The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy

Here is the announcement for our first big EAP conference in September. I am hugely excited about it given the topic and the awesome list of speakers.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce its first major international conference, ‘The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy,’ taking place at The Institute of Philosophy, London, 4-5th September 2010. This event is part of a series interrogating the ideal of self-determination in human affairs. The conference will investigate the turbulent history of the notion of autonomy, from the Greeks to modernity.

The line-up of speakers is as follows:

Katerina Deligiorgi (University of Sussex)

Axel Honneth (University of Frankfurt)

Terence Irwin (University of Oxford)

David McNeill (University of Essex)

Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia University)

Thomas Pink (King’s College London)

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago)

John Skorupski (University of St Andrews)

Further information and a full programme will be available shortly at

Attendance is free but places are strictly limited and advanced registration is required. To register, please send an e-mail to Helen Cook at

The Essex Autonomy Project is based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex. For more information on its work and for announcements of future events, see its webpages at

The Essex Autonomy Project

I have been offered a three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Essex as part of a new AHRC-funded project on autonomous judgement. Details of the project below:

Deciding for Oneself: Autonomous Judgment in History, Theory and Practice is a three-year interdisciplinary research initiative based in the Philosophy Department at the University of Essex. Our fundamental aim is to clarify the nature and value of judgemental autonomy, both for its own sake, and in order to provide orientation for those who must apply this notion — whether as parents, medical practitioners, legal professionals, or simply as citizens.

Our approach to these issues is in equal measures theoretical, practical, and historical. A crucial element of our methodology is to bring together philosophers working on the theory of autonomy and judgement with working professionals in the law, psychiatric medicine, and social policy. Philosophical theories can be tested and strengthened by application to real-world challenges, while practitioners can make use of philosophical approaches to find a way through some of the vexing challenges endemic to these issues. Our historical approach in turn holds out promise for illuminating both the theoretical and practical issues. A number of contemporary challenges regarding judgemental autonomy are best diagnosed and addressed with reference to the contested history that produced them. One important element in this will be to engage the critics who have objected to the very ideal of autonomous judgement.

Research will be conducted in large part through a series of interdisciplinary workshops, public lectures and international conferences, many of which will be open to the public. Among the research outputs for the project will be a website, ‘Green Paper’ technical reports, and a curriculum for a Knowledge Transfer ‘Master Class’ for the dissemination of results. In addition there will be a series of more conventional academic outputs, including a monograph, research articles and collections of essays. Above all, our aim is to cultivate an interdisciplinary network of researchers and practitioners with advanced expertise on the challenges intrinsic to the ideal of judgemental autonomy.

More details can be found here. Expect to hear more about this in due course!

Nature and Normativity

Here are two excellent essays, each taking opposing stances on how to answer questions centring on nature and normativity, alongside the roles of sciences and humanities in understanding reality. Both are admirably lucid and make a good case for their competing methodologies: firstly, an unashamed defence of ‘scientism’; secondly, the demand to take the standpoint of practical reasoning seriously.

An excerpt from each, beginning with Alex Rosenberg’s ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide To Reality’:

What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.” Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

From Robert Pippin’s ‘Normative and Natural’:

Normative questions, I mean, are irreducibly “first-personal” questions, and these questions are practically unavoidable and necessarily linked to the social practice of giving and demanding reasons for what we do, especially when something someone does affects, changes or limits what another would otherwise have been able to do. By irreducibly first-personal, I mean that whenever anyone faces a normative question (which is the stance from which normative issues are issues)  – what ought to be believed or what ought to be done – no third-personal fact about “why one as a matter of fact has come to prefer this or that” can be relevant to what I must decide, unless (for good practical reasons) I count it as a relevant practical reason in the justification of what I decide. Knowing something about evolutionary psychology might contribute something to understanding the revenge culture in which Orestes finds himself in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and so why he feels pulled both to avenge his father’s murder by his mother Clytemnestra, and also feels horrified at the prospect of killing his mother in cold blood. But none of that can be, would be, at all helpful to Orestes or anyone in his position.  Knowing something about the evolutionary benefits of altruistic behavior might give us an interesting perspective on some particular altruistic act, but for the agent, first-personally, the question I must decide is whether I ought to act altruistically and if so why. I cannot simply stand by, as it were, and “wait” to see what my highly and complexly evolved neuro-biological system will do. “It” doesn’t decide anything; I do, and this for reasons I must find compelling, or at least ones that outweigh countervailing considerations. It is in this sense that the first-personal perspective is strictly unavoidable. I am not a passenger on a vessel pulled hither and yon by impulses and desires; I have to steer.

