Specialties

Journals & Centers

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly is a quarterly peer-reviewed journal in analytic philosophy, edited by the faculty of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California and published by Wiley-Blackwell. It was founded in 1920 at the University of Southern California by Ralph Tyler Flewelling, a philosopher and student of Borden Parker Bowne, under the title The Personalist. The journal acquired its present name in 1980. There is now a reading room bearing Flewelling's name in the USC Hoose Library of Philosophy.

The Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy is a peer-reviewed online open-access journal of moral, political and legal philosophy, edited and published by the University of Southern California. The journal was founded in 2005, and is hosted by the USC Annenberg Center. It is additionally sponsored by the USC Center for Law and Philosophy, the Gould School of Law, and the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.

The USC Center for Law and Philosophy is a research center devoted to the promotion of interdisciplinary scholarship in legal, moral, and political philosophy. The Center holds conferences and workshops, and works with faculty and students to enhance the study of law and philosophy at USC. The Center sponsors a new online peer reviewed journal in moral, political and legal philosophy, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy. The current director is Andrei Marmor.

Areas of Specialty

Philosophy and Law

USC hosts one of the top programs in the country in the areas of Law and Philosophy. Andrei Marmor and Gary Watson hold positions in the law school as well, and lead the programs of the USC Center for Law & Philosophy. The Center organizes workshops and conferences in these areas, runs an annual workshop-seminar for the graduate students, and sponsors the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.

Gary Watson is one of the country’s leading philosophers, whose writings have shaped our understanding of the nature of moral agency, moral responsibility, freedom of action, and freedom of the will. His interest in concepts of legal responsibility target the relations between moral and criminal responsibility and the criminal law’s conceptions of moral agency. Kadri Vihvelin adds expertise on free will, moral responsibiilty, and moral psychology that is also relevant to questions of legal responsibility.

Andrei Marmor (director of the Center for Law & Philosophy) is an expert in contemporary philosophy of law. His writings focus on the nature of law, the relations between law, morality and politics, and the nature of social conventions. He is particularly interested in the intersection of philosophy of language and legal interpretation, an area in which he collaborates in research and teaching with Scott Soames, who is attempting to apply some of his influential work in philosophy of language to interpretation in the law. Political philosophy, and its relation to the law, is strongly represented by Sharon Lloyd, who is one of the leading experts on the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and by Gregory Keating, of the School of Law, who works on central issues in the philosophy of private law from a Rawlsian perspective.

Together with the very strong group of philosophers at USC who work on ethics, practical reason, and metaethics, these scholars cover a wide range of interests in the normative area of philosophy. The School of Philosophy at USC, which works in close collaboration with the Gould School of Law, offers one of the best programs in philosophy and law to be found anywhere.

Metaethics and Practical Reasoning

USC’s philosophy department is a hotbed of research in the areas of metaethics and practical reason. The up-and-coming trio of Stephen Finlay, Jake Ross, and Mark Schroeder work in these areas, and are supported by the strengths of the department in the overlapping topics of normative ethics (John Dreher, Dallas Willard), action theory (Kadri Vihvelin, George Wilson, Gary Watson), philosophy of law (Andrei Marmor), and philosophy of language (James Higginbotham, Scott Soames, George Wilson).

Metaethics is the study of moral reality, moral knowledge, moral thought, and moral language. Do moral questions have objectively true or false answers? Are there moral facts, and if so, are they relative, or absolute? Can we know anything about them, and if so, how? Is moral language about moral facts, or is it just a device of social coordination or a way of expressing attitudes? Are moral thoughts beliefs about the world, or are they just a matter of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ things? Metaethics asks these and related questions.

Practical Reason is an area of inquiry at the intersection of fields — metaethics, normative ethics, action theory, and epistemology — that have converged on an important set of questions about reasons, reasoning, and rationality. Looking at the relationship between evidence for belief and reasons for action, which bear striking parallels but have traditionally been investigated by different branches of philosophy, is just one example of the kind of cross-fertilization that has made this a fruitful area of investigation.

Stephen Finlay's work explores how insights from our philosophical understanding of language can shed light on many of the traditional problems of metaethics, as well as the new problems of practical reason. He believes that semantic investigation confirms an interrelated set of simple and elegant analyses of normative concepts like ‘good’, ‘ought’, and ‘reason’. On his view, the common pattern in this set provides the key to understanding why moral disagreements can seem intractable, and why moral judgments seem to motivate, as well as how moral facts fit into the natural world, and yet matter for what we ought to do. He is currently working on a book bringing these ideas together.

