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Robert Michels

I received a B.A. in pedagogy and art history from the University of Karlsruhe (TH) and a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Constance. In December 2013, I received my PhD ("doctorat ès lettres") in philosophy from the University of Geneva, where I was afterwards employed as a postdoc within the SNSF-funded research project Indeterminacy and Formal Concepts. I am currently (autumn semester 2018) a temporary part-time lecturer ("Chargé d'enseignement") at the University of Neuchâtel, teaching an introduction to logic and a seminar on Wittgenstein's Tractatus. In spring 2019, I'll teach the second part of the introduction to logic in Neuchâtel and a graduate seminar on the philosophy of language at the University of Geneva. Together with Claudio Calosi I am currently organizing the weekly research seminar of eidos at the University of Geneva. For more details, please see my academic cv.

My research is mainly in metaphysics and philosophy of language and it usually engages in some form with modality or indeterminacy. I am happy to engage with relevant research in other areas of philosophy and other disciplines, such as linguistics and cognitive science. So far, I've taught courses and seminars in metaphysics, philosophy of language, logic, history of analytic philosophy, and also some subjects in epistemology and the philosophy of science.

You can contact me by e-mail via: mail (a)

Dissertation and published or forthcoming papers


Während ich einen kurzen Text, den ich einige Tage zuvor geschrieben hatte, dessen ich mir aber nicht wirklich sicher war, zu korrigieren oder noch zu ergänzen versuchte, fiel mir ein längeres Haar vom Kopf auf das Papier. Es lag da, nur wenig gekrümmt, schräg von links unten nach rechts oben über das Blatt hin.

Erich Fried

‒ Dissertation: "Metaphysical Modality and Essentiality" (University of Geneva, defended in December 2013)

Essentialists claim that we can distinguish between an object's essential and its accidental properties. According to them, an object's essential properties are those without which it cannot be what it is. The number two is for example essentially such that it is even, but only accidentally such that it is my favourite number.
Following important developments in modal logic during the 1960s and 70s, the orthodox view was that the essential properties of an object are its necessary properties. In his influential 1994 paper "Essence and Modality", Kit Fine argues that the orthodox view is wrong. His two main claims are that first, essentiality cannot be defined in terms of necessity and second, that necessity should instead be defined in terms of essentiality. In my dissertation, I aim to undermine both of his claims in order to defend a variation of the orthodox view. To do this, I first develop Fine's proposal for an essentialist definition of necessity into a more general essentialist theory. I then raise a series of problems for the resulting theory, one being that it provides no adequate treatment of iterated modalities. Finally, I introduce and defend a novel definition of essentiality in terms of metaphysical necessity and a notion of metaphysical dependence.

‒ Published paper: "Soames's Argument 1 against Strong Two-Dimensionalism" (Philosophical Studies 161 (3):403-420 (2012))

Two-dimensional semantics is a semantic theory which promisses a unified treatment of the important philosophical notions of a priority and metaphysical modality by associating the expressions of a language with two different kinds of meanings. In this paper, I defend a variant of this theory, strong two-dimensionalism, against a central argument from Scott Soames's 2005 book "Reference and Description: The Case Against Two-Dimensionalism". Soames argues that strong two-dimensionalism fails to deliver the intuitively correct truth-values for certain complex sentences involving the modal notion of necessity, a belief report and a claim that the reported belief is true. In response, I first develop a formal semantics for strong two-dimensionalism which allows for two distinct semantic clauses for claims about the truth of reported beliefs. I then show that Soames's claim is correct if the semantics includes one of the two clauses, but false if it includes the other. This means that defenders of strong two-dimensionalism have a way of resisting Soames's argument. Finally, I suggest some replies to an important objection against the version of strong two-dimensionalism which is immune to Soames's argument.

published version (subscription required), erratum to the published version (subscription required), final draft version (the final draft version has more conveniently placed tables, doesn't require a subscription, and incorporates the two corrections listed in the erratum)

