Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Philosophy by Women

Today's post is by Elly Vintiadis. She introduces her new book, Philosophy by Women: 22 Philosophers Reflect on Philosophy and Its Value (Routledge, 2020).
A couple of summers ago I was reading something (I don’t remember what) and it struck me that most people have no idea what philosophy is and that they only think of old white guys when they think about philosophers. So I decided that I would put together a book of essays on the nature and value of philosophy written exclusively by women in the field of philosophy. I wanted it to be a book about philosophy so that readers can get a better idea of what it is we do and why it is important, while at the same time, without making a fuss about it (I didn’t even want the word “women” in the title), registering in peoples’ minds that there are women doing philosophy and doing it well. At a time when the usefulness of philosophy, and the humanities in general, is being questioned and when the voices of women are being increasingly heard around the world, a book such as this seemed to be particularly timely. 

To my amazement, though, I found it quite difficult to find a publisher. I had to explain why the contributors are all women and to show what would be produced that was worth producing, if only women wrote in the book – as if our voices ceased to be philosophers’ voices but had to be women’s voices and as if women would necessarily have another point of view, as a group, instead of our voices being the individual points of view taken by philosophers. I thought that was strange, given that I am sure no one asked such questions for all the anthologies over the years that have been written exclusively by male contributors. But eventually, after trying a number of publishers, Routledge took up the book and the result is an anthology of essays by a rather diverse group of philosophers, with different interests and different writing styles. 

By offering essays on the nature of philosophy and its value, this volume aims to contribute to a move towards philosophy reaching outward, engaging with the world it is a philosophy of. Through short and accessible essays the contributors of this book introduce people outside our field to the work that philosophers actually do, and to those aspects of it that can be relevant in our everyday life. At the same time though, in the essays in this collection philosophers are looking inward, to philosophy itself. 

By trying to explain what philosophy is some essays include criticism of contemporary academic philosophy. Such a critical view that challenges the status quo is essential for the evolution of any discipline that does not want to remain stagnant and especially for a discipline like philosophy that requires constant self-examination. So this is a book with a philosophical message: that more inclusivity would be good for philosophy because inclusivity is not only about what people enter in philosophy, it is also about the ideas and perspectives that are allowed to be heard. But it also has a political message: that inclusivity in philosophy is also a matter of justice. 

By putting together a book composed only of texts by women in philosophy, the aim is to show what is actually the case (that there are many women working in philosophy) while also providing counter-stereotypical examples that can also serve as role models, and thus show what is possible, hopefully motivating more women to pursue goals that they might otherwise have shied away from. Hopefully, also, this book will provide new readings in meta-philosophy; after all, the world around us is constantly changing and philosophy is too but we are stuck reading the same things by the same group of people.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Does Monogamy Work?

Today's post is by Luke Brunning (University of Birmingham). He presents his new book, Does Monogamy Work? (Thames & Hudson 2020).

Luke Brunning

Monogamy, where someone has one romantic partner at a time, is the dominant form of romantic life in our society, and most others. But why is this the case? Has monogamy always been dominant? Are there realistic alternatives to monogamy? What will the future of romantic life be different? I explore some of the questions in Does Monogamy Work? a short book for a general audience.

People often suppose monogamy is the ‘natural’ result of our biological constitution. Human babies require extensive care, so we might think we are hardwired to form monogamous ‘pair bonds.’ But the evidence for this is not conclusive. Different strategies can aid the survival of our genes, and two may favour nonmonogamous social dynamics: group care and kin support, or the prioritisation of offspring quantity over quality.


Monogamy is better thought of as a form of social organisation, which later became an ethical ideal. Marriages, which help people secure and transfer resources between groups in contexts of scarcity and uncertainty, became monogamous due to contextual pressures. Fewer wars, or better understanding of disease, equalised numbers of men and women in society, for example, or the shift away from agricultural labour, to wage labour, made larger families less tenable. It is no accident that the legal codification of monogamous marriage arose in societies like Ancient Greece and Rome which used imperial domination to maintain access to sexual slaves, therefore allowing male patricians to secure their estates while remaining sexually nonmonogamous with noncitizens.


