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Research Student: Stephen Duxbury (2010) – Words and Worlds

Stephen Duxbury read Philosophy at Emmanuel from 2010 to 2013. The Late Eighties and other College funds have enabled him to stay on to do an MPhil, and he is now hoping to remain at Emmanuel for a further three years to do a PhD. He wrote the following article for the Emmanuel Review in 2014:

Before I graduated from Emma last year, I knew I was interested in taking my philosophical studies further with the MPhil course and a potential career in academia. Thanks to Emmanuel, I had the funding to make these further studies possible. With the College’s financial backing, I am now in the final term of my MPhil with a conditional offer to continue at Cambridge for a PhD. 

My main interest in philosophy is studying the links between language and meaning, and how we conceive of the world. I am currently writing a thesis on semantic externalism, the doctrine that the meaning of our words is not fully determined by our brain states: two people can be in the identical brain state when saying a word and yet mean different things. Consider someone told by their father that the word ‘walleye’ refers to a freshwater fish distinct from the freshwater fish sauger. We can imagine an alternative situation where this person is told the same thing by their father, but in a world where the meaning of ‘walleye’ and ‘sauger’ has been switched. The individual will be in the same brain state in this alternative situation but when they use the word ‘walleye’ they will refer to another fish. 

No doubt you’ve already come up with a few responses to this argument. Don’t worry, I don’t take it for granted! 

Philosophy has always fascinated me with its demand for both imaginative and analytical thought: the way novel ideas can be produced with the inventive combination of seemingly uncontroversial principles. For my PhD, I plan to focus on the philosophy of language. My eventual goal is to elaborate upon and defend a view that many of the most pervasive philosophical disputes can be deflated: that is, that it can be shown that the views on either side of the debate are actually in some sense asserting the same thing. This will require a lot of work into interpretation and meaning. To give an idea of why the project may be tricky, bear in mind that I’m trying to convince two people who think they disagree that they don’t necessarily mean what they think they mean! I hope that after three years of study I’ll be in a position to convince them.

To say what comes after the PhD with any certainty requires a crystal ball, but having enjoyed teaching undergraduates in logic classes in the MPhil, it’s more than possible that I’ll continue down the path into an academic career. In the third year of my PhD I’ll even have the opportunity to supervise first-years: a prospect that is as terrifying as it is exciting. 

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