Nature and Culture

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Graduate seminar, Fall Semester 2023, Monday 1-3:40pm, including special weekend session on October 28-29 (block course on Matter featuring Jobst Landgrebe)

PHI 579SEM Special Topics Class Number 23815

Graduate [1]

Venue: Park 141


Barry Smith
Jobst Landgrebe

Prerequisites: Open to all persons with an undergraduate degree and some knowledge of philosophy

Office hours: By appointment via email at

The Course

Course Description: Monism is the view that there is only one kind of entity in the universe, namely (on many versions of monism, at least) matter. Dualism is the view that there is a second kind of entity, namely mind. On a simple account, we might identify nature with the sum total of what is material, and culture with the creations of the mind. This course will take this simple account as its starting point, focusing especially on questions such as:

what is nature?
what is culture?
how do we treat cultural entities -- such as laws, debts, works of music, theorems in mathematics and models in physics -- which are not made of matter?
what does it mean to say that something is made of matter?
is everything in nature made of matter?
to what degree is nature itself a product of the mind?

The course will have a strong ontological emphasis. In the block seminar on matter on October 28-19 it will also dig deeply into matters of physics.

Course Structure: This is a three credit hour graduate seminar.

The final session will be structured around powerpoint presentations by the students in the class. These presentations will be recorded.

Target Audience: The course is open to all interested students with an undergraduate degree and some knowledge of philosophy.

Book list


August 28: Introduction to the Course: The Ontology of Services

We focus in this lecture on the ontology of services, starting out from the idea that in the state of nature, as revealed still today by behavior within a single family, humans performed acts for others in an informal way. Nowadays, people perform acts for the benefit of others to a significant degree on the basis of agreements, contracts, and payment.

Background reading on services

An Informational Perspective on the Ontology of Services

Parallel studies can be made in relation to the ontology

of documents
of planned environments
of mind/body continuum
of crime
of art
of science (physics),
of measurement
of multiculturalism

September 4: Labor Day Observed

September 11: Husserl, Scheler, Reinach, Ingarden, Wojtyła and Gehlen on the Ontology of Cultural Entities

Husserl: Nature and Spirit
Husserl on Common Sense
Reinach and Edith Stein on the State
A. A. Чикин (2018) Alexander Pfänder and the New Science of Will
Reinach and Religious Phenomenology
Ingarden and the Ontology of Cultural Objects
Ingarden on the Ontology of Social Reality
Gehlen, Man
Gehlen on Institutions
Gehlen on Culture and Institutions

Gehlen: Man is by nature a cultural being

One can bring together a number of anthropological perspectives into the formula that "man is by nature a cultural being". . . . At any rate, we only know of men in possession of cultural attainments, which, no matter how primitive we may find them, are still so fundamental that human existence would be unthinkable without them. The distinction between natural man and cultured man is therefore imprecise, and taken literally, quite false — only cultured humanity exists or has existed, though with

an astounding range of cultural inventory.

Cassirer, An Essay on Man:

Man cannot escape his own achievement. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. (…) Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. (p. 43, cited in this review)

Background videos

Document Acts

The natural attitude of common sense

Primary vs secondary theory
Robin Horton


The Social World: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Human Institutions
The natural, cultural, cognitive and social niches of human activity
A political ontology of territorial boundaries
Environments Inside and Outside the Organism
The Justice and Ontology of Gastrospaces

September 18: No class

September 25: Adolf Reinach and Hernando de Soto on the Ontology of the Social World

Part 1: Reinach and the Ontology of Social Acts
Part 2: de Soto and the Ontology of Extralegal Institutions

Book presentations

Delaney McNulty on: Angela Roothaan, Indigenous, modern and postcolonial relations to nature

Giacomo De Colle on Edith Stein, Investigation on the State

Reading: Scott Shapiro, Massively Shared Agency"

October 2: From Information Artifacts to Shared Agency

Reading: Scott Shapiro, Massively Shared Agency"


Culture, AI and the Digital Realm: Are We Living in a Simulation?

