A Remarkable Group Ontology Paper

28 August 2020

I’ve stumbled upon a remarkable group ontology paper (Fox et al. 1995) that I have not yet seen cited in any of the recent literature. This blogpost will discuss why this paper and similar one have received relatively attention from philosophers and why I believe to be a mistake. I will start by discussing the disciplinary background of the paper and then turn to why I believe that the difference between the disciplines should not have such weight.

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New Paper (CJP): Social-Computation-Supporting Kinds

11 August 2020

The Canadian Journal of Philosophy has published my paper on what I call “Social-Computation-Supporting Kinds”. This paper is a first attempt to re-describe the role of computation in social ontology. I argue – in move I would self-servingly love to call “bold” – that there is a kind of social kinds which is distinguished by supporting social computations, that is groups implementing computational processes.

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Notes on Digital Groups

09 August 2020

How do digital technologies reshape the foundations of social groups? As part of my interest in group ontology, I’ve recently read up on the history of public companies and family forms. What I’ve found in the literature suggests that changes in group forms, such as the invention of public companies and the development of the nuclear family, are a major part of social innovation. It also seems to me that the transformation of digital communication technology, and particularly the combination of a platform-based internet with the ubiquity of smartphones, is reshaping the foundations of small social groups. WhatsApp and Facebook...

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Presentation at the 2020 Social Ontology Conference

07 July 2020

I am presenting at the 2020 Social Ontology Conference and because it is virtual, you can all watch it online. The conference website provides videos of all talks.

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Publishing in Economics, Philosophy, and Computer Science

21 June 2020

In a recent paper, economist Gerege Akerlof discusses Sins of Omission and the Practice of Economics. He argues that an excessive focus on hardness, understood as the difficulty of producing precise work, has led economist to neglect in fact important questions. For some important issues, papers of sufficient hardness are not available. I want to focus on one consequence that Akerlof proposes: The curse of the top five.

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Power in Subtle Arrangements

29 May 2020

I’ve interrupted my study of Quine’s Word & Oject to read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. In this master-piece, which has recently received attention as a prop for political video-calls,[0] I stumbled upon an example of how physical arrangements matter for power relations. It illustrates the subtle impact of artefacts on power and is delicious enough to justify a short blog post.

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Analogies and Word Senses

30 April 2020

For my most recent lockdown reading, I’ve turned to a classic: W.V.O. Quine’s Word & Object. Hopefully I will get to write a few posts on this book. As you will see exmemplifed by the present post, my perspective is that of a philosopher working in NLP, specifically word sense disambiguation.

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Working with Word Senses

20 February 2020

I would rather not commit to a theory of word senses or concepts, since I am all too aware of the philosophical-linguistic-cognitive minefield that surrounds this issue. But within natural language processing (NLP) I work on word sense disambiguation (WSD) and one might reasonably expect me to explain on what kind of theory my research relies.

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The Indispensable Talleyrand

21 January 2020

The year is still young, but I already expect that Duff Cooper’s classic biography Talleyrand will be among my favourite reads of 2020. While I cannot say that I trust the book on the French diplomat and his historical role, it has indubitable qualities. Despite his sympathy for Talleyrand, Duff Cooper does not hide or excuse his shortcomings. Cooper knows when to drop an anecdote and when to caution against believing it. But what caught my fancy is that the book also has a theory of history.

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Writing a Philosophy Paper. Writing Software.

16 January 2020

Having worked in both computer science and philosophy for a little while, I have come to observe a number of similarities between writing software and a philosophy paper - and one key difference.

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More Social Ontology Highlights

04 January 2020

I’ve recently posted a short list of social ontology highlights from 2019, but Kirk Ludwig sent me a much more extensive list. I present it here in rearranged form.

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End of Year Note

28 December 2019

As the end of the year approaches, I’m working once again on a paper which has gone through multiple rounds of rejections. It has been more than two years since I came up with the initial idea and the paper still has to survive the peer-review process. Despite the frustration, 2019 has been a good year for my academic career.

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Best of Social Ontology 2019

23 December 2019

Social ontology, by which I mean a subfield of contemporary analytic philosophy, is a comparatively small enterprise so far. That makes gathering a best-of-2019 list difficult. There just aren’t that many great papers coming out each year, or other notable events. Here are five highlights I could find. Feel free to send me an email and suggest other contributions to the field. I might update this entry later.

