Speaker Series 2022-23 | College of Arts

Speaker Series 2022-23

October 6: Catherine Womack, Bridgewater State University

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

Epidemiology food fight: a fat feminist takes on values in nutrition science

Conventional wisdom in medicine says that excess weight is bad for us, so we should work to achieve and maintain so-called “normal” weights. The BMI scale (for body-mass index) is our guide. In 2005, CDC epidemiologist Katherine Flegal and colleagues published a paper showing, contra conventional wisdom (and a 2004 paper that got a lot of press) that overweight (BMI 25—<30) carries a reduced mortality risk, relative to normal weight (20—<25). The reaction of the conventional wisdom club was swift and vitriolic. Immediately, prominent public health and medical scholars attacked the work (and the woman). In 2013, Flegal et al. published a systematic review and meta-analysis in JAMA, replicating and expanding on their earlier findings. The public health establishment doubled down on their attacks, calling the work “… rubbish”, “ludicrous”, “complete nonsense”, and “dangerous”. The agenda of Flegal’s attackers seems clear: stomp out the very idea that overweight isn’t harmful to our health. Flegal has an agenda too: science ought to accept findings that meet objective standards of the field, even if they’re counterintuitive (and published by a woman). Scientific disputes are sometimes like this: battles between data and dogma. As a philosopher of science, I can analyze their conflict to try to determine whose position is more tainted, who benefits from particular outcomes, and what values underly each side of this showdown. But I have an agenda, too. I’m 100% Team Flegal. As a woman and a feminist philosopher, I’m furious at the arrogance and misogyny of Flegal’s attackers. As a person who’s dealt with fat phobia my entire life, I’m furious and upset by the insistence on labeling overweight as harmful for my health, especially given that medicine offers no remotely effective methods for addressing body weight reduction (other than possibly surgery). So, how do we settle this epidemiology food fight, knowing that everyone—me included—has an agenda? I’ll weigh in, offering perspectives from my multiple identities (philosopher, feminist, fat woman). 

November 10: Eli Diamond, Dalhousie University

4 pm in MacKinnon 113

A more rational psychology: beyond the tripartition of soul in Plato

One of the significant achievements of Plato's great work on justice Republic is its articulation of the structure of the human soul as made up of three parts – an appetitive part, a spirited part, and a thinking part. Yet towards the very end of that work (Book X 611b), Socrates suggests that this account of the soul does not grasp the soul as it is in itself,  but rather only as it exists in connection with its embodiment. He suggests that a more precise examination is required to understand the soul in its pure state. In this paper I will consider the treatment of soul in several dialogues – Republic, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Timaeus, in an effort to try to give some sense of what the soul is in itself apart from its embodiment. I will suggest that it is Plato’s view that the true nature and essence of soul is mind, and that recognizing this helps explain apparent discrepancies between the accounts of the soul across these dialogues. But if this is the case, what is the metaphysical status of the other parts of the soul, and how should we conceive of the relation of spirit and appetite to the intellectual essence of soul?  

December 1: Jennifer Saul, University of Waterloo

4 pm in MacKinnon 113

Saying the quiet part loud: how figleaves facilitate the rise of blatant racism and falsehood

It is widely held that something has changed with respect to both blatantly racist speech and obvious falsehood  in recent years.  Both seem to have gone mainstream, to a shocking degree, in political speech.  There’s obviously nothing new at all about racism in politics, or about false political speech.  Yet since the Civil Rights movement politicians felt a need to conceal their racism at least partially, in response to the social unacceptability of explicit racism.  And concealment of falsehood obviously has a very long tradition in politics.  With the rise of the Far Right,  and the increasingly high profile of conspiracy theories, there seem to have been dramatic shifts. In this paper, I explain the linguistic mechanism of Figleaves, and argue that they have helped to facilitate both blatantly racist and blatantly false political speech.

January 12: William Paris, University of Toronto

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

What was Black Power?: on the materialist concept of rights in James Boggs

From the end of the Civil Rights Movement to the beginning of the 1980s James Boggs, an organic intellectual in Detroit automobile unions, set about the task of investigating Black power as a scientific concept rather than a metaphor or emotive slogan. For a political concept to be scientific it had to be self-consciously rooted in extant social dynamics as well as composed of clear strategies a social group could appeal to in their struggle for self-emancipation. The aim of this talk is to reconstruct how Boggs thought the relationship between rights and social power. What I propose is that Boggs understands rights as political capacities to constitute effective group formations or to limit the capacities of the dominated. This means that rights are necessarily sites of social struggle and rights will the effects of extant social and productive forces. Black power in our contemporary moment has been disarticulated from rights such that rights have become ideas to which we appeal rather than conditions we make. Black power names a specific conjuncture in the history of US society where rights became both ideologically and politically available spaces of conflict and constitution. The distance from then to now raises important philosophical questions concerning how we understand what freedom should mean, the role of rights, and what vision of social life we need in our time of crisis. 

