My Research

Most of my research focuses on various aspects of representation in conscious experience, particularly in perceptual and emotional experience. I am interested in understanding the interactions among three interdependent factors: first, what it’s like to have a particular conscious experience; second, what that experience represents to you; and third, your attitudes towards the object of that experience. One dominant theme of my research is that each one of these factors shapes the other two: none of the factors are independent of the others. Much of my work explores this interdependence in various kinds of conscious perceptual experience (e.g., illusions, synesthesia) and also in various kinds of conscious emotional experience (e.g., esteem, love, grief).

On the topic of perception, my work focuses on determining the scope of influence of cognitive, emotional and other states on perceptual experiences, the implications this has for what properties can be contents of conscious perceptual experiences, and on what determines or grounds the content of perceptual experiences. I have advanced the view that perceptual experiences can be penetrated by information from outside of the visual stream, specifically by both higher-level cognitive states and also by emotions. We commonly speak as though we perceive many kinds of properties: we say that we not merely see the dog, or the dog’s expression, but that we can see the anger on her face, or even see that she is dangerous. But this common way of speaking and thinking about perception is at odds with the way that some philosophers and cognitive scientists use the term. For instance, Dretske (1995) and Tye (1995) both argue that non-doxastic perceptual experiences only represent objects’ shapes as arranged spatially.

In “Can Blue Mean Four”, “You Can See What I Means”, “Representing the Impossible” and “Good Looking”, I defend the contrasting view that conscious visual experiences can represent visual objects as having high-level properties, e.g. amodal and semantic properties. For instance, in “Can Blue Mean Four”, I develop the case for the representation of high-level properties in visual experience from synesthesia. Here, I draw on a special variety of number– color synesthesia to argue that we can visually experience graphemes (like ‘4’) to have numerical values (or to represent numbers). A small subset of number-color synesthetes seem to have a heightened ability to perform mental arithmetic in virtue of their synesthesia. I argue that we can explain the apparently facilitative effect of synesthesia on mental arithmetic in these synesthete savants by the view that synesthete savants visually experience graphemes as having numerical values. In “You Can See What ‘I’ Means”, I argue that the case from synesthetes generalizes to make the case about the possible perceptual contents of normal perceivers’ visual experiences. In a more recent article, “Good Looking”, I draw on empirical work concerning the relation between the assessment of a person’s moral character, visual experiences that are evaluative (perceiving someone as attractive) and the perceptual representation of value. Studies show that people we judge to have good character we also evaluate to be more attractive. I argue that in these cases, evaluative perceptual experiences are penetrated by emotional experiences of esteem and inherit their contents. They thereby come to represent morally admirable people as having positive (often intrinsic) value.

On the topic of emotional experience, one project defends the intentionalist view that an emotional experience represents its object as having some evaluative property. For instance, fear may evaluate what it is felt toward as being dangerous. I am interested in which evaluative properties of objects specific emotions represent, the role of emotions in facilitating knowledge about those properties, and in the influence of emotions on other perceptual modalities. For instance, I have advanced the view that different esteeming emotions represent their objects to have various types of value (e.g., that love and grief are kinds of esteem for an object whose value is of such a kind that it is non-fungible). In “The Perception of Virtue”, I argue that emotional responses of esteem to perceived demonstrations of good character represent the perceived character traits as valuable, and hence, as virtues. These esteeming experiences, I argue, are analogous to perceptual representations in other modalities in their epistemic role as causing, providing content for, and justifying beliefs regarding the value of the traits they represent. I also discuss the role that the perceiver’s own character plays in their ability to recognize and respond appropriately to virtue in others, showing that moral virtues are also epistemic virtues when it comes to facilitating knowledge about the character of people we encounter.

My writings on these topics are primarily projects in the philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology, but my work also intersects with moral psychology, aesthetics, ethics and epistemology. In execution I draw both on traditional philosophical methods and also on empirical work in the psychological and biological sciences.

Prior to my interest in perception and emotion, I focused on the metaphysical relation between the mind and body. Most philosophers currently working in this area maintain that mental properties bear some necessary relationship to material properties. Work in this area is directed toward resolving two concerns. First, how are mental and material aspects of the world related? Second, which material properties are mental properties necessarily related to? My research took up these issues as they pertain to the special case of phenomenal experience or consciousness, those properties in virtue of which there is something-it-is- like to be you at any given time. My three papers, “Two HOTs To Handle”, “Reduction and the Determination of Subjective Character”, and “Representing the Impossible” support the view that the qualitative features that comprise conscious experiences are mental representations that may ultimately be reducible to physical states of the brain.

In addition to my interests in philosophy of mind and psychology, I have research interests in ethics.