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Philsoc Members’ Weekend Sat-Sun 16-17 September 2023


(Booking for this event is now closed)

Provisional timetable of talks, food and drink

Saturday 16

1.00-1.40: Registration in foyer

1.40-1.55: Bob Stone: Introduction

2.00-2.45: Edward Haddas: The child as free individual: the challenge and affirmation of the separate self

2.50-3.35: Peter Townsend: Individuality and Normality - battle or balance?

3.35-4.05: Coffee

4.05-5.50: Elena Ene Draghici-Vasilescu: Individuality in the work of Plotinus

4.55-5.40: Bob Stone: The individual as a moral subject

5.45-6.30: Marta Vecchio: What make us who we are? Discussion on the nature of personal identity, its evolution over time and implications on behaviour.

6.30-7.00: Bar

7.00 50th anniversary annual dinner

Sunday 17

9.30-10.15: Edgar ter Danielyan: Constitution and relationality of individuals

10.20-11.05: Laurence Reed: Individuality and the Turing Test

11.05-11.30: Coffee

11.30-12.30: Panel discussion

12.30-1.00: Bar

1.00-2.00: Lunch

Edward Hadas

The Child as free individual: the challenge and affirmation of the separate self

It is hard to grow up. In the psychoanalytic tradition, the greatest psychological challenge for each person – one which is never fully mastered – is to separate from the primal physical and emotional unity with, and dependence on, the mother. That task is universal, but there is great diversity in what parents are expected to give and receive from their children, at all ages. The biblical parable of the prodigal son suggests tremendous and continuing mutual obligations, while John Locke, argued that the obligations of both parents and children are minimal and temporary.

There is an unresolvable conflict between the dominant contemporary understanding of freedom and our knowledge of child development. We love autonomy, so we want children to enjoy adult freedoms and responsibilities as soon as possible, and we often feel vaguely guilty imposing our “values” on them. We also love adult autonomy, and feel that children should not be too much of an obstacle to that crucial freedom. However, we know how slowly children grow up – morally, emotionally, and spiritually – and how much they are shaped by the adult world that they do not choose. It is hard to help children grow up.

Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and the author of two philosophical books on economics, one on Catholic Social Teaching, and one, not yet finished, on narratives of modernity. He spent many decades in finance and financial journalism.

Peter Townsend

Individuality and Normality - battle or balance?

An individual has to be an individual something; that's the paradox.

The idea of an ‘individual’ needs its complement and contrary – the group; neither can exist without the other. That is a semantic necessity; but is it possible that the necessity is also practical, and worldly? We humans customarily assess our own ‘individuality’ by its difference from ‘normality’ – the norm. But we may also observe that such difference is as often (perhaps always) signalled by a new set of ‘individualist norms’. Rebels carry flags of rebellion.

Individualism, as an ethic, exploded as 19C European Romanticism in the arts: Nietzsche,  Goethe, Kierkegaard, Keats, Hugo, Picasso, Schӧnberg. Yet each set up new norms - an exemplar to follow. So, can the individualist ever avoid being a new normal? (Kierkegaard thought not). If the individual aims to become something other than Heidegger's das Man, must she, to succeed, create a new norm?

Or is it just the newness that matters?

Apart from the cultural aspect there is, of course, the political. Political normative dimensions (left/right, libertarian/authoritarian) incorporate individuality differently: in pragmatic politics, the cult of the individual is inseparable from popular support, producing the paradox of the 'libertarian strong leader'. While, in theory, the right combines its own paradoxical ideal of free individual economic competition with social stasis, and the left imposes social constraints in the name of individual economic (‘positive’) freedom.

Peter Townsend is a Cambridge languages graduate with a post-grad. qualification in linguistics. The serious, money-earning part began with a few years  on the stage; then veered into advertising and marketing as a writer. A further veer as teacher followed, which morphed into freelance writing. Philosophy is a retirement challenge, made convenient by living close to Oxford's learning industry.

Elena Draghici-Vasilescu

Individuality in the work of Plotinus

Plotinus (c. 204/5- 270) was preoccupied with the question of whether what are called in philosophy 'individuals' exist; he connects the existence of these metaphysical ‘entities’ to that of ‘particulars’. He provides an account of sensible particulars which traces the individual nature of each distinct being (especially that of the individual human being) back to the causal power of the First Principle of soul and logos.

As one can see, Plotinus regards the nature of each individual as dependent on incorporeal sources. He does not provide in the end a definite conclusion to the issue whether there are any ideas of particular individuals. But he affirms that each individual is capable of ascending to the Intellect.

Dr. Elena Ene D-Vasilescu is a Professor of Byzantine and Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford. She teaches and researches in the fields of Byzantine culture (Philosophy, iconography) for the University of Oxford. Dr. Vasilescu researches inter alia the works of Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Among her latest books are Creation and Time. Comparative Approach (2021), Michelangelo, the Byzantines, and Plato (2021); Glimpses into Byzantium. Its Philosophy and Arts, and Visions of God and ideas on deification in Patristic Thought (co-ed.).

Dr. Vasilescu is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences. Her articles feature in various journals within her field of research.

Bob Stone

I shall come at this from two angles.

