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.

We meet Wednesdays 1PM in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room. During Week 1, we will feature four 20min presentations (roughly, 10min talk and 10min Q&A); this session is designed to give speakers quick feedback on ideas and to develop communities of philosophers working on related topics. Presentations Weeks 2-7 are 45min; these may feature distinct talk and Q&A sections, or may run workshop style with Q&A occurring during the talk itself. Sometimes there will be two 45min presentations on related topics.

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

Programme for Hilary 2017

We meet Wednesdays 13:00-14:30 in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room.

Week 1
18 January

James Matharu (New), chaired by Jay Jian
A Second-Person Sublime
I think there may be a kind of sublime that turns on a failure to achieve true second-personal thought of a non-person. The would-be second-person might be an artefact, landscape, situation, organism. The things seem to demand we attempt cooperative activity with them, but the most we can do is address them. This yields a displeasure in our inability to meet the demand, which nonetheless gives pleasure by placing our personhood within a larger than personal cosmos. The impersonal world demands personal attention impersonally. I want to float the idea by describing some experiences. I'd like to know (a) whether the experiences resonate with people, and (b) whether the way I think about them brings to mind work or questions others are familiar with.
Sean Troxel (Wycliffe Hall), chaired by Jay Jian
Brains in Vats Ain't So Bad
In my presentation, I will discuss two kinds of skeptical hypotheses and evaluate their impact on our everyday beliefs. I will begin by discussing Putnam's version of the Brain-in-the-Vat hypothesis, and working through the intuitions as to why we should not fear such a hypothesis. I will then consider a more general hypothesis that shares the initial worries of the Brain-in-the-Vat hypotheses, and attempt to show that this more general hypothesis is not to be feared either. I will then consider a more fearsome version of the Brain-in-the-Vat hypothesis, which might be called the Recently-Envatted hypotheses. I will argue that even this hypothesis, and its kindred, while alarming, are not insurmountable to the way we take our lives to be. Finally, I'll briefly consider a few reasons why very particular versions of these hypotheses may be troublesome, but not for epistemological reasons.
Week 2
25 January
Jay Jian (Balliol), chaired by Chris Fowles
Instrumental Rationality and the Cognitive Grounding of Desire

I will start by explaining how recent disputes over the scope of instrumental requirement can be framed as a more general debate over two competing conceptions of instrumental rationality (IR), i.e. the coherence in one's desires about an end and the means to it, and the executive ability to realize one's desires by desiring and taking relevant means.

I will then argue for the executive conception of IR by examining the widely-accepted thesis that desires based on defected cognitive grounding are rationally problematic even under a purely instrumentalist picture of practical rationality. The proposals on why such desires are objectionable under IR, I contend, can make better sense only under the executive conception of IR. And that presents a positive case for it. I will conclude by exploring the further implications of the executive conception of IR on our understanding of practical rationality and normativity.

Niklas Stadelmann (Keble), chaired by Chris Fowles
Demonstrating Truth

Despite the fact that most human beings do have a very clear pre-theoretic notion of what it means for some expression to be true, philosophers have consistently struggled to provide a precise definition of the concept that not only "works" in the sense that it can explain why what we consider to be true is in fact true, but also is strong enough to qualify as an elucidation of the concept at all.

Due to the significance of having a clear understanding of what truth actually is - given I will be mainly concerned with truth as a concept telling us something about expressions in natural languages as opposed to truth in a formal context - we should be reluctant to resort to proclaiming truth to be an "indefinable" or "basic" notion beyond philosophical capture.

The solution I'd suggest is to replace the method of definition of basic pre-theoretic concepts like truth by a method of demonstration of such concepts that uses images and the recognition of patterns in a highly abstracted form to render it intelligible.

Whereas at first such a procedure might well strike us to be infantile and un-academic, I will argue that it approximates the way human beings - children and adults alike - actually acquire an understanding of words and concepts of all kinds much more effectively, and that therefore, it should be the preferable method of characterisation of foundational philosophical terms.

