My research revolves around three questions:
Q1. How do we mentally represent the world?
Q2. How do we mentally represent ourselves?
Q3. How are representational states and episodes like beliefs, I-thoughts, and emotions justified?
I address these questions with the tools of the philosophy of mind, the theory of reference, cognitive science, and epistemology.
Question 1: Representation
Mental representations are theoretical entities that enable us to explain complex abilities. I have investigated the representations underlying our ability to perceptually segment and keep track of objects. More specifically, I have examined the theoretical framework underlying empirical findings on object perception and its implications for philosophical debates.
Much work in this area is dominated by a misleading analogy with natural language. Philosophers and cognitive scientists have often described object perception as underwritten by deictic representations (This, That) (Burge 2010; Pylyshyn 2007). I have argued that these views cannot accommodate the existence of top-down effects on perception and that they yield an implausible account of how object representations are connected with objects. In contrast, I have defended the claim that perceptual object representations are iconic, so they are more similar to pictures than words. The account I advocate offers an original characterization of the role of properties in object perception, it blocks an influential regress argument, and it challenges the received view of visual illusions.
This work has appeared in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (2016), Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (2017), Philosophy of Science (2017), and Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2016).
I am now working on three projects: a paper on the interface between iconic and discursive representations, a paper on the implications of my iconic account for the debate on particularity, and another paper on the individuation of representational formats. After that, I will examine the role of attention in visual reference, explore the consequences of the iconic account for naturalistic accounts of intentionality, and generalize the iconic view to other sensory modalities (e.g. audition, taste). The envisioned outcome is a book provisionally entitled Perceiving Objects.
Question 2: Self-Representation
I-thoughts are mental episodes that we typically express with different forms of the first-person pronoun ("I", “me”, “mine”, and “myself”) or the inflexion of the verb, as in Descartes’ cogito. I-thoughts have striking properties: tokens of I cannot fail to refer, they are relevant for action guidance, and judgments like I have a headache exclude the possibility of error through misidentification relative to the first person (Wittgenstein 1958; Shoemaker 1968; Evans 1982). Research in this area faces a puzzle. It seems plausible that tokens of I conform to a reflexive rule: “A token of I in a thinking stands for the subject of that thinking". Still, it has proven difficult to understand the relation between the reflexive rule and the above-mentioned properties. Hence, some authors have held that tokens of I do not refer, while others have provided inferentialist accounts of the I-concept.
I intend to offer an account of how the I-concept refers that also explains its striking properties. My starting point is a functional hypothesis: I-thoughts enable subjects to integrate self-concerning information from what I call "reflexive channels" (e.g. vision, introspection, personal memory, and proprioception) and "non-reflexive channels" (e.g. pictures, mirrors, spoken and written utterances). This integration hypothesis explains why the I-concept conforms to the reflexive rule: conforming to that rule is necessary to integrate self-concerning information from these channels for use in theoretical and practical inference. The resulting account solves problems faced by inferentialist accounts such as Gareth Evans’, it undercuts the main motivations for the non-referential views that originate from Wittgenstein’s and Anscombe’s influential works, and it explains why the first person is ideally suited to express self-consciousness. I have three manuscripts on this topic.
My next step is to explore the pre-conceptual precursors of the I-concept. I have some ideas for two articles. In one article, I will explore the hypothesis that the self is non-conceptually represented in visual experience. In another article, I will try to spell out the most general properties of the information sources that ground judgments that are immune to error through misidentification. In the long term, I will investigate the differences and commonalities between iconic object representations and iconic bodily representations (e.g., body schema, body image).
Question 3: Justification
Theories of epistemic justification identify the conditions under which it is permitted—from an epistemic point of view—to believe a proposition. I have been developing an account of epistemic justification that is psychologically plausible, generalizes beyond belief, and does not have skeptical consequences. In my early work, I argued that one can endorse Davidson’s (1984) belief principle (“Only beliefs can be reasons for other beliefs”) but reject his idea that perception plays a purely causal role in the justification of perceptual beliefs. This claim is broadly consistent with my work on iconic perceptual representations. If reasons have propositional content but perceptual representations are iconic, it seems to follow that perceptual states cannot stand as reasons for belief. Nevertheless, one could still maintain that perceptual beliefs are grounded in perceptual states. This suggests that epistemologists should distinguish grounds and reasons.
I hold that perception is a source of immediate justification. Very roughly, perceptual experiences on their own can give us justification to believe some propositions. This approach contrasts with the view defended by authors like Martin Davies and Crispin Wright. There is however a key difference between my take on immediate justification and previous ones. Received wisdom holds that experience can only confer immediate justification when the content of the justifying experience is the same as the content of the corresponding judgment. Focusing on the neglected case of emotions, I have challenged this sameness of content assumption.
Suppose that you see a dog with big teeth and moving erratically. It is plausible that your visual experience on its own justifies your fear of that dog. Yet, many emotion theorists deny that the content of your visual experience is the same as the content of your fear. You visually represent the dog as having big teeth and moving erratically; you emotionally represent that dog in evaluative terms (e.g., as fearsome). Cases of this sort suggest that there is immediate justification when the content of the justifier state (a visual experience) is different from the content of the justified state or episode (fear).
My work in epistemology has also dealt with external world skepticism. A distinctive feature of my approach is the use of tools from the philosophy of mind to undercut skeptical hypotheses. As an illustration, I have used work on imagination and conceivability to criticize the widely held view that radical skeptical scenarios are metaphysically possible. My current project is to develop new responses to the family of paradoxes that arise when theories of immediate justification are combined with closure and transmission principles (e.g., the so-called “problem of easy knowledge” and “closure-based skepticism”).
This work has appeared in European Journal of Philosophy (2011), Theoria (2013), Philosophical Studies (2017), Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (forthcoming), and Erkenntnis (forthcoming).