The emergence and slow evolution of Christian thinking about marriage helped entrench monogamy as a social ideal. But this was not a straightforward process. Some Christian patriarchs were polygamous, some Church Fathers thought polygamy might help Christian communities ‘be fruitful and multiply’, and many influential teachings about the value of monogamous marriage presupposed the imminent end of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that monogamous marriage was entrenched as a spiritual and secular architype. Christian colonialization then helped export monogamous norms across the globe, often forcing them on unwilling populations as the price of ‘civilisation.’


Romantic love, as we understood it, was folded into the monogamous ideal at a later date, rather than animating it from the offset. Historically, love matches were the exception. The monogamy ideal reached its heights in the USA and Europe after WWII, when people craved love and domestic security, and rebuilding economies could provide it. Since then, however, changes to social and economic organisation have increasingly pressured monogamy. Monogamy weakened as a social practice as globalisation increased worker mobility, inflation incentivised women to join the workforce, the sexual revolution delayed child-birth and catalysed sexual experimentation, and feminist thinkers challenged social norms. People began to date more, delay marriage, and divorce. At the same time, people came to want more from a romantic partnership; more experiences, self-growth, emotional resonance, and sexual satisfaction.



These changes encouraged some people to explore nonmonogamy as a response to the desire for more in romantic life. These experiments in living vary widely; from hierarchical forms of polyamory, to looser forms of relationship anarchy, or religious polygamy. All forms of nonmonogamy, however, can offer people greater resources and sources of fulfilment while reducing the pressure to be ‘the one’ to someone else. Recognition of these benefits has led some scholars to argue for legal reform to either abolish, or redesign, marriage to accommodate multi-partner unions and so protect the care and love found in nonmonogamous lives. Political debate over such unions may be more common in coming decades.


Nonmonogamous relationships have always been critiqued: as impractical, unjust, or emotionally untenable. These critiques can be answered, or apply with equal force to modern monogamous family life; often they rely on contentious premises or an overly narrow conception of nonmonogamy. Of greater importance, is the need to attend to the ways that emerging forms of romantic life, like polyamory, might amplify existing norms we have reason to question, e.g. amatonormativity, the privileging of amorous relationships, or sex-negativity, the privileging of sexual restraint. The norms of nonmonogamous practices, of openness, clarity in communication, and so on, can also unwittingly favour ideals of individualism that reinforce potentially harmful power dynamics, or existing forms of romantic privilege concerning race, gender, and class.


Does Monogamy Work? aims to destabilise our relationship to monogamy. Monogamy is one form of romantic life someone might consider, amongst others. Monogamy is not straightforwardly ‘natural’, socially inevitable, or the only route to intimate flourishing.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Explaining Imagination

This post is by Peter Langland-Hassan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, who is presenting his new book, Explaining Imagination (OUP 2020). The book is available as a free open access download, thanks to a TOME grant from the University of Cincinnati.

Peter Langland-Hassan 

We won’t understand what imagination is—we won’t be able to explain imagination—until we can write a recipe for making it out of parts we already understand. My book, Explaining Imagination, is a compendium of such recipes.

What ingredients do they feature? On my telling, they are other familiar mental states like beliefs, desires, judgments, decisions, and intentions. In different combinations and contexts, they constitute cases of imagining.

The idea that imagination can be reduced to other kinds of mental states in this way is at odds with what most (maybe all) other philosophers have had to say about imagination. According to the orthodox view, if we list a person’s beliefs, desires, intentions, judgments, decisions, hopes, wishes, fears, and so on, and fully describe their ongoing use of those states in practical and theoretical reasoning, we will leave open whether they are imagining. For the facts about what, if anything, a person is imagining are thought not to be entailed by any facts about other folk psychological states they might be in. This is the sense in which imagination is commonly held to involve a sui generis or “primitive” type of mental state.

My reductive strategy is to look closely at behaviors and abilities commonly held to be enabled by imagination and to show how the work assigned to imagination can be accomplished by other kinds of states we already knew we had. These phenomena include conditional reasoning (Chapters 5 and 6), pretending (Chapters 7 and 8), the comprehension and enjoyment of fictions (Chapters 9, 10, and 11), and creativity (Chapter 12). In each case I try to explain how it can be that the imagining we associate with each activity is nothing over and above the skillful use of states like beliefs, desires, and intentions.