Jake Ross's work explores the relationship between practical and theoretical reason. He argues against the viability of both the program of explaining the norms of belief in terms of practical norms, and the program of explaining the norms of practical rationality in terms of the norms of belief. If we are to understand the interconnection between practical and theoretical rationality, he argues, we must draw a distinction between belief and acceptance, where acceptance, unlike belief, is an attitude that is subject to practical reasons. He is currently working on a monograph, Vindicating Reason, which explores the possibility of providing practical justification for acceptance, and, in the process, of responding to a number of forms of skepticism, including moral skepticism.

Mark Schroeder has written about many of the topics in metaethics and practical reason, including reasons, rationality, realism, reduction, moral epistemology, particularism, and expressivism. His first book, Slaves of the Passions, defends the idea that all reasons for action are explained by desires or other psychological states of the agent for whom they are reasons, and the idea that normative facts can be reductively explained in non-normative terms. His second book, Being For, shows how to provide expressivism with a semantics. Expressivism is the metaethical theory that the purpose of moral language is not to describe how things are, but instead to express the positive or negative attitudes of the speaker. Schroeder shows how some of the most troubling of the previously unsolved semantic problems facing this idea can be solved -- but only at the cost of incurring deeper problems. He has also written on issues related to epistemology, in normative ethics and the history of ethics.

These strengths in metaethics and practical reason are supplemented by related strengths in the philosophy of language, normative ethics, action theory, and the philosophy of law – including the star-studded list of guests in Andrei Marmor's annual law and philosophy workshop series. Because of all this, we believe USC to be one of the most active and exciting places to study metaethics and practical reason today.

Philosophy of Language

Led by Jim Higginbotham, Scott Soames, and George Wilson in philosophy, and complemented by Elena Guerzoni, Roumyana Pancheva, and Barry Schein in linguistics, USC has a world-class program in the philosophy of language and linguistic semantics. Higginbotham, who is an expert in both contemporary linguistic theory and the philosophical foundations of semantics, is known as one of the chief innovators in the development of truth-theoretic semantic theories of natural languages. Recently, he has worked on the semantics of belief-ascriptions, compositionality, the anaphoric theory of tense, and the English perfect and the metaphysics of events. Soames is one of the leading figures in direct-reference theory, the analysis of propositional attitude constructions, and the theory of structured propositions. He is also recognized for his contributions to the theories of truth, vagueness, and partially defined predicates, and for his explanation of the difference between epistemic and metaphysical modalities. Recently, he has been working on natural kinds, on the metaphysics and epistemology of actuality and possibility, and the language we use to talk about it, and on the relationship between semantic theories of natural language, and pragmatic theories of what is asserted, conveyed and implicated by utterances of natural-language sentences. Wilson, whose expertise in philosophy spans the philosophy of language, action theory, aesthetics and the philosophy of film, is a leading interpreter of Saul Kripke’s version of Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox.

In addition to teaching their specialties, the USC philosophers of language seek to expand their inquiries by co-teaching with others in related areas. Higginbotham, who regularly teaches Contemporary Philosophical Literature with Soames, also teaches in linguistics, with Schein and Guerzoni. In a new graduate seminar, offered jointly in the School of Philosophy and the School of Law, Soames teams up with Andrei Marmor in Law, Language, and Interpretation, which applies advances in contemporary philosophy of language to questions of legal philosophy. In another new pro-seminar, Soames directs graduate students in a writing-intensive exploration of topics in contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language.

Metaphysics, Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind

With new faculty adding to its previous strength, USC is gaining momentum in the core analytic areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind.

Recent appointments include James Van Cleve, Kenneth Easwaran, and Shieva Kleinschmidt. Van Cleve is a prominent figure in all three of these core areas. His ground-breaking work, especially on perception, foundationalism, and space and time, has helped shaped the current debates. Easwaran did his graduate work at UC Berkeley. He focuses on the formal side of epistemology, especially foundational issues in probability theory and the role of axioms in mathematical reasoning. Kleinshmidt did her graduate work at NYU, and is interested in Abstracta, Causation, Location, Mereology, Modality, Ontology, Time, and Topology; she has also written about Aesthetics, Linguistics, and Philosophy of Religion.

