Research


Research Projects


Below you find a list of specific research interests and projects. For further information, please see the details below or visit the individual home pages.


Main Projects

Emotions Animal Emotionale I

(funded by the VolkswagenStiftung, project website)

Achim Stephan
Emotions Animal Emotionale II – Existential Feelings, Psychopathology and the Range of Evolutionary Explanations

(funded by the VolkswagenStiftung, project website)

Achim Stephan, Sven Walter
Emotions Emotional Experience in Depression: A Philosophical Study

(funded by the DFG/AHRC, project website)

Achim Stephan

Abstracts

Prof. Dr. Achim Stephan, Prof. Dr. Sven Walter

Animal Emotionale II

The central tenet of our research is that man is essentially an emotional being – an animal emotionale. It is not only that our conscious, or experiential, mental life is essentially emotional; by establishing a primary way of world-directness, processes such as thinking, deciding, and acting are also profoundly emotional. This kind of worlddirectness of emotions – we call it “affective intentionality” – formed the topic of our philosophical and neuroscientific research in animal emotionale I. The project animal emotionale II extends the work done previously in two ways. First, it brings into focus a new kind of affective state – so called “existential feelings”. Second, it broadens our perspective by incorporating research from two disciplines not heavily involved in animal emotionale I – evolutionary anthropology and psychopathology.

Emotions are not only a way of being evaluatively directed towards certain objects or situations, as, for instance, in the case of basic emotions such as fear or disgust. Rather, as existential feelings they establish an essentially qualitative way of being directed to the world as a whole. Normally, this ever present affective kind of worlddirectedness remains in the background and unnoticed by the subject. It comes into the focus of attention typically when it is in some sense disturbed, for instance in cases of derealisation, when the world is experienced by the subject to be unreal. So far, existential feelings have primarily been the subject matter of philosophical research done in a phenomenological tradition. In the first two subprojects of animal emotionale II we will build on, but go beyond, this phenomenological tradition by developing a systematization of existential feelings in a way that is based instead on the analytic tradition in philosophy and incorporates knowledge from psychopathology, discussing the neurophilosophical question of whether existential feelings are, at least in principle, accessible empirically, and if so, how, and doing one exemplary empirical imaging study with atients suffering from Depersonalisation- and Derealisationsyndrome.

Historically, psychological theories of emotions have been heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Therefore, the third subproject addresses the topic “emotions” from the point of view of the philosophy of science, by critically evaluating the explanatory force of evolutionary explanations of emotions in general and of fear and disgust in particular (thereby connecting animal emotionale II to the empirical studies done in animal emotionale I). Topic of the fourth subproject is an empirical study in which we are investigating the neural correlates of the experience of fear and disgust both in healthy subjects and in patients with spider- and blood-phobia. These phobias also form the basis for a philosophical evaluation of the relevance of neurobiological research for evolutionary explanations of emotions. The fifth subproject finally addresses the questions whether functional equivalents of existential feelings, which, after all, are usually taken to be characteristically human in the phenomenological
tradition, can also be found in animals and how existential feelings can be subjected to evolutionary explanations.

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Prof. Dr. Achim Stephan

Emotional Experience in Depression: A Philosophical Study

The aim of this project is to provide the first ever detailed, systematic philosophical study of the nature and role of altered mood, emotion and feeling in depression. Despite the vast amount of research that is conducted into the causes and treatment of depression, the experience of depression remains poorly understood. Most autobiographical accounts either resort to metaphor or acknowledge that aspects of the experience are incommunicable. Changes in emotion, mood and bodily feeling are central to all forms of the condition. In recent years, there has been much valuable philosophical and interdisciplinary research on the emotions, which is complemented by new developments in philosophy of psychiatry and in scientifically-informed phenomenology. We will draw on all these areas. Our project will bring together a group of philosophers, psychiatrists, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists all of whom have made important contributions to current research on emotion and/or psychiatric illness. The result will be a cohesive account of emotional experience in depression that will serve as the basis for further philosophical work, assist ongoing scientific research by providing clearer accounts of the emotional changes that require explanation, and contribute to clinical work by formulating a conceptual framework that patients and clinicians alike can use to communicate the experience of depression.

