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Department of Philosophy


As a part of the AHRC-funded project "The New Ontology of the Mental Causation Debate", a series of six seminars will be arranged, with contributions and replies from internationally acclaimed scholars. In the first year 3 seminars will be devoted to basic ontological issues, while in the second year 3 seminars will be devoted to the consequences of ontologial issues to the mental causation debate. 


Final Event: Workshop on Mental Causation with Prof. Peter Menzies (Macquarie, Sydney), Prof. Edmund Runggaldier (Innsbrück), and Prof. Andrew Newman (University of Nebraska Omaha), 27th September, 2010.

More information under the post "final event" in the left column


Seminar 6: Prof. Kevin Mulligan (Geneva), 2nd June, 2010.

When: 2:15–4:30 Wednesday 2nd June. Where: The Birley Room, Hatfield College, Durham. (For directions, see


Abstract: Consider those episodes which have the property of intentionality. Do
 they all have causal properties of the same sort? Do they enter into 
causal relations in the same way? I examine a number of reasons for
 thinking that the causal profile of some mental episodes - meaning that
 p, willing that p and intending to F - differs fundamentally from the
 causal profile of psychological episodes such as emotions. In particular 
I consider the claim that emotions but not mental episodes are 
constitutively linked to bodily expression and sensations, and some
 possible differences between the truthmakers of mental ascriptions 
dominated by connectives and the truthmakers of psychological
 ascriptions dominated by psychological predicates.

Seminar 5: Prof. John Heil (Washington University, St.Louis), 18th May, 2010

When: 5-7 pm, 18th May. Where: Room 141, Elvet Riverside, Durham.


Abstract: The paper explores two theses and their implications.
 First, the category of substance, together with its
 complement, property, is fundamental. Second, substances
 qua property-bearers are simple. This thesis receives
 independent support from the popular idea that substances
 are non-dependent entities. Implications for the notion
 of emergence and the possibility that the world is
 infinitely complex are discussed.

Seminar 4, 30th April, 2010: Phenomenological Constraints on Ontological Theories of Agency,

Prof. Martine Nida-Rümelin (Fribourg)


The following questions should be clearly distinguished:

(1) Are human agents at least sometimes free in their actions and if so in what sense of acting freely?

(2) Are subjects active in their behaviour and if so in what sense of being active?

Les us call those cases where the subject is active in its behaviour "doings" and let us call those doings that are not actions "mere doings". I will argue on the basis of examples that a huge part of human and animal behaviour belongs to the category of mere doings. I will then focus on the case of doings for several reasons: (1) the metaphysically more substantial divide is not between actions and non-actions but rather between doings and non-doings. (2) If we wish to understand the nature of actions we need to understand the important feature they share with mere doings; in actions as well as in mere doings what happens is not a 'mere happening', it is something the subject brings about as opposed to something that merely happens to the subject. (3) In order to understand the nature of freedom of acts we need to understand the nature of doings. It is a substantial and a necessary feature of a free act and in fact of any act that it is brought about in the relevant sense by the subject.

What is it, however, for a subject to be active in what it does? How should we describe the metaphysical difference between happenings and mere doings? I will propose a phenomenological approach to the problem which proceeds as follows: in a first step those experiences are identified in which we experience ourselves as active in our behaviour or others as active in their behaviour; in a second step different accounts of the content of those experiences are discussed and a first preliminary description of the content attempted; in a third step a theoretical description of those conditions that would render these experiences veridical is proposed. Since the content of the relevant experiences is that a given subject is active in its behaviour, the theoretical description of the veridicality conditions of those experiences coincides with an account of what it is to be active.

