ERC Roots of Responsibility will hold a three-day international conference on Scepticism and Naturalism: Hume, Wittgenstein, Strawson, on Sunday 3–Tuesday 5 September 2023, in person at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford. This conference is the closing event for Roots of Responsibility, and Michael Thorne, a PhD student in philosophy at UCL and the recipient of the Roots of Responsibility and UCL Philosophy joint Graduate Research Studentship, is taking the lead in its organisation.
The aim of this conference is to advance our understanding of naturalism in the work of Hume, Wittgenstein, and P. F. Strawson, especially in these philosophers’ responses to skepticism. This idea was put forward by Strawson himself in his characterisation, in Skepticism and Naturalism, of the kind of anti-skepticism that guided much of his own work.
There is no lack of interest in Strawson’s responses to particular forms of skepticism. His response to moral responsibility skepticism in ‘Freedom and Resentment’, for example, has to a considerable extent set the agenda for the contemporary study of responsibility. But there have been relatively few discussions of the broad vision which lies behind this,, nor has Strawson’s claim to find echoes of his own views in Hume and Wittgenstein received sufficient attention.
This international conference will bring together established and early career philosophers to interrogate the work of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Strawson, and explore the idea that they share an anti-skeptical naturalism. It will feature thirteen sessions across two-and-a-half days, each with a critical response, general Q&A, and discussion.
Sunday 3 September
Welcome & Introduction
Michael Williams (Johns Hopkins), ‘Skepticism and Naturalism: Strawson, Hume and Wittgenstein’
Response: Jane Heal (Cambridge)
14.50–15.20 Coffee & Tea
Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia) - ‘Value and Agency: Hume, Wittgenstein and Strawson’ *online presentation
Response: Lucy Campbell (Warwick)
Carol Rovane (Columbia) - ‘Skepticism and Naturalism—and Relativism?’ *online presentation
Response: Erasmus Mayr (Erlangen)
Conference Dinner at The Queen’s College
Monday 4 September
Peter Millican (Oxford) - ‘Humean Varieties of Scepticism and Naturalism’
Response: Ruth Weintraub (Tel Aviv)
Paul Horwich (NYU) - ‘Prolegomenon to an Inquiry Into the Bearing of Naturalism on Skepticism’
Response: John Hyman (UCL)
Annalisa Coliva (UC Irvine) - ‘Strawson's Naturalist Reading of Wittgenstein. An Appraisal’
Response: Alexis Fogelman
14.50–15.20 Coffee & Tea
Genia Schönbaumsfeld (Southampton) - ‘“Not Empiricism and Yet Realism in Philosophy, That Is the Hardest Thing”’
Response: Roger Teichmann (Oxford)
Duncan Pritchard (UC Irvine) - ‘Strawson and Wittgenstein on Hinge Commitments’ *online presentation
Response: Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (Hertfordshire)
Tuesday 5 September
Pamela Hieronymi (UCLA) - ‘Strawson’s Ethical Naturalism: A Defense’
Response: Jeremy Fix (Oxford)
Benjamin De Mesel (Leuven) - ‘Strawson, Skepticism and the Natural Roots of Responsibility’
Response: Adrian Moore (Oxford)
Ernest Sosa (Rutgers) - ‘Strawson’s Anti-Skeptical Naturalism and Virtue Epistemology’
Response: Anil Gomes (Oxford)
14.50–15.20 Coffee & Tea
Severin Schroeder (Reading) - ‘Strawson on the Matter of Meaning’
Response: Roger Teichmann (Oxford)
Hanjo Glock (Zurich) - ‘Strawson’s Relativizing Move—a Futile Gambit?’
Response: Michael Thorne (UCL)
End of Conference
Presenters, Titles, & Abstracts (alphabetical order by surname)
Abstract.In this paper, Akeel Bilgrami will explore the ideas in Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and Strawson’s discussion of agency and the attitudes with a view to constructing a response to Hume’s anti-realism about values.
Abstract. Strawson proposed a naturalist reading of Wittgenstein's On Certainty in which a close parallel with Hume's naturalism was drawn. In this talk, I will revisit Strawson's position and will propose an appraisal. I will claim that while Strawson was right in drawing a parallel between Hume and Wittgenstein regarding their preoccupation with the status of our belief in the existence of an external world, Wittgenstein's response was not - at least, not primarily or solely - a naturalist one.