I do not, however, argue that imagining that p is the same thing as believing or desiring that p—or even as weakly believing or desiring that p. Rather, my claim is that some uses of beliefs, desires, judgments, intentions, and so on—none of which may have the precise content p—constitute cases of imagining that p. Here I apply the maxim, “Don’t assume content mirroring.” For example, suspecting that p is not the same as believing that p; but suspecting that p may nevertheless be reducible to believing that q, where q is the proposition that it is somewhat likely that p.

A second important maxim at work in my book is: “Don’t assume homogeneity.” In order for imagining to reduce to other kinds of mental states, we needn’t assume that it reduces in the same way in each instance. What gets called ‘imagining’ in one context—such as pretense—may be something different than what is called ‘imagining’ in another—such as daydreaming.

What unifies the diverse phenomena I try to explain as “imaginings” is that they are all cases of rich, elaborated thought about the unreal, fantastical, fictional, or possible that is, in general, epistemically safe. (“Epistemically safe” in the sense that it does not tend to decrease one’s epistemic standing, as opposed to, say, delusions which can also be about the unreal and fantastical.) Imagining, in this sense, sometimes involves mental imagery. But it needn’t by its nature. 

Some readers of may worry that the reductive approach I recommend is dismissive, deflationary, or even eliminative of imagination proper. But that is a misunderstanding. My aim is to explain imagination, not to question its importance, or to make it disappear. The take-home message is rather this: imagination is mysterious on its face. Because we have a comparatively clear understanding beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, then—if the sometimes surprising recipes offered in Explaining Imagination succeed—a similarly clear conception of imagination is close at hand.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Mental Disorder and Social Deviance

This post is by Awais Aftab (Department of Psychiatry, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA). In this blog post he introduces and summarizes the article “Mental Disorder and Social Deviance”, co-written with Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed (Philosophy, Birkbeck College), and published in International Review of Psychiatry. Aftab also leads the interview series ‘Conversations in Critical Psychiatry’ for Psychiatric Times which is likely to be of great interest to the readers of this blog.

Awais Aftab


I have been fascinated by the problem of distinguishing between “mental disorder” and “social deviance” since the early days of my psychiatric training. My exposure to the antipsychiatry philosophical literature had left me with a lingering, nagging doubt that unless there was some valid way of making this distinction, the legitimacy of psychiatry as a profession would stand on precarious and perilous ground.


Social deviance refers to actions or behaviors that violate social norms. The declassification of homosexuality brought the issue of differentiation between disorder and deviance to the forefront in the 1970s. When DSM-III was published, Spitzer sought to formalize a definition of mental disorder that would make explicit this distinction.


In the article, Rashed and I provide an overview of some of the major conceptual strategies that have been discussed as a means of discriminating between mental disorder and social deviance, and the extent to which these strategies can be said to be philosophically successful. We begin by reviewing the DSM's definition of mental disorder, which relies on “dysfunction in the individual” as the primary demarcating criterion. 

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed

However, given that “dysfunction” is left undefined, it offers little guidance, forcing us to explore specific notions of dysfunction as they exist within the context of commonsensical, clinical, and naturalist approaches. The commonsensical approach ends up relying on “folk” judgments, the naturalist approach (exemplified by Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis) puts us in an epistemic bind since our knowledge of the mechanisms of psychological functioning is limited, and their evolutionary history is largely speculative. 

The clinical approach, on the other hand, blurs the distinction between dysfunction and distress/disability since the presence of distress/disability is seen as an indicator of dysfunction. This leads us to discuss how distress (conceptualized in our discussion as intrinsic vs socially constituted) and disability (which is always in the context of a particular social environment) fare in this regard. While both are promising and practically more helpful than dysfunction, neither offers a perfect or straightforward way of making this distinction.


3E enactive approaches offer a promising theoretical strategy which relies on “functional norms” of an individual that support continued self-maintenance and adaptation, however, the notions of self-maintenance and adaptation are not currently operationalized in a manner that would allow us to resolve controversial cases with any degree of consensus. 

Finally, the application of ethical and political approaches transforms this issue into a complex negotiation of values which requires us to consider, for instance, balancing of harms and benefits of disorder designation, the need for “rational moral justification” vs reliance on relativistic societal value judgments, and higher-level arguments based upon a theory of the good society or eudaimonia. Other approaches such as such as Mad Pride and neurodiversity question the very distinction between social deviance and mental disorder in the first place.


