Fall 2019-2020 courses

Language and Mind (Philosophy 003 / Linguistics 003)

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.

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.

Other courses I regularly (or occasionally) teach

Metaphysics (Philosophy 120)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.