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Prof. Dr. Achim Stephan

Animal Emotionale I

To a much larger extent than usually assumed, man is an emotional animal. Emotions and feelings are crucially involved in experience of world and self, they motivate or inhibit actions, and they are central ingredients in appraisal processes and in decision-making. Our interdisciplinary research project aims at investigating human emotionality in its interrelatedness with other central features of human nature. Of special interest are the potentials of emotion regulation, the role of emotions in moral judgment and decision-making and, on a yet more general level, a theory of affective intentionality (i.e., the emotion’s and feeling’s constitutive contribution to human experience). Philosophy and neuroscience are thus brought into a fruitful exchange: Philosophical theorizing and concept-formation inform the neuroscientific gathering of data, while insights into the functioning of neural mechanisms provide a robust empirical footing for philosophical concepts and theories." Forschungsergebnisse unter: "To a much larger extent than usually assumed, man is an emotional animal. Emotions and feelings are crucially involved in experience of world and self, they motivate or inhibit actions, and they are central ingredients in appraisal processes and in decision-making. Our interdisciplinary research project aims at investigating human emotionality in its interrelatedness with other central features of human nature. Of special interest are the potentials of emotion regulation, the role of emotions in moral judgment and decision-making and, on a yet more general level, a theory of affective intentionality (i.e., the emotion’s and feeling’s constitutive contribution to human experience). Philosophy and neuroscience are thus brought into a fruitful exchange: Philosophical theorizing and concept-formation inform the neuroscientific gathering of data, while insights into the functioning of neural mechanisms provide a robust empirical footing for philosophical concepts and theories.
For project results please see: http://www.volkswagenstiftung.de/foerderung/herausforderungen/schluessel...

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Further Research Projects

Ontology Metaphysics of Properties Vera Hoffmann-Kolss
Extended Cognition The Extended Mind Hypothesis: Theory and Applications Sven Walter

Abstracts

Dr. Vera Hoffmann-Kolss

The Metaphysics of Properties

I work on the metaphysics of properties. My current research topics include the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, the relationship between higher-level and lower-level properties as described by the notion of supervenience, and the question what it means for a property to be causally relevant. I am also interested in how these issues pertain to central topics in the philosophy of mind, such as the rela-tionship between the mental and the physical and the problem of mental causation.

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Prof. Dr. Sven Walter

The Extended Mind Hypothesis: Theory and Applications

At least since the late nineties the cognitive and neurosciences experience a programmatic and paradigmatic thrust, which manifests itself in the key words “embodiment”, “situated cognition" and "dynamicism”. At the core of this development is the insight that cognitive processes cannot be isolated from the physical constraints of the cognitive system, its situatedness and its dynamic interaction with the environment. The idea that cognitive processes are no longer simply characterized at an abstract, purely information-processing level blurs gradually also the intuitively plausible boundary between the “inside” and “outside” of a cognitive system, between what’s in the “mind” and what supposedly takes place outside the boundaries of the mind in the body and the environment. A growing number of authors argues that our traditional views about what cognitive processes are and where they take place must be revised insofar as the nature of such processes is substantially constituted by body and environment. Cognitive systems are not limited to the local processing system, the neural machinery, but extend across its traditionally conceived boundary into the surroundings, in external cognitive tools and into social communities.
This “Extended Mind Thesis” (EMT) was made famous by a 1998 Analysispaper of Andy Clark and David Chalmers and has been defended and developed most prominently by Clark since then. Meanwhile other EMT-supporters like Susan Hurley, Richard Menary, Mark Rowlands, Michael Wheeler and Robert Wilson but also critics have raised their voice, and a fruitful debate about the validity and scope of EMT has emerged both within the empirical cognitive and neurosciences as well as in the philosophy of mind. In the German-speaking community, however, little attention has been paid so far to EMT, neither from the philosophical nor the empirical perspective.