January 26: Laura McMahon, Eastern Michigan University

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

Arendt’s Phenomenology of political existence: plurality, visibility, and power in the US disability rights movement

Hannah Arendt’s work offers significant phenomenological insight into the human condition of being with others, the lived experience of the modern world, and the creative and tenuous nature of political action. In this talk, I engage with Arendt alongside key ideas in the phenomenological tradition in order to argue that our identities as selves—and our identities as properly political beings capable of bringing about new realities in the shared historical world—can only be fully realized in a condition of “intersubjectivity” or “plurality.” However, the atomistic and bureaucratic tendencies characteristic of modernity are often at odds with our intersubjective condition as human selves, and thus with politics in Arendt’s rich sense of the term. I use the US disability rights movement of the 1960s and 70s as an example of what genuine politics can look like in the contemporary world: the enabling of the public appearance of individual difference and freedom through the cultivation of collective power.

February 9: Christian Stevens

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

Rethinking the problems of consciousness

'Consciousness' is a slippery term that can be used to pick out different psychological phenomena: e.g., self-awareness versus being awake. Unsurprisingly, then, theorizing in this area is often fastidious about what is being talked about when the topic is 'consciousness'. Now, if there is a genuine 'problem(s) of consciousness', then there had better be a psychological phenomenon in the vicinity that has at least a superficial air of mystery surrounding it: the phenomenon of being awake, for example, doesn't seem to pass muster here. Self-awareness seems pretty mysterious, but that has not been the concern of many theorists working on 'the problem of consciousness'. Instead, these theorists have been concerned with conscious 'mental states' or 'events' that may or may not involve a kind of awareness of the subject of that 'mental state' or 'mental event'. An important distinction that is often drawn here is between a mental event's being 'conscious' in some mystery-generating sense of the term, and properties of certain mental events such as feelings of pain or elation. If colors as we know them through introspection are properties of mental events, then these count here as well. So, we have certain mental events that are 'conscious' in some mystery-generating sense, and properties of some of those mental events such as feelings of pain: both phenomena seem ripe for substantive theorizing. My primary objective in this talk is to arrive at a solid understanding of the 'conscious mental event' phenomenon that many theorists have found so mysterious. I argue that the traditional ways of coming to grips with this allegedly mysterious consciousness phenomenon are due for a makeover, and I develop a positive proposal for pinning down a consciousness phenomenon here that earns its keep as a mystery worthy of wonderment and continued exploration.

February 16: Katalin Farkas, Central European University


Knowing truths and knowing things

Some philosophers argued that there is knowledge of things ('objectual knowledge') which is not reducible to knowledge of facts. I will criticise one such argument, recently offered by Matt Duncan. As Duncan acknowledges, objectual knowledge must have a feature that is analogous to the factive character of factual knowledge; Duncan calls this feature "veridicality". I shall argue that veridicality is really a form of factivity, and objectual knowledge turns out to consist of factual knowledge.

March 16: Alice Pinheiro Walla, McMaster University

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

Bridging the juridical gap: ethical and juridical duties in the absence of political institutions

Kant posits a pre-institutional, juridical duty to leave the state of nature and enter a civil condition with all others with whom external interaction cannot be avoided. However, while there is a duty to bring about juridical institutions and improve them over time as to approach Kant’s ideal of a just legal-political association (the ideal republic), individuals find themselves internationally in a “relative state of nature” (regarding other polities) and internally in constant transition (towards better political institutions). The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, I analyze the need to satisfy juridical duties as a matter of personal virtue in the absence of or under defective juridical institutions. I argue that this introduces complications in Kant’s account and that respecting the dignity of those to whom the juridical duty is owed requires treating their claims as a matter of right and not of ethics. Secondly, I analyze the idea of “provisionality” characteristic of pre-institutional, juridical duties. According to this view, some duties have a provisional character, in which they allow a certain latitude for postponing compliance given unfavorable external circumstances. I clarify the meaning of provisionality in Kant’s account of juridical duties and argue that the problem is not that duties themselves are provisional, but that ethics is called to address matters of right when we are bridging the juridical gap.

April 6: Huihui Zhu, Beijing Normal University


What is the Best Reason for Morality? A Reflective Study on Kant's Axiology

Here’s an attempt to examine and compare the explanations on the grounds of moral normativity by Kant and contemporary Kantians from various perspectives: self-consistency of behavioral principles based on autonomy, the unconditional and highest goodness of morally good will, the absolute sublimity of moral personality, and universally valid authority of the legislators of moral laws, human valuers as the conferrer of objective value, freedom of will as the foundation of the capacity of behavioral responsibility and the basis of inner value ... I will argue why the last is the best and most sufficient reason for the priority of moral normativity in Kantian philosophy and has especial significance for contemporary philosophizing.