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Remarks on the Relation between Social Ontology and the Social Sciences

16 December 2019

At the most recent social ontology conference I attended a session on cooperation with the social sciences.[0] Everyone had the best intentions and just wanted to know how to do it better. I see two prerequisites to enable better cooperation between social ontology and the social sciences.

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Principles of My Blog

08 November 2019

Over the years of blogging on various platform, I have arrived at a number of principles that guide my practice. While these are not intended as strict rules for everyone – the great variety of blogs forbids such generalisations – they might nonetheless be of interest if only to set the expectations of my readers.

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Notes on Bureaucracy and Group Agency

26 October 2019

At some point in the 20th century, the word “bureaucracy” developed a negative connotation and became associated with unnecessary paperwork. Theda Skocpol’s use of the term in States and Social Revolutions is much closer to Max Weber’s conception of bureaucratic organisation as an effective juggernaut that simultaneously serves as an iron cage for individual freedom. Her interest is primarily in bureaucracy as a source and expression of state power.

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Skocpol's Social Revolutions

17 October 2019

Years ago, as an undergraduate in sociology, Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions came up in the best courses, those that raised my interest and left me with a more encompassing understanding of major social processes. When I recently saw a copy of this classic on sale, I decided that it was time to finally catch up a little with my reading list as a Bachelor student.

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Courses I Want to Teach: Introduction to Metaphysics

07 October 2019

Introductions to metaphysics belong to the standard fare of anglophone philosophy departments, but teaching them poses an interesting challenge. Metaphysics enjoys a dubious reputation, more so than ethics and epistemology, and students might wonder whether there is any justification for its existence. How can sitting in a room and discussing a topic tell us anything about the fundamental structure of reality? Does that endeavour not primarily require empirical research? As so often, there are multiple ways of approaching the challenge. I’ve recently put together an outline and decided how I would teach metaphysics to undergraduate students.

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Group Agency: On Which Level?

12 September 2019

I hold that some families are group agents and others are not. The Strohmaiers are too loose a group to be an agent, but perhaps the Gilmores are an agent with desires and beliefs. The Gilmores can act as a group. They meet regularly, discuss what they believe, intend to go on a vacation together, and behave accordingly. I want to say that the Strohmaiers are not an agent while the Gilmores are.

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A Different Map of the Tractatus

02 September 2019

Over the years there have been a number of visualisations of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Most of them have made use of the tree structure Wittgenstein imposed on his text. With today’s web-technologies, these representations of the text can be excellent. In this post, however, I present a map of the Tractatus unlike any of these previous experiments.

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On the Cost-Functions of ANNs

11 August 2019

Perhaps not surprisingly given my background, I often look at artificial neural networks (ANNs) from the perspective of philosophy of action and decision theory. The cost-functions of ANNs are one feature that captured my attention. Approximatively, one might consider them as guiding the learning process, typically using the backpropagation algorithm. To give an example, a frequently used function is the cross-entry cost, which offers one measure of the divergence between the output of the ANN and the correct label.[0]

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Upcoming Talk (August 2019)

01 August 2019

For the fourth year in a row, I will present a paper at a social ontology conference this Summer. After the last one in Boston, I thought it would be time to do something more ambitious. While my previous papers went well enough and led to two publications, they made relatively narrow arguments. This year in Tampere my claims will be much bolder. I do not want to give too much away, but I will propose a sweeping change to how we explain the social and what makes it special from a metaphysical perspective. What makes social interesting should be...

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Group Agency and Two Types of Preference Change

18 July 2019

Although often more in marginal remarks than at the core of their work, multiple authors have argued that preference change plays a key role in the functioning of group agency. I want to consider a minor observation I’ve recently made about this idea: Two versions of it have emerged differing in whether the change is top-down or bottom-up. Does the group change the preferences of the individual members to ensure its own functioning, or do the group preferences emerge thanks to the preference change on the individual level?