Abstract. It is widely believed that Strawson’s work about moral responsibility contains a powerful response to responsibility skepticism. But what exactly that response could be remains highly controversial. My main aim is to outline what I take to be a promising Strawsonian response to the responsibility skeptic who asks for a justification of our responsibility practices. My response is ‘Strawsonian’ because it draws significantly on key elements in Strawson’s approach to moral responsibility, but it is not Strawson’s own response. I will start by indicating how responsibility skepticism is different from other kinds of skepticism discussed by Strawson, and why it might be a bad idea to apply his general anti-skeptical approach to responsibility skepticism. I then provide a brief overview of three kinds of response that have been given to the responsibility skeptic on the basis of Strawson’s work: Humean, Kantian, and Wittgensteinian ones. I will argue that they all face difficulties and look for a different kind of response in Strawson’s work. I will draw attention to a strand in Strawson’s thought that I call, inspired by Queloz’ (2021) recent work, ‘pragmatic genealogy’. A pragmatic genealogical account of moral responsibility along Strawsonian lines emphasizes that our responsibility practices are rooted in our nature as social beings, which comes with a basic concern for the attitudes and intentions of other people towards us. We have a need to express this concern, which we do through the reactive attitudes, and to adopt reactive attitudes towards people is to hold them responsible. I argue that the fact that our responsibility practices are rooted in the need to express a basic concern is a reason to engage in these practices (which does not mean that we engage in responsibility practices on the basis of this reason). My Strawsonian response to the moral responsibility skeptic differs from Humean and Wittgensteinian ones, and presumably even from Strawson’s own response, because these responses tend to dismiss the skeptic who asks for a justification of our responsibility practices, claiming that no reasons in favor of our responsibility practices can be given. My response also differs from Kantian approaches because the latter attempt to provide a full-blown justification of our responsibility practices, while my Strawsonian genealogical account can at best offer a weighty reason for not abandoning them. Thus, it might be said that I propose to meet the skeptic halfway. A Strawsonian pragmatic genealogy will not yield a justification of our responsibility practices, so it will not go all the way to meet the skeptic’s demand, but it might yield a reason in favor of our practices, so it does not send the skeptic away with the message that he is asking the wrong kind of question altogether.
Abstract. Strawson’s ‘liberal naturalism’, is anthropological instead of scientific, and descriptive rather than revisionary. It insists that central features of our common-sense conceptual scheme are part of our human nature and therefore immune not just to sceptical doubt but also to both the reductive and the eliminative efforts of ‘hard naturalism’. My contribution explores both strengths and weaknesses of this position. In particular, it discusses the ‘relativizing move’ that insists on the legitimacy of both the ‘participant’ or ‘involved’ perspective of everyday life vs. the ‘objective’ or ‘detached’ of science. It defends anthropological naturalism and a version of the relativizing move. At the same time I argue that Strawson’s ‘relaxed realism’ is a bit too laid-back. What is needed instead is a sober appreciation of the relations between the categories of existence, reality, explanation and causation.
Abstract. I first present what Peter Strawson calls his “Social Naturalism,” as applied to ethics. I then briefly present the way in which his Naturalism allows Strawson to resist skepticism about moral responsibility, as argued in “Freedom and Resentment." His way of resisting this kind of skepticism opens his Naturalism to another challenge: it can seem objectionably relativistic. I have provided a response to this challenge, on Strawson’s behalf, in Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals (2020). I will expand upon that response and then consider whether it renders Strawson’s “Naturalism" no longer naturalistic. I will argue that it does not.
Abstract. I begin by noting that the term, “Naturalism” is used (and has been used) by different philosophers in such a profusion of very distinct ways that it cannot be regarded as standing for a definite doctrine. I go on to suggest that this threatens the cogency of asking whether and how the endorsements of naturalism by each of David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Peter Strawson had some influence on his view (either approving or disapproving) of any instances of philosophical skepticism. And I’ll indicate why this threat cannot be averted simply by distinguishing various forms of naturalism.