The justification for this phenomenological approach to a metaphysical question may be outlined as follows: our best basis for believing that there is a metaphysical divide between doings and mere happenings is phenomenological; we experience ourselves as active in our own doings and we experience others as active in theirs. The distinction appears to be substantial. If the way we experience ourselves and others in the relevant experiences is the best epistemological basis for the belief in the existence of the division then any account of the division must be faithful to how things appear to us in those experiences. Any account which does not satisfy this constraint undermines its own epistemological basis. This constraint for any theoretical account of what it is to be active may be formulated as follows: the account of what it is to be active in one's behaviour must (a) be a phenomenologically adequate account of the content of experiences of someone as active and (b) be compatible with the view that these experiences are in most or at least in central cases veridical. - The constraint does not imply that any doing is experienced as a doing by the active subject. The veridicality conditions for the experience of being active may be satisfied even if the doing is not accompanied by phenomenal awareness of being active. I will argue on the basis of a phenomenological argument of this kind that being active involves what one may call subject causation: the subject is itself a causal origin of what happens. The idea is similar to the thesis of agent causation; differences will be outlined in the talk.

In a last part of the talk I intend to speculate on how subject causation may be integrated in a scientific picture of the world. A central claim will be that we have to abandon the idea that 'mental causation' in the relevant sense involves normal event causation. 'Mental causation' necessarily involves subject causation. Subject causation, however, must be understood as 'simultaneous causation' in a certain sense to be developed. When, for instance, a subject takes a decision then there is a certain neural event 'corresponding' to that decision which is brought about by the subject. The proposal is that the subject is continuously influencing the neural event while it happens. It is tempting to conclude that there is an act of influencing which event-causes the neural event, but this temptation should be resisted. We should not think of the neural event as being caused by some preceding mental act. - These speculations are of course an important further step in the phenomenological approach outlined. The second part (b) of the above constraint can only be uphold if it is possible to find some plausible way to integrate subject causation into what we know on the basis of scientific research. 

Seminar 3: Levels of Being (14th May, 2009)

Prof. Peter van Inwagen (Notre Dame) gave a paper entitled "Mental Causation".

Seminar 2: Powers (February 4th, 2009)

Prof. Alexander Bird (Bristol) presented his paper "Can Dispositions have Intrinsic Finks or Antidotes?" and E. J Lowe (Durham) replied.

Here is the abstract to Bird's paper:

One might suppose that dispositions cannot have intrinsic finks and antidotes. For what would then be the difference between having a disposition that for intrinsic reasons does not yield its manifestation, and not having that disposition at all? If that is right, then standard answers to certain important problems fail, for example the dispositional accounts of rule following or of intentional action, which require intrinsic finks or antidotes to respond to standard objections. In this paper I examine whether the dismissal of intrinsic finks and antidotes just given stands up, and if not, what does make the difference between possessing such a disposition and not possessing it.

Seminar 1: Ontological Categories (3rd December, 2008)

Prof. E. J. Lowe talked on the subject "Why Four are Better than Two" while Luc Schneider (Paris) replied with "Why Four is not Enough and Six not Too Much"

Here is the abstract from Lowe's talk

The term ‘ontology' traditionally denotes the science of being - where ‘science' is to be understood in a broad sense, to include any systematic body of theoretical knowledge. Ontology in this sense is a formal science, comparable with those of mathematics and logic, because it is primarily concerned with certain formal properties, relations, and structures. When philosophers use the term ‘ontology' in the plural, to speak of ontologies, they are speaking of rival general theories concerning what there is - that is, rival general theories concerning the fundamental types of thing that exist. Another and more specific term for such a type is ‘ontological category'. Accordingly, one of the most important tasks for ontology as a formal science is to determine the nature of ontological categories and their source or origin. Do they originate from formal structures residing in the human mind or in human languages? Or do they have their basis in extra-mental and extra-linguistic reality, quite independently of our cognitive and semantic capacities and practices? As a metaphysical realist, I am personally committed to the latter view. In the present paper, I shall not argue directly in favour of this position, but much of what I say will be supportive of it. My central theme will be a deep problem that arises for any system of ontology - one that I call the problem of categorial uniqueness. As I shall explain more fully in the course of the paper, it is a problem concerning the individuation of ontological categories - a problem, that is, as to how ontologists can successfully identify and distinguish, in a purely formal or structural manner, the various ontological categories that they propose to include in their preferred general system of ontology.