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Parsing Hegel

23 May 2019

In another life I read a lot of Hegel, now a mere side-interest of mine. Despite the assurances of my former supervisor Bob Stern to the contrary, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s work is infamously opaque. Making sense of his Phenomenology of Spirit poses a considerable challenge, and those who claim to understand him often end up with rather different readings.

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Norms and Social Kinds

14 May 2019

It is a staple in the social ontology literature that social kinds have normatively loaded functions. In contrast to natural kinds such as water, money has a function to fulfil: It is supposed to enable widespread exchange of goods and services. Biological kinds might be used as an example of natural kinds with functions. However, functions of social kinds are of a stronger normative character that the evolutionary function of a heart to pump blood.[0] While we might evaluate it negatively if a heart stops pumping blood, it is not bad from the evolutionary perspective, merely dysfunctional - not going...

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What I've Been Reading

03 May 2019

Ruth Millikan: Varieties of Meaning

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Two New Publications

16 April 2019

Two of my publications are finally out. Both of them are related to my PhD research into social ontology and the both investigate groups. The first one discusses group membership and argues that reducing it to mereological parthood plus further conditions is a viable option. The paper has an unusual history. Originally, I wrote another paper that argued the opposite conclusion, that is I tried to establish that all mereological accounts of groups fail. However, Katherine Hawley published a paper in the debate in 2018 and after reading it I decided that she was right, that we cannot take mereological...

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What I've Been Reading

12 April 2019

Joseph Brent: Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life

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Indeterminacy and Preference Change

18 March 2019

There are few better places to look for a formal approach to preference change than Sven Ove Hansson’s work (see Hansson 1995, Grüne-Yanoff & Hansson 2009). In his texts one will find roughly the following types of preference change: The preferences can be acquired or lost More alternatives can be added to those considered or alternatives can be removed

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Is Stotting a Cooperative Intentional Sign?

17 March 2019

In Varieties of Meaning, Ruth Millikan distinguishes intentional signs from other natural signs. According to her, intentional signs are those natural signs which are purposefully produced for use by sign-users. Being selected by evolution for leading to such sign-use suffices for the production being purposeful within Millikan’s framework. Millikan then goes on to restrict her use of the concept “intentional sign” within the book to cooperative intentional signs (cf. Millikan 2006: 73-74).

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What I've Been Reading

05 February 2019

Joy Lisi Rankin: A People’s History of Computing in the United States

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Courses I Want to Teach: Prolog for Philosophers

15 December 2018

I’m merely dabbling in Prolog so far, but I’d love to teach a course on programming with Prolog to philosophy students. As the most famous and influential logic programming language, Prolog allows to combine the philosophical interest in formal argumentation with computer science. Someone else might suggest that taking a course on programming makes philosophers more employable, but for that I would teach them Python. My motivation stems from the possibility of introducing a foreign element into philosophy - with productive effects.

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The Appeal of Formal (Computational) Semantics

25 November 2018

At least among my fellow CS students working in natural language processing (NLP), neural networks are hot and formal semantics is not. While I am very interested in LSTM networks for sequence labelling and the various uses of word embeddings, I also get excited by formal semantics in CS, the very idea of semantic parsing. Turning natural language into statements in some extended version of first-order logic, poses an extraordinary challenge and pulling it off would bring immense payoffs. But at some point you have to learn lambda-calculus and then there is a mention of Prolog. And while Prolog and...

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Autonomous Cooking

09 November 2018

In at least one of my currently circulating research statements I propose that in the future[0] we might construct cooking robots with a degree of motivational autonomy. Such a robot would control the development of its own tastes, managing them in a way responsive to our reaction – the feedback we give it – but without just cooking to our taste. It would develop tastes of its own with a degree of autonomy![1]

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Understanding Autonomy

23 October 2018

As those having the pleasure to read my recent job applications know, I’m in the process of expanding my research regarding motivational change to the question of autonomy. I argue that using models of motivational changes we can make a step forward in answering this questino. But what do I mean by “the question of autonomy”? A little bit of metaphilosophical reflection is at place.

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What I've Been Reading

17 October 2018

Noam Chomsky: Syntactic Structures

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ML in the Masters programs

12 October 2018

ML is hot. That much has become clear in slightly more than one week into my MPhil. Not only is there a separate master in machine learning, based at the engineering department, but most students of advanced CS at Cambridge have at least some interest in machine learning. Whatever area you work in, someone will try to put some ML on top. For Natural Language Processing (NLP), my area of focus this term, Cambridge offers a special course of applying ML techniques to the domain.

