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Faculty of Philosophy


MSC Minutes 2019-2020


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 15th October 2019

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, and Nick Denyer of the University of Cambridge gave a talk entitled ‘Euclid, Plato, and Aristotle on What Geometry is About’. Denyer argued that the postulates in Euclid’s Elements were best understood as inviting us to imagine an idealised drawer of geometrical diagrams, whom he called ‘Valentina’. Denyer argued that postulating Valentina allowed Euclid to solve a problem posed by Plato, namely, what can be the bearing of particular, temporary, and changing diagrams on general, everlasting, and stable truths. Valentina solves this problem, Denyer argued, because we may identify the existence of a geometrical object with the possibility of drawing such an object in our imagination. Imagining her to draw a geometrical object will show that the object can be drawn, and therefore that it exists eternally.

A discussion followed. Points were made, dots were joined, and virtuously circular reasoning was discussed from a number of different angles, but no one crossed the line. Questions were asked about turtle geometry, impossible triangles, whether propositions were in the driver’s seat, and Valentina’s bearing on the Neoplatonic argument for the existence of the world. It was conceded that Valentina might be a committee, all of us or like Errol Flynn swinging from a chandelier. The meeting closed at 4:16pm.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 22nd October 2019

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved. It was announced that there would be an Emergency General Meeting on 12th November, concerning mundane constitutional matters. Then the meeting proper began, and Luvell Anderson of Syracuse University gave a talk entitled ‘Roasting Ethics’.

Comedic roasts involve using insult to create humour. Anderson pointed out an apparent tension here, between ‘the comedic’ – concerned with the funny, light-hearted mirth, and fun – and insults – mean-spirited tools of injury. He considered three ways to resolve this apparent tension: the ‘talking shit’ view, according to which the insult lacks its sting because the speaker doesn’t mean what they say, the ‘equal opportunities’ view, according to which the insult is non-threatening because everyone’s being targeted equally, and the ‘redirection’ view, according to which the material is presented in such a way that it gets the audience to focus on the delivery rather than the content. Anderson argued for a modified redirection view, to allow for cases where the content is part of the point of the roast.

The audience was then invited to roast Anderson. He was grilled on the role of the victim in the roast, took some heat over the apparent possibility of roasting pluralism, and was given the third degree (fan oven) about the distinction between delivery and content. The meeting closed at 4:18 p.m.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, 29th October 2019

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, after which Robert Pasnau gave a talk, titled “Choosing between Faith and Heresy”.

In his talk, Pasnau introduced some puzzles about the role of will in choosing our beliefs in cases where the available evidence does not force our assent one way or another. The focus was on 13th and 14th century discussions about doctrines of faith, which seem to call for strong belief despite the lack of an epistemic basis for it. Two problems were highlighted. The normative problem of proportionality is about whether we should proportion our beliefs to evidence, whereas the descriptive problem of proportionality is about whether we actually do so. Whereas earlier medieval authors focused on the role of divine illumination in giving certitude in doctrines of faith, from Aquinas onwards the discussion shifted and became about what Pasnau called doxastic voluntarism, where the will to believe is highlighted. The last segment of the talk touched upon heresy, whereby a member of a faith disagrees with certain isolated doctrines, and how we could benefit from a secular theory of heresy nowadays. He concluded that we might learn from what the medievals had to say about heresy, although we might want to choose to disagree with their views on how it should be punished.

An illuminating discussion ensued. Questions were asked about the role of grace, and whether faith would be better construed as a moral or as an epistemic virtue. Of course, Bayesianism was brought up. In the end, the audience was left free to proportion their beliefs to the evidence presented; sadly, no divine illumination incident was reported, and everyone had to choose whether to believe in Pasnau’s account or not.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, 5th November 2019

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved. Exceptionally, the meeting started at 2pm rather than 2.30pm, to allow anyone who so wished to attend the Tarner Lecture later that day. Benjamin Marschall gave a talk titled “Carnap’s Defence of Abstract Objects”, which really did a number on us. Despite an early interruption by an aggressive fire alarm, the audience remained positive, perhaps even logically so.