Our review of all these strategies suggests that no single approach satisfactorily accounts for all possible cases and that a distinct dividing line between disorder and deviance remains elusive. However, these various philosophical strategies help illuminate the relevant considerations involved and suggest that the distinction between disorder and deviance is not simply a natural fact to be discovered but a complex judgment that requires negotiation between competing values.


Perhaps you may be wondering: how does this conclusion impact my lingering, nagging doubts about the legitimacy of psychiatry that I mentioned in the beginning? The process of philosophical reflection over the years has disabused me of the notion that a simple reliance of naturalism is what is needed for psychiatry to be legitimate. Psychiatry may be value-laden through and through, and there may be no easy demarcations, but that is a problem only if we continue to naively insist that nature be carved at its joints when no such joints exist.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Philosophy for Girls: An Invitation to the Life of Thought

Today's post is by Melissa M. Shew and Kimberly K. Garchar. They present their new book, Philosophy for Girls: An Invitation to the Life of Thought (OUP 2020).

Despite social and institutional improvements, women and girls are routinely discouraged from full participation in intellectual and civic life. Kamala Harris’s recent refrain of “I’m speaking, I’m speaking” in a debate against Vice President Mike Pence evidences the ongoing challenge that women face in having their voices--and therefore their ideas--truly heard.

This disrespect of women’s intellectual expertise occurs in nearly all aspects of our lives, so academic philosophy is no different. The chronic erasure of women’s voices in content, meager representation in philosophy syllabi, persistence of all-male panels in philosophy, and dominance in faculty meetings evidence the gender disparity in education.

Melissa M. Shew

This gap is harmful not just to women who are unable to fulfill their philosophical potential as a result of biases and stereotypes but also to the field of philosophy itself insofar as the philosophical potential of women remains untapped. Some of the best work remains unexplored and unpublished. More fundamentally, girls do not see their experiences represented, analyzed, and addressed in academic philosophy, and young women are not culturally encouraged to think philosophically about their lives.

This revolutionary book aims to address this gender disparity, both in academic philosophy and the wider world. It invites and encourages girls and young women to think broadly, creatively, and critically about a host of enduring questions from the nature of autonomy and identity to ways to respond to an unjust world. Philosophy for Girls empowers young people intellectually and encourages them to find the joys of hard thinking; readers are thereby encouraged to pursue an examined life and live philosophically. We insist that girls have a right to intellectual conversations from which they have largely been excluded.

Kimberly K. Garchar

The collected volume of vibrant and clear but simultaneously rigorous essays by women philosophers evidences that women are indeed outstanding philosophers and that young women have a great capacity for philosophical thinking. The book cites nearly only women, and each chapter opens with an anecdote about a girl or woman from mythology, science, literature, or history.

Particular pathways for intellectual exploration are outlined in the book’s Introduction, with the hope and expectation that those pathways will become readers’ own pathways and that they will enter into conversation with others about topics in the book. This book, then, serves as an overdue correction to the hundreds of anthologies that supposedly represent the life of thought, but that nonetheless remain almost exclusively male-dominated. Consequently, this book serves as a small contribution to larger movements of equity and inclusion in intellectual life as a whole so that all are affirmed in their capacities as knowers.

The book thus has both epistemic and ethical goals: We want girls to embrace their existence as thinking agents and make the world better in the process. Simultaneously, we aim to provide avenues for young women to enter the field of philosophy through the work of women scholars and prose that explicitly includes young women in its enduring questions.

In light of the current climate for women in the profession as well as in our world, this book is a significant contribution to girls’ philosophical inquiry, both formally and informally. As such, this book is timely and urgent though it grapples with enduring questions of the human condition.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

From Bad Thinkers to Vice Epistemology

This post is by Ian James Kidd, Heather Battaly, and Quassim Cassam. They present their new book, Vice Epistemology, which was published by Routledge five days ago.

Ian Kidd
Ian Kidd

Study of the human epistemic failings has been a staple theme of philosophy since antiquity. Ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophers were all concerned with ignorance, stupidity, and prejudiced and biased ways of thinking – ones opposed to such high-fidelity philosophical goods as wisdom, certain knowledge, or rationality. Attempted amelioration of those epistemic failings has been an aim of ethics, logic, and the more overtly ‘therapeutic’ forms of philosophical practice, too. Obviously, our world remains populated by human beings with very many epistemic failings, a glum fact reiterated by contemporary research in empirical psychology, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Such work offers a whole range of conceptual tools for the study of those failings and one of the newest is that of an epistemic vice.

