The Humboldt Conversations in Philosophy


The Humboldt Conversations in Philosophy is a series of talks held in the summer semester. Invited speakers present and discuss their work together with the FAGI scholars and other members of the academic community in Leipzig.

The Humboldt Conversations series is run by the junior faculty members of the Humboldt Project: Bianca Ancillotti, Vanessa Carr, Jonas Held, Alec Hinshelwood, Gilad Nir, Dawa Ometto, and Martijn Wallage.

Materials are distributed beforehand through a mailing list. To be put on the mailing list, to receive the password to access assigned reading materials and recordings of previous sessions, as well as to receive up-to-date program and location information, please get in touch with: martijn.wallage [at]

Click the posters to enlarge.

Program: Summer 2021


In 2021 the Humboldt Conversations will be held online on Zoom.

To attain the link please write to or subscribe to the Humboldt Newsletter.

April 21, 2021 — 17:00-19:00

David Egan

Homo neotenicus and Homo ludens

Human physiology shows many signs of neoteny—delayed physiological development that results in the retention in adulthood of traits normally only seen in the young. With our hairless bodies, large eyes, small jaws, and globular skulls containing large brains, we look more like the juveniles of other ape species than like the adults. This paper explores one common form of juvenile animal behaviour that is more prominent in adult humans than in the adults of other species: play. Drawing on work by Johan Huizinga, as well as Roger Caillois and Bernard Suits, I lay out some of the characteristic features of play, and of the distinctively human form of play that we call games. Play unfolds in what Huizinga calls a “magic circle” or “play ground,” which is delimited from “ordinary” life spatially, temporally, and socially. We begin to see the centrality of play to human existence when we recognize the delimitation of structurally similar “play grounds” in artistic and religious practice. To the extent that a “human difference” is worth marking, on this view, it is more a matter of degree than of kind: other animals play as well, just nothing like as intensively as we do, especially not into adulthood. However, adult human play takes on a much more regulated structure than either the play of human children or of other animals. We are not the only creatures that play, but we may be the only creatures that play games.


David Egan earned his DPhil from the University of Oxford and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (Oxford, 2019).


May 12, 2021 — 16:00-18:00

Indrek Reiland

Linguistic Intentions

What is the proper role of intention in a theory of linguistic meaning? On individualist views (Davidson, Bilgrami), meaning intentions have a direct role in imbuing uses of words with particular meanings. In this talk, I will approach the question from the contrasting public language perspective (Austin, Dummett, Kaplan, etc.) with the aim of explaining why we still appeal to linguistic intentions. Intentions play a very different role on this view: they activate the meaning that words already have in a particular language and thereby make it the case that the speaker’s use is a use with a particular meaning in that language. These sorts of linguistic intentions also play a role in disambiguation. However, I will argue contra widespread recent opinion, they do not play a role in determining the reference of context-sensitive expressions. That is not settled by intention at all.


Indrek Reiland received his PhD from the University of Southern California. Since then he’s worked at Rice University and University of Edinburgh and completed postdoctoral fellowships at Institut Jean Nicod and University of Barcelona. His research interests are philosophy of language and mind. He’s the author of papers published in Philosophy of Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, and Synthese, among others.


June 9, 2021 — 16:00-18:00

Rose Ryan Flinn

“Off the Rails”: Slurs and the Absence of Thought

A non-pejorative counterpart for a slur S is a word C that applies to the same things that users of S take S to apply to, but without the derogatory force that S conveys. For instance, ‘black’ is a non-pejorative counterpart for the N-word. In this talk I seek to challenge the assumption that, for a slur S with non-pejorative counterpart C, the meaning of C is part of the meaning of S.This assumption is widespread: it is held both by pragmatist accounts of slurs, according to which S is semantically equivalent to C, and semantic accounts of slurs, according to which S is expressive of derogatory content additional to the non-pejorative content of C. In the first half of the talk, I urge that this assumption is false. It is no part of the meaning of the N-word to classify subjects as black. To think otherwise is to construe slur-users as having more in common with ‘us’ (those for whom slurs are useless) than they in fact do. The error here, on the part of the orthodoxy, is two-fold: first, there is a failure to acknowledge the fundamentality of the slur-user’s mistake; and second, the attitude taken towards the target group by speakers without a use for slur words is likewise misrepresented. In the final parts of the talk, I encourage an alternative conception of slurs on which they are failed attempts at classification. I argue that slur-users, in their use of slurs, betray a conceptual bankruptcy that is disruptive of their ability to think of their targets at all. Although this is apt to encourage parallels with empty terms such as ‘phlogiston’, I suggest that such parallels can only be taken so far.


