Michael Forster

Michael Forster
Visiting Professor
Stuart Hall, Room 202-A
Princeton University PhD (1987); Oxford University BA (1980)
Teaching at UChicago since 1985
Research Interests: German Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language

Beginning in March 2013, Michael Forster became the Alexander von Humboldt Professor, holder of the Chair in Theoretical Philosophy, and Co-director of the International Center for Philosophy at Bonn University. He will also continue to teach at the University of Chicago each year as a visiting professor. Previous to his appointment at Bonn, he was the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy and the College.

My work in philosophy has both historical and systematic aspects. Historically, I work primarily on German philosophy, and secondarily on ancient philosophy. Systematically, my main interests are in epistemology (especially skepticism) and philosophy of language (in a broad sense which includes not only such central questions as the relation between thought and language, and the nature of meaning, but also, for example, questions concerning the role of meaning and thought in apparently non-linguistic art, animals' capacities for language, meaning, and thought, the scope of possible linguistic-conceptual variations, the nature of interpretation, and the nature of translation). I also have interests in other areas of philosophy, such as moral and political philosophy, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of history. Some of my work tends more towards the purely historical-exegetical (e.g., parts of the book Hegel's Idea of a "Phenomenology of Spirit"), some more towards the purely systematic (e.g., the article "On the Very Idea of Denying the Existence of Radically Different Conceptual Schemes"). But my commonest way of working combines historical-exegetical and systematic goals in roughly equal measures (some examples of this are the book Hegel and Skepticism, the pair of articles on Herder's philosophy of language "Herder's Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles" and "God, Animals, and Artists: Some Problem Cases in Herder's Philosophy of Language," and the book Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar).

Selected Publications


After Herder (paperback, Oxford University Press, December 15, 2012) - Link to cover and comments

German Philosophy of Language from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2011) Link

After Herder (Oxford University Press, 2010) Link

Kant and Skepticism (Princeton University Press, 2008) Link

Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar (Princeton University Press, 2004) Link

Herder: Philosophical Writings (Ed., Cambridge University Press, 2002) Link

Hegel's Idea of a "Phenomenology of Spirit" (University of Chicago Press, 1998) Link

Hegel and Skepticism (Harvard University Press, 1989) Link

Selected Articles:

Kant's Philosophy of Language? (PDF)

Humboldts Bildungsideal und sein Modell der Universität (DOC)

A Wittgensteinian Anti-Platonism" from the Harvard Review of Philosophy (PDF)


See one of Michael Forster's lectures here.

Recent Courses

PHIL 51830 Topics in Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy: Nietzsche on Morality, Suffering, and the Value of Life

(LAWS 53256)

Nietzsche objects to Judeo-Christian morality (and its ‘ascetic’ analogues in non-Western traditions) because he argues it is a fatal obstacle to certain kinds of human flourishing and cultural excellence. This is closely connected to his opposition to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view that the inescapable fact of suffering renders life without value (a life without human excellence would, on Nietzsche’s view, lack value). These issues (and others, e.g., the nature of philosophy and tragedy, the conception of Dionysus) have antecedents in his early work as a scholar of antiquity and the influence of his Basel colleague, the important historian Jacob Burckhardt. Roughly the first five sessions will be devoted to reconstructing the “mature” Nietzsche’s view, as represented by the Genealogy, but also excerpts from Daybreak, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the Idols, and Ecce Homo. The remaining four sessions of the seminar will explore the historical background, in Greek literature and philosophy, the reception of Greek culture in German philosophy, and in the seminal work of his colleague Burckhardt. The ultimate goal is to reconstruct Nietzsche’s view from a philosophical point of view and, as importantly, in light of the historical context. (I)

Open to philosophy PhD students without permission and to others with permission; those seeking permission should e-mail Leiter with a resume and a detailed description of their background in philosophy (not necessarily in the study of Nietzsche). In the event of demand, preference will be given to J.D. students with the requisite philosophy background.

Michael Forster, B. Leiter
2018-2019 Winter
German Idealism
Philosophy of Law

PHIL 51830 Topics in Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy

(LAWS 53256)

The topic for Winter 2018 is the "Epistemology of Etiological/Genealogical Critiques: Contemporary and Historical." Anglophone epistemology has recently become interested in the question whether the origin of our beliefs matters to their acceptability or justification. The intuitive thought is simple: If you had been brought up in a different family, or a different culture, or at a different time, your moral, religious, and philosophical beliefs (among any others) would likely have been very different than they are. Shouldn't that make us wonder whether we are really justified in believing what we believe? Should the origin or historical contingency of our beliefs and values make us skeptical about them, or lead us to revise them? Many historical figures in the German traditions have thought so: in different ways, Herder, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Many recent Anglophone philosophers think not: they ask what epistemological principle would license a localized skepticism about certain beliefs without having far-reaching implications? When does the etiology of belief matter epistemically and when does it not? We begin by looking at contemporary approaches to this question in the recent Anglophone literature (with readings from G.A. Cohen, Sharon Street, Roger White, and Amia Sreenivasan, among others), then turn to historical figures in the Continental European traditions concerned with these questions. (I) (III)

The seminar is open to philosophy PhD students without permission; to J.D. students with instructor permission; and to others with instructor permission.

Michael Forster, B. Leiter
2017-2018 Winter
Philosophy of Law

PHIL 51830 Topics in Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy

The topic for Winter 2017 is "Freedom and Responsibility, Contemporary and Historical." We will begin by canvassing the major philosophical positions in the Anglophone literature on free will and moral responsibility over the past half-century, with readings drawn from some or all of P.F. Strawson, G. Strawson, H. Frankfurt, G. Watson, D. Velleman and others. In the second half of the seminar we will step back to look at the treatment of these same issues by major figures in the history of philosophy, including M. Frede's A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, as well as primary texts by Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Sartre. The seminar is open to philosophy PhD students without permission; to J.D. students with instructor permission; and to others with instructor permission. (I) (III)

Michael Forster, B. Leiter
2016-2017 Winter
Philosophy of Law

For full list of Michael Forster's courses back to the 2012-13 academic year, see our searchable course database.