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Tanner Lecture

Michigan is one of nine institutions worldwide that hosts an annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Tanner Lectures are funded through the generosity of the late Professor of Philosophy, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner, and his wife, Grace Tanner. Professor Tanner wrote:

I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.

Although the Tanners established the supporting endowment in 1978, Joel Feinberg's April 1977 lecture at Michigan inaugurated the international series of Tanner Lectures.

Each year, Michigan has a Tanner Lecture combined with an interdisciplinary symposium to which we invite distinguished scholars from around the world. The complete list of Tanner Lecture Programs at Michigan is available here.

2018-2019 Tanner Lecture

Concepts and Persons

Dr. Michael Lambek

University of Toronto Scarborough, Professor and

Chair, Department of Anthropology


Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Michigan League Ballroom (2nd Floor)

A feature of our life with concepts is making mistakes. Consideration of conceptual error has been central to philosophy, but largely avoided by anthropologists, who want to demonstrate the rationality of their subjects. I describe the situation of a troubled young man and argue that his difficulty stems in part from a conceptual error, from placing his situation under the wrong description. As the description concerns his relations with spirits, I reflect on the ways in which metapersons (God/s, spirits, demons) are at once concepts and persons, demanding responses that are both intellectual and ethical (practical). To separate them would be our category mistake. A common form of category mistake is treating incommensurable concepts as though they were commensurable, thereby perhaps trading the richness and ambiguity of incommensurability for the order of structure. Many of our stubborn and ostensibly binary oppositions are of this kind. Conceptual mistakes (mistakes of grammar) are not the same as faulty reasoning. They sometimes emerge or dissolve historically such that concepts that were incommensurable from one perspective become commensurable and perhaps incompatible with another (or vice


Symposium on the Tanner Lecture

Thursday, January 31, 2019
Michigan Room, Michigan League (2nd Floor)


Michael Lambek, University of Toronto Scarborough

Jonathan Lear, University of Chicago

 Sherry Ortner, UCLA

 Joel Robbins, Cambridge