Research Specialties & Topics

Our department is heavily invested in all types of philosophy research and exploration, providing our students with a variety of outlets to explore within philosophical studies. View a list of our specialties and topics below:

The department has an unusually strong commitment to teaching and research in aesthetics. Graduate-level coursework examines the principles of aesthetics and the philosophies of the individual arts (such as film, music, literature, and graphic novels). Undergraduate and graduate-level seminars provide students with opportunities to pursue specialized topics (such as, art and language, criticism, and the aesthetics of mass art). Both courses and seminars give philosophy students an opportunity to interact with persons from a variety of backgrounds in the humanities.

Three of the aesthetics faculty are practicing artists: Roy Cook is a (sometimes professional) LEGO sculptor and (amateur) cartoonist; Geoffrey Hellman brings over four decades of experience as a concert pianist to bear on topics in musical aesthetics; and Michael Kac is a performing musician and composer. All are interested in the ways that philosophical problems arise in relation to the arts and in topics in aesthetics more generally.

Cook is also interested in the particular philosophical problems raised by ‘popular’ art, in issues surrounding attempts to define the concept ARTWORK and to define particular artforms, and in the aesthetics of popular art generally and film and comics in particular. He has co-edited (with Aaron Meskin) an anthology on the aesthetics of comics and graphic novels (The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Kac researches and teaches the philosophy of music, particularly as regards music in relation to language and how music relates to the nonmusical world (when it does).

Hellman is especially interested in the nature of artistic expression and the whole question of “meaning” in music and musical performance.

Additionally, Michelle Mason has published on David Hume’s essay on taste and has research and teaching interests in problems that arise at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics (such as, if – and if so, how – morally relevant features of an artwork bear on its evaluation as a work of art and how to adjudicate apparent conflicts between moral and aesthetic values).

Naomi Scheman has written on feminist issues in criticism and epistemological questions posed by photography and film.

Aesthetics faculty have supervised PhD dissertations in aesthetics that range from theories of representation to the status of pornography as art.

The department provides a variety of opportunities to develop specialization or competence in applied ethics. Brian Bix and Sarah Holtman work on issues related to applied ethics as they intersect with issues in philosophy of law; Valerie Tiberius does research on topics in environmental philosophy.

PhD students in philosophy may minor in bioethics. Students are encouraged to take courses both in relevant areas of the philosophy department and in related areas of health care, law, and the sciences.

The department encourages research in feminist topics in epistemology, philosophy of science, moral and political philosophy, and aesthetics. Faculty members increasingly use feminist perspectives in their courses, such as in ethics, history of philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science.

Interested students can pursue a graduate minor in feminist studies through the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS). Faculty working on feminist theory in various disciplines include, among others, Debra DeBruin, affiliate member of the philosophy department and faculty at the Center for Bioethics. There are many faculty with interests in gender and sexuality in other departments throughout the University. A good place to find other faculty with feminist and related interests is on the graduate faculty roster for the Feminist Studies PhD program.

Faculty in the department have particular expertise regarding the history of early modern and early analytic philosophy. Professors focusing on the history of philosophy include Jessica Gordon-Roth and Michael Bennett McNulty . Gordon-Roth researches John Locke; early modern theories of personal identity; feminist philosophy; and early modern women philosophers, including Anne Conway, Mary Astell, and Catharine Trotter Cockburn. McNulty studies Immanuel Kant; the history of philosophy of science, especially in the early modern period; Margaret Cavendish; and early analytic philosophy.

Other faculty have various research and teaching interests in the history of philosophy. Sarah Holtman and Michelle Mason each work on the history of moral philosophy. Roy Cook Peter Hanks , and Joseph Owens study early analytic philosophy. Alan Love has interests in the history of philosophy of science, especially of biology.

The department regularly offers focused graduate seminars on particular themes and figures in the history of philosophy. Recent seminars include those on theories of personal identity in the early modern period and on Kant’s philosophy of science. Many undergraduate courses are synoptic, covering a particular time period or swath of topics in the history of philosophy. Regularly, courses at the 4000/5000 level examine particular figures (recently, Wittgenstein, Kant, and Conway). Complementing the research and course offerings within the department is the Early Modern Interest Group (EMIG), housed within the Minnesota Center of Philosophy of Science. Every semester, an interdisciplinary group works through less canonical primary texts and hosts visiting speakers.

The department is particularly strong in logic, the philosophy of logic, and the philosophy of mathematics. Roy Cook and Geoffrey Hellman specialize in these areas, while other faculty members sometimes teach courses in them.

