Philosophy Lectures Archive

Dedication ceremony at Kay Spiritual Life Center

Historically, the American University Department of Philosophy sponsored many annual lecture series and guest lectures. This collection contains a selection of digitized lectures (1961-1980) from the annual Bishop John F. Hurst lecture series, the annual Faith and Freedom lectures, and individual guest lectures.

George A. SchraderFebruary 20, 1961

"Ethics and Existence"

Schrader delivers an engaging performative defense of ethics as necessarily dialectical. Working dialectically from analytic to continental thought, from Plato to Sartre, Schrader advances the claim that this conception of morality is not condemned to Sartrean bad faith or Kierkegaardian despair. This talk may be of interest to current and former students of existential philosophy and ethical theory or anyone interested in learning about dialectical thinking. Schrader’s talk is spread over three recordings of excellent sound quality, with the question and answer segment beginning about 21 minutes into the second recording.

A.J. Ayer November 9, 1961

"Concept of a Person"

In this talk, Ayer explores personal identity. What is it that makes you who you are? Physical features of your body? Mental features of the mind? A combination of the two? If scientists could transfer all of your mental contents to another body, would you still be you? Ayer spends the majority of his talk critiquing P.F. Strawson’s position on the issue: namely that the concept of a person cannot be reduced to more basic features of the mind and body. Ayer rejects Strawson’s view and argues that personal identity is constituted by, or can be reduced to, both the particular bodies that we inhabit and our mental histories and experiences. The question-and-answer session begins after the one-hour talk and continues on Reel 1, Side B. The recording’s audio quality is quite good.

Justus Buchler February 19, 1962

“Reflections on the Problem of Meaning”

In these reflections, Buchler distinguishes three types of meaning: morality of meaning, logic of meaning, and metaphysics of meaning. He goes on to consider various theories of meaning, such as Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of pragmatism and the verification theory of meaning. Buchler’s remarks, which were followed by a question-and-answer session not included in this recording, would be of particular interest to current and former undergraduates and graduate students focusing on philosophy of language. The sound quality of his talk’s recording is not high, and the talk briefly is inaudible a little over halfway through its first installment.

Brand Blanshard February 25, 1963

"The Sane and the Eccentric in Present Day Thought"

Blanshard’s talk is an elegy for the approach and tradition of British Idealism, representing a “principle of sanity” perhaps forever destroyed by the great wars. For Blanshard, this sanity was marked by a passion for rational order and intelligibility contingent on a rational system. His wide-ranging discussion addresses the demise of speculative metaphysics, manifestations of rational coherence in ethics and aesthetics, the swift revolution in [western] philosophy brought about by the rise of analytic and existentialist approaches, and the “new philosophy” of linguistic analysis. While the lecture is complex, Blanshard is a dynamic and engaging speaker who weaves philosophical argument together with historical analysis and broad engagement with contemporary art, literature and poetry. There is also a buried gem toward the end of the talk when Blanchard exhorts the audience to take interest in the work of a “German refugee” – Hannah Arendt, whose series on Eichmann in Jerusalem was published in The New Yorker in the weeks before Blanchard’s talk.

Ernest Nagel 20 February 1964

"Determinism and Human Action"

Fast forward to 4:30 where the lecture starts to hear Dr. Ernest Nagel argue that there is no incompatibility between free will and casual determinism. Nagel works through a number of common objections to the compatibility human agency and determinism and defends against misconceptions of determinism by drawing on examples from physics. This talk is accessible to a general audience interested in philosophy of action, challenges to the liberal ideology of agency, and the age-old question of the meaning of free will. The question-and-answer segment begins in the second reel at the 20-minute mark and the recording is of fine quality throughout.