Rose Ryan Flinn is currently completing her PhD at New York University. Her dissertation is on various forms of non-reductionism in the philosophy of language, aesthetics, and philosophical logic.


June 30, 2021 — 16:00-18:00

Lucilla Guidi

Philosophy as a Transformative Practice

How do we practise philosophy? How can philosophy speak from within practice itself, without objectifying it? What does it mean to understand philosophical propositions, if the latter do not state matters of fact, which can be true or false? This paper addresses these questions through a comparison between Heidegger’s phenomenology and Wittgenstein’s late philosophy of language. The paper claims that both Heidegger’s formally indicative language and Wittgenstein’s language-games embody philosophical practices which entail a performative dimension, since they address the reader and require the enactment of a number of practices on her/his part. From this perspective, the paper claims that philosophy embodies a transformative practice, which makes readers sensitive to the opacity and openness of their own life-practices, so as to awake a transformation of their attitude toward themselves, others, and the situation in which they find themselves.


Lucilla Guidi earned her Ph.D in Philosophy in cotutelle between Italy and Germany. She was Post Doc Researcher at the Technical University of Dresden and Visiting Scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin. She is currently Post Doc Researcher within the DFG Research Training Group 2477 “Aesthetic Practice” based at the University of Hildesheim. She is the author of Il rovescio del Performativo. Studio sulla fenomenologia di Heidegger (Rome, 2016), and co-editor of Phenomenology as Performative Exercise (Leiden, 2020).


Program: Summer 2019

All meetings take place at the GWZ,  Haus 2, Zimmer 1.16, between 16:00 and 18:00 s.t.


April 10, 2019

Joshua Mendelsohn (Chicago)

The “bare premises” view of the syllogism

Logicians today typically think of logic as the study of arguments, where an argument is thought of as a complex containing premises and a conclusion. For logicians working in the Aristotelian tradition, however, logic was the study of the syllogism, where a syllogism was typically taken to be premises ableto give rise to a conclusion, rather than a complex already containinga conclusion. I argue that this is essential to understanding certain deep differences in outlook between traditional and modern logic. The “bare premises” view of the syllogism reflects a view of logic close in its subject matter to metaphysics. Just as the metaphysician asks what makes these bricks, say, something more than just a pile of bricks (a house), so too the logician asks what makes a series of propositions a genuinely unified piece of discourse rather than a mere aggregate of sayings. While this unity may be explicated by drawing inferences and stating conclusions, the topic of logic on this view is the unity that makes inferences available rather than inference itself.



Joshua Mendelsohn received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2019. His work focuses on Aristotle’s logic and epistemology in the Prior and Posterior Analytics, and their reception in a variety of periods of the history of philosophy. He is currently a Visiting Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leipzig and will begin as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago in Fall 2019.


April 24, 2019

Thomas Meyer (HU Berlin)

The Problem of Moral Luck and Hegel’s Solution

Since the seminal papers by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel (1979) moral luck has been discussed intensely in contemporary analytical philosophy of action, law, morality and metaethics. Roughly the term ‘moral luck’ stands for the fact that we sometimes make an agent responsible for a harm although it was not under his or her control to bring about that harm (I exclude cases of positive outcomes). The problem of moral luck then consists in the tension between this observation and the widely accepted moral principle that we should not make an agent responsible for things beyond his or her control. Hegel’s Philosophy of Rightcontains an account of moral luck that has often been neglected (although mentioned by some, e.g. Wood and Speight). I will present Hegel’s account of how to deal with the problem of moral luck. I reconstruct his account in terms of the contemporary debate.



Thomas Meyer works as a Research Associate at the Department of Philosophy at Humboldt University Berlin. He received his PhD with a dissertation on causation and responsibility in Hegel at the University of M¸nster under the supervision of Michael Quante and Thomas Gutmann. His main research interests are: Hegel, action theory, theories of causation, philosophy of law (especially criminal law) and moral philosophy.


May 8, 2019

Alison Fernandes (Trinity College Dublin)

Why Do We Deliberate on the Future?

When deciding what to do, we deliberate on future states, and never on past states. While we might think about our reasons for our past decisions, we never take past states to be ‘open’ to decision now in the same way as future states. What is the reason for this asymmetry? A natural answer appeals to causation: it is because our decisions now can causefuture states (but not past states) that we deliberate only on the future. But assuming a temporal asymmetry of causation is problematic if we also want to use features of deliberation to explainthe asymmetry of causation—as a number of recent ‘agent-based’ accounts of causation do. In this talk I’ll consider how we might give a non-causal account of why we deliberate on the future. I’ll ultimately recommend an approach that appeals to the functionof deliberation.

