What is the Ockham Society?

The Ockham Society provides a forum in which graduate students in philosophy - whether BPhil, MSt or early DPhil - 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.

While the majority of speakers are from Oxford, the society welcomes papers from graduate students and young academics from other universities. If you would like to present a paper to the society please contact Matthias Brinkmann (firstname.lastname(at)philosophy.ox.ac.uk).


A session of the Ockham Society typically lasts around 60 minutes. In the standard format, a presenter will talk for 30 minutes, with the same amount of discussion time. In the Ockham Shorts format, two speakers will each present for 15 minutes, with 15 minutes left for Q&A. Some sessions have student respondents who will give short, constructive criticism of the paper under discussion.

Programme for Hilary 2014

In Hilary 2014, we will meet in the Ryle Room on Thursdays, 1-2pm.

Week 1
22 January
Joseph Bowen (St John's)
Liberal Institutions and Appropriate Epistemic Deference: An Epistemic Justification for Liberalism
It is hard to deny that social institutions play an integral part in the formation of our beliefs. This epistemic deference to institutions is (probably) unavoidable, and highly valuable. However, there are worries that stem from this given that when beliefs (as motivation for action) are false, they can be both prudentially risky in that they affect one’s means-ends reasoning and morally risky as they can lead one to adopt immoral ends. This paper examines Allen Buchanan’s social epistemological argument, which suggests that liberal institutions are best at avoiding the risks of surplus-epistemic deference (that is, over reliance on epistemic authority). I consider two objections to this argument: (i) that the justificatory weight falls upon a meritocratic identification of experts, and this is not distinctively liberal; (ii) that liberal institutions do not ensure risk aversion, but merely offer the possibility for it. I suggest that (i) misunderstands the scope of Buchanan’s risk aversion and, while his argument speaks only to avoiding surplus-epistemic deference, liberal institutions do go some way towards combatting deficient-epistemic deference (that is, agents not deferring to epistemic authority); and, this may go some way to answering (ii).
Matthew Oliver (Jesus) will give the first response.
Week 2
29 January
Peter Fritz (Jesus)
First-Order Modal Logic in the Necessary Framework of Objects
I consider the first-order modal logic which counts as valid those sentences which are true on every interpretation of the non-logical constants. Based on the assumptions that it is necessary what individuals there are and that it is necessary which propositions are necessary, Timothy Williamson has argued that this logic is determined by a possible world structure consisting of an infinite set of individuals and an infinite set of worlds. He notes that only the cardinalities of these sets matters, and that not all pairs of infinite sets determine the same logic. I use so-called two-cardinal theorems from model theory to investigate the space of logics and consequence relations determined by pairs of infinite sets, and show how to eliminate the assumption that worlds are individuals from Williamson's argument.
Week 3
5 February
Christopher Fowles (Queen's)
Clark and Dudrick on the 'Magnificent tension of the spirit' in Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil
In ‘The Soul of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil’, Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick argue that Beyond Good and Evil has both exoteric and esoteric meanings. The esoteric reading reveals that the work is concerned with the ‘philosopher’s soul’; particularly with the ‘magnificent tension of the spirit’ that Nietzsche introduces in the preface. This tension, it is argued, is between the will to truth and a ‘will to value’ that they claim is presented to us in the first section of Beyond Good and Evil. In §1 of this paper, I argue that the ‘will to value’ is textually and philosophically problematic; and struggles to explicate the tension they wish to address. In §2, I move on to unpack the metaphor of the tension of the spirit: I claim that Clark and Dudrick misinterpret the metaphor of tension and the tense bow, and suggest a more defensible (albeit exoteric) interpretation.
Week 4
12 February
There was no talk in week 4.
Week 5
19 February
Joao Fabiano (St Cross)
Complexity of Value and Moral Enhancement
Moral Enhancement is any (radical and non-conventional) intervention which is expected to improve the moral dispositions of a human being. In this talk I will argue that all our moral cognitive processes, taken as whole, have a high complexity. That is, any theory or complete description of them would be fairly long and intricate. I will also argue that small, apparently beneficial, interventions on moral cognition will be likely to lead to severe disturbance. Given those two arguments, I will conclude that since we have many reasons to expect the target of moral enhancement - human morality - is both complex and fragile, then most attempts to enhance it are more likely to disrupt than to improve morality.
Owen Schaefer will give the first response.
Week 6
26 February
Sam Carter (St John's)
A Generic Theory of Justification
Logics for variably strict ‘normality’ conditionals have been employed to give theories of both justified belief (Smith (2007, 2010)) and the semantics of generic sentences (Asher and Morreau (1995); Asher and Pelletier (1997, 2013)). In this paper, I suggest that there are compelling reasons to combine the two. First, I argue that, under a natural approach to (doxastic) justification, necessary and sufficient conditions, if statable at all, can be expected to involve genericity. I proceed to offer a normality-based semantics for generics which overcomes well-known objections. Finally, in the concluding section I show that how the account of justification, when restated in terms of the proposed semantic theory captures certain key desiderata of a theory of justification, as well as offering novel responses to the new evil demon problem and the gradability of doxastic justification.
Week 7
5 March
James Kirkpatrick (University)
A cautionary tale against generic amelioration
This paper considers the prospects of Generic Amelioration—the project recently suggested by Sarah-Jane Leslie (forthcoming; 2014) and Sally Haslanger (2010) according to which we ought to revise our linguistic practices concerning social generics—in reducing and alleviating the transmission of prejudice. Two considerations are given for why this strategy is unlikely to be successful in combatting social prejudice. First, Generic Amelioration requires unworkably extreme revisions to our current linguistic practices. Second, it is unclear whether Generic Amelioration would have the positive intended effects.
Week 8
12 March
Niels Martens (Magdalen)
Ozma Problems: Talking Physics with Aliens
Imagine there is intelligent life somewhere in our universe. These aliens are too far away to visit, but we can communicate with them via, for instance, morse code. How much of Physics could we unambiguously communicate? Could we agree on the meaning of left(-handedness)? On the meaning of 1 kg? Positive electric charge? I will discuss various of these problems, which are all variations on Gardner's Ozma Problem.
Past Sessions.
Michaelmas 2012 | Hilary 2013 | Trinity 2013
Michaelmas 2013 | Hilary 2014 | Trinity 2014
Michaelmas 2014