Stephen Mulhall

Stephen Mulhall teaches philosophy at New College, Oxford.

How complex is a lemon? Object-Oriented Ontology

Stephen Mulhall, 27 September 2018

Early on​ in his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein imagines an interlocutor who claims that every word in language signifies something – where ‘signifies’ means something like ‘names an object’. Wittgenstein gives an indirect assessment of that claim by discussing a second, analogous one. He imagines someone saying: ‘All tools modify...

Although this is a work of art theory, its primary concern is not with beauty, or aesthetic value more generally, but rather with the nature of pictorial representation. After all, before we can judge whether a representational painting achieves aesthetic excellence in the way it depicts something, we must first perceive what it depicts. And John Hyman is interested in how depiction is even...

Not to Worry: the Stoic life

Stephen Mulhall, 21 September 2006

Why should we take anything other than an antiquarian interest in the doctrinal intricacies of a school of Ancient Greek ethical thought that passed its zenith in 200 AD? The dust-jacket copy on Tad Brennan’s book claims that it will explain not only how to live the Stoic life, but also why we might want to, the reason being that Stoic ideas remain valuable today, both intellectually...

God without God: How we can ground our values?

Stephen Mulhall, 22 September 2005

When Nietzsche’s madman tries to proclaim that God is dead, he soon realises that his intervention is premature. Although his audience already think of themselves as atheists, the madman sees that they don’t really understand what that means; self-comprehension is still on its way to them, like light from a remote star. Nowadays, many philosophers who take this aspect of...

Liberalism has been dogged by the suspicion that its commitment to tolerance is essentially duplicitous. The goal of respecting each person’s equal right to choose for herself how to live is surely definitive of a liberal conception of the good life for human beings; but if that is so, it requires a kind of neutrality from the state which flows from a belief in the superiority of that...

Marketplace Atheism: The Soul Hypothesis

Stephen Mulhall, 11 September 2003

Nietzsche’s most famous proclamation of the death of God is voiced by a madman, and directed not at believers but at unbelievers, who mock the madman’s claim to be seeking God by the light of his lantern in the sunny marketplace; how can anyone still think that God might be found in our daylight world? All right-thinking people have long known that there is no God; belief in His...

Fearful Thoughts: Morality by Numbers

Stephen Mulhall, 22 August 2002

Two-thirds of the way through this dense, involved and exhausting book, its author acknowledges that his views about the nature of persons have the following implication. Suppose that a woman, without family or friends, dies giving birth to a healthy infant. At the same hospital there are three five-year-old children who will die if they do not receive organ transplants, and the newborn has...

The Burden of Disproof

Stephen Mulhall, 10 June 1993

What makes you think that next time you plug in your brimming kettle boiling water will be produced? I ask, as the sceptic in philosophy always asks, not because I have any specific reason for thinking that there is something wrong with the kettle, its lead or the electricity supply in your kitchen; and not because I dispute the validity of certain scientific theories about the behaviour of heated liquids. Let’s assume all is well in these respects, that there really is a pattern in our past experience which correlates the application of heat to water with its reaching its boiling-point: I want to know why the existence of such a pattern in the past gives you any reason to believe it will continue to hold in the future. We have after all no guarantee that the future will resemble the past: the contrary of any matter of fact, however well-established, always remains possible – and this suggests we have no more reason to expect a continuation of an observed pattern than we do to expect its complete breakdown. We certainly cannot avoid this conclusion by arguing that its continuation, although not certain, is more likely than its breakdown, for that would presuppose that the frequency with which we have encountered something in the past can form the basis of a calculation of the probability of its future re-appearance, which is precisely what is in question.’

What makes David Wootton think that the ‘mysterious mathematics’ of conjoined twins raises questions which ‘have been ignored by philosophers’ (LRB, 22 July)? The moral dilemmas presented by such cases have been extensively debated in the field of applied ethics, usually as part of broader discussions about organ transplants, euthanasia, abortion and the treatment of severely...

Sonic Boom

16 July 1998

James Wood is breathtakingly confident about his grasp of the notion of metaphor; but his grasp of the relationship between representations and reality is tenuous in the extreme at least, if his own analogies are anything to go by.He manages to ruin the perfectly good point that claims made with words might nonetheless refer to realities independent of language by comparing the relation of words and...

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