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Isaiah Berlin Lecture
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Isaiah Berlin Lectures

Past Lectures:

Isaiah Berlin Visiting Professorship in the History of Ideas, 2013/14

'After Certainty: A History of our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions'

Professor Robert Pasnau (University of Colorado) delivered the Isaiah Berlin Lectures on Tuesdays of weeks 3-8 of Trinity Term at 5 pm on the following days, in the Lecture Room at the Faculty of Philosophy, Radcliffe Humanities Building (Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG).

Robert Pasnau

Lecture 1 (13th May) - The Ideal

No area of philosophy is more disconnected from its past than epistemology. It is, indeed, only recently that epistemology has been recognized as a distinct field within philosophy. Rather than seek a precise analysis of anything in the vicinity of what we call “knowledge,” philosophers have historically been much more interested in articulating an idealized epistemology: an account of what it would be to have an ideal cognitive grasp of some part of reality, an ideal calibrated against what is possible for beings such as us, in a world such as this. For most of philosophy’s early history, this ideal was understood in terms of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, as the quest for demonstrative certainty grounded in the essences of things. But when that theory of essence comes into doubt in the seventeenth century, new conceptions of the epistemic ideal likewise arise, and a distinction emerges between the concept of knowledge and the concept of science.

Lecture 2 (20th May) - Certainty and Doubt

From antiquity through the Middle Ages and, most prominently of all, in Descartes, philosophers have pursued the epistemic ideal of certainty. It is not – as is so often said – that they took knowledge to require certainty, but rather that they regarded certainty as a crucial part of the epistemic ideal to which human beings should aspire. But beginning in the later Middle Ages, and even more in the seventeenth century, widespread doubts arose over whether certainty should be regarded as a part of the epistemic ideal achievable by us. Accordingly, in place of certainty, philosophers began to focus on probability, and began to articulate a new ideal: that we proportion our beliefs to the evidence. Out of this arises the concept of knowledge in something like our modern sense.

Lecture 3 (27th May) - The Sensory Domain

Pre-philosophically, it is often supposed that the cognitive ideal for beings such as us is to perceive a thing ourselves, directly. Philosophy from the beginning has directed much of its energies against this sort of naïve faith in sensation. Yet, even so, there has long been an abiding conviction among philosophers that there must be some domain where the senses get things right. Among Aristotelians, it was said to be the proper sensible qualities of things – color, sound, odor, flavor, heat – where the senses could be trusted not to err. In the seventeenth century, this doctrine was turned on its head, and those qualities now became the place where the senses most thoroughly lead us astray. At this point it becomes the so-called primary qualities – shape, size, motion – that the senses are best suited to perceive. Yet soon enough doubts arise even here, and philosophers begin to take recourse in the idea that what we perceive of the world are mere powers of bodies, powers that we can describe only as the things that cause us to have sensation. The character of the world itself begins to look quite inaccessible to sensory perception.

Lecture 4 (3rd June) - Illusions and Ideas

In place of a privileged access to the external world, seventeenth-century authors famously took the immediate objects of perception to be our own ideas. Although much attention has been given to the consequences of this doctrine, little has been said about its origins. There is a puzzle, in particular, about why philosophers began to talk this way, whereas for virtually the entire prior history of philosophy it was regarded as manifestly absurd to treat the objects of perception as inner sensory states. After canvassing and rejecting various alternative suggestions about what changed in the seventeenth century, I argue that what makes the difference is the increasing conviction that there are no suitable external objects for perception. So, if we see anything at all, the best candidates are not features of the external world, but features of our own mind.

