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The Oxford Philosophical Society Members’ Weekend

"What do we do when we do philosophy?"

14-15 September 2024

To book a place, please use the event's booking form.

Saturday 14 September 2024

1.00-1.30: Registration in foyer

1.30-1.55: Opening remarks by Edgar ter Danielyan and James Aitchison

2.00-2.45: Edward Hadas: Two unending debates on the nature of philosophy

2.50-3.35: Bob Stone: What did the pre-Platonic philosophers think they were doing?

3.35-4.05: Coffee

4.05-4.50: Kanan Purkayastha: Interaction Between Science and Philosophy

4.55-5.40: Stephen Granville O'Kane: What are we doing when we do philosophy?

5.45-6.30: Barbara Wainwright: What is the point of doing philosophy?

6.30-7.00: Bar

7.00: Annual Dinner, Speeches and Prize Announcements.

Sunday 15 September 2024

9.30-10.15: Dmitry Usenco: The changing social status of philosophy in Western society

10.20-11.05: Emma Ash: Metaphilosophy & Happiness in Aristotle & Aquinas

11.05-11.30: Coffee

11.30-12.30: Panel discussion

12.30-1.00: Bar

1.00-2.00: Lunch

1. Edward Hadas: Two unending debates on the nature of philosophy

From the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition, lovers of wisdom have argued about the goals of philosophising. I will suggest that there are two fundamental debates, both connected with the relationship of philosophy to what is now known as religion.

The first conflict is between philosophy as therapy – correcting the errors in our understanding of the nature of thing to allow us to live better lives – and philosophy as explanation – identifying the deep structures and relations of things, in the world and, especially in modern philosophy, in us. Therapeutic philosophy, from Epicureans to Utilitarians, replaces traditional religion, while explanatory philosophy, from Aristotle to phenomenologists, complements and deepens it.

The second debate is between successful and failed philosophy. The successful thinkers, from Aristotle to Hegel and early Wittgenstein, think that pretty much everything can be explained. They tend to see religion as at best optional. The failures, from Plato to Buber and including the later Wittgenstein, happily admit that philosophy ends where the unspeakable divinity begins.

Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He has written three books, most recently Money, Finance, Reality, Morality. He is currently finishing a book on narratives of modernity.

2. Bob Stone: What did the earliest (pre-Platonic) Greek philosophers think they were doing when they did philosophy?

Three big areas of controversy we have inherited from the Greek philosophers of the 5th century BC: their take on each, with brief references to later thinkers’ ideas.

1. Ontology: what are the ultimate constituents of the world?

a) Some basic material, of which all visible materials are variants? (Anaximander, Anaximenes)

b) Some very small particles which constitute all bodies? (Atomists)

c) Mathematical relations between things? (Pythagoreans)

d) Forces, such as heat, cold, light, dark, a vortex? (Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras)

e) A combination of some of these?

2. Epistemology: reasoning and perceiving: two sources of knowledge

a) Does reasoning lead us to apprehend the truth, and perceiving to apprehend only the appearances?

b) What if the two are contradictory?

c) How can our reasoning and our perceiving be led astray?

Case study: Parmenides’s two conflicting worlds of being and seeming, his reasoning, his false logic (and – free extra – Aristotle’s similar mistake about future contingents)

3. Ethics: Nature v Convention (physis v nomos)

Are moral imperatives and concepts (a) objectively mind-independent or (b) socially constructed? If (a) how do they come to be true/binding (divine command?), and how do we know them? If (b), who makes them up, and do they benefit us all or just those who make them up? Case studies (from Plato dialogues): Euthyphro (Euthyphro), Thrasymachus (Republic), Protagoras (Theaetetus).

Bob Stone graduated in classics at Cambridge, specialising in Greek philosophy. Since he retired as a schoolteacher, he has been obsessively studying philosophy, both ancient and modern, with the OUDCE and has completed over 30 online, weekly and summer school courses.

3. Kanan Purkayastha: Interaction Between Science and Philosophy: How Philosophy Influences It

Science consists of three inter-related levels. It follows a well-defined goal and objectives. It employs some methods for achieving its objectives and it produces result which can generate some scientific knowledge and explore the reality. The knowledge can change again if new data and information become available. These levels are grounded in philosophical thinking of ontology, epistemology and objectivity. Descartes put forward the idea that any truth can be accepted as true if it satisfies that it is really true. In order to understand how scientific truth is developed, Descartes’ Discourse on Method must be the starting place for any discussion of his view about it. Descartes tells us how reason goes about its successful pursuit of truth in any area in which truth is accessible to human mind In the Discourse on Method Descartes outlines the basic steps of the Cartesian method, which can be summarised as below:

(a) Do not accept anything just because it has been pre-established, if it is not evident to reason

(b) Divide each problem into as many parts as necessary;

(c) Think in an orderly way, beginning with the simplest objects to the most complex one;

(d) Make as many enumerations as needed, to verify that nothing is omitted.

With special reference to Descartes and other philosophers, this paper argues and present evidence from the Nobel Prize winning research in science that if science needs foundations, then it is the philosophy which provides them.

Kanan Purkayastha holds a doctorate degree from the University of Bristol. He is a Chartered Scientist and a Fellow of various professional bodies, and spent the last four decades in academia, industry and government departments.

4. Stephen Granville O'Kane: What are we doing when we do philosophy?

Entries on the Web, including about the works of philosophers, offer several different answers to that question. Broadly the answers fall into two categories: (i) Wonder and curiosity or the raising of questions; and (ii) Discovering a systematic view of the world and our place in it. Russell’s view that the job of the philosopher is to discover a logically ideal language might be seen as a blend of the two.