Paul Weiss February 13, 1966

“The Philosophy of Art and the Modern Machine Age”

Professor Harold Durfee introduces Paul Weiss, Sterling Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, by noting that Weiss founded the Metaphysical Society of America and served as editor of The Review of Metaphysics. In this clear and accessible talk, Weiss frames the machine as topic, product, and agent/producer. He theorizes the tool as aesthetic experience, aesthetic object, and art object. For Weiss, a work of art is produced by an artist and is available to a spectator. A machine can tell what is right or wrong, but not what is good or bad. The sound quality of this recording is very good. The Q&A is not included in the recording.

Wilfrid Sellars February 15, 1966

“Science and Ethics: A Study in First Principles”

Sellars’s speech centers on natural and social sciences’ relationship to morality. In the context of conducting several thought experiments, Sellars explores what the act of valuation means to ethicists as opposed to scientists. His speech is accessible to general audiences interested in issues of morality. The ensuing question-and-answer session begins about ten minutes before the end of the recording’s second part. While the recording’s audio quality is quite good, the last couple of minutes of the question-and-answer component are less easy to hear.

Isaiah Berlin October 13, 1966

“Is Philosophy a Province of Knowledge?”

Professor Harold Durfee introduces Isaiah Berlin of Oxford University, who reflects on why philosophy is a discipline that needs its practitioners to explain what it is in a way that other disciplines such as history and literature do not. Berlin contends that philosophers explain the world in which they live by erecting analogies. Empirical evidence does not figure into Berlin’s conception of philosophy. He differentiates philosophers’ concern with language from that of grammarians, lexicographers, and most linguists. The task of philosophers, according to Berlin, is the agonizing extraction of that which is taken for granted by disentangling tangled categories. The sound quality of this recording is average, though audible throughout. The Q&A is not included in the recording.

P.F. Strawson October 1968

“Imagination and Perception"

This talk given by Dr. P.F. Strawson is a masterclass in the meaning of Kant’s relationship of perception and imagination. He begins with a discussion of the similarities of Hume and Kant’s accounts, an understanding requisite for analytic and continental philosophers alike interested in questions of sense and phenomena (and the relationship between figures like Frege, Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Heidegger). Jump to the second reel of this recording for a discussion of Wittgenstein’s famous “duck/rabbit” obsession. This talk is highly technical and may only be of interest to advanced scholars interested in the history of philosophy.

William Henry Walsh February 12, 1970

“Social and Personal Factors in Morality”

Walsh focuses herein on moral decisions’ individual determinants and social determinants, seeing conscience as an example of the former, laws as an instance of the latter, and social disapproval as bridging the two categories. In his view, then, morality is both a sphere of individual agency and an arena of corporate practice. About eight minutes before the end of this recording’s first part, he starts to discuss his ideas with his audience. Overall, his observations appear to presuppose knowledge of moral philosophy at the undergraduate level. While Walsh’s words can be heard fairly well (albeit over a low buzz in the background), the sound of his audience members’ questions is fainter.

John Niemeyer Findlay March 22, 1971

“The Cortical Predicament”

Reel 1, Side B contains the lecture by J.N. Findlay, Clark Professor of Moral Philosophy and Metaphysics at Yale University, who studied under Rudolph Carnap and Martin Heidegger.

Side A contains the Q&A of 30 minutes that follows the lecture. Through analysis of Brentano, Merleau-Ponty, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, Findlay describes behavioral, phenomenological, and neural aspects of conscious life. He contends that phenomenological and behavioral perspectives both have metaphysical problems. His examination of a cortically mediated conscious life concludes with forms of consciousness that are not cortically mediated.

Alasdair MacIntyre March 29, 1972

"The Sources of Unpredictability in Human Affairs"

This lecture explicates an early form of the argument, developed in MacIntyre’s 1972 paper “Predictability and Explanation in the Social Sciences,” that becomes the central claim of chapter 8 of After Virtue. Namely, that generalizations in social science lack predictive power or value. MacIntyre notes that while he is making what some listeners might consider a “rather arcane point” it is one that “has extremely important social implications.” Of his attempts to clarify a technical argument that he usually must “illustrate on a blackboard” MacIntyre delightfully says to the audience “You must forgive me, I am like a conjurer who has arrived on the stage without not only a hat, but without a rabbit either!” While the talk is perhaps too technical for use as a teaching tool, it certainly holds scholarly value for those interested in the development of MacIntyre’s work. The audio is exceptionally clear, though a brief question and answer session at the end was not clearly captured on microphone.