Week 3
1 February

Charlotte Figueroa (St Edmund Hall), chaired by James Matharu
The Distinction between Erotica and Pornography
I will be defining the concepts of erotica (or erotic art) and pornography, and explaining the distinction between these two concepts. I will take an ameliorative approach in my analysis, as I am offering new definitions of these concepts instead of attempting to analyse the way the concepts are currently employed. The existing definitions of erotica and pornography (found both in philosophical literature and everyday understanding) misplaces the focus of what defines an object as either erotica or pornography, as definitions of these concepts are typically based primarily in features such as content, aesthetic quality, or creator's intentions, and I will reject this approach. Instead, I claim that the way to understand the distinction between erotica and pornography (as well as the concepts themselves) is in reference to the relationship of the viewer to the object - to bring this out more clearly, I will discuss Heidegger's dichotomy of objects as ready-to-hand and present-to-hand.
James Kirkpatrick & Daisy Dixon (University & Peterhouse, Cambridge), chaired by James Matharu
The Dangers of 'Make-up' Sex
Recent critics of pornography have argued that pornography constitutes harmful speech which harms women. However, such arguments face a serious problem. Since much pornography purports to be fiction or fantasy, it does not genuinely express nor constitute harmful speech. This paper shows how to reconcile the claim that pornography constitutes harmful speech with the claim that much pornographic content is fictional by appealing to the photographic transparency of fictional pornography.

Week 4
8 February
Matthew Hewson (Pembroke), chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
Belief, Credence and Intention
According to a great many views of intention, rationally intending action brings with it a belief condition; you must believe (or fail to disbelieve) that you will so act. According to the Lockean picture of belief and credence, believing some proposition is a matter of having sufficiently high credence in it. I argue these two positions, although independently plausible and popular, are jointly inconsistent. Roughly, the problem derives from cases where one intends to act but has low credence they will do so. Since Lockeans hold high credence makes for belief (and low credence does not) this will typically violate any belief condition placed upon intention. I fill out the sketch just given, consider objections and close the discussion by arguing that this is a reason to drop both Lockeanism and its justificatory analogue.

Alexander Heape (St Edmund Hall)
Outline of a Mereology for Activities, chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
There is a relatively intuitive notion of 'activity' according to which it is an instance of agency, somehow comprised of individual actions. One example of this is joint action. When a set of individual people perform a set of individual actions in a certain way, they all take part in the same activity. In the literature on joint action, there is more or less consensus that intentional joint action must be caused by some kind of joint intention. If one accepts the Davidsonian orthodoxy that for something to be an action (intentional or not) it must be caused by an intention, a certain conclusion is tempting: For something to be a joint action (intentional or not) it must be caused by a joint intention. Unfortunately, there are simple counterexamples to this claim. If that is so, we need a different way to explain what it is for sets of actions to form activities or joint activities. I develop an austere view according to which a set of individual actions form an activity just in case they depend on each other for their relation of part to whole. One virtue of this view is that facts about which activities are performed do not depend on facts about personal or collective identity. This, I suggest, has wide-ranging normative implications.

Week 5
15 February
Michael Bruckner (Merton), chaired by Gary O'Brien
The Myth of the Given Advice
This essay aims to explore a novel approach to the moral deference problem (MDP), viz. eliminativism about doxastic deference to moral testimony. The main argument is that the scope of MDP is limited to a particular type of moral belief and that mature moral agents are psychologically incapable of forming beliefs of this kind based on deference. The latter claim is made on the basis of a doxastic principle: any mature moral agent who holds a moral belief that lies within the scope of MDP does so based on intuition, not deference. As regards the axiology of moral testimony, this suggests that we should be sceptical about the kind of deference that moral testimony optimists and pessimists typically argue about. Moreover, it suggests adopting a pluralist view regarding the merits of various other phenomena in the vicinity, which might resolve some of the disagreement between optimists and pessimists.
William Gildea (Keble), chaired by Gary O'Brien
Does the well-being of the other animals matter just as much as ours?
Human and non-human animals have interests. Weighing such interests is central to doing ethics. The principle of equal consideration of interests states that like interests have equal weight. This enables us to recognise the equal moral status of humans. I consider two challenges to the view. 1) Once we recognise that relationships provide grounds for weighing some interests for more, the door is open to a further counterexample, namely, that the higher cognitive capacity of persons gives their interests special status. 2) It is wrong to think we should be concerned with a being because they have a good. The converse is true: a being's good only matters insofar as it has inherent value (Velleman 2015). This grounds the special status of persons' good. I respond to both challenges in defence of the equal basic moral status of all sentient beings.

Week 6
22 February
Tomi Francis (Somerville), chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
The Contingent Brutalist answer to the Special Composition Question
The Special Composition Question is: "when do some things compose something?" Almost all answers to the SCQ say that it will be metaphysically necessary whether composition occurs or not under given conditions. I argue that this cannot be assumed, and that with few exceptions, whether composition occurs boils down to a brute and contingent fact about existence. I then sketch out some interesting epistemic implications of this view.

