Seminar: Structuralism and Skepticism

David Chalmers

Seminar meetings: Thursday 11am-1pm, NYU Philosophy Department 2nd floor seminar room. Office hours: Thursday 4-6pm, Room 604


Overview: Structuralism is very roughly the thesis that the key to understanding the world is understanding its structure: that is, understanding the way it is organized into an abstract structure of relations. Varieties of structuralism have been developed in recent years in many areas of philosophy: perhaps most influentially in metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and social and political philosophy, but also in the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology, metaphilosophy, and other areas.

The first two-thirds of this seminar will focus on structuralism in all of these areas: distinguishing different versions of structuralism, drawing connections between them, and investigating the both the prospects and the problems for various structuralist views. The final third will examine the bearing of structuralism on issues about skepticism, and especially the prospects for what I have called the "structuralist response to skepticism". The seminar will be conducted informally and largely oriented around discussion.

Notes: (1) The seminar is "topics in epistemology" mainly because it has to be topics in something. There will be a reasonable amount of epistemology, especially toward the end, but really it is "topics in philosophy". (2) We'll be focusing more on the sort of structuralism that originates with Carnap and Russell (proceeding through Maxwell, Lewis, and others) than the sort that originates with Saussure (proceeding through Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and others), but if there turn out to be productive connections to investigate between the two traditions, it would be interesting to discuss them.


Updated versions of this page can be found at

Mailing list

I will set up an e-mail list, [email protected] for seminar discussion. I view this list as a continuation of the seminar itself. Everyone is encouraged to make contributions.


Assessment will be based mainly on a final paper. Draft papers are encouraged. Their content will be play no constitutive role in assessment, but I will give feedback for revision for a final paper. I follow the departmental policy of only giving incompletes if a draft has been submitted. All incompletes must be completed by the start of spring semester.


Here are some possible topics and readings for the course. This is highly flexible and I'm open to suggestions from seminar participants.

Historical Background

  • Carnap, The Logical Structure of the World, sections 10-16.
  • Russell, The Analysis of Matter

    Newman's Problem

  • Carnap, The Logical Structure of the World, sections 153-55.
  • Newman, Mr. Russell's "Causal Theory of Perception"
  • Demopolous and Friedman, Bertrand Russell's _The Analysis of Matter_: Its historical context and contemporary interest

    Conceptual Structuralism

  • Jackson, From Metaphysics to Ethics, chapter 2
  • Lewis, Psychophysical and theoretical identifications
  • Chalmers, Constructing the World excursus 13 ("From the Aufbau to the Canberra plan")
  • Nolan, The Canberra plan
  • Menzies and Price, Is semantics in the plan?

    Epistemological Structuralism

  • Lewis, Ramseyan humility
  • Chalmers, Constructing the World, section 7.9 (Quiddities)
  • Maxwell, Rigid designators and mind-brain identiy
  • Langton, Elusive knowledge of things in themselves

    Metaphysical Structuralism

  • Dasgupta, On the plurality of grounds
  • Dipert, The mathematical structure of the world: The world as graph

  • Hawthorne, Causal structuralism
  • Bird, Nature's Metaphysics (especially chapter 6)

    Scientific Structuralism

  • Worrall, Structural realism: The best of both worlds?
  • Ladyman, Structural realism

  • French and Ladyman, In defense of ontic structural realism
  • Ladyman and Ross, Every Thing Must Go

  • Ketland, Empirical adequacy and ramsification
  • Ainsworth, Newman's objection

    Mathematical Structuralism

  • Hellman, Structuralism
  • Shapiro, Structure (chapter 4 of Philosophy of Mathematics: Structure and Ontology)
  • Hellman, Three varieties of mathematical structuralism"
  • Benacerraf, What numbers could not be

    Linguistic Structuralism

  • Putnam, From Reason Truth and History (esp. pp. 33-38, also appendix)
  • Putnam, From Realism and Reason (esp vii-xv, also chapter 1)
  • Putnam, Realism and reason
  • Button, The Limits of Realism (espcially chapters 1-4, see also appendix 1)
  • Lewis, Putnam's paradox

  • Merrill, The model-theoretic argument against realism
  • Fine, Semantic relationalism
  • Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

    Phenomenal Structuralism

  • Stalnaker, Comparing qualia across persons
  • Shoemaker, The Frege-Schlick view
  • Jackson, Epiphenomenal qualia
  • Chalmers, Consciousness and its place in nature (esp the section on type-C materialism)

    Scrutability and Structuralism (three weeks)

  • Chalmers, The Matrix as Metaphysics
  • Constructing the World, introduction and chapter 1
  • Constructing the World chapters 2-4 (especially sections 1 and 2 of each)
  • Constructing the World, chapter 7 (especially 7.1-5 and 7.11) and 8 (especially 8.7 and summation)
  • Constructing the World, excursus 15

    Social/Political/Continental Structuralism

  • Haslanger, Carus lectures
  • Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology
  • Deleuze, How do we recognize structuralism?

    Computational Structuralism

  • Wheeler, Information, physics, quantum: The search for links
  • Fredkin, Introducion to digital philosophy
  • Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality
  • Floridi, Against digital ontology
  • Chalmers, On implementing a computation

    Spacetime Structuralism

  • Greaves, In search of spacetime structuralism
  • Chalmers, From Constructing the World chapters 7/8
  • Thompson, The spatial content of experience