Research-led teaching

We are proud to offer research-led teaching in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. All of our teaching staff in the Sheffield Philosophy Department are active researchers, and our research informs our teaching.


Watch: Making sense of pleasure

In this short talk, the Department of Philosophy's Luca Barlassina shares his research on affective states such as emotions, moods, pleasures, and pains.

Here are some examples of the current research of some of our staff, and how it contributes to their teaching.

Natural resource rights and climate justice

Megan Blomfield's research concerns global justice and the environment. She focuses on the problem of climate change, which she examines through the lens of natural resource rights. Natural resources are of utmost importance to human beings: they comprise the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the water we drink. Many of these resources are also prone to overuse, with potentially devastating consequences. Climate change, in particular, results from excessive human consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas sinks, such as the atmosphere, forests and ocean. In attempting to deal with this problem, human use of these resources must be drastically reduced and we will instead have to extract energy from alternative natural sources, such as the sun, wind and sea. This raises questions about how to share the world's resources fairly, and who should get to use, control and benefit from them. Such questions of natural resource right have preoccupied philosophers from time immemorial.

Megan's book on this topic, Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change, was published by Oxford University Press in May 2019. In the book, Megan asks what the world would look like if natural resources were shared fairly and then explains how this can help us to better understand the kind of problem that climate change presents and what a just response to it would look like. In addressing these questions, she touches on issues including the demands of global egalitarianism, claims of sovereignty, territorial rights, and the relationship between climate change and histories of colonial resource exploitation.

This research feeds directly into two modules that Megan teaches for third year undergraduates and MA students: The Political Philosophy of Climate Change; and Global Justice. On the former module, students consider why climate change should be understood as a problem global justice and how the international community could respond to it fairly, looking at topics including duties towards future generations, responsibility for climate change, indigenous rights, and environmental activism. On the latter module, students examine the demands of justice at the global level, learning about global inequality, rights over land and resources, colonialism, reparations, and migration.

Further reading: Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change by Megan Blomfield, published by Oxford University Press in May 2019.

Human cognition, sensation, and emotion

Luca Barlassina’s research lies at the intersection between philosophy and cognitive science. Basically, he is interested in how the mind works. He spends quite a lot of time thinking about how philosophy can help to clarify and integrate empirical results from psychology and neuroscience, and how these results can contribute to solving philosophical puzzles about the mind. Sometimes he designs and runs psychological experiments himself.

The main focus of Luca’s research concerns questions about affective states such as emotions, moods, pleasures, and pains. What is an emotion? Why do orgasms feel good and pains feel bad? Is morality based on empathy? How can we know what someone else is feeling? How can we know what we are feeling? What is the relation between affective states and cognition? Are emotions necessarily embodied?

This research feeds into one of Luca's undergraduate modules, Pleasure, Pain, and Emotions (third year). In this module students explore the nature of different affective states (pain, sensory pleasure, basic emotions, social emotions, etc.) and their role in our mental lives. Students grapple with questions such as: What is pain? Can happiness be reduced to pleasure? How one can be afraid of flying even if one knows that flying is not dangerous? How did disgust evolve? Is the immorality of a psychopath immorality due to an emotional deficit?

Personal identity, continued existence and death

Professor Eric Olson is one of the world’s leading researchers on the metaphysics of personal identity. What sort of thing is a person? What does it take for a person to continue existing from one time to another? What makes it the case, for instance, that you are the child at the bottom left in a certain primary-school class photo, rather than one of the others? What is it about the way you now relate to that child then that makes you the same person?

Eric advocates the view known as ‘animalism’, which says that we are biological organisms and that personal identity is really animal identity. He has defended this view in two books, The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology, and What Are We? He is also the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on personal identity.

You can find out more about Eric's philosophical views, and how he became interested in philosophy, in an interview for 3AM.

This research forms part of the content of his module Metaphysics, which is devoted to the metaphysics of material things (things made from matter) in general and its implications for personal identity. It deals with questions like these: What is a material thing? What material things are there? Can the same matter make up more several material things at once? Do the best theories about material things clash with attractive views about personal identity?

The metaphysics of personal identity also plays a role in Eric’s first year module Death. It deals with questions such as: What is death? What happens to us when we die? Could there be some sort of afterlife? What makes it bad to die--or is it bad at all? Would it be better if we didn’t die, but were immortal? Eric has recently published a popular article on some of this material. 

Further reading:

Religion, free will, and virtue

Ryan Byerly's research tends to focus on questions about free will and virtue, especially as these intersect with themes in religion. For example, he has published one book and more than ten journal articles addressing a wide gamut of traditional puzzles regarding free will that arise because of belief in the kind of God in view in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.These puzzles include whether human beings can have free will if God has perfect foreknowledge of what they will do, whether human freedom provides a solution to the problem of evil facing belief in God, and whether God could have free will if God is also necessarily morally good.

Ryan's research on these topics directly informs his teaching of the level three module Free Will and Religion, where students work systematically through these topics for themselves, gaining an appreciation for the diversity of views that have been defended regarding the topics and an understanding of the intricacies of ongoing philosophical debates concerning them.

Ryan has also published research on a variety of moral, intellectual, and collective virtues. In many cases, his research on these topics is again directed toward questions intersecting with themes in religion. For example, his most recent monograph, Putting Others First, engages in an interdisciplinary evaluation of a character trait called "others-centeredness" that he argues is advocated for in certain texts of the New Testament.

Ryan's research on moral, intellectual, and collective character traits directly informs his teaching of the second year module Religion and the Good Life, where students investigate a variety of philosophical views regarding the relationship between religions and a well-lived life, including questions about the value--or lack thereof--of character traits distinctively lauded or repudiated in a variety of religious traditions.

Students investigate, for example, Buddhist views about mindfulness, Christian conceptions of humility, Confucian conceptions of filial piety, and Jewish perspectives on protesting God. The module takes a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach, introducing students to relevant research in Philosophy, Psychology, and Religious Studies.

Beyond these two areas of focus, Ryan also takes an interest in the broader array of topics that have tended to dominate the field of philosophy of religion. He has written, for example, about arguments for God's existence, questions about the rationality of religious faith, and questions about the afterlife, most recently co-editing a volume of philosophical essays called Paradise Understood that focuses specifically on heaven. These traditionally-dominant topics in the field tend to be a place of focus in the first year module Philosophy of Religion."

Ryan is on research leave until September 2020. He was awarded an Academic Cross-Training Fellowship from the John Templeton Foundation for two years. During this fellowship he will acquire advanced training in the Psychology of Character and build a research network with Psychologists and Philosophers working on this topic.

Further reading

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