‒ Published paper: "Cross-World Comparatives for Modal Realists" (Organon F 25 (3):368-391 (2018))

In this paper, I defend David Lewis's modal realist theory of modality against a recent objection by John Divers. Divers argues that the theory cannot account for the truth of modal comparative sentences like "The actual tallest thing could have been taller." His argument is based on the two ideas that first, to be comparable regarding a spatiotemporal magnitude such as tallness, two objects have to be in the same possible world, which in Lewis's sense means they have to be in the same (analogical) spacetime, and that second, modal realists are forced to treat this sentence as involving a cross-world comparison of tallness between objects in distinct possible worlds. I respond to Divers's argument by showing that modal realists can help themselves to a standard approach from semantics, according to which the objects compared in a comparative sentence are degrees of tallness. To make this point, I argue that this approach is compatible with Lewis's modal realism.

published version (open access), final draft version

‒ Published paper: "Essential Truths and Their Truth-Grounds" (Ergo 5 (30): 790-815 (2018))

The main idea which I motivate and defend in this paper is that propositions which express essential truths about certain objects have their truth grounded by facts which involve those objects. A truth-ground in this sense is a fact which makes it the case that the relevant proposition is true. (While I leave this open in the paper, I am sympathetic to the idea that truth-grounds are simply truth-makers.) I motivate the principle by providing two arguments for it, one based on the idea that the canonical notion used to capture claims about essence in the recent literature "is true in virtue of the nature of" is a special variety of truthmaking. I then defend the principle against three objections drawn from the recent literature on essence and grounding and then use the principle to argue that Fine's notion "... is true in virtue of the nature of ..." in its constitutive reading is non-monotonic. Finally, I respond to an argument due to Tahko, according to which truth-grounding is not genuine grounding.

published version (open access), local copy

‒ Published paper: "The Limits of Non-Standard Contingency" (Philosophical Studies 176 (2): 533-558 (2019))

In his paper "The Limits of Contingency", Gideon Rosen argues that the notion of metaphysical modality is systematically ambiguous. His argument is striking for two reasons. First, its main conclusion calls into question the many philosophical theories and claims which explicitly or implicitly rely on the standard notion of metaphysical modality. Second, Rosen's main argument is crucially based on a sub-argument which has been used by Kristie Miller to argue for Metaphysical Contingentism, the controversial view that some claims of fundamental metaphysics are metaphysically contingent, rather than necessary. In this paper, I explicate this crucial sub-argument argument based on Rosen's suggestive, but brief statement. My first main point is that the most straight-forward explication of the argument fails to support Rosen's conclusion that the notion of metaphysical modality is systematically ambiguous. I discuss two possible ways to save the argument and rebut them by arguing that they both entail a problematic view about the meaning of formal concepts, such as that of being an element of a set. My second main point is that the argument can only be used to support a rather particular version of Metaphysical Contingentism.

published version (free to read online), published version (subscription required), final draft version

‒ Forthcoming paper: "On How (Not) to Define Modality in Terms of Essence" (forthcoming in Philosophical Studies)

This is a paper about the Essentialist theory of modality, which I also discussed in my dissertation. In it, I distinguish four different definitions of metaphysical necessity which derive from Kit Fine's influential proposal that this notion should be defined in terms of essence. I explain why one of them has to be rejected and then argue that the remaining three definitions are extensionally equivalent, i.e. give us exactly the same metaphysical necessities. I then argue that one of the three definitions, namely Fabrice Correia's, should be considered the standard definition, since the others face certain problems connected to the primitive Essentialist notion on which Fine's Essentialist framework is based.

online first version (free to read online), online first version (subscription required), final draft version

Special issue of dialectica on the formalization of arguments

I am currently in the process of editing a special issue of the journal dialectica on the logical formalization of arguments. The deadline for submissions has passed, but the call for papers with some further information is still available on philevents.

Teaching materials

Syllabi from some of the courses I have taught in the past:

Academic events:

Workshops and conferences which I have co-organized:

Other interests



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