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Dr Alex Barber

BA (Bristol) MA (Sussex) PhD (McGill)

Alex Barber portrait photo

Profile summary

Professional biography

I have been with the Open University's Philosophy Department since 2000, after receiving my PhD from McGill University in 1997 and teaching for a few years at the Universities of Bristol and Sheffield.
Most of my research falls within the philosophy of language and, more recently, ethics, though I have also enjoyed teaching across a spectrum of philosophical areas (epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, logic, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, as well as the history of the subject). The breadth and interdisciplinarity built into the Open University curriculum has increasingly shaped my research, too.
Publications (Research): see via the 'Publications' tab above
Publications (Teaching): see under 'Teaching interests' below

Research interests

Most of my research of late has been 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 or otherwise of social inequalities, the apparent partiality of our obligations towards others, and how well-being can depend on our place in a collective. My colleague Sean Cordell and I ran an AHRC-funded Role Ethics Network (2016-18) involving 14 academics from across the globe, to shed light on this neglected area. A volume of papers is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. In a spin-off project we have been looking at codes of ethics (their purposes and limitations, and how to improve them), which has involved collaborating with non-academic professionals. 
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 began with an attempt to understand an asymmetry: when our ordinary ethical outlook comes into conflict with current scientific research, the science can force a revision to our ethics, but not vice versa. That is, science is immune to moral refutation. In a second paper I drew some parallel conclusions for philosophy.
I also 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 and what this tells us about language and its various properties. More recently I have begun to work on ethical questions relating to language, including one paper on dishonesty and lying and another (co-authored) forthcoming on linguistic prescriptivism.
To contact me about this research, use the email link below my photo.

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:
Discovering the arts and humanities (A111)
Revolutions (A113)
Exploring Philosophy (A222)
Key Questions in Philosophy (A333)
Enlightenment to Romanticism (A207)
Philosophy and the Human Situation (A211)
Thought and Experience (AA308)
Teaching publications (i.e. non-research)
For my research publications, click on the 'publications' tab above. Here are my main teaching print publications (complemented in the modules by online study materials). Links are to the relevant Open University module if it is still running, with the ISBN given otherwise.
  • Reason in ActionMilton Keynes: Open University, 2014
  • EthicsMilton Keynes: Open University, 2011
  • Language and Thought. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2005 (ISBN)
Chapters in textbooks
  • 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity', in Barber, A. and Younger, N., eds, Revolutions, Book 1. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 197–249, 2020
  • 'Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin' (co-authored with Jon Pike) in Mackie, R., ed., Revolutions, Book 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 113–168, 2020
  • ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’, in Jones, R., ed., Reputations. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 217–270, 2019
  • ‘Death and Religion in the Late Enlightenment: David Hume’, in A. Lentin, ed., Death of the Old Regime, Milton Keynes: Open University, 2003 (ISBN 0749285958)
  • ‘Death and Religion in the Late Enlightenment: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade’, in A. Lentin, ed., Death of the Old Regime, Milton Keynes: Open University, 2003 (ISBN 0749285958)

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.


Is metaphysics immune to moral refutation? (2020-12)
Barber, Alex
Acta Analytica, 35(4) (pp. 469-492)

Lying, misleading, and dishonesty (2020-06)
Barber, Alex
Journal of Ethics, 24(2) (pp. 141-164)

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)

The Ethics of Social Roles (2023-03-16)
Barber, Alex and Cordell, Sean
Engaging Philosophy
ISBN : 9780192843562 | Publisher : Oxford University Press | Published : Oxford

Linguistic Prescriptivism (2021)
Barber, Alex and Stainton, Robert J.
In: Khoo, Justin and Sterken, Rachel eds. The Routledge Handbook of Social and Political Philosophy of Language (pp. 56-69)
ISBN : 9781138602434 | Publisher : Routledge

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