Lecture 5 (10th June) - The Privileged Now

The final refuge of epistemic privilege – the one domain where our cognitive situation can seem to be at all ideal – might seem to be the self. Yet our privileged grasp of the self turns out to be a privileged grasp of the self right now – once it slips into the past, the privilege looks to disappear. So inasmuch as we seek to achieve the ideal, we need to consider just how many thoughts we can grasp all at once. Although such questions are not terribly familiar today, there is a long historical debate over the importance of grasping a whole argument all at once. In Descartes, in fact, such a possibility turns out to be critical to the method of the Meditations. Ultimately, however, there is reason to doubt whether we should privilege the present self in the way many philosophers have historically supposed.

Lecture 6 (17th June) - Skepticism and Hope

If our epistemic condition is sufficiently non-ideal, then the consequence may seem to be skepticism. Of course, if there is an all-powerful deity, then just as that being might deceive, so such a being might protect us from deception. But there is reason to wonder whether even an all-powerful deity could itself be completely confident of having knowledge. For even supposing that such a being cannot, by definition, be deceived, still there is a question of how can such a being know that it is such a being. This raises a more general question about whether the gap between how things seem and how they are is more than just an unfortunate feature of the human condition. Perhaps it is a logical feature of cognition in general that no evidence can ultimately be decisive in establishing any conclusion. If this were so, then the only alternative to skeptical suspension of belief might be an attitude of faith. Or, instead of faith, we might choose merely to hope, and so believe without pretending to have faith.

 

Isaiah Berlin Visiting Professorship in the History of Ideas, 2011/12

‘A New World’ – Philosophical Idealism in America

Professor Kenneth Winkler is currently a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Yale. His research interests include Early Modern Philosophy, Metaphysics, and American Philosophy. He will deliver the Isaiah Berlin Lectures on Tuesdays of weeks 1-6 at 5 pm on the following days at the Gulbenkian Theatre, St Cross Building, Manor Road.

Please note that the venue for the remaining Isaiah Berlin Lectures has changed. The lectures in weeks 3 to 5 will take place in the MBI Al Jaber Building, Corpus Christi College. The week 6 lecture will  take place in the Fraenkel Room, Corpus Christi College.

Suggested Reading List

Kenneth Winkler

Lecture 1 (17th Jan): Jonathan Edwards's early proofs of immaterialism
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]
Lecture 2 (24th Jan): Edwards and continuous creation
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]
Lecture 3 (31st Jan): Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]
Lecture 4 (7th Feb): Henry David Thoreau
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]
Lecture 5 (14th Feb): Josiah Royce and the argument from error
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]
Lecture 6 (21st Feb): Personalism, from Bowne and Howison to Martin Luther King
[Handout] [MP3] [Text]

I've taken the title for my lectures from a letter by Samuel Johnson: not the Samuel Johnson, but the American Samuel Johnson. The Samuel Johnson responded to Berkeley's idealism with impatient physicality: he kicked a large stone and rebounded from it. The response of the American Samuel Johnson, who was writing to Berkeley himself, was appreciative wonderment, culminating in a plea:

 

You will forgive the confusedness of my thoughts and not wonder at my writing like a man something bewildered, since I am, as it were, got into a new world amazed at everything about me. These ideas of ours, what are they?

 

The metaphor of entry into a new world, or of a sojourn into new and wilder country, was one that Berkeley had already made his own. He promised readers of his Three Dialogues a "Return to the simple Dictates of Nature," but it would come, he said, only after a circuit through "the wild Mazes of Philosophy." In the end, he assured them, it would not be unpleasant. "It is like coming home from a long Voyage: a Man reflects with Pleasure on the many Difficulties and Perplexities he has passed through, sets his Heart at ease, and enjoys himself with more Satisfaction for the future."  Time spent in a new world, he thought, would make us more comfortable and secure in our possession of the old.