Book presentations

Matthew Jones on Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie

Ji Soo Seo on Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie and Searle's Making the Social World

Joshua Billig on Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics

Fermi Paradox
Fermi Paradox and consumerism
Simulation Hypothesis (Bostrom)
Intellectually simulating
The philosophy of the metaverse
Taking Simulation Seriously
Review of Reality+
Scott Adams on "The World is a Simulation"
Our world might be a simulation. Would that be so bad?

Modes of existence: fictions and virtual reality

Philosophy and the Metaverse
Mimesis as Make-Believe
Pleasure and its modifications

Oct 9: Fall Break

October 16: Searle on Money

We will once again summarize Searle's theory of social entities and show that it has a fatal flaw -- which is revealed most easily by the way it treats the phenomenon of money

Along the way we will discuss the ontology of blind chess, and the approach to oughtness that is dictated by the Basic Formal Ontology.



John Searle: From Speech Acts to Social Reality

October 23: Aristotle, Common Sense, and the Ontology of Environments


Background reading on common sense

The natural attitude of Common sense
Primary vs secondary theory
Robin Horton
Life and Motion of Socio-Economic Units

October 28-29: Gehlen; The Replication Problem; Physics (with Jobst Landgrebe) (weekend block course)


09:00 Gehlen, Man: His Nature and Place in the World
12:00 Lunch
13:30 The Crisis of Replication in Science
17:00 Close


09:00 How we study matter today?: Problems of quantum physics
Reading: Ontologies of common sense, physics and mathematics
12:00 Lunch
13:30 BFO and the ontology of physics
14:45 Break
15:00 A Theory of Historico-Mathematical Entities
17:00 Close

Suggested Reading


Feynman's Lectures on Physics, volumes 1-3
t'Hooft: Ontology in quantum mechanics
Roger Penrose on the emperors new mind


Nancy Carwright: How the laws of physics lie
Brigitte Falkenburg: Particle Metaphysics
Review by Steven French
J.S. Bell: Speakable and unspeakable in quantum mechanics (Extract)
R. Griffiths: Consistent Quantum Mechanics

October 30: The Ontology of Science, the Canonical Life, Truthmaking


Book presentation: Olivia Hobai on Man’s Place in Nature by Max Scheler

The Ontology of Science Video

The Canonical Life Video

November 6 Nature, Culture and Mathematics: How to Do Things with Devices (with Elliott Hauser)

Visiting speaker: Elliott Hauser, University of Texas at Austin


Target reading

Facts in the Machine
How to Do Things with Documents


The search for biosignatures is hard. Should we look for technosignatures instead?

Supplementary readings

William Kent, Data and Reality
Documentality Beyond Documents
Semantics of Clocks
Smearing Time

November 13 Student Projects

1:00pm Delaney McNulty: Gehlen, Henrich and Distributed Cognition

1:40pm Jisoo Seo: Race as Social/Natural Kinds in BFO

2:00pm Matthew Jones: Zombie Documents And The Curse Of Inappropriately Enduring Punishment

2:20pm Giacommo de Colle: Edith Stein on the Essence of the State

Student Learning Outcomes

Program Outcomes/Competencies Instructional Method(s) Assessment Method(s)
The student will acquire a knowledge of the philosophy of both the natural and social sciences. Lectures and class discussions Review of reading matter and associated online content and participation in class discussions
The student will acquire experience in using the methods of philosophical argument, in formulating complex propositions on the interrelations between between matter and mind and between nature and culture Participation in practical experiments Review of results
The student will acquire experience in formulating ideas using powerful persuasive prose. Creation of documentation and youtube presentations Review of results

How to Write an Essay

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, Penguin Books, 2014
Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
Harvard's guide to writing philosophy
Jim Pryor's guide to writing philosophy
Jordan Peterson's Essay Writing Guide
How to Use ChatGPT to write an essay

Important Dates

Sep 11 - submit book review choice, and start to discuss the content of your essay with Dr Smith
Sep 25 - submit proposed title and abstract of your essay
Oct 2 - last day to present book summary
Oct 23 - submit a table of contents of your essay and 300 word summary plus draft of associated ppt slides
Oct 30 - submit first draft of essay (~1000 words) and associated powerpoint (~10 slides)
Nov 13 - submit second draft of essay (~2000 words) and associated powerpoint (~10 slides)
Nov 13 - class presentation
Dec 10 - submit final version of essay and powerpoint slides and upload final version of video to youtube


Grading will be based on two factors:

I: understanding and criticism of the material presented in classes 1-12

All students are required to take an active part in class (and where relevant on-line) discussions throughout the semester.