Vice Epistemology
Vice Epistemology

Epistemic vices are character traits that make us bad thinkers. Usually we think of vices and virtues in relation to ethics. The vices include cruelty and dishonesty and selfishness – failings of character that make us bad people and which are corrected by the cultivation of virtues and other excellences of character, like compassion and honesty. But we shouldn’t confine ‘vices’ to moral failings of character. We speak of vices of the mind, too, like arrogance, dogmatism, and closed-mindedness (“He’s so arrogant!”, “She’s so dogmatic!”). Alongside those examples, there are also less-obvious epistemic vices, with names like ‘epistemic insouciance’ and ‘epistemic self-indulgence’.

Quassim Cassam
Quassim Cassam

Over the last decade, a new subdiscipline has emerged devoted to studying the nature, identity, and significance of epistemic vices – vice epistemology. It’s sister discipline is virtue epistemology, which focuses on the virtues of the mind. Most modern work in vice epistemology falls into three sorts, each of them represented in our upcoming edited collection, Vice Epistemology

First, there’s the foundational work devoted to conceptual, normative, and empirical issues about epistemic vices – like the relation of epistemic vices to epistemic virtues, ethical vices and to related concepts like implicit bias. 

Heather Battaly
Heather Battaly

Second, the identification and analysis of specific vices, whether the familiar ones, like dogmatism, or the more esoteric ones, like epistemic hubris. After all, there’s no good reason to suppose that we have a clear view of all of the epistemic vices to which we are prone, given the historical contingency of our inherited conceptual resources.

A third sort of work is what might be called applied vice epistemology – the effort to put these conceptual tools to work in the world. An obvious reason we’re interested in epistemic vices is because they play a role in the social and political world. We’re sadly living through a golden age for arrogance, dogmatism, and insouciance about the truth. It’s no coincidence that contemporary vice epistemology takes so many of its case studies from modern politics. But epistemic vices are also relevant to more abstract issues in ethics, epistemology, and psychology, too. Whatever ones’ own interests, our hope as vice epistemologists is to better understand our stubborn and entrenched epistemic failings.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Concept of Loneliness

This post originally appeared as a Birmingham Perspective on the University of Birmingham website, authored by Valeria Motta. In the post, Valeria summarises her view of loneliness on which she was also recently interviewed by Radical Philosophy's host, Beth Matthews (podcast available, part 1 and part 2), for Melbourne 3CR Community Radio.

Valeria Motta

How is loneliness defined? And what do these definitions say about what we understand of the phenomenon? Over the last few decades, an increasing amount of empirical research has involved a range of definitions of loneliness. Distinctions have been made between loneliness and social isolation, and between loneliness and solitude. Many researchers acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation (a state of no physical contact with other people) are different constructs. However, this theoretical distinction is not always fully reflected in research on loneliness, let alone in interventions to lessen it. Interventions with the goal to increase social interactions carry the assumption that loneliness is the same as social isolation because they provide social exposure in response. This results in the widely recognized distinction between loneliness and social isolation being undermined.

Making clear distinctions between loneliness and social isolation is particularly important in times of COVID-19 because new terminology (such as ‘social distancing’) is starting to appear in recent research to refer to experiences that may have some similarities with loneliness and social isolation but that are not exactly the same.

Research has provided different definitions of loneliness. Some have focused on the multifaceted nature of loneliness - addressing the interaction between specific behaviours (different forms of inhibited sociability), emotions (feeling unloved or unwanted) and thoughts of negative and self-depreciating nature. While other research has focused on cognitive aspects (e.g. the discrepancy between the relationships we wish we had and those we perceive we have). In such definitions, loneliness is also regarded as a subjective experience. However, the this subjective aspect is often described as something ‘private’, which obscures the experiential features that are essential to understanding loneliness.

A common thread that runs through all the current definitions is the tendency to focus on social distress. This originated with awareness that social relations play a fundamental role in psychological well-being. It has led mental health researchers to integrate work on loneliness and social support. However, the social disruption of loneliness is just one aspect of the experience. Sociality or being around others is affected in many dysfunctions such as depression and social anxiety. Therefore, excessive focus on social relations when we define loneliness does not allow us to investigate the particularities of the experience and to distinguish loneliness from other experiences that are as socially disruptive.