 

My lectures will be a circuit through two "new worlds": the new world-system that bewildered Johnson, and the new world—the America—in which he lived. I'll be discussing writers who receive little attention from present-day philosophers, even in America: Jonathan Edwards (in Lectures I and II); Ralph Waldo Emerson (in Lecture III); Henry David Thoreau (in Lecture IV); Josiah Royce (in Lecture V); and the "Boston Personalists" (in Lecture VI, which will culminate with Martin Luther King). William James once described the study of literature as "an appreciative chronicle of human master-strokes," and bringing neglected good things to the attention of my listeners is certainly one of the items on my agenda. I'm also eager to combat two misimpressions: that the history of American philosophy is the history of pragmatism (though as I'll try to show, American idealists generally aspired to be practical); and that American idealism rests, as George Santayana claimed, on the "conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the centre and pivot of the universe." Despite the antique and implausible character of some of the arguments for idealism that I'll be examining, and the apparent absence of argument in many of the texts in which idealism is most compellingly asserted or intimated, the thought that the inward has some sort of priority over the outward, and that in our inwardness we make contact with a world less fugitive and more valuable than the world of sense, is not an easy one to shake. It is worth inquiring how successful a certain tradition was in bringing clarity to this thought, and in making it defensible and practical.

 

Isaiah Berlin Visiting Professorship in the History of Ideas - Hilary Term 2010

Professor Michael Rosen, Professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University and this year’s Isaiah Berlin Visiting Professor in the History of Ideas, will give a series of six Isaiah Berlin Lectures this term, on Tuesdays of weeks 1 – 6, at 5pm in the Examination Schools. The first lecture will be followed by a short drinks reception to be held in Corpus Christi College (Rainolds Room).

Professor Rosen's lecture series is titled History and Freedom in German Idealism. He writes:

What exactly is the “history of ideas” a history of and what is its value? How does it relate to philosophy? Is it simply a backdrop to philosophical argument or can history make a substantive contribution to philosophical understanding? In the first two of these lectures I will offer answers to these questions and develop a perspective from which we can see the history of Western philosophy as a varying series of responses to some general questions of great depth and difficulty – in this case, the problem of theodicy and the question of the nature of value as we find it posed in Plato’s Euthyphro.

I shall use these two problems to frame an interpretation of an absolutely central feature of German Idealism: the account of freedom that we find in Kant and its continuation and transformation in the later German Idealists (in particular, Hegel). On the one hand, I shall argue, the Kantian conception of freedom is part of a network of connected concepts such as duty, responsibility, law, justice and desert. Together they sustain a picture of agency according to which the free agent must use her freedom in such a way as to merit the approval of a just God. God does not make moral action valuable by approving or rewarding it, but our world can be seen as a good world because in it such intrinsically valuable action is possible.

The puzzle of later German Idealism is that, while it retains and builds upon the Kantian conception of freedom as autonomous self-determination, it rejects the conception of morality and agency that is associated with it. My claim is that, to understand it, we should take seriously the idea that, for German Idealism, “die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht” (the history of the world is the Last Judgement) – that history takes the place of God. This entails a radical re-working of the ideas of morality and justice that is, I believe, of great interest and surprising relevance today.

Professor Michael Rosen

Lecture 1 (19 Jan): [Handout]
How (and to what end) should one study the history of ideas?”

Lecture 2 (26 Jan): [Handout]
“The Idealist theory of history defended (sort of)”

Lecture 3 (2 February): [Handout]
“Kant’s anti-determinism”

Lecture 4 (9 February): [Handout]
“Freedom without arbitrariness”

Lecture 5 (16 February): [Handout]
Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht

Lecture 6 (23 February): [Handout]
Geist and the individual”

*** Michael Rosen will be holding informal office hours after each lecture. On Wednesdays they will take place from 1.45 - 2.45pm in the Fraenkel Room in Corpus Christi College. All are welcome to drop by.