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Studying at Cambridge: Setting the Scence

05 October 2018

My cross-disciplinary adventure is starting in earnest. My first courses in CS are beginning and I hope to document the experience and the outcomes on this blog. In this post I’ll set the scene for what will follow over the next nine months.

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Notes from Two Conferences

05 September 2018

Conferences are largely social events. You meet people, hear about recent approaches, give ritualised talks, and enjoy the general gossip. The two conferences I attended during the last few weeks also had the social as their central topic, a fact which clever speakers exploited for jokes. The 2018 Social Ontology conference in Boston was in all likelihood the largest of its kind. Brian Epstein’s approach to social has given the conference his ambitious signature. Just as his theory aims at encompassing all of social ontology, the conference tried to show the field in all its variety. Seven parallel tracks of...

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Upcoming Talk at Social Ontology 2018

19 August 2018

I’m speaking this Friday (24th of August 2018) at the Social Ontology conference. This event has a special significance for me because it takes place at Tufts University, which I visited for a term in 2017. I had a great time working together with Brian Epstein, who organises the conference, and generally had an amazing time in Boston. So I’m very much looking forward to speak there on Group Agency and Homuncularism. My paper will address whether the homuncular nature of group agents allows an objection against postulating them and if so, how strong this objection is.

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What I've Been Reading

13 August 2018

Cheryl Misak: Cambridge Pragmatism

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Two Quotes on Agency: CS and Philosophy

16 July 2018

“For each possible percept sequence, a rational agent should select an action that is expected to maximize its performance measure, given the evidence provided by the percept sequence and whatever built-in knowledge the agent has.” (p. 37)

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An Argument for the Systematic Nature of Our Motivations

05 July 2018

Facing a choice between rescuing Aristotle’s lost works and saving Socrates from the death penalty, I’d choose the former. I’d rather live in an alternative history where Napoleon won the war, than in one where the Austrian-Hungarian Empire persisted. When it comes to the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I want Scott to end up with Ramona rather than Knives.

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Reflections on My Visit to the LSE/CPNSS

17 June 2018

Last term, the same in which I handed in my thesis, I undertook a short research visit at the London School of Economics (LSE), more specifically the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences (CPNSS). I worked mostly in London, learned from another department, and met new people.

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What I've Been Reading

11 June 2018

Karl Sigmund: Exact Thinking in Demented Times

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Coping with Complexity

29 May 2018

In their 1984 paper “Coping with Complexity: The Adaptive Value of Changing Utility” Cohen and Axelrod propose an original way to deal with our cognitive limitations. They suggests that to cope with complexity and to overcome our limited knowledge, motivational change might help. Their paper presents a case in which changing utility is adaptive, that is in which motivational change leads to better outcomes because the agents has wrong or incomplete beliefs.

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Managing Each Other's Motivations

20 May 2018

Although in recent years the literature on preference change has grown (see especially Grüne-Yanoff & Hansson 2009), formal treatments of motivational change remain fragmentary at best. We do not understand well how our motivational landscape develops. I want to suggest that at the same time we manage each other’s motivations on a daily basis and with perhaps surprising success. While we sometimes say “each to their own”, as often we try to make each other change their wants and preferences.[0]

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What I've Been Reading

11 May 2018

John von Neumann: The Computer & the Brain

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Serious Work: The Case of Conceptual Analysis

27 April 2018

Here are two questions which every researcher should ask themselves once in a while, but philosophers especially: How is your approach supposed to work? And looking at your actual practice, how serious can you be about following your account of how your approach is supposed to work? My fear is that in many cases philosopher profess to one methodological account, but it doesn’t quite fit together with what they are doing. One example for this mismatch would be conceptual analysis.

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Restarting My Life

20 April 2018

I’m restarting my life and my research. Currently I’m finishing up my PhD in philosophy while enjoying a visit at the LSE. But over the last few months my frustration with academic philosophy has increased and I need a change. At least for a while I want to do something else. I decided to get a Master in computer science.

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