One goal of the project is to explore the prospects of the empirical support of EMT by clarifying to which extent researchers from the cognitive and neurosciences in their everyday work and practice already implicitly assume extended cognition ideas or even actively operate with them. To this extent Holger Lyre (philosophy, Bielefeld), Ipke Wachsmuth (AI, Bielefeld) and I have organized an international conference entitled "The Extended Mind: Theory and Applications", to be held at the ZiF in Bielefeld from November 23-25 2009 (see the official conference website for more information).

In addition to that, I'm working on a book length manuscript on Extended Cognition and Functionalism.

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PhD Projects

Reduction and Causation A New Look at Philosophy of Mind: Reassessing Reduction and Causation Markus Eronen
Enactivism, Extended Cognition Autonomy in Humans - The Self as Non-Metabolically Enacted Autonomy - With implications for Locked-In Syndrome Miriam Kyselo
Neural Darwinism Some Consequences of Neural Darwinism Ilaria Serafini
Evolutionary Anthropology Kin Recognition in Humans - A Contribution to Evolutionary Anthropology Hartmut Wilke
False Phenomenologies? Judgements about Phenomenality in a Science of Consciousness Sascha Fink
Phenomenology of Depression Narratives Culturally-inspired Phenomenological Profile of Depression Asena Paskaleva
The Intentionality of Emotions investigating the interconnections of emotions, evaluation, embodiment and enactivism Wendy Wilutzki

Abstracts

Markus Eronen, M.A.

A New Look at Philosophy of Mind: Reassessing Reduction and Causation

One of the most central problems of philosophy is the nature of consciousness and its relation to the body, particularly the brain. Can consciousness and the mind be reduced to the activity of the brain or to the level of neurons? Can psychological explanations be reduced to neuroscientific explanations? For the last decades, philosophy of mind has been dominated by nonreductive physicalism, which gives a negative answer to these questions: it states that everything, including mind and consciousness, is in the end physical, but mental properties do not reduce to neurobiological properties.

However, both supporters and opponents of nonreductive physicalism have made certain problematic assumptions regarding reduction and causation. The model of reduction in philosophy of mind has been either Nagel’s classic model, which is now considered deficient and unrealistic, or the functional model of reduction (e.g., Kim, Levine), which is based on purely philosophical analysis instead of actual science. Causation has usually been left undefined, while making implicit assumptions about its nature, for example that it has to be “productive” in the sense that the cause produces or brings about the effect.

The aim of my project is to critically examine the aforementioned assumptions regarding reduction and causation, based on recent advances in philosophy of science. I will show that both models of reduction in philosophy of mind are fundamentally problematic, and that a scientifically relevant notion of causation is completely different from that of philosophy of mind.

The developments of philosophy science that I will focus on are the models of mechanistic explanation (Bechtel, Craver, Richardson) and Woodward’s interventionist account of causation. I will show that these models support one another and are in accordance with scientific practice. I will also defend explanatory pluralism, according to which explanations of different levels “co-evolve” and do not replace one another, and higher level (e.g., psychological) explanations are needed even when lower level (e.g., neurobiological) explanations are complete. I will support my claims by going through scientific case studies and examples.

The fundamental aim of my project is to revise philosophy of mind, so that it would be closer to scientific practice and would take the results of philosophy of science better into account. Updating the models of reduction and causation would be a big step to this direction, after which philosophy of mind would stand on more solid ground and be better able to support scientific projects that aim at explaining mind and consciousness.

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Miriam Kyselo M.A.