Cold World


The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.43

My copy of Dominic Fox’s Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria arrived on Wednesday, unexpectedly early. It’s brief but potent, much like its recent and upcoming fellows in the Zero Books series, such as Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism. The theme is artistic and political forms of deep sadness. It ranges from music (Codeine, Xasthur) to poetry (Hopkins, Coleridge, Larkin) to politics (Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF). This week Dominic has been posting excerpts on his blog, which give a good feel of the book as a whole. For what it’s worth, it comes highly recommended by me.

3 Quarks Daily Final

My post on Philosophy as Bildung has somehow made it through to the final of the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize. The judge is the esteemed analytic philosopher of mind Daniel C. Dennett. Some of the other finalists have expressed excitement at Dennett reading and possibly commenting upon their post, though I must admit that the prospect of coming to the attention of regular 3QD reader David Byrne (of Talking Heads) is the more exciting one for me as a New Wave and post-punk fan. The nine finalists are as follows:

  1. 3 Quarks Daily: Penne For Your Thought
  2. Der Wille Zur Macht und Sprachspiele: Nietzsche’s Causal Essentialism
  3. Grundlegung: Philosophy as Bildung
  4. Justin Erik Halldór Smith: The Fundamentals of Gelastics
  5. PEA Soup: Scanlon on Moral Responsibility and Blame
  6. The Immanent Frame: Immanent Spirituality
  7. Tomkow: Blackburn, Truth and other Hot Topics
  8. Underverse: Refuting “It,” Thus
  9. Wide Scope: Emotions and Moral Skepticism

Update: Winners announced here alongside some grumbling by Dennett.

Rorty Interviews


A number of wide-ranging interviews with Richard Rorty can be found here:

‘A Talent For Bricolage’
‘Realists—Grow Up’
‘The Next Left’
‘North Atlantic Thinking’
‘Without illusion, but with conviction’

Rorty is laconic throughout, with my favourite example being when Joshua Knobe asks him why Putnam thinks he is a relativist: “Beats me. I wrote an article about it, but that was as far as I got.”

Brandom, Habermas and the political

There are two very interesting new pieces by Brandom available on his website. The first is his attempt to reconcile his reading of Hegel with Habermas, which you can download here. [via Now-Times and Habermasian Reflections] This is a really excellent paper which does a good job of resituating Brandom’s theory of normativity, throwing new light upon it. The second piece is an interview with the European Journal of Political Theory, and can be found here. This is something of a departure for Brandom, who has often seemed a little reticent about political topics. There does seem to be a turn towards these issues though, beginning with his article on the Pragmatist Enlightenment and continued with his current engagement with Habermas (and he has even been teaching a course with 4 weeks on Marx). I hope there is more to come. The proceedings of the recent Genoa conference on Brandom’s recent philosophy of language are also available, although I have not had a chance to look at them yet. They can be found here. Finally, there is this little paper on the development of Rorty’s thought: a topic on which Brandom is always an insightful read.

