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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Professor John Heil

“My time at IAS been a lovely, memorable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Durham is beautiful and historically interesting, IAS facilities – and staff – are first rate,
and my accommodations in the Castle were excellent. I really came to feel a part of the university.”

Professor John Heil, Washington University in St Louis

IAS Fellow at University College, Durham University (January – March 2015)


John Heil is professor of philosophy at Washington University in St Louis and inaugural editor of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. He has authored seven books, edited four collections, published over 150 scholarly articles, and presented papers in numerous international venues. Two collections have been devoted to his work.

Professor Heil’s first book, Perception and Cognition, was published by the University of California Press in 1983. Some years later, while completing The Nature of True Minds (Cambridge University Press 1992), he came to think of philosophy of mind as applied metaphysics: the difficult questions about the nature of minds and their relation to the material world could be tackled only by engaging with traditional metaphysical topics especially the nature of substances, properties, and relations. These have been the focus of his subsequent research. Professor Heil’s most recent book, The Universe as We Find It ( Oxford University Press, 2012) extends work begun with the publication of From an Ontological Point of View (Oxford University Press, 2003). These books advance a conception of the universe as comprising propertied substances, where properties are conceived of as modes, not universals. What the substances and properties are is an empirical matter to be determined by fundamental physics. The substances might be quarks and leptons, or fields, or superstrings, or space itself. Properties are ways the substances are. Taken together, these provide the resources for making true all the truths that have truthmakers.

This conception of the universe is meant to dispense with ‘levels of being’ while allowing that one and the same universe can be ‘carved up’ and truly described in many different ways: one reality, many incommensurable taxonomies, many logically unrelated true descriptions. On the face of it, this appears to be at odds with the possibility of genuinely ‘emergent’ phenomena. Whether that is so depends on the metaphysical details of emergence.

While at IAS, Professor Heil plans to reach a clearer understanding of these details and their implications for metaphysics generally. This will be incorporated into a monograph that takes up the foundation of modality in the universe as we find it, the truthmakers for judgments of possibility, necessity, and impossibility. Professor Heil earned his PhD at Vanderbilt University. He has held research fellowships at Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, Monash University, the University of Otago, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the National Humanities Center, with support from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Emergence and ‘Top Down’ Causation

27th January 2015, 20:00 to 21:00, Senate Suite, University College (Castle),
Recent interest in emergence has gone hand in hand with the idea that emergent entities exert a kind of ‘top-down’, whole-to-part causation. Professor John Heil discusses the metaphysics of emergence, addressing the question of what exactly emerges, exploring the possibility of wholes causally influencing their parts, and suggesting that proponents and opponents of emergence have tended to talk past one another.

Professor John Heil Publications

Heil, J. (2019) 'Emergence and panpsychism' in Gibb. S., Hendry, R.F., Lancaster, T. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Emergence. London: Routledge.

Heil, J. (2019) 'Must there be Brute Facts' in Vintiadis, E. and Mekios, C. (eds.) Brute Facts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.19-27.

Carruth, A. D., Gibb, S. C. & Heil, J. (2018). Ontology, Modality, Mind: Themes from the Metaphysics of E. J. Lowe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heil, J. (2017) 'Dispositionality and Mentality' in Naar, H., Teroni, F. (eds.) The Ontology of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 37-50.

Heil, J (2016) 'Truthmaking and fundamentality', Synthese, 11229, pp. 1-12. DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1292-9.

Heil, J (2016) 'Causal Relations' in Marmodoro, A., Yates, D (eds.) The Metaphysics of Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.127-137.

Heil, J (2015) 'Aristotelian Supervenience', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 115 (1/1), pp. 41-56.

IAS Insights Paper


This paper takes up what has been called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’: how can we account for the presence of consciousness in the universe as described by physics? The problem can seem not simply hard but utterly hopeless. One possibility is that the problem is of our own making. We begin with various assumptions that yield a space of possible answers, none of which carries conviction. Two assumptions are identified and shown to be optional. When these are replaced by plausible alternatives the hard problem becomes, if not immediately amenable to solution, at least less hopeless.

Insights Paper