For a common theme between the answers to the above question, I suggest looking for what is most basic about what we think and do. A clue can be derived from the varied examples of ‘philosophy of …’, whereas we do not typically speak of ‘… of philosophy’. That points to thinking that ‘when we ask questions about why we do x, y, or z at all’ rather than just ‘how to do x, y, or z’ we are thinking philosophically even if we don’t intend to.

The old idea of philosophy as Queen of the Sciences carries the same implication. Another step is whether we can answer the questions. Much of the time that kind of inquiry does not happen in the public space where no one wants to be troubled by fundamental questions (or difficult answers). Perhaps the Greek origin of the word ‘philosophy’ – love of wisdom – is suggestive here, for recognising when fundamental questions do have to be addressed.

Since completing my Ph.D in political thought at LSE in 1979, I have been writing and published two books; Politics and Morality under Conflict (1994), and Ethics and Radical Freedom (2014). I maintain a website (moralphilosophy.co.uk) with a blog which remains active.

5. Barbara Wainwright: What is the point of doing philosophy?

There are many who argue that philosophy no longer serves any useful purpose, since the questions it asks can be satisfactorily answered by science or by religion. I would challenge this view and would argue that philosophical debate is of great value both to the individual and perhaps even more in the pursuit of the common good. On the personal level, reflection and introspection – in other words debating with oneself – can usually help when facing an ethical dilemma.

In the public arena, debate on ethical matters is between individuals, between communities and between nations, but I will restrict my topic to relations between individuals within a community or state. “Doing philosophy” here relies on the right and opportunity for the free expression of opinions, combined with the willingness to reflect with intellectual honesty on opposing opinions, accepting that there is seldom an empirically testable right answer. This is the arena of Political Theory, and it is where I hope the attention of philosophers will turn more in the future. The aim of my presentation would be to look at just one topic of international debate - slavery – and trace how the moral and philosophical issues around slavery relate to many other areas of community value, of which I propose to select just two – the law and the constitution.

Barbara did an Honours degree in Philosophy many years ago (1961-64) at Reading University, followed about ten years later by a PGCE at Madeley College, University of Keele. She later returned to Reading to do an MA in Theoretical Linguistics. Philosophy, however, is her first love and she looks on the Oxford Philosophical Society as her spiritual home.

6. Dmitry Usenco: From ancilla to magistra and beyond: The changing social status of philosophy in Western society

The status of philosophy in western society has known drastic ups and downs during the three millennia of its existence. Reaching its peak in late pre-Christian antiquity (as embodied, for example, in the figure of the emperor philosopher Marcus Aurelius), it experienced an abrupt downfall with the ascendancy of Christianity as the new empire- wide religion. It was then magnanimously, almost contemptuously, allowed by the Church to re-enter the temple of humanity through the backdoor as a handmaid to theology, only to gradually reassert its lost privileges and eventually threaten to reclaim the intellectual throne it believed to have been unfairly usurped by religion. Philosophy reached its new peak of social respectability in the age of Enlightenment and managed to maintain it, with slightly varying degrees of success, over the next two and a half centuries. It experienced a new nosedive from the middle of the 20 th century. Since then, its prospects of recovery have been appearing vague.

But what can be the causes of philosophy’s unsteady situation at present? Is it possible that its handmaid-style dependence on religion has been underestimated and never properly overcome? If that is the case, the tendency looks clear: with the steady decline of organised religion, philosophy, having existed largely in opposition to but also in cooperation with it, would be naturally expected to go into an even sharper decline. Yet, while organised religion may be nearing extinction, religious consciousness in general constitutes an essential part of human psyche and as such will always remain safe in existence. The latter cannot be said about philosophy which is too closely linked to historically defined mental stereotypes and may thus feel much less safe for its future.

Dmitry Usenco holds a PhD in English Literature. His current interest in philosophy and religion (especially religious ecumenism) was first aroused during a series of trips to West Africa he made between 2016 and 2019. He is the author of African Traditional Religion versus Christianity: Some Semiotic Observations. He is now working on a more comprehensive book on the place of religion among other symbolic systems (language, technology, etc.) in the general context of humanity.

7. Emma Ash: Metaphilosophy & Happiness in Aristotle & Aquinas

Russell states that “The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy.” Yet how is it possible to understand the nature of happiness if one cannot be happy? In this paper, I will explore the meaning of happiness within Aristotle and Aquinas’s works, enquiring whether reason alone qualifies someone to understand the nature of happiness.

I argue that whilst experience is foundational and necessary in understanding the good life and virtue, it is not enough when it comes to εύδαιμονία. Both reason and experience are required. Here an equilibrium is found not in pleasure but in joy. Having said all this, is εύδαιμονία attainable? Can it be reached? Or is another force needed? I propose that along with reason and experience, an eschatological spiritual state is required, beholding the divine, and shaping the way philosophy is done, reaching εύδαιμονία.

Emma is a Town Councillor, who loves researching philosophy, politics, and history. She is a qualified Youth Worker and theologian, gaining her MA at King’s College London, where is an Associate (AKC). She is a Fellow of the RSA and is a member of the Aristotelian Society (AS), European Society of Philosophy of Religion (ESPR), The Oxford Philosophical Society, Religion Health and Humanities Researchers (RHHR), Royal History Society (RHS), Society for the Study of Theology (SST), Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP UK), as well as an alumni of the Community of St Anselm, Lambeth Palace.