My research is about loneliness and solitude, but I am not just interested in people’s experiences of these phenomena. I am also interested in understanding the phenomena at a conceptual level. And for this I’ve been carrying out research interviews with groups of people who have different perspectives on those phenomena. What makes my research different from other people’s research on loneliness is that it is a combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. 

In the analysis I discovered how seemingly different descriptions were pointing at some characteristics that could be structural of those experiences. I discovered interesting things. Loneliness includes experiential abnormalities that may result in, or be provoked by, different alterations in our experience of time, or even by fluctuations in the intensity, quality and meaning of loneliness, according to context. Another important aspect to note about the experience of loneliness is that the different forms of contact that a person has with her physical environment may have consequences for how she interacts with the social environment, for whether this evolves into a social disruption problem.

Further research needs to disclose the mechanisms involved in our capacity to adapt to different environments, and analysis on whether such a capacity allows for social adaptation.

Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience. Understanding absences and other aspects of loneliness experiences seem likely to be important features. We need definitions of loneliness that address a wide array of life events and of disturbances in the subjective structure. Exploring the issues raised here would have implications for our terminology and our future research on types of loneliness. And these would in turn allow for the design of new treatments and interventions.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Affective Instability and Paranoia

This post is by me (Lisa Bortolotti), summarising a paper I wrote with Matthew Broome on how affective instability may be a causal factor in paranoia. It was published in a special issue of Discipline Filosofiche on Philosophical Perspectives on Affective Experience and Psychopathology, edited by Anna Bortolan and Alessandro Salice.

Matthew Broome

Most accounts of paranoia rely on cognitive biases and perceptual anomalies. However, recent empirical research has shown that affective instability may play an important role. 

What is affective instability? Unexpected changes of mood include emotional dysregulation, lability, impulsiveness, and swings. Collating the main overlapping dimensions, definitions, and their measurement scales, a recent systematic review proposed that affective instability is “rapid oscillations of intense affect, with a difficulty in regulating these oscillations or their behavioural consequences” (Marwaha et al. 2013). 

How does affective instability impact on paranoia? In large samples, recent research has identified some interesting correlations and potential causal relationships: affective instability predicted not only the onset of paranoid ideation, but also its maintenance. This association between affective instability and paranoia remains after controlling for numerous confounds, and affective instability does not impact in the same way on other phenomena. For instance, no association is found between affective instability and auditory hallucinations.

Affective instability might explain some of the connections between childhood sexual abuse and psychosis (Marwaha et al. 2014) and between bullying, psychotic disorder and psychotic symptoms (Catone et al. 2015), with bullying doubling the risk of paranoia.

How should we think about the causal role that affective instability plays in relation to paranoia? There are several options we examine in the paper:

  1. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is biological, with a single mechanism causally responsible for both affective instability and paranoia.
  2. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by behavioural effects. 
  3. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by the way the person appraises the world or appraises the self. 
  4. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is determined by the person’s lifestyle rather than the person's behaviour.

Lisa Bortolotti

Acknowledging and further examining the causal contribution of affective instability to paranoia is not incompatible with the main models of delusion formation currently discussed in the empirical and philosophical literature.

It has also significant implications for prevention and treatment. For instance, instability of mood would need to be addressed in the attempt to prevent psychotic episodes. People at risk of psychosis would need to be supported in implementing lifestyle changes that are conducive to an improvement in emotional regulation, such as sleeping better.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Cognitive Transformation, Dementia, and the Moral Weight of Advance Directives

Today's post is by Em Walsh (McGill University).

Em Walsh

The following is a real-life case study of a woman referred to as Mrs Black (Sokolowski 2018, 45-83). Mrs Black received a diagnosis of mid-stage dementia at the age of eighty-five. Mrs Black’s dementia impacted her ability to recall both the names and faces of her family members. Nevertheless, Mrs Black was noted by nurses who cared for her as always being an exceptionally happy woman, who took great pleasure in her daily activities in the residential care home in which she lived. Whilst in care, however, Mrs Black developed a serious bacterial infection, which posed a risk to her life if left untreated. Mrs Black’s primary caregivers wanted to treat the infection, but Mrs Black’s son noted that she had an advance directive stipulating that if she ever developed a condition which resulted in her inability to recognize her family members, she would not wish to receive any medical treatment to prolong her life. Her advance directive was implemented, and Mrs Black died shortly thereafter, leaving the medical team who cared for her devastated (Sokolowski 2018).

