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

Metaethics and Practical Reasoning

USC’s philosophy department is a hotbed of research in the areas of metaethics and practical reason. Ralph Wedgwood, 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), action theory (Kadri Vihvelin, Gary Watson), philosophy of law (Andrei Marmor), political philosophy (Jonathan Quong) and philosophy of language (Scott Soames, Robin Jeshion).

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 brings these ideas together in his recent book, Confusion of Tongues: A Theory of Normative Language (Oxford UP 2014).

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.

Ralph Wedgwood's main research interests concern normative questions — including both questions that belong to ethics (e.g. how we ought to make decisions about what to do) and questions that belong to epistemology (e.g. how we ought to form beliefs about what is the case). In these areas, he is particularly interested in studying the precise formal theories that philosophers have developed (such as the theory that we ought always to make choices that ‘maximize expected utility’); methodologically, he believes that it is important to be attentive to language — which has led him to explore the semantics of the normative and evaluative parts of language. He is currently working on rationality, starting with basic issues about the concept of rationality in general, and then developing a comprehensive theory which explains what it is for both beliefs and decisions to be rational. He has also recently worked on some foundational issues in ethical theory (such as the so-called ‘doctrine of double effect’).

 

Political 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 responsibility, 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.

Jonathan Quong works in political and moral philosophy. His work in political philosophy focuses on three central concepts: public reason, justice, and political legitimacy. He defends the idea that a legitimate state is one that restricts itself to securing and maintaining just conditions, and he defends the further view that conceptions of social justice must meet the condition of being publicly justifiable. These ideas are developed in his monograph, Liberalism Without Perfection (Oxford UP 2010). He is currently working on the morality of defensive harm. This project addresses the following questions, among others: What are the conditions for liability to defensive harm? What makes the imposition of defensive harm proportionate? Are there agent-relative prerogatives to harm innocent people?

Political philosophy and its relation to the law is also 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.

 

Philosophy of Language

Led by Scott Soames, Gabriel Uzquiano, John Hawthorne, and Robin Jeshion in philosophy, and complemented by Elena Guerzoni, Roumyana Pancheva, and Barry Scheinin linguistics, USC has a world-class program in the philosophy of language and linguistic semantics.

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.

Much of Robin Jeshion’s research focuses on questions at the intersection of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language about how our thought about the world is manifested in and contributes to altering semantics and how the meanings of linguistic expressions shape how we think about the world. She has written on the syntactic, semantic, and cognitive role of proper names, descriptions, and other singular terms, and about how spatial representation and perspectival aspects of thought are reflected in language. Jeshion’s most recent research project in this vein explores the semantics and pragmatics of pejoratives, especially slurring terms and other expressions of abuse. On her view, slurring terms conventionally function as expressives to encode speakers’ attitudes of contempt and to define targets’ social identities. She believes this approach helps explain how the meanings of slurs become appropriated and how speech acts with slurs dehumanize and contribute to the oppression of their targets. In addition to work on language and mind, Jeshion also has enduring interests in many areas in epistemology and has written extensively about a priori knowledge, mathematical intuition, and Frege’s logicism.

In addition to teaching their specialties, the USC philosophers of language seek to expand their inquiries by co-teaching with others in related areas. In a 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 the 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 logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. Recent appointments include John Hawthorne, Andrew Bacon, Jeffrey Russell, and Gabriel Uzquiano.

Andrew Bacon's long term research projects currently center around three issues: the semantic paradoxes, the paradoxes of vagueness, and the epistemology of conditional thought. In the last project, for instance, he argues against semantics for indicative conditionals that invoke the notion of similarity between worlds. In its stead he develops an alternative possible world semantics which he believes has the ability to explain a number of puzzles relating to indicative conditionals, including the problem of providing an adequate account of their probabilities. In addition to that, he is in the process of finishing a book on vagueness, and is currently working on a smaller project concerning the metaphysics of space and location.

Gabriel Uzquiano's research focuses on questions in the philosophy of mathematics and the interface between philosophical logic and metaphysics. Three recurrent themes in his research in philosophical logic are quantification, paradox, and modality. He is interested in connections between the set-theoretic antinomies, quantification, and modality. He has written on the problem of absolute generality, higher-order logic, and plural quantification. Much of his research in metaphysics has been concerned with questions related to composition. He has explored differences between mereological and non-mereological modes of composition as well as the question of how they interact with location and modality. In the philosophy of mathematics, he has written on indefinite extensibility and the viability of Fregean abstraction principles as an alternative foundation for mathematics.

These additions enhance USC's longstanding representation in these fields. 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. James Van Cleve's ground-breaking work, especially on perception, foundationalism, and space and time, has helped shaped current debates in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics. Shieva Kleinschmidt is interested in Abstracta, Causation, Location, Mereology, Modality, Ontology, Time, and Topology; she has also written about Aesthetics, Linguistics, and Philosophy of Religion.

Mark Schroeder is largely concerned with the metaphysics of normativity—what sorts of facts and properties are normative claims about? Jacob Ross and Ralph Wedgwood, who also specialize in normativity and ethics, have 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, Moral Psychology, and Philosophy of Mind

The USC the School of Philosophy faculty has a number of philosophers working in the theory of action and moral psychology.

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).

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.

 

History of Philosophy

Early Modern Philosophy
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
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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