Autonomy in Humans - The Self as Non-Metabolically Enacted Autonomy - With implications for Locked-In Syndrome

The goal of my PhD thesis is to contribute to the development of an integrating framework for researching self within the various disciplines of cognitive science. The background paradigm for my project is the enactive approach to cognition, which is an alternative to the cognitivist heritage, but which is also distinct from other approaches in embodied cognitive science. Enactive cognitive science has provided strong evidence to reconsider our perspective on the nature and mechanisms of lower cognitive capacities. What it still lacks, however, is an account of the higher cognitive capacities of human beings. The goal of this thesis is to develop an enactive account of self that is continuous with the more basic accounts of biological autonomy. This is put to practice by investigating how BCI (Brain Computer Interfaces)-communication in patients with LiS (Locked-in Syndrome) affects the maintenance or alteration of their self, and how this might inform a theory of non-metabolically enacted autonomy.

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Ilaria Serafini M.A.

Some consequences of Neural Darwinism

The human brain is probably the most complicated material object in the known universe. Brain scientists have described an extraordinarily layering of brain structure at levels ranging from molecules to neurons, to entire regions, all affecting behaviour. But the relation between brain structure and brain function still remains unclear in many cases.

One particular issue concerns what has become a philosopher’s hobby horse, the so called explanatory gap that arises from the remarkable differences between brain structure in the material world and the properties of qualia-laden experience, for example.

In my thesis however I will not treat the problem of qualia or the problem of consciousness, but I will support a model of explanation able to describe how the so-called higher brain functions arise from the neural structure.

The idea I want to support is proposed by Gerald Edelman in many of his books and is also known as Neural Darwinism. According to Edelman, the brain functions are a product of evolution that works by neural selection. My idea is to apply the main principles proposed in Neural Darwinism to the phenomenon of anticipation in order to suggest a different epistemology to approach human cognition.

The alternative epistemology I will propose will be based on evolutionary theory and grounded on biology. The biologically based epistemology would give the chance to approach cognitive functions, in the case of my research, the phenomenon of anticipation, from a biological point of view, but without falling in the extreme reductionism.

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Hartmut Wilke M.A.

Kin Recognition in Humans - A Contribution to Evolutionary Anthropology

In my dissertation I will argue that (a.) the sociobiological kin recognition theory is not sufficient to explain kin recognition in humans, and (b.) that phenomenology can make the deficits explicit and (c) may be useful to influence further empirical work.

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Sascha Fink M.A.

False Phenomenologies? Judgements about Phenomenality in a Science of Consciousness

One of the main problems for an attempted science of consciousness is that the truth makers of a judgement about consciousness are only privately available: Epistemically, for each phenomenal token, one and only one epistemic subject has direct epistemic access (e.g. can attend) to this token, while other epistemic subject may only infer from correlates. For example, a pain can only be felt by one person. To verify or falsify a judgement like „Pains are unpleasant.“, each subject can access only one different subclass of truth-making tokens, namely only her own pains. That is, the sets of accessible truthmakers are mutually exclusive: Nobody else can feel this specific pain that I feel and judge about it by acquaintance. Mind also that if there is any knowledge for a science of consciousness of this type, it is classical propositional knowledge.

Science, however, is reliant on intersubjective methods of critique. It is obvious that we cannot give up this position: Any science, may it be biology, physics, sociology, economics or history of art must have its evidence or its instances of refutation in principle available to all members of the scientific community. If we were to give up this basic axiom, we would give up the basis of mistake minimisation by the community, and revelations might become scientific method.

A science of consciousness must deal with this basic tension between the intersubjectivity of scientific methodology and the subjectivity and privateness of its subject matter, especially when it comes to introspective judgements about these phenomena. This has been acknowledged by philosopher Ned Block (2007) by stating Epistemic Correlationism: when we want to verify in experimental setting whether a specific phenomenal state is present to the experimental subject, we have to correlate it with a judgement made by the subject, expressed by report, button pressing or metacognitive access.

