Philosophers Awarded ERC Starting Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the winners of its substantial Starting Grants, including several philosophers.

They are:

Ivano Ciardelli (University of Padua)
Inquisitive Modal Logic (€971,310)

Modal logic is at the heart of an incredibly fruitful interdisciplinary enterprise. It is used to analyse and investigate a variety of crucial notions: necessity and possibility, knowledge and belief, obligation and permission, action and outcome. What these notions have in common is that they can be regarded as modal properties of propositions. However, there is a variety of interesting modal notions whose contents are not propositions, but questions: we will argue that this class includes notions such as (in)dependence and supervenience, control and influence, as well as attitudes such as curiosity and indifference. The goal of the project is to develop a new and more general framework for modal logic, based on inquisitive semantics, that allows us to define modal operators that apply to questions. This framework will make it possible to give precise analyses of question-directed modal notions and rigorously study their logic. Moreover, it will allow us to systematize and extend some recent proposals about the semantics of modals in natural language.

Mihaela Constantinescu (University of Bucharest)
Avatar Agency: Moral Responsibility at the Intersection of Individual, Collective, and Artificial Social Entities in Emergent Avatar Communities (€1,494,688)

The project investigates how AI avatars challenge traditional frameworks of agency and moral responsibility. Persistent and continuous use of digital, augmented, and robotic AI avatars by both humans and organisations, has the potential to permeate prior boundaries of the physical, the augmented and the virtual world, leading to emergent avatar communities. We propose a dynamic normative framework for moral responsibility ascriptions that is grounded in a philosophical conceptualisation of avatar agency. This framework considers the way interactions between AI avatars, individuals, and organisations generate intertwined and mutual ascriptions of moral responsibility, potentially enhancing or, on the contrary, diminishing human agency and responsibility in emergent avatar communities.

Jonathan Gingerich (King’s College London)
The Spontaneity of Freedom (€1,499,806)

When contemporary moral and political philosophers write about freedom, they are typically concerned with a sort of freedom that is required for a person to be morally responsible for their actions, a sort of freedom needed for autonomous choice, or else a sort of freedom that is conceptually connected to a state’s ability to claim legitimate authority. While many of these philosophical accounts of freedom have proven fruitful, none speaks to a way that the word ‘freedom’ is used in a completely familiar context: the way that setting off to explore a city you have never visited before, opening your sketchbook to a blank page, or quitting your job to take up a new vocation feels free. SPONT develops a novel theory of moral, political, and artistic freedom that will remedy the philosophical neglect of a variety of freedom that pervades literature, music, art, and everyday life. SPONT offers the first comprehensive philosophical account of spontaneous freedom, which is the freedom of acting in ways that are unplanned, unscripted, unalienated, and (typically) pleasurable. SPONT develops a theory of the nature of spontaneous freedom and the role it does and should play in our aesthetic, moral, and political lives. Recognising the value of spontaneous freedom and its centrality to democratic progress requires overhauling widely accepted philosophical theories of the self and politics. It also provides novel insights into how best to regulate artificial intelligence and emerging digital technologies that rely on large data sets to predict and shape our choices. Finally, it will consolidate an emerging philosophical renaissance of non-rationalist theories of the self. SPONT contributes to literature on the relationship between freedom and the state, the political morality of algorithmic manipulation, and the nature and value of freedom. Project outputs will include a PI-authored monograph, an edited volume, and a range of individual and collaborative research articles.

Teea Kortetmäki (University of Jyväskylä)
Environmental Landscape Ethics: A Theory of Cohabitability (€1,481,105)

COHAB seeks to nurture a new environmental ethics subfield, environmental landscape ethics, and to develop a new theory around the notion of ‘cohabitability’ as a focal analytical framework for it. Land use for human purposes covers most of Earth’s habitable (non-barren) land. This invokes a pressing need to develop environmental-ethical theory to address land use. The dominant stream of environmental ethics is ill-equipped for addressing this question because its intellectual legacy has created tools for examining whether/how much humans are permitted to use land, not how to use the land that is used. Assessing the quality of human land use from environmental ethics perspective in an ecologically informed manner requires, therefore, the development of new theories, terminology, and methods. COHAB will undertake this task by creating interdisciplinarily constructed, ecology-informed theoretical argumentation, methods, and conceptual tools. Cohabitability, land’s suitability for simultaneous co-habiting by many species, is an anchoring concept that connects the key research questions of the project.