Background Texts:

  • Fernandes, Alison. 2017. A Deliberative Approach to Causation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 95(3): 686–708.
  • Price, Huw. 1991. Agency and Probabilistic Causality. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science42: 157–76.



Alison Fernandes is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin (University of Dublin). She works in metaphysics and philosophy of science, with a particular focus on temporal asymmetries, physics and agency. She completed a Philosophy PhD at Columbia University with a dissertation entitled ‘A Deliberative Account of Causation’. Here she argued we should make sense of causation by thinking about its relevance for decision-making. She’s previously held postdoctoral positions at the University of Warwick (on an interdisciplinary AHRC project: ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology) and at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh.



May 22, 2019

Natalia Waights Hickman (Oxford)

Reasons-Sensitivity, Illusions of Thought and the Question of Semantic Normativity

The thesis that meaning is normative is widely understood to be that facts about what expressions mean put speakers under a prima facie obligation to use those expressions in stating what is true. I believe that so understood, the thesis is false; but, appealing to Ryle and others, I argue that this construal of the thesis confuses the categories of speech and language, and is unmotivated. The main aim of the paper is to reconsider the question whether meaning is normative, reframing it in a way that restores its connections with the normativity of thought and of cooperative practice, which once defined the ideological context of theorizing about language and its mastery. The first positive part of the paper investigates semantic deviance and error in connection with failures of sense or thought, with particular reference to the semantic system of Wittgenstein’sTractatus, but also in connection with the (less niche) idea of a semantic category-mistake. The second positive part considers whether general norms of practical rationality might explain why speakers are under (defeasible) normative pressure to use words and expressions in line with their conventional meaning.



I am a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and a research affiliate at ConceptLab, University of Oslo. Most of my research relates in one way or another either to linguistic (especially semantic) knowledge, or to knowledge-how, and often to both. More broadly, I’m interested in the philosophy of mind, epistemology and action theory, the metaphysics of language and meaning, rationality and philosophy of normativity, and virtue ethics. I also have a general interest in the work of Gilbert Ryle, especially his less popular and well-developed writings on thinking and improvisation.

Before joining Queen’s I spent two years at the University of Oslo’s Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN), initially as a visitor completing my DPhil (Oxford 2016), and then in a research position. Before the DPhil I did an MA in Philosophy at Reading and a BA in P.P.E. at Brasenose College, Oxford. 


Program: Summer 2018

All meetings take place at the GWZ,  Haus 2, Zimmer 1.16, between 15:00 and 18:00.

April 18

Charles Travis (KCL / Porto)

Changing Places

Frege drew something like a categorial distinction – perhaps even a more profound gulf – between concepts and objects. His way of drawing it has inspired the idea that the nature of philosophical questions forces one to try to ‘describe thought from outsi- de it’ – something comparable to jumping out of one’s own skin, or observing oneself rushing forward.

The trouble is that on the concept-object distinction Frege was just wrong. He confused what are essentially, by his own lights, relational notions, or notions of roles, for no- tions of categories – as if in syntax one confused the notions noun phrase and subject. The confusion is easy to make, less easy to unravel. Doing this will involve tracing the pedigrees of the two central notions in Frege’s thesis, objecthood and concepthood.



Charles Travis is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at King’s College London, and Professor Afiliado at the University of Porto. He received his doctorate from UCLA, and has taught at a number of universities in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland, and England. Besides perception he has written on philosophy of language, Wittgenstein, objectivity and the idea of forms of thought, and issues in philosophy of psychology, notably concerning propositional attitudes.

Full Abstract: [PDF]

May 2

Christoph Schuringa (NCH London)

Phronēsis as Second Nature


John McDowell speaks of a second nature as a ‘specific shaping of practical logos’, and tells us that a candidate for such a second nature is phronēsis (practical wisdom). In this talk I do three things. (1) I clear away obstacles to understanding the use that McDowell makes of the idea of ‘second nature’. (2) I develop the idea that phronēsis might be a candidate ‘shaping of practical logos’. I argue that recognizing that phronēsis is a hexis (habit) will enable us to see that phronēsis is the unity of the first acts of the power of practical reason. Therefore there are no rival candidate ‘shapings of practical logos’. (3) In the light of that conclusion, I consider how to understand a different idea: that ‘second natures’ (now conceived as distinct ethical outlooks) are multiple and various.



Christoph Schuringa has been a visiting scholar in Leipzig and Pittsburgh, and currently teaches the history of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London. His chief interests are in Aristotle and Hegel, and in particular their treatment of human and animal life.

