Meaning for the brain and meaning for the person

About

Nicholas Shea

Professor of Philosophy, Institute of Philosophy, University of London

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Research Interests

Philosophy of psychology and cognitive science
Philosophy of mind
Theories of representational content
Decision-making
Inheritance systems

Career & Education

PhD in Philosophy, King’s College, London
Barrister, Intellectual property litigation
BA in Mathematics

AHRC Fellowship Project

This project is about the following question: What is meaning and how does it arise in the natural world? A fundamental feature of the human mind is that we have meaningful mental states: thoughts, desires, perceptual experiences and so on. These paradigmatic states of the mind are about things in the world outside the thinker. They represent what is the case, and can of course misrepresent, as when I see that the sky is clear, believe falsely that the weather will be fine, and go out without a coat (only to get wet). Philosophers have long sought to understand the meaningfulness of mental representations. Centrally: how do meaningful representations arise in the natural world?

The rise of cognitive neuroscience in recent years has generated powerful new resources for addressing that question. A variety of brain imaging techniques have given us accounts of the information processing carried out in the brain in unprecedented detail. As yet these accounts only cover relatively low-level processing in constrained experimental settings, but they still offer the philosopher a fantastic new basis for testing and constraining theories of simple representational content.

These advances present an opportunity for fruitful cross-disciplinary research. Philosophy and the cognitive sciences both recognise that the nature of meaning is an unresolved foundational issue. The new results in cognitive neuroscience provide us with new subject matter that will enable new progress in understanding the nature of representational content. The two primary aims of the project are:

  • To develop theories of representational content applicable to a series of case studies drawn from information-processing psychology (“subpersonal” representational systems).
  • To collaborate with Professor Chris Frith FRS FBA at the Institute of Philosophy to catalogue ways in which information processing operates differently on “personal level” mental representations like beliefs and desires. Such differences are likely to be important in characterising how representational content is constituted at the personal level.

Meaning at subpersonal and personal levels: for the brain and for the person.