The year-long sequence in logic takes graduate students from the basic semantics and proof theory for first-order logic through soundness, completeness, and undecidability. It also introduces a number of other important topics, including basic set theory, the axiomatic method, Turing machines, recursive functions, the famous meta-theorems of Gödel and Tarski, and second-order logic.

In addition to this sequence, students can take courses in modal logic (propositional and predicate), philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mathematics. Seminars are offered on such advanced topics as structuralism, intuitionism and constructivism in mathematics, conventionalism, the status of second-order and intuitionistic logic, foundations of modality, logicism, and the philosophical significance of Gödel's theorems.

The department offers intermediate and advanced courses in epistemology and in metaphysics, as well as seminars on special subjects. Recent topics have included skepticism about the external world, the problem of induction, other minds, perception, memory, testimony, the structure of knowledge, social epistemologies, and naturalized epistemology. Peter Hanks and Naomi Scheman teach these courses (among others), employing a wide variety of approaches, including traditional, analytic, Wittgensteinian, feminist, and cognitive-theoretical approaches. Several courses in history of philosophy, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language also consider epistemological issues.

Metaphysics courses typically cover such topics as identity, essentialism, Zeno's paradoxes, arguments for the unreality of time, freedom and determinism, the realism/nominalism debate, and the nature and existence of natural and social kinds. In addition, offerings in the philosophy of mind (on the prospects of artificial intelligence and the nature of the mind), in the philosophy of science (on space, time, and quantum mechanics), and in the philosophy of language (on truth and abstract entities in semantics) often incorporate metaphysical issues. Faculty teaching metaphysics courses include Roy CookPeter Hanks, and Joseph Owens.

The department offers broad programs in moral philosophy and in political philosophy. Currently, there are graduate courses in the history of ethics, ethical theory and metaethics, applied ethics, the history of political philosophy, and the works of contemporary political theorists. Brian BixSarah HoltmanMichelle Mason, and Valerie Tiberius regularly teach a variety of courses in moral philosophy; Holtman and Mason teach courses in political philosophy; Bix and Holtman teach courses in philosophy of law. Holtman and Tiberius host a biweekly discussion group that provides students in moral and political philosophy a forum in which to present their own work and to discuss current philosophical issues.

Outside the department proper, the Department of Political Science provides students additional course opportunities in political philosophy. Both the Center for Bioethics and the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program on Global Change, Sustainability and Justice offer graduate minors, both of which afford excellent opportunities for combining theoretical and applied work. The MacArthur Program offers the possibility of multi-year fellowship support.

Brian BixPeter HanksMichael KacJoseph Owens, and Sandra Peterson study and teach the philosophy of language, using both formal and ordinary language approaches—Fregean, Davidsonian, Austinian, and Wittgenstenian approaches, among others. As a member of the linguistics faculty, Kac also provides an important cross-disciplinary link.

In our intermediate courses in the philosophy of language students become acquainted with central issues concerning reference, truth, and meaning. Advanced courses continue the study of these issues, at greater depth. Special topics courses and seminars provide students with a chance to examine specific subjects, including theories of truth, rule-following, rationality and interpretation, linguistic understanding and misunderstanding, belief ascription, and our knowledge of meaning. These courses are supplemented by a variety of offerings in related areas such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of logic.

The philosophy program at Minnesota has traditionally placed heavy emphasis on the mind-body problem ("the world knot," as Herbert Feigl called it), the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of cognitive science in general. Faculty specializing in the philosophy of cognitive science frequently collaborate with colleagues in linguistics, computer science, and psychology.

Joseph Owens and other faculty teach courses in the philosophy of mind, psychology, and related areas. The University offers a graduate minor in the Center for Cognitive Sciences, with faculty drawn from philosophy, psychology, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, and neuroscience. Students take one course each in psychology, computer science, and cognitive science; electives from the included fields outside their majors; and a team-taught proseminar.

Since the founding of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science and its series Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science in the 1950s, the University of Minnesota has become known throughout the world as a leading center for research and teaching in the philosophy of science.

The department regularly offers a range of courses in the philosophy of science, including topics such as the nature and evaluation of scientific theories, scientific explanation, and causation. These courses are often taught in sequence with graduate research seminars focusing on more specific topics, including the history of philosophy of science (e.g., logical empiricism or 19th century philosophy of science). The department also offers courses relating to the whole spectrum of sciences: mathematics, physics, biology, psychology and cognitive science, and the social sciences.

The research interests of faculty include: Geoffrey Hellman's study of the implications of theories in physics for issues in the philosophy of mathematics; Jos Uffink's investigations of the foundations of quantum mechanics and of probabilistic or statistical theories in general; and, Alan Love's work on the nature of conceptual change and interdisciplinary explanation in the biological sciences, as well as the structure of scientific problems and methodology in philosophy of science.