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Dr Alex Barber

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
  • Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
  • School of Polis, Phil, Econ, Dev, Geog
  • Philosophy
  • alex.barber

Professional biography

My main research interests fall within two areas: the philosophy of language and (my main focus of late) ethics. I have taught across a wide range of other areas of philosophy too, though, including epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, logic, ethics, philosophy of religion and philosophy of science, and this breadth shapes my work in the two core areas.
I joined the Open University's Philosophy Department in 2000 after brief stints teaching at the Universities of Bristol and then Sheffield.

Research interests

Within ethics, I am engaged on two research projects, one in normative ethics and the other in metaethics.
Role ethics
A good deal of ethical significance attaches to the various roles we occupy, such as soldier, parent, friend, monarch, etc. Philosophers and others have studied these roles in isolation from one another, but I am developing a general theory of the normative significance of roles, one that can deliver insights into other topics such as the acceptability of social and political inequalities and the apparent partiality of our obligations towards others. My colleague Sean Cordell and I are currently jointly running an AHRC-funded Role Ethics Network, involving 14 academics from across the globe, to shed light on this neglected area.
Ethics in the scientific age
What is the relation between ethics and science? It seems clear that ethics isn't itself a science (unless one or other of the words is being used in a funny way). Yet the two are related: ethicists ignore the findings of science at their peril since our ordinary moral outlook is often threatened by scientific findings. My contribution in this area begins with an attempt to understand an asymmetry: when our ordinary ethical outlook comes into conflict with current scientific research (as it does in a number of areas), the science can force a revision to our ethics, but not vice versa. That is, science is immune to moral refutation.
I have a longer-standing interest is in the philosophy of language and linguistics. A couple of related concerns stand out in this work. The first is with the nature of the cognitive relation we bear to our language. The second is with the conclusions we can draw about language and its various properties from what he thinks is the best way of understanding this cognitive relation.
To contact me about this research, email me via alex.barber& (replacing & with @).
Main publications
Reason in action
Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2014 (textbook)
Science’s immunity to moral refutation’
Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 91(4): 633–53, 2013
(Winner, Prize for Best Paper 2013)
‘Understanding as knowledge of meaning’
Philosophy Compass (to appear in the October 2013 issue)
‘Hedonism and the experience machine’
Philosophical Papers, 40(2), pp. 257–278, 2011
‘What refers? How?’
In Ken Turner, ed., Making Semantics Pragmatic. Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface (24). Bingley: Emerald, pp. 49–80, 2011
Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2011 (textbook)
Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language and Linguistics
Co-editor (with Robert J. Stainton). Elsevier, 2009
‘Sentence realization again: reply to Rey’
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 8(23), pp. 233–240, 2008
‘Linguistic structure and the brain’
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 3(21), pp. 317–341, 2007
‘Testimony and illusion’
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 6(18): 401-429, 2006
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition
Co-editor with R. Stainton of the Philosophy and Language component, Oxford: Elsevier, 2005
Language and Thought
Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2005 (textbook)
‘Co-extensive Theories and Unembedded Definite Descriptions’
In R. Elugardo and R. Stainton, eds., Ellipsis and Nonsentential Speech. Dordrecht: Kluwer, pp. 185-210, 2004
Entry in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. November 2004, with a major update in November 2011
Epistemology of Language (Editor)
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
‘Truth Conditions and their Recognition’
Contribution to the above, pp. 367-395, 2003
‘Death and Religion in the Late Enlightenment: Hume, Rousseau, and Sade’
In A. Lentin, ed., Death of the Old Regime, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2003 (textbookj)
‘Idiolectal Error’
Mind and Language, 16: 263-283, 2001
‘Individuals, Properties, and the Explicitness Hierarchy’
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(5): 756-7, 1999
‘The Pleonasticity of Talk about Concepts’
Philosophical Studies, 89: 53-86, 1998
‘Deflated Concepts’
Crítica: revista hispanoamericana de filosofía, 9: 83-105, 1997

