The value of making distinctions – inaugural lecture of Prof John Divers

Posted on: 23 March 2022

The invaluable and indispensable role that broad distinctions play in our thinking was the focus of Professor John Divers’s inaugural lecture delivered last week. The event was held to mark Professor Divers’s appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy (1837) at the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy.

A Trinity tradition, an inaugural lecture represents the official recognition of an academic’s promotion to Professor. The lecture provides an opportunity for the new professor to showcase their achievements in research, innovation, engagement and teaching activities before an audience of members of the University community and the general public.

A recording of the lecture can be watched here.

Professor of Moral Philosophy (1837) John Divers

At the event, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Prof Gail McElroy described Prof Divers as a “world renowned expert in the theory of possibility and necessity”.

Introducing the lecture Prof McElroy said Prof Divers would: “ask how we ought to think if we are to be rational, how this relates to what we ought to do to make the world as we think it ought to be. More specifically he will ask: Do universities produce graduates who understand what it is to think rationally and critically? It’s hard to think of a more important and pressing question in these times”.

Prof Carole Newman, Prof Gail McElroy, Prof John Divers and Provost Dr Linda Doyle.

Prof Divers said: “Distinctions are, inevitably, with us: for if we did not draw distinctions, we would not be able to think at all. And yet, it seems deeply ingrained in much academic practice (beyond the sciences) to attempt to undermine a distinction wherever it arises – to characterise it as (variously): simplistic, reductive, unduly rigid, essentialist, lacking nuance, the choice of one arbitrary social construct among many that are available etc. This lecture is intended as a corrective to that hack reflex. The aim is to illustrate how broad and general theoretical distinctions are properly to be understood and usefully implemented. And the primary distinction in view will be that between fact and value.

“David Hume (1711-76) took our judgments of fact to be in the psychological jurisdiction of our reason and our judgments of value to be in the psychological jurisdiction of our passions. Hume also famously claimed that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions” (Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, 3.1). I think Hume was right in both cases. But everything turns on how we understand the authority that the passions have over reason. I will show how a “first-order” understanding of the authority claim leads to a disastrous anti-rational nihilism. I will then show how a “second-order” (pragmatic) understanding of the authority claim allows us to appreciate the invaluable, and indispensable, role that broad distinctions play in our thinking.”

About John Divers:

The first member of his extended family to go to university, John has an MA in Mental Philosophy from the University of Glasgow (1982) and a PhD in Philosophy also from the University of Glasgow (1990).

Prior to coming to Trinity he lectured in philosophy at the universities of Glasgow and Stirling. He also held the Chair in Philosophy at the universities of Sheffield and Leeds. In holding the Chair of Moral Philosophy John follows his former teacher from Glasgow William Lyons and his former colleague from Leeds Peter Simons.

John’s monograph ‘Possible Worlds’ (Routledge, 2002) has been cited over 500 times. His research is regularly published in major journals such as: Mind; Nous; Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; Syhthese and The Philosophical Quarterly. He is currently completing 10 years of work on a monograph for Oxford University Press entitled ‘Necessity After Quine’ which will be published in 2023.


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