There are three plausible options: (1) Introspection, our immediate access to phenomena, is reliable. Then, we could trust in first-person reports. This is doubtful. (2) Introspection is replaceable. Then, we would not need to rely on reports to inquire consciousness. I pose an argument against this, at least for research in Neural Correlates of Consciousness. (3) Introspective judgements are correctable. Then, even if the referrents of these judgements are not intersubjectively accessible, at least the correctness of the reports can be evaluated.

The main aim of the project is to elucidate the argumentative strategies to reject a phenomenological claim, following the strategy in (3). This may reveal the limits of a science of consciousness: If such arguments exist, they might be limited to a subclass of phenomenal ontology. If they are, then this subclass may be the sole target for scientific inquiry.

I defend that such arguments exist, but that they are limited to the modalities and generality of phenomenal metaphysics, that is: claims about what is necessary to experience. We are also limited to structural knowledge – knowledge of the relations that hold between different experiences. To distinguish between different kinds of arguments, I rely on the tools provided by recent work in possible world semantics, e.g. by Robert Stalnaker (2007). In conclusion, I hold that a science of consciousness is possible and hope to sketch its basic argumentative foundations.

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Asena Paskaleva MS

Phenomenology of Depression Narratives/Culturally-inspired Phenomenological Profile of Depression

The main aim of my PhD research is to examine depression from a culturally-inspired phenomenological perspective that takes into account the role and importance of first-person narratives in the understanding of the illness. This will eventually lead to the construction of a phenomenological profile of the condition that also comprises and integrates culturally specific concepts, experience and expression of affective states.

I am particularly interested in phenomenology, philosophy of psychopathology and the role of narratives in self-understanding, affectivity and the construction of identity in cases of mental illness. In my PhD research, I intend to further extend the examination of narratives of depression that was the main topic of my Master’s Thesis. There, I focused on several of the most prominent “depression memoirs” and this revealed a number of common alterations in experiential structures. These may, subsequently, lead to the formulation a distinct phenomenological profile of the condition which can have impact on diagnosis, treatment, understanding, and intervention techniques. Of great interest would be to enrich this perspective on depression with narratives and patient reports stemming from various cultures. This would provide us with a culturally-inspired view of the disorder and deliver insight into possible cross-cultural variations in the expression, experience and understanding of depression.

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Wendy Wilutzky

The Intentionality of Emotions - investigating the interconnections of emotions, evaluation, embodiment and enactivism

Emotions, just like other affective phenomena, such as moods and existential feelings, have a unique evaluative nature to their intentionality. When in fear, we feel that our present situation is dangerous; when in joy, we are appraising something as good for us. This has become known as affective intentionality. The evaluative and subjective aspects of intentionality, this nonpareil “mark of the mental”, are often neglected in the study of cognition.

The question I am investigating in my PhD-project is how this evaluative component of intentionality comes about. And how does it figure into the concept of mental representations? The evaluative feel of an affective state is not something that is explicitly “added on” to an otherwise complete representation of the world, but appears to be an inherent element of an individual’s intentional relation with the environment, which is at work from the very outset of the intentional proces. The kind of evaluation in question is not of a deliberative sort, but rather is a valenced feeling. This points to the embodied nature of emotions, which may help understand how a very basic kind of evaluation (or appraisal) can be present in and a key aspect of an act of intentionality, without that evaluation being represented in an explicit form.

One approach, which recognizes intentionality as an inherently evaluative process, is the theory of enacted cognition. Despite the strong recent emphasis on sensorimotor knowledge, this theory acknowledges that intentionality can only arise within living organisms for which certain interactions with the environment are assessed on a graded scale of normativity, i.e. they are experienced as good or bad, better or worse. Although the enactive approach is immensely promising for a holistic construal of intentionality, there are many open questions concerning the way in which these intentional processes are realized. Do they involve mental representations? Can one do away with the notion of a mental representation on the enactive theory, or must the concept of a mental representation be redefined?

I plan to investigate these and other questions throughout my phd-studies.

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