The dominant view in the philosophical literature suggests that advance directives, documents which allow individuals to set out directions for their future medical care in the eventuality that they lose decisional capacity (de Boer et al 2010, 202), ought to hold decisive moral weight. Thus, defenders of this view such as, Ronald Dworkin (1994), Jeff McMahan (2005), and Govind Persad (2019) would maintain that the decision made in the case of Mrs Black was the correct one. The reason for this is that such views suggest documents such as advance directives reflect an individual’s judgements about their own lives and should therefore be given significant moral weight, even when the price of so doing is the life of the individual in question.

In my paper, "Cognitive Transformation, Dementia, and the Moral Weight of Advance Directives", I suggest that the dominant philosophical view does not best align with current clinical practice. In current clinical practice, clinician’s show great reluctance to implement advance directives which undermine the dementia patient’s overall well-being. I put forward a philosophical defence of current clinical practice which gives moral weight to the preferences of dementia patients after the onset of their disease. In particular, I use L.A. Paul’s transformative experience framework [Paul 2016] to argue that having dementia is a cognitive transformative experience and that preference changes which arise from this are legitimate and ought to be given moral-weight in medical decision-making.

This paper has been responded to by various bioethicists, clinicians, lawyers, and psychologists. These responses have also been published in the American Journal of Bioethics, and so too has my own response to these open peer commentaries. I invite those interested in the debate to email me if they have any comments or questions, as I would love to continue the dialogue on this issue further.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Intellectual Humility and Prejudice

Today's post is by Matteo Colombo, Kevin Strangmann, Lieke Houkes, Zhasmina Kostadinova and Mark J. Brandt.


How does intellectual humility relate to prejudice? If I am more intellectually humble than you are, will I also be less prejudiced? Some would say yes. In much of the early monastic Christian tradition, for example, humility is understood as a virtuous form of abasement grounded in self-knowledge and self-appraisal. In his Demonstrations, Aphrahat the Persian Sage—a Syriac Christian author of the third-fourth century—writes that “humility is the dwelling place of righteousness. Instruction is found with the humble, and their lips pour forth knowledge. Humility brings forth wisdom and understanding.” Aphrahat’s suggestion that intellectual humility is the antidote to vanity, pride, and prejudice, is representative of one traditional way of understanding this character trait.


Some would say no. The idea is that the self-abnegation and abasement constituting humility are not virtuous, since they can reinforce existing structures of oppression and self-denigration. In Section IX of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume, for example, includes humility in his list of “monkish virtues,” which “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” According to Hume’s view, being intellectually humble is generally a vice, which need not weaken one’s pride and prejudices against others. Contributing to the recent boom of philosophical and psychological work on intellectual humility, our paper “Intellectually Humble, but Prejudiced People. A Paradox of Intellectual Virtue” presents four empirical studies that clarify the relationship between intellectual humility and prejudice. We find support for three conclusions.

First, people are prejudiced towards groups perceived as dissimilar. If I perceive you belong to a group very different from the type of human I happen to be, then I will probably dislike you, even if I know nothing about you.


Second, intellectual humility weakens the association between perceived dissimilarity and prejudice. This suggests that intellectual humility helps break the link (or at least weaken the link) between seeing a group as dissimilar and prejudice. Aphrahat could use such a finding as an empirical basis for his account of humility.

Third, and paradoxically, more intellectual humility is associated with more prejudice overall. When looking across groups who are perceived as most similar to most dissimilar people with more intellectual humility express more prejudice towards these groups than people with less intellectual humility. Intellectual humility might make prejudice more severe! Such a finding might help Hume ground his view empirically.


When juxtaposed, these three conclusions suggest that we should not think about Aphrahat vs. Hume, but rather Aphrahat and Hume. Both are identifying some truth of intellectual humility. From our studies, we believe that whether and how intellectual humility emerges and a virtue or a vice likely depends on the situation or the target of judgment.

Evaluating when and to what extent intellectual humility promotes (or hinders) the attainment of certain epistemic goods requires we clarify its mechanism, its causal relationships with other beliefs, attitudes and traits, and the functions it performs across different situations.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Belief's Minimal Rationality

Today's post is by Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini who talks about a recently published article in Philosophical Studies.