Teaching interests

If you are or have been an Open University student, you may have come across my contributions (in the form of textbooks or other teaching material) to the following modules:
Enlightenment to Romanticism (A207)
Philosophy and the Human Situation (A211)
Thought and Experience (AA308)
Exploring Philosophy (A222)
Key Questions in Philosophy (A333)

Research Activity

Externally funded projects

Role Ethics Network

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead01/May/201631/Jan/2018AHRC Arts & Humanities Research Council
This project will advance a number of debates about the place of social roles in political, social and moral life. Building on the work we have done at the Role Ethics Workshop held in 2013, we aim to do this by bringing together scholars and practitioners from around the world and across the disciplines of philosophy, political theory and social sciences. Over 18 months we would aim to hold three workshops followed by a project conference, from which we would seek to publish proceedings in an edited collection. Going by previous bids, the time each of us would spend on this over the project period would average 1.5 hours per week, though this will be subject to calculation bearing in mind the cost constraints of the bid.


Understanding as knowledge of meaning (2013-10)
Barber, Alex
Philosophy Compass, 8(10) (pp. 964-977)
Science's immunity to moral refutation (2013)
Barber, Alex
Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 91(4) (pp. 633-653)
Hedonism and the experience machine (2011)
Barber, Alex
Philosophical Papers, 40(2) (pp. 257-278)
Sentence realization again: reply to Rey (2008)
Barber, Alex
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 8(23) (pp. 233-240)
Linguistic structure and the brain (2007)
Barber, Alex
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 3(21) (pp. 317-341)
Testimony and illusion (2006)
Barber, A.
Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 3(18) (pp. 401-429)
Idiolectal error (2001-06)
Barber, Alex
Mind and Language, 16(3) (pp. 263-283)
A pragmatic treatment of simple sentences (2000-10)
Barber, Alex
Analysis, 60(268) (pp. 300-308)
The pleonasticity of talk about concepts (1998-01)
Barber, Alex
Philosophical Studies, 89(1) (pp. 53-86)
Deflated concepts: a reply to Stainton (1997-08)
Barber, Alex
Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofia, 29(86) (pp. 83-105)
Francis Bacon (2017)
Barber, Alexander
In: Cameron, Margaret; Hill, Benjamin and Stainton, Robert J. eds. Sourcebook in the History of Philosophy of Language. Springer Graduate Texts in Philosophy (pp. 497-502)
ISBN : 978-3-319-26908-5 | Publisher : Springer
What refers? How? (2011-06-08)
Barber, Alexander
In: Turner, Ken ed. Making Semantics Pragmatic. Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface (24) (pp. 49-80)
ISBN : 9780857249098 | Publisher : Emerald | Published : Bingley
Co-extensive theories and unembedded definite descriptions (2005)
Barber, A.
In: Elugardo, Reinaldo and Stainton, Robert J. eds. Ellipsis and Nonsentential Speech. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy (81) (pp. 185-201)
ISBN : 1-4020-2299-9 | Publisher : Springer
Idiolects (2004-11-15)
Barber, Alex
In: Zalta, Edward N. ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Publisher : CSLI, University of Stanford | Published : Palo Alto, Ca., USA
Truth conditions and their recognition (2003-10-09)
Barber, Alex
In: Barber, Alex ed. Epistemology of language (pp. 367-395)
ISBN : 0-19-925057-X | Publisher : Oxford University Press | Published : Oxford, UK
Chapter 1: Introduction (2003-10-09)
Barber, Alex
In: Barber, Alex ed. Epistemology of language
ISBN : 0-19-925057-X | Publisher : Oxford University Press | Published : Oxford, UK
Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language and Linguistics (2009-10)
Barber, Alex and Stainton, Robert J. eds.
ISBN : 978-0-08-096500-0 | Publisher : Elsevier
Epistemology of language (2003-10-09)
Barber, Alex ed.
ISBN : 0-19-925057-X | Publisher : Oxford University Press | Published : Oxford, UK