He may also be contacted by email at michael[DOT]rosen[AT]philosophy[DOT]ox[DOT]ac[DOT]uk ***

 

Professor Jonathan Israel - Hilary Term 2008
(Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)

'Enlightenment Ideas and the Making of Modernity (1670-1800)'

24 January (Week 2) - Progress; or, the Enlightenment's Two Ways of Improving the World
31 January (Week 3) - Democracy or Social Hierarchy? The Political Rift
14 February (Week 5) - The Problem of Equality and Inequality; or, the Rise of Economics.
21 February (Week 6) - The Enlightenment's Critique of War and the Quest for 'Perpetual Peace'
28 February (Week 7) - Two Kinds of Moral Philosophy in Conflict
6 March (Week 8) - Locke and Voltaire versus Spinoza and Diderot; or, the Enlightenment's Basic Dichotomy as a War of Philosophies

Lectures to take place in the Examination Schools, High Street at 5pm each Thursday as listed above.

Professor Allen Wood (Stanford) - Michaelmas Term 2005 
 

Title: Kantian Ethics
Abstract: The ethical theory presented in Immanuel Kant’s writings on moral philosophy continues to exert great influence, but also to be a focus of much controversy. These six lectures attempt to present sympathetically Kant’s central thoughts about moral philosophy in a way that challenges some prevailing ideas both about what Kant thought and about how moral philosophy should be done. I sketch Kant’s conception of the aims and structure of ethical theory, and stress the importance to Kantian ethics of Kant’s empirical theory of human nature. In examining Kant’s formulation of the moral law, I attempt to correct the traditional overemphasis on his first and most provisional formula, and to put all Kant's formulas in their proper place within the complete system of formulations which was the object of Kant’s search for the supreme principle of morality. The fundamental value in Kantian ethics is the worth of rational nature as an end in itself and the dignity of autonomous personality. I sympathetically present Kant’s argument for this value, and then reflect on its proper extension and its implications for some controversial ethical questions, such as the morality of abortion and the moral status of nonhuman animals. Kant’s ethical theory proper consists in the theory of duties that is based on the principle of morality. I will discuss Kant’s use of the concept of duty, the structure of his system of duties, and then defend the distinctive Kantian conception of a duty to oneself. The last two lectures will talk about three ethical topics on which Kant’s position has often been regarded as positively scandalous: sexual morality, the prohibition on lying, and the retributive theory of punishment. My aim will be to determine how far a consistent Kantian should agree with Kant’s own opinions on these subjects, and to demonstrate the continuing value and relevance of Kant’s reflections on all three topics, whether or not in the end we should agree with his conclusions about them.

Details: There were six lectures in weeks one to six of Michaelmas Term 2005, as follows:


Lecture 1 - 11 October: What is Kantian Ethics?
Lecture 2 - 18 October: Formulations of the Moral Law
Lecture 3 - 25 October: Humanity, Personality and Dignity
Lecture 4 - 1 November: Duties to oneself
Lecture 5 - 8 November: Sex, Lies (without the videotape)
Lecture 6 - 15 November: Punishment and Retribution

The lectures took place on Tuesdays at 5pm in the Examination Schools (East School).

Professor Daniel Garber (Princeton) - Michaelmas Term 2004
 

Title: Enchanting the World: How Leibniz Became an Idealist
Abstract: In these lectures, I would like to present a way of understanding Leibniz's development, from a heterodox Hobbesian in his mid-twenties to a full-blown idealist by the end of his career. I want to undermine the assumption that the idealism that characterizes his later years, the monadology that forms the core of the text-book Leibnizian philosophy is all there is to Leibniz's philosophical thought. Along the way, I want to introduce into discussion what amounts to a new character in the history of philosophy, a rich thinker with a complex reaction to the Cartesian synthesis of the late seventeenth century, a view that brings together physics, metaphysics, logic and theology in interesting and surprising ways.
Details:

How to do things with texts. And why bother?
Leibniz the Radical Reactionary: First Steps
The Soul in the Machine: Transforming the Cartesian World (I)
The Soul in the Machine: Transforming the Cartesian World (II)
Oh, dear, what can the matter be?
The Enchanted World and Beyond

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