II: preparation of an essay, and associated powerpoint slides and recorded presentation.

Content and structure of the essay should be discussed with Dr Smith.

Grading Policy: Grading follows standard Graduate School policies. Grades will be weighted according to the following breakdown:

Weighting Assignment

20% - class discussions
15% - youtube video presentation
15% - powerpoint slides
50% - essay

Final Grades

Percentages refer to sum of assignment grades as listed above

Grade Quality Percentage

A 4.0 90.0% -100.00%
A- 3.67 87.0% - 89.9%
B+ 3.33 84.0% - 86.9%
B 3.00 80.0% - 83.9%
B- 2.67 77.0% - 79.9%
C+ 2.33 74.0% - 76.9%
C 2.00 71.0% - 73.9%
C- 1.67 68.0% - 70.9%
D+ 1.33 65.0% - 67.9%
D 1.00 62.0% - 64.9%
F 0 61.9% or below

An interim grade of Incomplete (I) may be assigned if the student has not completed all requirements for the course. An interim grade of 'I' shall not be assigned to a student who did not attend the course. The default grade accompanying an interim grade of 'I' shall be 'U' and will be displayed on the UB record as 'IU.' The default Unsatisfactory (U) grade shall become the permanent course grade of record if the 'IU' is not changed through formal notice by the instructor upon the student's completion of the course.

Assignment of an interim 'IU' is at the discretion of the instructor. A grade of 'IU' can be assigned only if successful completion of unfulfilled course requirements can result in a final grade better than the default 'U' grade. The student should have a passing average in the requirements already completed. The instructor shall provide the student specification, in writing, of the requirements to be fulfilled.

The university’s Graduate Incomplete Policy can be found here.

Related Policies and Services

Academic integrity is a fundamental university value. Through the honest completion of academic work, students sustain the integrity of the university while facilitating the university's imperative for the transmission of knowledge and culture based upon the generation of new and innovative ideas. See

Accessibility resources: If you have any disability which requires reasonable accommodations to enable you to participate in this course, please contact the Office of Accessibility Resources in 60 Capen Hall, 645-2608 and also the instructor of this course during the first week of class. The office will provide you with information and review appropriate arrangements for reasonable accommodations, which can be found on the web here.

University suppert services: Students are often unaware of university support services. For example, the Center for Excellence in Writing provides support for written work, and several tutoring centers on campus provide academic success support and resources.

Available resources on sexual assault: UB is committed to providing an environment free of all forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, including sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and stalking. If you have experienced gender-based violence (intimate partner violence, attempted or completed sexual assault, harassment, coercion, stalking, etc.), UB has resources to help. This includes academic accommodations, health and counseling services, housing accommodations, helping with legal protective orders, and assistance with reporting the incident to police or other UB officials if you so choose. Please contact UB’s Title IX Coordinator at 716-645-2266 for more information. For confidential assistance, you may also contact a Crisis Services Campus Advocate at 716-796-4399.

Counselling services: As a student you may experience a range of issues that can cause barriers to learning or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities. These might include strained relationships, anxiety, high levels of stress, alcohol/drug problems, feeling down, health concerns, or unwanted sexual experiences. Counseling, Health Services, and Health Promotion are here to help with these or other concerns. You learn can more about these programs and services by contacting:

Counseling Services: 120 Richmond Quad (North Campus), phone 716-645-2720
Health Services: Michael Hall (South Campus), phone: 716-829-3316
Health Promotion: 114 Student Union (North Campus), phone: 716- 645-2837