Seminar 2017

This page is intended for students taking my seminar at Columbia 2018

Fall 2018 – – Foundation of Practical Thought

Time & Location WJWH 600, T : 6:20 PM - 9:30 PM


The seminar is open to students who have a genuine interest in and - most importantly - some prior knowledge of modern analytical moral and political philosophy. It is not an introductory course.

Condition of admission: BA in philosophy or equivalent or permission to attend.

Practical thought is reflection on, consideration of questions about what to do, how to live, about the point of value of objects or activities, or people etc. The aim is not to answer such questions but to understand their nature, what could count as answers to them and what vindicated such answers. More broadly, the aim is to understand the place and role of practical thoughts in the life of people and other beings who can engage in it.

The seminar will divide into an introduction and four parts. We will start by examining the nature of our topic and the philosophical methodology involved in exploring it. Part One will examine the inescapability of normative thought. It will consider the divide, in human life, between those elements regarding which we are active and those regarding which we are passive. We will also discuss the way freedom of choice is a precondition of choice and of normative thought. The discussion will then focus on actions, motivation and intentions, with "action for a reason" at the centre of attention.

The second part will consider the nature of rationality and of reasoning, and will include an examination of conflicts of reasons, of motivation, weakness of the will, questions of integrity.

The third part will place values at the centre of discussion, including questions of their objectivity, their ontological status, of the possibility of pragmatism which "reduces" values to the attitudes of agents, and the possibility of gaining knowledge and understanding of values

The final part of the seminar will discuss assessment of and responses to human thought and conduct, with questions of responsibility, negligence, blame etc. taking centre stage.

The aim will be to present an integrated account of all these topics, if you like, to develop a theory of the foundations of practical thought. The starting points in the discussion of some of the questions will be my previous writings on these topics, such as: From Normativity to Responsibility, The Practice of Value, Value Respect and Attachments (chapters 3 and 4). The hope is to improve and develop the account in light of conflicting views put forward by other writers, including some work by Scanlon, Railton, Dancy, Parfit, Broome, Wedgwood, among others.

Assessment will be on the basis of three short papers (5-6 pages) by each student as well as on the basis of participation in class discussion.

For the attention of auditors: Upon request I will consider allowing qualified and interested people to audit the seminar, provided they agree to regard themselves as full participants in all respects except that they are not allowed to submit written work, and are not awarded a grade. That means that they have to attend regularly, prepare for the sessions as required, and participate in class discussion.

Essay Deadlines:

First essay: to be submitted by Sunday 7th October

Second essay: by Sunday 4th November

Third essay: by Sunday 2nd December

In each case the deadline is midnight at the end of the day.

Deadlines will be strictly enforced, though students who feel a likely difficulty emerging, or are aware of any impediment to meeting the deadline, should get in touch with me as soon as possible and well in advance of the deadline, to discuss the possibility of a special arrangement.