May 16

Irina Schumski (Tübingen)

The Particularist Challenge to Kantian Ethics – A Trilemma


Kant and Kantians have often been accused of rigorism: of failing to do justice to the fact moral life is full of subtleties and that our moral obligations vary with and depend on the circumstances that we are in. This line of criticism stretches all the way from Benjamin Constant, whose infamous example of the murderer at the door has exercised Kantians ever since its conception in 1797, to contemporary moral particularists, who take the circumstance-dependence of our obligations to its radical conclusion by denying that principles play any role in moral theory or practice. When trying to respond to this objection, Kantians are under pressure to reconcile three prima facie incompatible claims. Given their commitment to universal principles of duty, which are meant to apply across the board, they struggle to explain how it is that, in exceptional cases, it can be permissible or even obligatory to do something that is otherwise impermissible (let’s say, to lie) partly because of some feature of the circumstances, while, in standard cases, actions of this kind are impermissible simply because they are of this kind (e.g. lies), and for no other reason. The difficulty of reconciling these ideas seems to throw Kantians on the horns of a trilemma. — Link to full Abstract

For background readings, click here



Irina Schumski (Eberhard Karls University Tübingen) studied Philosophy, German Literature, and Linguistics at the University of Mannheim, Goethe University Frankfurt and the University of Cambridge (MPhil in Philosophy, 2013). She obtained her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Warwick in 2017. Her research focuses on Kant’s practical philosophy and on issues in meta-ethics, including the role of principles in practical reasoning, meta-ethical constructivism and thick concepts. In July 2017, she took up a post as a fixed-term assistant professor in Philosophy at Eberhard Karls University Tübingen.

Personal Website

May 30

Steven Methven (Worcester College, Oxford)

On Saying What One Thinks

Recently, a number of authors have attributed to Frank Ramsey a dispositionalist view of belief contents, where such a view identifies a belief with a disposition or set of dispositions to behave thus-and-so under certain circumstances. Further, they argue that he was right to hold that view. I take issue with both of these claims. Against the second, I argue that a dispositionalist view of this kind faces grave difficulties when we reflect on the fact that we can, very often and quite simply, say what we think. Against the first, I argue that we may find within Ramseyís work the beginnings of a more sophisticated account of such contents.

For background readings, click here



My work to date has been primarily focused on the thought of Frank Ramsey, particularly in relation to Wittgensteinís Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but also in respect of mathematics, logic and pragmatism. More recently, I have defended a version of the identity theory of truth. I am now in the process of initiating a research project that stems from interesting intersections of these two distinct strands of work, and which has as its focus the very limits of thought itself.

June 13

Stina Bäckstrom (Åbo Akademi)

Spontaneous Expression and Intentional Action


When spontaneous expressions such as smiling or crying have been at issue in Anglophone philosophy of action, the touchstone has been Donald Davidson’s belief-desire account of action. In this essay, I take a different approach. I use Elizabeth Anscombe’s formal conception of intentional action to capture the distinction and unity of intentional action and spontaneous expression. Anscombe links intentional actions and reasons through the applicability of a why-question. I argue that spontaneous expressions are subject to a different but related why-question. Further, I argue that while the answers to Anscombe’s why-question reveal that intentional actions are means-end ordered, the answers to the why-question posed to spontaneous expressions form a distinctive order of conceptual and normative connections.



Stina Bäckström is Senior lecturer at Södertörn University, Stockholm. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2013. She’s currently working on issues in action-theory.

July 25

Eric Marcus (Auburn)

Inference as Consciousness of Necessity


Consider the following three claims:

(i) There are no truths of the form ‘p and ~p’.

(ii) No one holds a belief of the form ‘p and ~p’.

(iii) No one holds any pairs of beliefs of the form {p, ~p}.

Irad Kimhi has recently argued, in effect, that each of these claims holds and holds with metaphysical necessity. Further, he maintains that they are ultimately not distinct claims at all, but the same claim formulated in different ways. I find his argument suggestive, if not entirely transparent. I do think there is at least a grain of truth even to (iii), and that a common explanation underlies all three. Consciousness of a metaphysical impossibility makes belief in the obtaining of the corresponding state of affairs a metaphysical impossibility. Interestingly, an appreciation of this fact brings into view a novel conception of inference, according to which it consists in the consciousness of a metaphysical necessity. This essay outlines and defends this position. A central element of the defense is that it reveals how reasoners satisfy what Paul Boghossian the Taking Condition and do so without engendering regress.



Marcus works chiefly in the philosophy of mind and action, but also has active research interests in epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics and the philosophy of language. He is the author of numerous articles and a book, Rational Causation (Harvard U Press). He is currently working on a second book, tentatively entitled Belief, Inference and the Self-Conscious Mind.