will then look at two semantic theories of generics (Leslie's and Liebesman's) and how they can account for the badness of stereotype enhancers.

Week 8
27 June
Chair: Sean M. Costello
Leonardo Santoso (Hertford College)
Making Sense of the Value of Integrity

Many philosophers hold that persons of integrity must be morally good, or that integrity is essentially connected to moral goodness. Contrary to this trend is the 'identity-view' of integrity, commonly associated with Bernard Williams. The identity-view claims that integrity simply involves staying true to our deepest commitments, principles, and projects; and so, these needn't necessarily be moral ones.

Critics have argued against the identity account on the grounds that its failure to include a substantive constraint on the kinds of commitment a person of integrity can have allows for counterintuitive cases where, for example, the fanatical Nazi, can count as having integrity. In this presentation, I argue that this objection fails because it relies on a naïve picture of human psychology and so greatly exaggerates the worry. I then show how we can still make sense of the value of integrity on this view despite it allowing for the possibility of a genuinely evil person having integrity.