Dieter Henrich March 7, 1974

"Autonomous Negation: A Key to Hegel's 'Science of Logic'"

In this lecture, Henrich attempts to unpack and defend Hegel’s Science of Logic, one of Hegel’s two major monographs that, over three volumes, focuses on the topics of being, essence, and the concept. Henrich explains that working through Hegel’s Science of Logic is no easy task, claiming that even Hegel’s students could not describe the work in a comprehensible way.
Henrich’s main claim is that Hegel’s science of knowledge is “more than a mere recapitulation and explication of a primary conceptual sequence.” Contra some who view Hegel’s science of knowledge as foundationally arbitrary or reductive to only intuitive, aesthetic principles, Henrich argues that there is in fact a coherent logical foundation to Hegel’s Science of Logic that offers a “controllable, methodological arsenal.” The talk is approximately one hour and ten minutes long and is followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer (starting on Reel 1, Side B). Audience questions cannot be heard very well, if at all at times, but Henrich’s audio quality is quite good.

R.M. Hare1974


Hare promises to offer a “theory of moral argument” that helps adjudicate the debate about the moral permissibility of abortion. Hare criticizes two major argumentative approaches in the philosophical literature on abortion: 1) focusing on the rights of the fetus or mother and 2) attempting to answer the question of whether a fetus is a person. Hare proposes a third approach, instead asking what he calls the more direct question of whether it is permissible to kill a fetus. Following this approach, Hare concludes that is fetuses do not have the properties that makes it wrong to kill adult humans, and as such abortion is in many cases morally permissible. The sound quality of his talk’s recording is not high, and the talk is inaudible at various points. The talk is 45 minutes followed by 45 minutes of question-and-answer.

Basil Mitchell September 30, 1976

"Philosophical and Religious Dimensions of Ethics: Is a Religions Ethics Necessary or Possible?"

Mitchell considers the question of whether an explicitly religious ethics is possible, in light of philosophical approaches to the justification of morality. He points to the objection that a religious, specifically Christian, ethics “cannot be asked or answered” philosophically. Mitchell’s discussion is clear and accessible to general audiences interested in the history of moral reasoning in the West and/or points of intersection between religious and philosophical approaches to fundamental ethical questions. Mitchell concludes that religious accounts represent a dimension of ethics worth the serious attention of moral philosophers. Audio quality is very good.

Albert Hofstadter April 5, 1978

"The Courage for Truth"

Professor Harold Durfee opens by noting that before founding American University in 1893, philosopher John Fletcher Hurst published a History of Rationalism in 1885. Deputy chair, Professor David Rodier, introduces Albert Hofstadter of the New School for Social Research (who previously taught at Columbia and UC Santa Cruz). Hofstadter opens with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp to distinguish among art, the artist, artwork, and the automaton. Throughout his talk, Hofstadter refers to Pinder, Spinoza, Leibniz, Fichte, Nietzsche, Kant, Schelling, Heidegger, Hegel, and Sartre as he examines the quest for the truth of one’s being and the formation of the self. In concluding that truth and freedom belong together, he highlights Buddhist philosophy. The sound quality of this recording is very good. The Q&A is not included in the recording.

Michael Novak March 27, 1980

"The Philosophy of Democratic Capitalism"

This very accessible talk introduces the motivations and driving questions of Novak’s 1982 Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak discusses how the lack of sustained scholarly examination of the moral and cultural norms that shape the emergence of capitalism in history motivate his work, and details emerging philosophical questions that shape his explication of democratic capitalism. The audio is very clear, and the discussion quite accessible to a general or student audience.