I explore questions surrounding the basic representations and operations involved in cognition. I am especially interested in the lexical structure of concepts and its role in our linguistic competence and social cognition.
In my dissertation, I defend the view that concepts encode causal information, and show how this hypothesis helps us explain a number of linguistic, cognitive, and social phenomena of philosophical interest.
My work is very informed by empirical research in the cognitive sciences, sometimes conducted by myself.
An Essentialist Theory of the Meaning of Slurs Philosophers' Imprint (forthcoming), penultimate draft here
In this paper, I develop an essentialist model of the semantics of slurs. I defend the view that slurs are a species of kind terms: slur concepts encode mini-theories which represent an essence-like element that is causally connected to a set of negatively-valenced stereotypical features of a social group. The truth-conditional contribution of slur nouns can then be captured by the following schema: For a given slur S of a social group G and a person P, S is true of P iff P bears the ‘essence’ of G – whatever this essence is – which is causally responsible for stereotypical negative features associated with G and predicted of P. Since there is no essence that is causally responsible for stereotypical negative features of a social group, slurs have null-extension, and consequently, many sentences containing them are either meaningless or false. After giving a detailed outline of my theory, I show that it receives strong linguistic support. In particular, it can account for a wide range of linguistic cases that are regarded as challenging, central data for any theory of slurs. Finally, I show that my theory also receives convergent support from cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics.
In this paper, I defend Non-Inferentialism about mental states, the view that we can perceive some mental states in a direct, non-inferential way. First, I discuss how the question of mental state perception is to be understood in light of recent debates in the philosophy of perception, and reconstruct Non-Inferentialism in a way that makes the question at hand – whether we can perceive mental states or not – scientifically tractable. Next, I motivate Non-Inferentialism by showing that under the assumption of the widely-accepted Principle of Cognitive Economy, any account that treats mental state perception as an inferential process commits itself to an unrealistically inefficient picture of our cognitive architecture. Drawing on research in cognitive science, I will then show that my Non-Inferentialist view receives direct support by the available empirical evidence. I conclude that there is no psychologically relevant sense in which perception of mental states differs from paradigmatic cases of perception, such as the perception of ordinary objects.
Intentional Action Processing Results from Automatic Bottom-up Attention: An EEG-Investigation into the Social Relevance Hypothesis Using Hypnosis Consciousness & Cognition (2016) (with Elliot C. Brown, See-In Lee-Grimm, Albert Newen, and Martin Brüne)
Social stimuli grab our attention: we attend to them in an automatic and bottom-up manner, and ascribe them a higher degree of saliency compared to non-social stimuli. However, it has rarely been investigated how variations in attention affect the processing of social stimuli, although the answer could help us uncover details of social cognition processes such as action understanding. In the present study, we examined how changes to bottom-up attention affects neural EEG-responses associated with intentional action processing. We induced an increase in bottom-up attention by using hypnosis. We recorded the electroencephalographic µ-wave suppression of hypnotized participants when presented with intentional actions in first and third person perspective in a video-clip paradigm. Previous studies have shown that the µ-rhythm is selectively suppressed both when executing and observing goal-directed motor actions; hence it can be used as a neural signal for intentional action processing. Our results show that neutral hypnotic trance increases µ-suppression in highly suggestible participants when they observe intentional actions. This suggests that social action processing is enhanced when bottom-up attentional processes are predominant. Our findings support the Social Relevance Hypothesis, according to which social action processing is a bottom-up driven attentional process, and can thus be altered as a function of bottom-up processing devoted to a social stimulus.
In: Neufeld, E., Brown, E. C., Lee-Grimm, S., Newen, A., Brüne, M. (2016): Intentional Action Processing Results from Automatic Bottom-up Attention: An EEG-Investigation into the Social Relevance Hypothesis Using Hypnosis. Consciousness & Cognition, 42, 101-112. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.03.002
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Meaning Externalism and Causal Model Theory
One of the main insights the philosophical community has drawn from Putnam's Twin Earth thought experiments and Kripke's modal arguments for a theory of direct reference is that meaning is individuated externalistically. In this paper, I propose an account of the structure of concepts that correctly predicts the Putnam-Kripke intuitions, while preserving an internalist conception of meaning. After presenting and systematizing the Putnam-Kripke data, I propose and defend a Causal Model Theory of conceptual structure, on the basis of which we can model the semantics of natural kind terms and predict the key Putnam-Kripke intuitions.
Pornography and Dehumanization: The Essentialist Dimension
A common assumption in feminist work on pornography is that its contents are deeply dehumanizing. Yet, an important question is in virtue of what it is that pornography dehumanizes women. The objective of this paper is to shed light on one such mechanism. In particular, I argue that pornography essentializes women, and that the essentialist picture of women depicted in pornography and the corresponding effects it has on viewers’ representations is one central element of the dehumanizing machinery of pornography. Drawing on moral insights gained from social movements, such as the disability pride movement and the feminist movement, and on work in cognitive psychology, I first argue that any act of subject-essentialization along a dimension we care about qua persons is an act of subject-dehumanization. Second, I present representative case studies to show that both extreme forms of pornography, such as gonzo, but also mainstream pornography commonly deploy content that essentializes women. These two steps, then, are sufficient to establish the dehumanizing effects of pornography.
Currently, I'm furthermore thinking about
- the semantics and syntax of bare plural and indefinite singular generics
- how lessons from the philosophy of science apply to philosophical semantics
- foundational issues in the cognitive science of essentialism
- implications of causal model theory for metaphysical essentialism
- the relationship between the reference class problem and psychological essentialism
- the reclamation of slurs and their in-group uses