In his talk, Marschall showed how Carnap can accept the existence of abstract objects (such as numbers) without thereby embracing “spooky metaphysics”. This is done through an internalist strategy, which involves treating the question whether certain abstract entities exist as a question as to whether statements about these objects existing are true within a given framework of axioms and rules. After examining objections to dear old Rudolf from Gödel and Beth, Marschall concludes that the internalist strategy cannot straightforwardly be applied to all abstract objects; indeed, linguistic frameworks themselves are to be treated as abstract objects, and Carnap’s approach does not look very promising in dealing with them.

A discussion ensued. Several points were raised concerning consistency, both within a given framework and between different ones. The features of number talk were compared to those of tiger talk, and a possible link with kantian imagination was brought up. The meeting ended at 3.45pm.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 12th November 2019

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, and Kenny Walden, a level 28 wizard from Dartmouth College, gave a talk entitled ‘Agency and Genius’. Walden argued that there exists a tension between the following two claims. First, that the more creative a creature’s behaviour, the greater their animal agency and second, that the more our best explanation of a person’s behaviour is given in the “agential mode”, the greater their intentional agency. Art, according to Walden, involves analogous versions of the same demands, and artists face the same tension. In the artistic case, resolution of this tension can be achieved with the natural endowment Kant calls “genius”. Given the analogy between the two cases, if artistic genius is the solution to Kant’s problem, then ethical genius should be the solution to ours. We should aestheticize our lives, because agency presents us with an artistic problem.

A discussion followed, in which both agency and genius were represented creatively, and Beethoven got more airtime than is entirely wholesome. Questions were asked about whether all rule-following required some creative genius, the dangers of self-imitation, whether Kant’s contemporaries were really all that, and the connection between madness and genius. It was conceded that Thomas Nagel was there to be re-assuring and that if you fly too close to the sun, you lose your agency. The meeting closed when Walden cast ice-thunderbolt on Sethalopagus the Land-squid, which was at 4:18pm.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 19th November 2019

The problem of induction was made vivid for the secretaries, who discovered that they’d been wrong to infer that just because there was tea and coffee at 2:30pm in Sidwick Hall last week, there would be tea and coffee at 2:30pm in Sidgwick Hall this week. However, this was swiftly resolved. The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, and Peter Millican of Oxford University gave a talk entitled ‘What Hume Really Thought about Causation’.

There are three options for interpreting Hume’s theory of causation: reductionism (causation just is regular relations of succession), projectivism (ascriptions of causal relations involve ‘projection’ of something mental), and the new Hume (Hume’s analysis concerns only causation as it appears to us, which is different from real causation, involving absolute necessities that lie beyond our apprehension). Millican defended the first against two objections. He first responded to the concern that Hume’s two definitions of causation are not co-extensive, so they cannot apparently both be correct reductive accounts of the same thing. He argued that when the two definitions come apart, the first dominates the second. He then responded to the objection that positive reduction is inconsistent with Hume’s insistence that necessity is ‘only in the mind’. This insistence is only really prevalent in the Treatise, and Millican argued that we should take the Enquiry to be the authoritative work on Hume’s views. So reductionism is defensible. The other two views, on the other hand, are contradicted explicitly by the textual evidence. Indeed, Millican claimed to ‘feel pretty confident that the New Hume is dead’. Thus, we should understand Hume to be a reductionist about causation.

A discussion followed, based on ideas arising from our impressions of Millican’s talk. There were attempts to exhume the new Hume, a humorous debate about projectivism, and a question about how humane we should be as interpreters. The meeting closed at 4:21.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 21st January 2020

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved. Miranda Fricker of CUNY gave a talk entitled ‘Williams’ Naturalistic Philosophy’.