In a more constructive vein, I propose a line of investigation that would start by considering which of the profusion of doctrines are most commonly endorsed by self-declared “naturalists” and are most commonly denied by self-declared “anti-naturalists”. We might then focus -- one at a time -- on Hume, Wittgenstein, and Strawson: asking, in each case, whether he endorsed one or more of those doctrines. And, for any of those philosophers who we find did endorse one or more of the theses commonly associated with “naturalism”, we can ask whether and how this endorsement (or these endorsements) played a significant part in his acceptance or rejection of any form of philosophical skepticism.
Finally I’ll say what I think the answers would be in the case of Wittgenstein. I’ll sketch what I take to be his compelling argument for concluding that instances of philosophical skepticism are profoundly misguided. And I’ll observe that no doctrine associated with “naturalism” plays any role in it.
Abstract. Strawson famously proposed a naturalistic, or Humean, reading of the Wittgensteinian notion of a hinge commitment. I aim to show why such a proposal does not capture this Wittgensteinian notion correctly. I begin by exploring the close parallels between Wittgenstein’s treatment of our hinge commitments and Hume’s discussion of our natural commitments that are impervious to sceptical attack. Of particular significance is the Pyrrhonian sceptical influence on these two authors (albeit in a form that is explicitly disavowed by Hume at least, albeit wrongly I will argue). Despite these commonalities, there are also important points on which these two authors diverge. In particular, Wittgenstein doesn’t infer from the fact that one is unable to doubt one’s hinge commitments that they therefore have a special epistemic standing in our practices. Moreover, it is also important to Wittgenstein that our hinge commitments are essentially mundane everyday propositions. With the Wittgensteinian and Humean approaches contrasted, we will then be in a position to revisit Strawson’s Humean proposal and understand why it is not the right way to interpret Wittgenstein.
Abstract. In Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, Strawson makes clear that his making central the idea of relativization to a perspective does not rule out adopting a realist attitude towards what we know from different perspectives. He is less clear on the question whether his form of relativizing to a perspective amounts, or indeed how it even relates to, what we familiarly think of as relativism. To the extent that relativism itself is a coherent doctrine, we can try to get clearer on that question by raising four issues that I will address in this paper: First, whether Strawson is right to suppose that there are, or even can be, logical conflict between the perspectives he distinguishes, as opposed to another relation that has been associated with the history of philosophical debate about relativism, namely, alternativeness, oras it is sometimes called, incommensurability. Second, whether focusing on the latter helps to shore up Strawson’s inclination towards retaining realism together with his apparent relativism. Third, whether relativization of his sort allows us to embrace together what is known from different perspectives from a single point of view, and whether this is even a desirable outcome. Finally, whether the realism that Strawson’s nonreductive naturalism involves should be construed as a formof transcendental naturalism.
Abstract. I’ll present a critical discussion of the final chapter of Scepticism and Naturalism, Strawson’s tentative and inconclusive attempts to adjudicate between the realist or believer in abstract objects and the nominalist proposing to translate our talk of them into talk about ‘things and happenings in nature’.
Abstract. Most contemporary epistemological proposals are concessive to scepticism in that they grant to the sceptic that unless we can demonstrate that we are not massively deceived, we can, at best, have knowledge of how things appear to us, never of how they actually are. The notion that we need independently, and without any help from perception, to establish that there is an ‘external’ world, only makes sense, however, if there is an ‘internal’ world to contrast it with. That is to say, it is compulsory only if we believe that claims about our mental states or ‘sensory experiences’ are somehow epistemologically prior to claims about ordinary physical objects, and hence that knowledge about the latter can only ever be ‘indirect’, as it depends on an inference from how things subjectively seem to us to how they actually are in the world ‘outside’ of our own minds. If, on the other hand, and as Wittgenstein controversially suggests in his last collection of remarks, On Certainty, any attempt to ‘ground’ the ‘background’ is incoherent, since the proposition ‘there are physical objects’ is nonsense, then, if Wittgenstein is right about this, we need to abandon the idea that attempting to demonstrate that the ‘external’ world exists is so much as an intelligible notion. But, if so, we also do not need to concede that, without such a demonstration, no perceptual knowledge is possible.
