The central question that animates my research is to understand the nature and value of philosophy, and its role in human life. My method is to proceed indirectly, by studying phenomena in the philosophy of mind and ethics, and then generalizing the insights to topics within metaphilosophy. I also venture into political philosophy to complete the picture. In short, I’m trying to be a good pragmatist about philosophy.

So far, I have been especially interested in articulating a less intellectualist account of philosophy, and a more socially-embedded role of philosophy in human life.

My first approach, which I pursued in my dissertation, was to try to understand which mental faculties are involved when we make decisions. I argued that we have a cognitivist bias when we say that only cognitive or so-called ‘rational’ capacities lead to good decisions. Instead, our (purely non-cognitive) feeling capacities have to be recognized as another, sui generis, and necessary faculty which is involved in good decisions. That is, I argued that a non-cognitive kind of emotion (not just emotions that are ‘cognitively penetrated’, ‘imbued with reason’, or ‘connected-to-thought’) is just as much involved in rational decisions as is reason or thought. That is, I argued for a separation of the notion of ‘rationality’ (as a success term) from intellectual cognition. There is a kind of rationality that does not come from thought or any connection to thought. That is, to be rational includes an independent contribution from our feeling capacities.

My dissertation was about decision-making. I take the findings to generalize to any form of ‘thinking about something’, as when we do philosophy. That is, whenever we think about things, I argue, the active deployment of our non-cognitive feeling capacities is just as necessary to arrive at a good conclusion as are our cognitive (or “intellectual”) capacities. So, doing philosophy cannot just be a form of thinking, it also has to be a form of feeling. Thus, a good philosopher does not only train her thinking capacities, but also her feeling capacities. Feeling capacities are trained by, among other things, (life) experiences. In my early postdoc phase I thus tried to connect these thoughts to Dewey’s argument that a good philosopher is someone who has real-life experiences to draw from.

Thus, the nature of philosophy is different than what we might have supposed with our traditional cognitive bias about thinking.[1] Philosophy is not just a clearing up of thoughts. It is, rather, a clearing up of any of the products of our various capacities. It is, minimally, a clearing up of our thoughts and our feelings. And when we do philosophy, we deploy our intellectual and our feeling capacities to resolve the matters we investigate.

My current postdoc project is situated in a research group on the notion of attention. Here, again, I try to make progress on the nature of philosophy by investigating a phenomenon from the philosophy of mind and ethics.

What is special about attention, I argue, is that when one pays attention, one is at the same time active and passive. That is, one is actively seeking the input from another when one pays attention. It is akin to how Aristotle takes perception to work: an active taking-in of sensory data, rather than just a passive container. And it is akin to what I argued in my dissertation about how feeling capacities work: they are not a passive reaction to what happens, but an experienced, informed way of taking in phenomenal information.

What does that have to do with philosophy? Philosophy, like all scientific[2] disciplines, is a tool for human beings to understand the world and themselves. Where do philosophical questions come from? What is a proper topic for a philosopher to investigate? I argue that in order for philosophy not to be “a sentimental indulgence”[3], it needs to pay attention. That is, it needs to actively seek the input from another in order to be about proper questions and topics. Philosophy without attention is like perception without an object: Not just empty, but meaningless. The ‘other’ from which philosophy needs to seek input comes from tasks, problems, and questions that arise from situations other than studying philosophy. That is, in order for philosophy to be about something, it needs to pay attention to the questions and problems of non-philosophers.

While this is something any philosopher can do individually to some degree, we need to be clearer on what ‘philosophy’ refers to when we say ‘philosophy needs to…’. Philosophy, in the context of my research, is understood as one among many scientific endeavors. That is, philosophy, here, is the (public, international) community conducting philosophical research. How can we make sure that philosophical research from this community is not meaningless?

I argue that my account of attention works both for the individual as also for the collective case. That is, paying attention in the sense of actively seeking the input from another can also be done by groups, communities, and institutions. Groups, communities, and institutions can fail to pay attention in this sense, too. I apply the insights from the study of collective attention to the specific example of the philosophical community: what does it mean for philosophers, as one among many scientific communities, to pay attention? I draw from the pragmatist tradition (Dewey, Kitcher), and from literature in political philosophy on how institutions can be open to democratic control, to answer this question.

The philosophical community’s collective task, in order to be attentive (i.e. in order to be about something), is to develop methods to find out about the philosophical research needs (i.e. the philosophical questions) of others in our society, and to find adequate ways to resolve them.


[1] See Timothy Williamson in The Philosophy of Philosophy for an argument that philosophy took a wrong turn in the 20th century when it committed its, what he calls, conceptual turn.

[2] I use the notions ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ to include the humanities and social sciences as well, with no primacy for the natural sciences, like in the German word “Wissenschaft”.

[3] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 338.