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]

Program: Summer 2019

  • Joshua Mendelsohn (Chicago) – April 10
  • Thomas Meyer (HU Berlin) – April 24
  • Alison Fernandes (Trinity College Dublin) – May 8
  • Natalia Waits Hickman (Oxford) – May 21
  • David Löwenstein (Jena) – June 5

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.