Abstract. We will first take up the response to philosophical skepticism that Strawson finds in Hume and Wittgenstein, a response to which he himself subscribes. I will register some doubts about that effort. But I find an insight in Strawson’s appeal to “framework commitments,” an insight that I argue we can comfortably accommodate within recent virtue epistemology.
Abstract. In Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, Strawson likens Wittgenstein’s attitude to traditional scepticism to that of Hume. For Strawson, both see scepticism as foundering on the rocks of commitments that, outside the philosophy seminar room, no one does or could call in question. For Hume, these are rather general beliefs, which are “natural” in the sense of belonging to human nature: beliefs in the existence of “body” or the general reliability of induction. By contrast, Wittgenstein finds a wide variety of things that “lie apart from the road travelled by inquiry”: some specific to particular times, some belonging to “our human world-picture”; and some peculiar to individuals: for example, Wittgenstein’s conviction that his name is “Ludwig Wittgenstein”. But with respect to general skeptical questions, beneath these differences there lies a “profound community”. Both philosophers take human lives to be shaped by commitments that are “not grounded beliefs and at the same time not open to serious doubt”. This is the fundamental point: the rest is detail. I disagree: regarding scepticism, Hume and Wittgenstein are fundamentally at odds. As Strawson notes, Hume leaves us with an “unrefuted scepticism”. Wittgenstein assuredly does not. Early in On Certainty [§19], having pointed to the peculiarity of Moore’s claims to know such things as that he has hands, thus indirectly to peculiarity of the thought that there is a doubt to be allayed, he imagines an interlocutor who objects that he was not dealing with the practical doubt, which is being dismissed, but to a further doubt behind that one. Hume has nothing to say to this. The sceptic’s arguments are unexceptionable, even compelling in the course of philosophical reflection. But only there. Even if his arguments are philosophically irrefutable, when we return to common life, his conclusions will appear strained or even ridiculous. Nature is too strong for principle. Nothing could be farther from Wittgenstein’s way of thinking. The idea of a further philosophical doubt behind our everyday doubts is an illusion, though as I shall argue, Wittgenstein’s way of showing how this is so had been seriously misunderstood. Strawson is right to say that Wittgensteinian certainties, or at least some of them, are ungrounded”. The question ask is whether this entails that they are not things we know to be true. While Strawson doesn’t raise this question, he pretty clearly implies that his answer would be “yes”, which would suggest that Wittgenstein, too, leaves us with an unrefuted scepticism. But whatever Strawson would have said, the standard reading of On Certainty takes the recognition of primitive certainties that are distinct from knowledge is Wittgenstein’s epistemological deepest insight, albeit one that invites elaboration. This cannot be right. Wittgenstein says unhesitatingly that at least some such commitments are known with the certainty with which we hold mathematical beliefs (§340). Though with respect to ‘empirical’ beliefs, sceptical doubts can seem to make sense, closely examined they do not. Or more precisely, we can make sense of such doubts, but only at the cost of taking on board philosophical commitments we have no reason to accept. Where doubts fail to make sense, knowledge neither needs nor allows for grounding. There is nothing sceptical about this.
Respondents (alphabetical order by surname)
- Lucy Campbell (Warwick)
- Bill Child (Oxford)
- Jeremy Fix (Oxford)
- Alexis Fogelman (Independent)
- Anil Gomes (Oxford)
- Jane Heal (Cambridge)
- Jennifer Hornsby (Birkbeck)
- John Hyman (UCL)
- Adrian Moore (Oxford)
- Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (Hertfordshire)
- Roger Teichmann (Oxford)
- Michael Thorne (UCL)
- Ruth Weintraub (Tel Aviv)
Call for registration
We encourage colleagues and especially postgraduate students to attend. Please spread the word. All are welcome, and there is no registration fee, but space is limited. If you wish to attend, please register on the Eventbrite page:
Register to attend: https://bit.ly/SNHWS-eb
Please note that registering for the workshop does not guarantee you a place; further information will be sent to everyone who registers. To make sure we have a full house, we may allocate more tickets than there are places. We do our best to get the numbers right, but unfortunately we occasionally have to disappoint people. We cannot guarantee entry, and admission is on a first come, first served basis.
Enquiries about the workshop can be submitted via the message form on the Roots of Responsibility website.