• Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1991
  • M.A., University of Chicago, 1988
  • B.A., Haverford College, 1982

Courses Taught

  • Introduction to Philosophy
  • Modern Philosophy
  • Classical Chinese Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Postmodern Philosophical Issues
  • Logic
  • Ethical Theory
  • Myths, Dreams, and Other Realities
  • Conceiving Evil


  • “Maybe We Can—But Should We?” Annual Proceedings of the Wealth and Well-Being of
    Nations, Volume 13, 2022-23 (Fall 2023)
  • “How Identity Politics Objectifies People and Undermines Rational Agency,”
    International Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2021) 463-480.
  • “Rethinking Facts and Values: How Normativity Establishes the Fact of Values and the
    Value of Facts,” Conference Proceedings (European Conference on Ethics, Religion, and
    Philosophy 2019: Value and Values)
  • “The Poverty of Patriarchal Power,” International Philosophical Quarterly 55 (2015) 101-

Philip Shields

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies

 Email:  Office: Room 220, Morse-Ingersoll Hall

Teaching philosophy is a special privilege, and there is no better life I can imagine. My time spent working with students gives me hope for the future despite the enormous problems facing us.

I am interested in embodiment, normativity, and agency, and I regularly teach courses in Ethical Theory, Classical Greek Philosophy, Classical Chinese Philosophy, and Thinking About Religion. In the past I have also taught courses on Something Animal, Myths Dreams and Other Realities, On Trial, Plato, Wittgenstein, Participants and Spectators, and Conceiving Evil. My courses tend to be organized around specific classical texts written by historical individuals, and I tend to emphasize the role of background practices in understanding and assessing what these philosophers think, say, and do. When, where, and how something is expressed can often illuminate what is expressed. Approaching philosophical problems historically helps us grasp the unfolding processes of philosophical critique and change.

For reasons I can’t develop here, I believe that both “free will” and “determinism” are incoherent. The problem is not that they contradict each other, but that each is impossible on its own terms. Free will suggests a capacity to be an original cause, to initiate acts from nothing, independent and irrespective of all prior conditions, and determinism requires causes that are simultaneously contingent and necessary. So I am interested in understanding how what we think, say, and do are modes of agency that depend on participating in a normative realm where norms constrain and enable, but are neither “free” nor “determined.”

In recent years I have been trying to weave together concerns from my 30 years of teaching and previous research into a book entitled Autonomy: Philosopher’s Stone or Will-’O-the-Wisp? The book makes the case that autonomy is a misguided modern ideal since it cannot promote either objective knowledge or authentic action. We should not assume that dependence on, or deference to, other people undermines the integrity of what one thinks, says, and does, since the meaning and validity of our thoughts and actions depend on participating in the relevant normative practices. More broadly, I argue that the modern attempt to conceive of self-determination as a self-contained and amoral capacity of individuals is inconsistent with the intrinsically social and value-laden nature of normativity, and that without normativity the idea of personal autonomy is both illusory and ill-conceived.

I’m gratefully and happily married, with four adult children and three dogs. I am fond of cooking, especially spicy food, and probably average 3 hours a day in the kitchen. I am also an avid cyclist who logs 20-60 hours a month, depending on the season, cruising up valleys and over ridges in the driftless area west of Madison.


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