Thornton on McDowell, and some other reviews

Tim Thornton has written a review of the two new McDowell collections for The Philosophers’ Magazine. There is a copy on his blog, which you can read here. He ends with a tribute to McDowell, which might seem a little gushing to some, but with which I am in full agreement:

I know of no contemporary philosopher whose work repays as handsomely careful and repeated study, no philosopher more likely to shed original and yet fundamentally revealing light on a difficult subject, no philosopher whose ‘philosophical ear’ or ‘philosophical sense’ is more worthy of respect.

* * *

Below are some recent reviews, from the NDPR, which readers might also be interested in:

Paul HurleyReview of Michael Thompson, Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought.

Daniel D. HuttoReview of John Preston (Ed.), Wittgenstein and Reason.

Andrew JaniakReview of Daniel Garber, Béatrice Longuenesse (Eds.), Kant and the Early Moderns.

Richard KrautReview of Charles Larmore, The Autonomy of Morality.

Michael LeBuffeReview of Michael Della Rocca, Spinoza.

Peter C. MeilaenderReview of Kelvin Knight, Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics From Aristotle to Macintyre.

Karl SchaferReview of Henry E. Allison, Custom and Reason in Hume: A Kantian Reading of the First Book of the Treatise.

Robert M. WallaceReview of Frederick C. Beiser (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy.

Christopher GaukerReview of Jeremy Wanderer, Robert Brandom.

Joseph MendolaReview of Joseph Heath, Following the Rules: Practical Reasoning and Deontic Constraint.

Corey W. DyckReview of Scott Stapleford, Kant’s Transcendental Arguments: Disciplining Pure Reason.

Ronald E. HustwitReview of Roger Teichmann, The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe.

Terry PinkardReview of Béatrice Longuenesse, Hegel’s Critique of Metaphysics.

Sanford ShiehReview of Robert B. Brandom, Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism.

Grundlegung in print

When a man asks for a royal road to science, no more convenient and comfortable way can be mentioned to him than to put his trust in “healthy common sense”. And for the rest, to keep abreast of the times and advance with philosophy, let him read reviews of philosophical works, and even go the length of reading the prefaces and first paragraphs of the works themselves; for the latter give the general principles on which everything turns, while the reviews along with the historical notice provide over and above the critical judgment and appreciation, which, being a judgment passed on the work, goes farther than the work that is judged. This common way a man can take in his dressing-gown.

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface

Hegel and his sarcasm can stick it because I’ve got two book reviews out at the moment. The first is on an excellent collection called German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives edited by Espen Hammer. It appears in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, and subscribers can access it here. The second is a review of Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy and which is in the latest issue (n.45) of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’m not sure what the copyright situation is, but I will post them here if I find out that I can.

Update: You can read my review of the Pippin book on The Philosophers’ Magazine website here.

Academic Earth & The Tanner Lecture Library

Here’s two useful sites. The first is Academic Earth, which has courses of video lectures from some American universities. My picks from it are ‘Introduction to Political Philosophy’ by Steven B. Smith and ‘Introduction to Ancient Greek History’ by Donald Kagan.

The second is the Tanner Lecture Library. It is a collection of previous Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which are in PDF format. My picks here are:

Stanley Cavell – The Uncanniness of the Ordinary
Harry Frankfurt – Taking Ourselves Seriously
Michel Foucault – Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’
Jurgen Habermas – Law and Morality
Barbara Herman – Moral Literacy
Axel Honneth – Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View
Christine Korsgaard – The Sources of Normativity
Christine Korsgaard – Fellow Creatures
Jonathan Lear – Happiness
Alasdair MacIntyre – Truthfulness, Lies, and Moral Philosophers
Thomas Nagel – The Limits of Objectivity
Martha Nussbaum – Beyond the Social Contract: Toward Global Justice
Onora O’Neill – Kant on Reason and Religion
Derek Parfit – What We Could Rationally Will
Thomas Scanlon – The Significance of Choice
Barry Stroud – The Study of Human Nature and the Subjectivity of Value
Charles Taylor – Modernity and the Rise of the Public Sphere
Stephen Toulmin – The Idol of Stability
G.H. von Wright – Of Human Freedom