Fricker had two central aims: first, to object to the idea that Bernard Williams’ contribution to philosophy is primarily critical rather than positive, and second, to argue that there is one single driving conviction at the heart of his thought: the idea of dialogical freedom. Fricker argued that dialogical freedom is central to his internal reasons theory (dialogical freedom is necessary for the individual to steady the mind and determine their reasons), his argument about the relativism of distance (when dialogue between cultures is impossible, moral appraisal becomes inappropriate), and his beliefs about the limits of philosophy (found where the necessities of basic human need run out and our dialogical freedom kicks in). This positive spirit of dialogical freedom runs throughout Williams’ ethical philosophy.

A trustful dialogue followed. Questions were asked about the distinction between internal and external reasons theorists, whether someone’s need for dialogical freedom makes claims on others, and how evolutionary anthropology comes into the picture. Answers were given with accuracy and sincerity, and the audience were left with steadier minds and more determinate ends. The meeting came to a determinate end at 4:18 p.m.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, Tuesday 28th January2020

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, and Rachel Sterken of the University of Oslo gave a talk entitled ‘Authentic Speech’. Sterken argued that authentic speech expresses one’s own core thoughts, desires, experiences or feelings in a way that represents who one is and without external interference or influence. Sterken offered three basic schematic models of authentic speech: focusing on authorship, ownership and self-representation. The models were then tested in cases that demonstrated the role of authenticity in various speech acts, showed how to distinguish authentic speech from sincere speech and demonstrated the appeal of a pluralist account of authentic speech.

An authentic and sincere discussion followed. Questions were authored and owned, and many selves were represented. Sterken was asked about teenagers as paradigms of authenticity, whether lying was part of Donald Trump’s identity or small-talk part of ours and whether being authentic requires a self at all. It was conceded that if there were no authentic speech, that would be a cool position and that Stella the Creationist Teacher might be over-inclusive. The meeting closed, promptly, at 4:15pm.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, 4th February 2020

Once upon a time, in the Jane Harrison Room, the Moral Sciences Club met, according to schedule. After the minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, Robert Hopkins, who came from the far, far away land of NYU, gave a talk titled “Ryle-ing the irreal: Sensory imaging as knowing about sensing”.

Enthralled by the magic of his words, the crowd heard about the kind of knowledge involved in sensory imaging, namely, knowledge of the perspectival properties of an object. Hence, by visualising a cube, a suitable perspectival property is placed into the sensory profile of non-perspectival properties. This feat, he argued, requires two key ingredients, namely the conjuring of said perspectival properties as well as commitments about what perspectival properties should be conjured. He proposed this was analogous to the telling of a story, such as one in which a frog becomes a prince. Hopkins concluded his presentation with a discussion of how to apply his story of sensory imaging to objects with less basic features, like John Wayne.

Then followed a flurry of questions, each more colourful than the next. Hallucinations were deemed an interesting case by more than a few members of the audience, as well as the role of the context in changing non-perspectival properties. The question why cold wine tastes like shit was raised, but the answer remains mysterious. The meeting closed at 4.15 pm, after which everyone lived happily ever after (especially those who came along to the pub).


Moral Sciences Club Minutes 11.02.20

The results of last week’s fixture were read and approved and then the Constitutive Kind Formalists took to the pitch to play the home team of Cambridge MSC, refereed by Barcelona’s Manuel Garcia-Carpintero. The two teams were competing for a coveted prize: How to Understand Rule-Constituted Kinds.

The Constitutive Kind Formalists kicked off. Searle smacked the ball away with his hand, causing the whistle to be blown. According to Searle, violating the rules of football meant he was no longer playing football, but Garcia-Carpintero insisted it had been an abuse of the rules, rather than a misfire, and Searle was sent off. Williamson took over, agreeing with the ref’s decision, but then caused further confusion when he brought a racket onto the pitch, and Garcia-Carpintero argued that this was a misfire rather than an abuse, declaring Williamson not a cheater but a spoilsport. To make clear the difference between the two, Garcia-Carpintero proposed an account based on the intentions of the player to make it more probably that they will win the game.

