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Faculty Update

Mark Alznauer is very, very close to finishing a monograph on Hegel.  This has occupied most of his time this year.  A taste of this project can be seen his most recent article in the Journal of the History of Philosophy.  He is excited to be co-teaching a class this Fall with Viv Soni (English) for the Kaplan Scholars Program.

Kyla Ebels-Duggan: One of my deep convictions is that philosophy is best done together, so I welcomed the return of in-person conferences and talks this year.  I was all in, giving talks at the University of Pittsburgh, Calvin University, University of North Carolina, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of Chicago, UCLA, Harvard, and University College London.  I discussed the differences among reasons for belief, reasons for action, and reasons for valuing; the role of story in shaping our values and our ethical concepts; and Iris Murdoch’s work on moral vision, ethical concepts, freedom, and the value of individuals.

Closer to home, I began the academic year teaching a course on the moral philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, and Iris Murdoch.  These three philosophers were undergraduates together at Oxford during World War II.  While they have very different philosophical sensibilities and positive philosophical projects, they share a common view of the problems with the moral philosophy of the mid- twentieth century.  They reject the then-common view that there is a sharp distinction between statements of fact, which are merely empirical and descriptive, and talk about values.  Each developed a view on which value is to be found in the world; we cannot just decide to regard whatever we choose as good or worth doing and thereby make it so.  Because the three were friends and interlocutors throughout their careers, reading their work in parallel proved hugely illuminating.  I have had a lot of wonderful teaching experience, but this class was the best yet, and out of it has grown a new book project putting Iris Murdoch in conversation with contemporary moral philosophers.

Work published this year includes “Learning from Love: Reasoning, Respect, and the Value of a Person,” in The Value of Humanity: A Reevaluation, edited by Sarah Buss and Nandi Theunissen.  In this paper I argue that we learn the moral attitude and grasp the reasons for it through experiences of loving individuals.  In interpersonal love we appreciate the value of individual persons directly.  This grasp of value plays an indispensable role in our moral convictions.  No argument addressing the moral skeptic of the kind that moral philosophers have traditionally sought is available.  Instead of leading us to moral skepticism, this should bring us to rethink our conception of moral philosophy.

And my paper “Bad Debt: The Kantian Inheritance of Humean Desire,” finally saw the light of day.  Here, I argue that Kant’s claim that virtue has nothing to do with the content of our desires, but depends only on the strength of will needed to manage them, depends on an unattractive conception of inclination that he inherits from empiricists like Hume.  Kantians can replace this with a better view of desire without giving up what is most attractive about the Kantian approach: the claim that reason can motivate, and the associated illuminating account of practical freedom.  The volume for which I wrote the paper, The Idea of Freedom: New Essays on the Kantian Theory of Freedom, edited by Dai Heide and Evan Tiffany had been held up for years and I’m pleased to say that, even so, I stand by the argument.

This coming fall, I will become the Director of the Brady Program in Ethics and Public Life, an undergraduate program within Weinberg College.  I am very much looking forward to working with the students, graduate fellows, and staff associated with this flourishing program and overseeing its next chapter.  

Sean Ebels-Duggan enjoyed a teaching-free fall quarter, and used it go to go snorkeling in the Red Sea. And also to finish a paper about logic and theology, and another paper (in collaboration with Francesca Boccuni) about abstract objects.  In the winter he taught fist year undergraduates about skepticism, as well as the usual course in variations of classical logic. In the spring he taught a course on model theory and its philosophical applications. It was resplendent.

Professor Megan Hyska spent the year working on a new project concerning the ways that machine learning might mediate political speech. This work touches on deepfakes and other forms of generative AI. She also taught a revised version of her introduction to the philosophy of language for the first time. In this new course, classic texts in philosophy, linguistics, and the cognitive sciences broadly are paired with pieces of short fiction that pick up on their philosophical themes. 

