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Dr Alex Barber

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 ethics. The exceptional breadth and interdisciplinarity of the Open University's teaching curriculum has increasingly shaped my research, too. My research publications are listed under the "Publications" tab, while my teaching publications appear lower down this page.

Research interests

I currently work on three philosophical topics, all related to ethics in one way or another.
Role ethics: The various roles we occupy, be it soldier, parent, friend, monarch, etc., are ethically charged. We try to do the right thing as a parent or as a friend, etc. Ethicists have studied these roles in isolation from one another, but I have been 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 the well-being that arises from participating in collecitve endeavours. My colleague Sean Cordell and I ran an AHRC-funded Role Ethics Network (2016-18) with academics from across the globe, to help shed light on this neglected area, culminating in a 2023 volume of papers with Oxford University Press. In a spin-off project, we are looking at codes of ethics (their purposes, their limitations, how to improve them) in collaboration with professionals outside academia. If you are interested in working with us on this, you are welcome to contact us via the Role Ethics Research Group.
Ethics in the scientific age: What is the relation between ethics and science? It seems clear that ethics is not itself a science (unless one or other of the words is being used in a non-standard way), yet the two are related: ethicists ignore the findings of science at their peril. 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 later paper I drew out some implications of immunity this for philosophy.
Ethics and language: I have a long-standing interest is in the philosophy of language and linguistics, but in more recent years this has become focused on ethical questions relating to language. This has led to a paper on dishonesty and lying, another (co-authored) on linguistic prescriptivism, and a third on freedom of expression and deepfakes.

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 study 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).
  • Reason in ActionMilton Keynes: Open University, 2014
  • EthicsMilton Keynes: Open University, 2011
  • Language and Thought. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2005
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.


Freedom of expression meets deepfakes (2023)
Barber, Alex
Synthese, 202, Article 40(2)

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, 6, Article 18(3) (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)

An Overview of Social Roles and Their Ethics (2023-03-01)
Barber, Alex and Cordell, Sean
In: Barber, Alex and Cordell, Sean eds. The Ethics of Social Roles (pp. 1-22)
Publisher : Oxford Academic

Participatory Wellbeing and Roles (2023)
Barber, Alex
In: Barber, Alex and Cordell, Sean eds. The Ethics of Social Roles (pp. 278-297)
ISBN : 9780192843562 | Publisher : Oxford Academic | 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

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

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