Kevin Gibbons (St Edmund Hall), chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
Referential Superposition and Entanglement: Why systems of variables are non-separable
In this talk, I aim to demotivate Fine's "Antinomy of the Variable" by drawing an analogy between the referential properties of variables and the physical properties of quanta. Fine's antimony arises from observing that two pairs of variables and can play different semantic roles, while x and y seemingly play the same semantic role. To frame this issue, I transplant the notion of separability from the philosophy of physics, and argue that systems of variables are non-separable. That is to say, the semantic properties of a system of variables do not arise exclusively from the semantic properties of the particular variables in the system. To show this, I lay out a formal framework describing the semantics of variables, and demonstrate its isomorphism to the formal framework used to describe the states of quantum particles. Given the non-separability of quantum systems (a widely accepted fact), the non-separability of systems of variables follows. But when we understand systems of variables as being non-separable, the antinomy dissolves. Time permitting, I end with some shamelessly speculative musings about why such an analogy might yield interesting insights into the tripartite relationship between language, thought, and reality.

Week 7
1 March
Luke Davies (Merton), chaired by James Matharu
Kant's Two Arguments Against Self-Ownership
This paper seeks to contribute to discussions of self-ownership by examining and criticising two arguments of Kant's against self-ownership. 1. The Slavery Argument. The first argument, from the Collins lectures on moral philosophy, claims that self-ownership is normatively impossible for the same reason that slavery is normatively impossible. Slavery is normatively impossible because it requires that a would-be slave be treated both as a thing and as a person simultaneously. Using this as an argument against self-ownership fails because slavery and self-ownership are not relevantly alike. 2. The Liberty Argument. The second argument, from the Doctrine of Right, claims that self-ownership is impossible because one liberty that necessarily comprises (at least in part) any property right could not attend the supposed right of self-ownership. I argue that this argument fails on the grounds that i) it requires an implausible identification of our self and our body, and ii) it does not account for the possibility that self-ownership is a special type of property right in which the thing owned sets a limit on its use.

Benjamin Lange (Lady Margaret Hall), chaired by James Matharu
Liability and Overdetermination
This paper focuses on a variant of what I call Overdetermination cases. In such cases, a sequence of attacking aggressors A1, A2,...,An threaten to kill an innocent victim so that that she (or an intervening third party) has to kill all of them in order to survive. These cases cause significant problems for existing accounts of defensive harm (see McMahan (2016)). Against this background, I propose and motivate a view on which there is no limit to the number of aggressors one might justifiably kill in self-defense when such aggressors are fully responsible, but on which there does exist a limit for the number one might permissibly kill when such aggressors are only minimally responsible.

Week 8
8 March
Guus Eelink (Merton), chaired by Sybilla Pereira
The Secret Doctrine in Plato's Theaetetus
In the Theaetetus Socrates asks the question 'what is knowledge (episteme)?'. A large part of the dialogue is devoted to the first definition: knowledge is perception (aisthesis). Immediately after Theaetetus proposes this definition, Socrates argues that Protagoras' famous measure doctrine (man is the measure of all things) says the same thing in a different way, and the ensuing discussion is primarily an inquiry into Protagoras' doctrine. Socrates introduces the so-called 'Secret Doctrine', allegedly an esoteric Protagorean doctrine supposed to reveal the truth behind the measure doctrine. A prominent component of the Secret Doctrine is what we might call a 'flux doctrine': nothing ever is, but everything is always coming to be. Scholars have struggled to understand the precise nature of the flux doctrine and the way it is supposed to underpin the measure doctrine. In the talk I shall explore some of the exegetical and philosophical difficulties one encounters when attempting to answer these questions and I shall share some tentative answers.

Matthew McMillan (St Catherine's), chaired by Sybilla Pereira
How to Make an Artificial Language: Leibniz on Space and Symbols
Leibniz's grand plan was to improve the human condition by making the whole encyclopedia of human knowledge accessible to everyone, and to do this by expressing it in a new language (or 'characteristic') specially tailored to each branch of the encyclopedia. The more naturally a characteristic expresses its branch, the less the imagination is burdened in reasoning. In the limit reasoning becomes computation, accessible even to a machine. Leibniz put great effort throughout his life into developing a characteristic for geometry so that proofs would become as easy as spelling. In the first part I will look at the general considerations involved in developing a characteristic, and in the second part of my talk I will look at the key initial steps leading to the Geometric Characteristic: I give a new account of his concepts of quantity and quality, or magnitude and form. This requires a shift from the modern 'grammar' of quantity since he thought, I will argue, that quantity (size, magnitude) is not a property.