Visa Kurki (University of Helsinki)
Agency in Law (€1,496,595)

The distinction between agents and non-agents is central in law: only agents can decide about their affairs, enter contracts or be held responsible for their actions. The project hypothesizes that Western law has since the 19th century relied on an understanding of agency that has developed in the liberal tradition of thought. According to this “Liberal Agency”, agents are highly rational human individuals. Persons with cognitive disabilities, artificial intelligences, and nonhuman animals are therefore not agents because of their lack of rationality or humanity. This view of agency is deeply embedded in Western legal systems.  However, Liberal Agency has recently come under increasing criticism and challenges. Many now argue that persons with disabilities, artificial intelligences and/or nonhuman animals could in fact be treated as agents. However, these criticisms have been narrow in scope, and the debate is overall highly fragmented.  LEGACY, situated within legal philosophy and history, will offer a comprehensive reappraisal of legal agency. It will investigate three main questions: First, how did Liberal Agency become the dominant understanding of agency in law? Second, what challenges confront Liberal Agency today? And finally, what kind of a theory can best explain the evolving notion of agency in law?

Andreas Lammer (Radboud University Nijmegen)
Avicenna Live: The Immediate Context of Avicenna’s Intellectual Formation (€1,499,516)

ALIVE is the first systematic approach to a unique selection of essential yet hitherto widely neglected source texts that enable us to trace Avicenna’s engagement with his contemporaries. Bringing to life his personal interactions with both the generation of his direct teachers and the generation of his direct students, ALIVE aims to reappraise Avicenna’s innovations in light of his own development and, thereby, to provide a new vantage point for the study of Avicenna and for all future investigation on the history of philosophy in the Islamic world. At the same time, ALIVE will make an important contribution to the Digital Humanities by furnishing an open source online platform that will facilitate the study of diverse and difficult textual corpora.

Philippe van Basshuysen (Wageningen University & Research)
Managing Performative Science (€1,499,520)

Scientific models often do more than predict or explain. Especially in the social realm, they can also influence their targets – a capacity that is called “performativity”. By influencing policy making and individual behavior, models from economics, epidemiology, or machine learning increasingly perform the social world in significant ways. This development should be of utmost importance to philosophers, for two reasons: First, performativity can impair scientific prediction and explanation. If, for instance, a model of the spread of COVID-19 predicts many deaths, people might reduce their social contacts in response, which may in turn lead to the predicted events not coming about! How should we evaluate such a prediction, and how should scientists deal with these effects? Second, the development raises difficult ethical questions about the legitimacy of science guiding human affairs, and the values that are implicit in this process. Should we welcome science’s increasingly practical role in shaping policy-making and individual behavior? Or should we regard such influence as manipulative, potentially undermining democratic decision making? These are difficult philosophical questions, but they also have significant practical import. Yet the philosophy of science hasn’t so far provided guidance on how performative science might be evaluated and managed. The MAPS project will close this lacuna. The core aims of the project are: (1) to develop a novel understanding of what performativity is and can do, by closely following scientific practice; (2) to understand the intricate relationship between science’s epistemic and performative roles, and to assess the ethical risks of performativity; and (3) to provide orientation to philosophers and practitioners for how to assess and manage performative science. By integrating insights from scientific practice with philosophical assessment, the project will establish performativity management as a central theme of philosophical inquiry.

You can learn more about the grants and see a full list of winners here.

[Update: This post was updated on October 6th to include the ERC grant awarded to Philippe van Basshuysen.]
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Grad Student
7 months ago

Congratulations to the winners! I have a newbie’s question: Why are there grants in philosophy? What do philosophers buy with these grants (except for a better armchair, of course)? Maybe scholarships for PhDs and post docs?

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Grad Student
7 months ago

The money would go towards the principal investigator’s salary (i.e., the person who won the grant), the salary of postdocs hired for the project, and scholarships for PhD students, as you say. Some of it would go towards organizing conferences and workshops.

There are also travel expenses, the cost of computers, books and stuff like that.

Mostly it’s paying for the salary of people working on the project, though. I would imagine that the projects that get a lot of money are projects with many people working on them.

Reply to  Another Philosopher
7 months ago

And 25% (“overheads”) go the the university hosting the ERC grantee.

Reply to  Grad Student
7 months ago

The thing about ERCs is that they basically give the PI a permanent position, something that unfortunately has become a rarity in Europe these days. As for the rest, salaries, travels, conferences, overheads, public access fees, books.

Another another Philosopher
Another another Philosopher
Reply to  Harald
7 months ago

This isn’t the case. Can’t remember for ERCs specifically, but many of these schemes require you to have a permanent job when you apply, and looking at these winners, on a quick glance, all seem to have permanent jobs. The job market in Europe is bad, but I don’t know of any data that suggests the overall number of permanent philosophy posts is going down (let alone that a permanent post is a ‘rarity these days). Some systems (e.g. in Germany) have relatively few permanent posts, but that is not new, and in other places (e.g. UK) there are lots of new permanent posts for early-career people advertised each year (not enough, but a lot).

7 months ago

Congrats to all! A small addition to the post: Philippe van Basshuysen, Leibniz Universität Hannover, is also among the recipients in philosophy.