(a) In some cultures, including the modern western tradition, the individual is often seen as the arbiter of what is right and wrong: each of us is at liberty to disagree with the majority or official view, and those who do so believe they are ‘thinking for themselves’ in an obviously meritorious sense. But not all cultures find the merit obvious, and, even if it is, could it be argued that believing one is thinking for oneself is a delusion and that one is simply in thrall to the views of a different set of people?

(b) The recent trend towards ‘virtue ethics’ seems to place the individual at the centre of moral interest. This has clear advantages in making me a more intelligent moral agent, less likely to hold forth about great ethical theories while oblivious to my own failings. But, if I concentrate on developing my own virtue, can that lead to a self-indulgent ‘keeping my hands clean’ policy, not to mention ‘virtue-signalling’, rather than to a genuine concern for the good of society?

(c) How are the questions in (a) and (b) related?

Bob Stone is a retired schoolteacher who read classics at university, specialising in Greek philosophy. After retiring, he took up philosophy with a vengeance, and has been stalking the corridors of OUDCE for the last 14 years, chalking up (so far) 300 CATS points in a variety of online and in-person courses. His philosophical interests cover many areas (not least ‘What is a CATS point, and how does it benefit me?’), and he enjoys nothing more than holding forth, orally or on paper, about any philosophical issue.

Marta Vecchio

What make us who we are? Discussion on the nature of personal identity, its evolution over time and implications on behaviour.

In this presentation I will discuss from a philosophical standpoint the nature of identity, in relation to properties, experiences and behaviour.

I’ll start with a review some of the main theories related for this topic, such as particulars vs. universals, nominalism, trope theory, bundle theory, exploring their evolution over time and implications.

Then, I will continue moving to two problems related to identity, its evolution over time and its relation to behaviour. Concerning the first, I’ll argue that while it seems necessary to accept that identity changes overtime, this assumption is embedded with intrinsic complexities and ethical issues. While in relation to behaviour, I’ll discuss its predictability from identity, applying a Compatibilist approach and borrowing some concepts from psychology to enrich the argument.

Marta Vecchio’s background is in Business Administration. She currently works as a manager in a multinational company, based in Milan. Her interest in philosophy started back in high school. Then 10 years ago, it was rekindled when she started studying online at OUDCE and joined the Philosophical Society. Since 2013, she has completed several courses at OUDCE in Philosophy as well as in other disciplines such as Anthropology, History and Psychology. Her main philosophical interest are Ethics, Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion.

Edgar ter Danielyan

Constitution and relationality of individuals

The modern sense of "individual," as a unique human being with a distinct personality, developed gradually from the 17th century onward, post-dating the development of the terms person and personhood. This coincided with the rise of individualism as a social and philosophical concept, emphasising the moral worth of the individual over the collective. The seeds of this development have been sown much earlier in the Judeo-Christian tradition which influenced the subsequent philosophical treatment of the notions of personhood and individuality, most notably as discussed in recent times by Larry Siedentop. Yet the collective, at the very least, is a set of individuals, which raises a number of questions to be explored about the relationship between the individual and the collective. I propose that relationality is central to the idea of individuality (personhood) of human beings. The basic proposition which will be developed and explored in this talk is that it is our relations with other individuals (persons) that constitute our individuality, for ontological and epistemic reasons that have been significantly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. It follows, in particular, that one cannot be an individual in the absence of other individuals and that relationships, far from being external or optional to our notions of personhood as atomic (Latin individualis is a synonym of Greek atomikos), are instead constitutive and essential, which is congruent with the original Roman notion of persona as a role or function.

Edgar ter Danielyan holds a First in Philosophy and Theology from Heythrop College, University of London, a research MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham (where he studied under the late Sir Roger Scruton), a Chartered Fellowship in Computing, and the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies with Distinction from the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. His work in the philosophy of religion has been published in the Analysis and Heythrop journals, and he has delivered papers on topics in the philosophy of religion at the universities of Oxford and Birmingham. His day job is in computer security engineering and penetration testing.

Laurence Reed

Individuality and the Turing Test

The Turing Test was proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 to address the question of whether artificial intelligence (AI) could be said to be intelligent at a level indistinguishable from a human participant. Based on the ‘Imitation Game’, the test involves a conversation between a human questioner and variously one or more AI and human participants conducted in a blinded fashion. Psychiatric practice similarly attempts to establish the mental state and predicted behaviour of an individual patient, using the Mental State Examination (MSE). Particularly since Karl Jaspers (1913) use of the biographical method and ‘intelligent empathy’, the MSE enables enable the clinician to put themselves in the individual person’s stead. More recently, a resurgence in cognitive state examination, existential phenomenology and ‘lived world’ approaches have added further sophistication to this approach. The contention of this presentation is that the Turing Test could only be conducted with validity by a psychiatrist as interrogator, and to ask what kind of AI could possibly pass such a test? An AI that is embodied, has a life history, has values and free will, or makes errors, pretends, deceives, is subject to impulsivity or apathy, wild outbursts of emotion and suicidal ideation – or something completely ‘other’?

Laurence Reed is a psychiatrist working in acute general medicine and serves on the executive of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. From a technical background reading chemistry (Merton, Oxford), biochemistry (Imperial), medicine (Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals – Goldsmiths Scholar) and psychiatry (Institute of Psychiatry – Denis Hill Prize) he has come to realise that philosophy is a field neglected at intense peril in contemporary medicine.