Fall 2022-2023 courses

Ground, Essence, and Real Definition (Philosophy 191)

Much work in metaphysics tries to answer questions of the form What is F? or What are Fs? “What is a mind?”, we ask, “What are numbers?” “What is causation?” “What is a person?” and so on. For a good part of the 20th century, questions like these were understood to be a matter for linguistic analysis, with answers taking the form of definitions of terms like ‘mind’, ‘number’, ‘causation’, and ‘person’. Contemporary metaphysicians largely see these questions as non-linguistic. What is sought is not the definition of terms, but the “real definitions” of individuals, properties, universals, kinds, or other worldly entities.

In recent years, philosophers have also observed a number of shortcomings to the “modal” analyses of the natures or definitions of things in the world. Philosophers still employ possibility and necessity in order to analyze the nature of entities, but such analyses are increasingly seen as only a part of the explanation into the nature of entities, and modality is increasingly seen as itself needing more fundamental explanation. The leading candidates for building these sorts of explanations are essences and the grounding relation. In the last few years, metaphysics has seen an explosion of interest in both of these.

In this course, we will read key texts in the literature on grounding, essence, and real definition, especially those relating these notions to one another. We will study different ways of asking and answering questions of the form “What is F” or “What are Fs”, as well as implications for philosophical methodology.

Philosophy of Social Science (Philosophy 134)

Why are the social sciences so difficult? If engineers can build airplanes that stay aloft, why can’t economists figure out how to avoid recessions? If biologists can design mice that glow in the dark, and make bacteria crank out drugs to fight cancer, why can’t we design political systems that avoid corruption and gridlock? Why are there so many versions of history, and why do theories in psychology go in and out of fashion every few years?

Are the social sciences inherently harder than the natural sciences? Are they just younger and less mature? Is the social world more complex than the natural world? Or are the goals of the social sciences, or the subjects they address, somehow different from those of the natural sciences?

This course is an introduction to the philosophy of social science. We will consider the nature of explanation in the social sciences, contrasting a variety of approaches taken by historical and contemporary thinkers. We will read theorists who have put forward different approaches for making the social sciences scientific, and critics who argue that social science is essentially a matter for interpretation. Then we will turn to the nature of social facts, and finally to the pros and cons of “methodological individualism,” i.e., the idea that society can be modeled in terms of individual people interacting with one another.

Other courses I teach


This course is a survey of contemporary metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of basic questions about the nature of reality. In ordinary conversation, we seem to commit ourselves to the existence of many puzzling objects. We talk about the sum of two numbers, about having thoughts, about the causes of an event, and about durations of time. But are there such things as numbers? Are there abstract objects as well as concrete ones? What is the relation between mental objects and physical objects? What is the nature of time, and of causation?

In the first part of the class will examine a number of key questions in contemporary metaphysics: universals and natural kinds, necessity and possibility, and the nature of time and the persistence of objects over time. In the second part, we will focus in particular on problems with causation and the nature of natural laws. We will consider classic arguments on the metaphysics of causal connections between events, and survey a number of different views taken by contemporary philosophers. The aim of the course is to provide a rigorous overview of important issues in metaphysics, and to cover central methods and concepts for understanding work in contemporary philosophy.

Intermediate Logic

The objective of this course is to gain a thorough understanding and facility with the language and proof methods of first order logic. We will be using a textbook and software that include sophisticated programs for working with proofs and for working with models, using a simple first order language. Supplementing the textbook, we will discuss the relation between logic and the philosophy of language. This is a combined undergraduate/graduate course in predicate logic. It is a requirement for graduate students, and for undergraduate majors.


This is a course at the graduate and advanced undergraduate level in metalogic, using Geoffrey Hunter’s Metalogic text. The course covers the metatheory of propositional and predicate logic, through the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem and Godel’s incompleteness results.

Creating the World

The claim that basic kinds and categories in the world are “socially constructed” is perennially debated in philosophy and social theory. Over the years, lots of categories—races, genders, sexes, morality, commodities, corporations, and many more—have been put forward as cases of social construction. Some have even claimed that quarks and planets and lumps of gold are social artifacts, whose existence depends on how we conceive of them.

To what extent do humans create or invent the world? To what extent do we discover categories that are independent of us? How do we even approach questions about the reality or non-reality of race, gender, morality, money, and quarks? What or who is responsible for creating these kinds of things? In this class, we will consider historical and contemporary approaches to the construction of the world.

Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science

Cognitive models of perception, memory, control and many more specific mental phenomena typically postulate systems of representation, but there is so far no uncontroversial theory of mental (or cerebral) representation, or of information-processing in the brain. This course will look at the philosophical background of work on minds and mental processes, including the concepts of intentionality, function, computation, and reduction, and the issue of how explanation in cognitive science compares with explanations in the other sciences. This course is designed for graduate students in the disciplines comprising cognitive science, and for advanced undergraduate majors in brain and cognitive science or philosophy.

Language and Mind

Are we the only species with minds? Do animals — dolphins, chimpanzees, birds, spiders — have minds, or do they just have brains? We are the only species with language. Some animals have what might be called proto-languages, much simpler signaling systems, but these do not seem to give those species the spectacular boost in intelligence that language gives us. It is generally agreed that language makes our minds very different from animal minds, but how, and why? Are we the only conscious species? Are we the only self-conscious species? What is it like to be a bat? Is it like anything to be a spider?

In the first half of the course we will explore fundamental questions about the nature of minds. What does it take for something to have a mind? We will discuss the empirical research that has recently shed new light on the questions about animal minds, while sharpening philosophical questions about the nature of minds in general.

In the second half of the course, we will look at human language, its structure and evolution, and the effects it has on our minds. We will also explore “linguistic relativity”: do people in other cultures think differently than we do? Is there a relation between the language we speak and how we think?

The course has no prerequisites, and it is particularly appropriate for students who are not likely to major in philosophy but want to get a substantial introduction to the specific philosophical issues surrounding the mind-body problem and its relation to language. Readings will include classic philosophical essays by Turing, Nagel, Putnam, Jackendoff, Dennett, and others.

The Metaphysics of Language

Words, sentences, and other linguistic items – whether written, spoken, or mental – are among the most common things in our everyday world. But what are these things? Are words abstract objects, or are they, as some philosophers have recently suggested, more like organisms or enduring objects?

And what are languages? Do we each, as Chomsky has argued, have our own mental “idiolects,” or are we instead participants in a public language? Is language essentially social, or based on interpersonal communication? And what is the relationship between language and the physical features of brains, bodies, and society? Do language-users have to be “embodied,” or otherwise engaged in the world?

In this course we will examine a variety of philosophical approaches to the nature of language and linguistic items.

Seminar on Non-Human Cognition

Facebook recently sent out a survey asking: “Please agree or disagree with the following statement: Facebook cares about me.” The available responses ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Notably, they didn’t include an option for the user to say, “Facebook cannot have feelings, because it is a corporation.” Can a corporation have feelings? Can it think? Can it have beliefs, form intentions, take actions?

Various philosophical literatures examine the nature of cognition among different types of non-humans. There are literatures on group cognition, on corporate agency, on animal cognition, on artificial intelligence, on systems of computational agents, on robot thinking, and more. The aim of this seminar is to cut across these literatures and explore the question of non-human cognition in general. When we speak of cognition and agency by groups, corporations, animals, machines, etc., do we mean it literally or metaphorically? Do we use human cognition as the prototype, and then extend human-like cognition to other entities? Or rather is human cognition just one species of a more general category? How should we approach the question of non-human minds and thinkers?

Readings will include selections from the literatures on group cognition, animal cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of mind, as well as work on social construction and the nature of category construction.

Functions & Functional Kinds

When we design and build objects, we often design them to perform functions. Can openers, for example, are designed to open cans. Cars are designed to take us from place to place, and iPhones are designed to keep us entertained. Biological structures are also often said to have functions. The heart has the function of pumping blood, and neurotransmitters have the function of carrying signals from one neuron to another. And functions are central to other fields too: mental states, languages, and social structures are all commonly understood functionally.

What is a function? What is it for an object or a kind to have a function? Are objects and kinds functionally defined or individuated? Most of the recent literature focuses on biological function, and in that area significant progress has been made. Do these advances help us understand functions more generally? Or, when we consider the functions of artifacts, social structures, and so on, do we need new approaches?

The function of this research seminar is to engage graduate students in current research. We will read classic papers in the field, including ones by Lewis, Millikan, and Cummins, but also explore new directions and approaches.

Seminar on Law and Institutions

This course will examine the nature of law and institutions. The course will be divided into three sections: (1) Jurisprudence, or the study of the nature of law and legal authority, (2) The nature of institutions and collectives, (3) Intersections: (3a) law as an institution, (3b) application of the law to collectives and institutions. Readings will include selections from both classic and contemporary theorists.

Graduate Writing Seminar

This course is designed for second-years in the Philosophy MA program. It is an intensive seminar on philosophical writing. In the seminar, students will work in groups to improve their own papers and presentation skills, and will collaborate closely with their peers to help one another. Over the course of the seminar, students will improve specific papers of their choice, and develop their skills in structuring and analyzing philosophical papers. The seminar is a core part of the Tufts MA curriculum.