Now it was time for Cambridge MSC to take possession. Horne picked up the ball and ran with it, insisting that he was not breaking the rules of football, but rather proposing that they change the rules to improve the game.

Munton took the ball next, but tampered with it. Garcia-Carpintero accused her of abusing the rules, but she insisted it was a misfire, as she had never had any intention to be bound by the rules, but  it was enough for her to have an intention to have people think she had an intention to be bound by the rules.

Munton passed to McClelland, but turned around and deliberately scored an own goal. Garcia-Carpintero had to decide whether this was a misfire or an abuse, given that it wasn’t actually violating a constitutive norm of the game.

It looked like it was all over for Cambridge MSC, until star striker Langton managed to win the ball, and went charging down the pitch, informing the ref that there were in fact two kinds of constitutive rules, one where breaking the rule means you’re not doing the activity, and one where you’re still doing it but you’re violating some kind of norm. A shock last minute assist from Immanuel Kant put Langton in a position to kick the ball neatly into the corner of the goal, through the outstretched hands of the keeper. “Checkmate!” she yelled. The match ended at 16:14.


Minutes of the Moral Sciences Club, 18th February 2020

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, after which Anne Bosse gave a talk titled “Generics in use”.

Generics such as “Moral Sciences Club secretaries are absolute legends” or “Generics are difficult to analyze semantically” are difficult to analyze semantically: When are they true? What do they express? Bosse first explained the communicative function of generics, highlighting their slipperiness and context-sensitivity. She then proposed to adopt an “existential quantification account” of generics according to which, despite the lack of an explicit quantifier, “Moral Sciences Club secretaries are absolute legends” expresses the claim that Moral Sciences Club Secretaries and absolute legends are related in at least one contextually salient way.

A period of questions ensued, where conversational risk was mitigated. It was concluded that it is somewhat important to not be precise. One can only hope that these minutes were not too generic.


That’ the story of the year that was: minutes of talks actual.

But not all talks or minutes happen, some are counterfactual.

Some of the year’s best talks were never given, in memoriam.

A quick word on those is needed, ad maiorem MSC gloriam.

First was Lucy McDonald, discussing Catcalls and Accommodation.

(Wolf whistle) Daaaaamn, offering that talk and then not following through was such a cruel flirtation.

Second, Snedegar, asking: How Do Reasons Compete?

But then the strike happened and had all those other reasons beat.

Third was Quill Kukla, discussing Retraction, Apology, and the Pragmatics of Undoing Speech.

We were so sorry that this promise was taken back and we undid their chance to teach.

Fourth was Beatrice Han-Pile, discussing ‘The Doing is Everything’: A Middle-Voiced Reading of Nietzsche.

But in the end there was nothing doing, and her middle voice would never reach ya.

Five was Ruth Chang, talking about Hard Choices.

Cancel or no? Shouted incommensurable voices.

Sixth was Anastasia Berg discussing Desire: Between Action and Passion.

We really wanted this to be a passionate affair, but were left dissatisfied in a painful fashion.

Seventh was David Plunkett, discussing Evaluation Turned on Itself: The Vindicatory Circularity Challenge to the Conceptual Ethics of Normativity.

We were head over heels excited about this talk, but it ended in inactivity.

Eighth was Christopher Peacocke, discussing Two Kinds of Explanation.

But there was really only one way to explain his plan’s cessation. 

And Ninth was Ofra Magidor, whose talk was TBD.

It was not determined, and now it never will be.

The final talk that could have been, couldn’t.

2020 refused to give in, it just wouldn’t.

So, that’s the end of the crusty old guard.

Admittedly, they tried pretty damn hard.

Now, they wish their successors all the best.

Pandemic secretarying’s no time for jest.