These additions enhance USC's longstanding representation in these fields. Janet Levin is well-known for her influential work on phenomenal consciousness and functionalism in the philosophy of mind, as well as on perception and intuition in epistemology. Kadri Vihvelin is a leading expert on the metaphysics of free will and of counterfactuals, whose work also has important ramifications for theories of moral responsibility. And Dallas Willard, a noted expositor of Husserl's metaphysics and epistemology, works primarily in systematic metaphysics, focusing on theories of substance and of universals.

Mark Schroeder are both largely concerned with the metaphysics of normativity—what sorts of facts and properties are normative claims about? Frank Lewis, our resident scholar of ancient philosophy, is a leading interpreter of Aristotle's metaphysics. Jacob Ross, who also specializes in normativity and ethics, has significant interests in formal approaches to rationality, including confirmation theory. And Scott Soames is the author of significant work at the intersection of language and metaphysics—for instance, concerning the metaphysics of modality and of natural kinds—and also at the intersection of language and epistemology—for instance, concerning the contingent a priori.

The Theory of Action and Moral Psychology

The USC the School of Philosophy faculty has an unusual number of philosophers working in the theory of action and moral psychology. Andre Marmor, in the Philosophy and the USC Law School, annually runs a semester long workshop on Law and Philosophy, a workshop that brings in many of the most important philosophers of action from this country and abroad. Gary Watson, a highly distinguished contributor to both theory of action and moral psychology, is a recent addition to our faculty.

Stephen Finlay - Finlay's research touches the theory of action in his work on normative and explanatory reasons for action and on the role of desire in the motivation of action. He has written on the concept of reasons for action, and he has defended a distinctive view of the distinction between normative reasons for action and explanatory reasons.

Mark Schroeder - Schroeder's interests in action theory include questions about the nature of desire and intention and about what role they play in motivating action. He has written about desires in Slaves of Passion (Oxford UP 2007) and about desire and intention in a number of recent articles.

Kadri Vihvelin - Vihvelin is an expert on the free/will determinism problem. She believes that insights from philosophical accounts of counterfactuals, causation, and dispositions shed light on our understanding of free will and the abilities that constitute agency. She is working on a book that argues that our ordinary view of ourselves as agents with free will is compatible with determinism.

Gary Watson - Watson's work falls mostly under two overlapping areas of enquiry. The first enquiry is how to locate the place of human agency in the natural world. In an obvious way, this is a metaphysical issue, but it is motivated by a skeptical worry about the tenability of understanding ourselves as authors of our conduct--beings to whom this conduct can be attributed. The second area of enquiry concerns the nature of freedom and responsibility. He is currently especially interested in the role of moral agency in a defensible account of criminal law. Many of his papers are collected in Agency and Answerability (Oxford UP 2004).

George Wilson - Wilson has written on the nature of reasons explanations, having defended a non-causalist view of the topic. He has also written on the nature of intentional action and on the logical form of action sentences. Finally, he has written on the special character of our knowledge of our present actions and of the actions that we are now on the verge of performing. His book on the theory of action is The Intentionality of Human Action (Stanford UP, 1989).

History of Philosophy

The USC School of Philosophy is particularly strong in the history of philosophy.

Ancient Philosophy

Faculty working in this area include Frank Lewis, who specializes in Aristotle, and Kevin Robb, who works on Greek social and ethical philosophy.

Early Modern Philosophy

USC is one of the strongest centers in the world for the study of philosophy from the early modern period. Edwin McCann is a distinguished scholar of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Newton, and Kant. James Van Cleve has done important work on Kant and Thomas Reid. Sharon Lloyd is a leading expert on the philosophy of Hobbes, with interests also in Machiavelli. John Dreher works especially on the philosophy of Hume. In addition, Mark Schroeder has written on the ethical theories of Kant and Cudworth, and Stephen Finlay has written on the ethical views of Hume.

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Philosophy

Dallas Willard works in European philosophy of this period, and is a distinguished scholar of Husserl and the phenomenological tradition, while James Van Cleve has done important work on Kant and Thomas Reid. Sharon Lloyd works also on Mill and Marx. We have particular strength in the history of analytic philosophy; Scott Soames is a leading figure in this area, while George Wilson and Edwin McCann have interests in the work of Wittgenstein.

"Epicurus" tile painting in the USC Hoose Library of Philosophy
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