Cristina Lafont continued working on her book Defending Democracy against Lottocracy that she is co-authoring with Nadia Urbinati (to be published by Oxford University Press). She gave the keynote lecture (together with Alex Guerrero) for the APA 2022 Lebowitz Prize for philosophical achievement and contribution on the topic “Democracy: What’s Wrong? What Should we do?” and was invited as keynote speaker to a conference on “Authoritarianism and Democracy in the Contemporary Context” at Columbia University. She presented her work at the APSA Annual Meeting in Montreal, at the ECPR annual conference at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), and at international conferences at the University of Hamburg, (Germany), the University of Barcelona (Spain) and at Colegio de Mexico. She published several journal articles and contributions to collective volumes on topics related to human rights and democracy. She also taught a graduate seminar on the Future of Democracy. She is very much looking forward to her research leave next year and hopes to finish the book with Nadia Urbinati, and to begin working on a book on human rights.

In 2023 José Medina published a new book: The Epistemology of Protest: Silencing, Epistemic Activism and the Communicative Life of Resistance (Oxford University Press). The book makes contributions to theories of oppression and theories of liberation by developing an account of resistance against oppression through public protest, elucidating the forms of silencing and epistemic marginalization of grassroot protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Gay Liberation Movement. There have been two author-meets-critics events on the book so far: Critique Author Meets Critics Session at the Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought, University of Edinburgh, UK; and Critical Theory in Critical Times at Northwestern. In 2022-23 Medina published articles in Contemporary Political Theory, Democratic Theory, Estudios de Filosofía, Philosophical Issues, Quaderns de Filosofia, and Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía Política. He also published essays in A Companion to Public Philosophy, Philosophy and Human Flourishing, and The Political Turn in Analytic Philosophy: Reflections on Social Injustice and Oppression, among other venues. In 2022-23 Medina gave talks at various universities in Australia, Chile, Germany, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and the US.

Axel Mueller continued in his function as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Honors Convener during this Academic Year. As almost everyone else on the faculty anywhere he’s aware of in the world, he was taken by surprise by the fact that things after the pandemic didn’t get easier as if by the end of the pandemic, one walked out of a door back to where one was; student and generally re-starting pains and difficulties abounded and presented several additional challenges to his job. Oh yes, and then there was also the College-wide curriculum reform that was mainly to be implemented by the Directors of Undergraduate Studies by overhauling the entire program they’re in charge of. So, the unity of administration and teaching brought many hard earned and predictably transitory new challenges and insights. Oh well. As regards his philosophical endeavors, he continued working in political philosophy, specifically by reaching out from his analysis of populism into the analysis of the role of conspiracy theorizing in society and the complicated issue of epistemic autonomy in connection with it. He also took up themes in the general philosophy of science again by engaging with an exciting new perspective in the philosophy of science called perspectival realism. In both fields, he was part of discussions and gave comments at symposia at the APA and at other venues. Hopefully, the next year will bring, in addition to the curriculum reform’s being over and done with, some extra time for transforming the many ideas gained in these exchanges into articles on the subjects. To add a more upbeat take on the administrative and curricular work, Mueller had a blast in his coordinating function for student groups like Minorities In Philosophy (MAP), WiPhi, the Women Into Philosophy Initiative, its graduate sibling WIPHICA, the Northwestern Undergrad Philosophy Society NUPS, and the NU Ethics Bowl team, all of whom (except the latter, which hasn’t recovered from the pandemic pause) virtually exploded and brimmed with new activity and new student leaders who aren’t only excited to do and organize things social and philosophical with others but also extremely capable. So there was a lot of energy and drive in getting on to new ideas, issues, and forms of doing philosophy that spilled over with positive energy into Mueller’s own experience as well.

Gregory Ward is a member of the Department of Linguistics and, by courtesy, the Department of Philosophy. He is also currently serving as Co-Director of The Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), an interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to promoting research and education on sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation. His research and teaching areas are in the philosophy of language (specifically the semantics-pragmatics interface), and he is currently working on a monograph on the pragmatics of demonstratives. He also teaches in the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program (offering courses on language & gender/sexuality). He will be on sabbatical in AY 2023-24.

Rachel Zuckert had research leave this year, thanks to a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a new book project on Scottish Enlightenment aesthetics. She taught a graduate seminar on texts related to that project in spring 2022, and gave talks selected from it at Marquette University, University of Uppsala (Sweden), and at the British Society for Aesthetics conference, held at Oxford University. She published a memorial piece and co-organized a workshop in fall 2022 (with Anthony Laden at University of Illinois-Chicago), to honor and mourn Charles Mills, distinguished political philosopher and former colleague in the Northwestern philosophy department.