In this paper, I defend the claim that a mental attitude is a belief if it shows at least a minimal degree of doxastic rationality. More specifically, beliefs are minimally rational in the sense that they respond to perceived irrationality by re-establishing internal coherence (or at least by clearly attempting to do so).

A traditional view in philosophy is that it is a necessary condition for being a belief that an attitude behaves largely in a rational way (I call this view “Traditionalism”). That it, belief is typically (i) an attitude sensitive to the relevant evidence. It is also (ii) inferentially connected with other beliefs and other mental attitudes (e.g. emotions), and (iii) it typically causes actions when linked to a relevant desire.

Contrary to this view, there is now strong empirical evidence that that some of the attitudes that we comfortably call ‘beliefs’ show signs of doxastic irrationality: they are at times behaviorally inert, immune to counter-evidence, or inferentially compartmentalized. The Traditionalist approach would definitely exclude these attitudes from the category ‘belief’.

This has led some philosophers to reject Traditionalism and propose a much more lenient approach (Bortolotti, 2010). On this “Revisionist” view, for attitude A to be a belief, it suffices that A is expressed through a sincere assertion. That means that for the Revisionist, it is not expected that beliefs will behave in a mostly rational way: some beliefs show the same immunity to evidence and behavioral inertness we see with other attitudes such as imagination and acceptance.

Unfortunately, using sincere assertion as the mark of belief, is not the enough to uniquely individuate beliefs: people sincerely assert that p even when they mistakenly take themselves to believe that p. The Revisionist proposal is thus at risk of inflating the category ‘belief’ to include attitudes that are not in fact beliefs.


The view I propose in the paper is a midway position between Traditionalism and Revisionism.

On this view, irrational, inert, and patchy beliefs are possible, but belief’s key marker is exemplified in its reaction to irrationality. This reaction shows that belief is at least minimally rational in the following ways. One: minimal rational constrains will aim at establishing internal coherence (e.g. by eliminating one of the conflicting attitudes). Second: this kind of rational constrains will be applied when doxastic irrationality is detected.

In the paper, I refer to empirical evidence supporting my view while also showing that it is compatible with different kinds of mental architectures. This approach also offers a plausible picture of what makes belief unique: when belief’s fragmentation and irrationality are revealed, there will be a contrary push for coherence.

In contrast, attitudes such as imagination are governed by a decoupling mechanism that allows our imaginative episodes to be compartmentalized (Bayne 2010; Leslie 1987). Compartmentalization in the case of imagination (supposition, or acceptance) allows us to engage in complicated hypothetical reasoning by keeping track of multiple possible scenarios at the same time. In contrast, belief’s push for coherence applies across the board and tries to prevent the kind of fragmentation we see with imagination and the rest (Currie & Ravenscroft 2002).

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Delusion Formation as an Inevitable Consequence of a Radical Alteration in Lived Experience

This post is by Rachel Gunn summarising an article co-authored with Michael Larkin and published in Psychosis. The article is based on Rachel's PhD work at Birmingham. The research findings and conclusions, framed in terms of the Enactive Approach, are a move towards a need for understanding the phenomenology of a person’s experience in terms of sense-making within a person-environment system.

Rachel Gunn

A person ordinarily understands and negotiates the world based on familiar patterns derived from her cultural and historical experience. She is born into a family, the family consists of particular relationships and the family lives within a relatively circumscribed culture. Humans are flexible and adaptive. The difference between the lived experience of a hunter-gatherer in the Amazon Rainforest and an investment banker in the City of London highlights this flexibility. 

 There might be circumstances under which an alteration in a person’s lived experience would be so radical that rapid adjustment is not possible (Parnas & Handest, 2003) and when someone becomes mentally ill, there are many factors that might contribute to this (see Bentall, 2016 for an extensive list of candidates). People are dynamic and complex, and in most cases, so are the factors that causally contribute to their psychological distress.

Drawing on interviews conducted with people experiencing clinically significant delusions and analysing the data using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), we show how this alteration in lived experience manifests as emotional, affective and/or perceptual anomalies. 

Writing about IPA Smith and colleagues use Heidegger’s notion of appearing and liken interpretation to a kind of detective work where the researcher is mining the material for possible meanings, thus allowing the phenomenon of interest to shine forth (Smith et al., 2009, p. 35). The double hermeneutic means that the researcher is always trying to make sense of the participant, who is in turn trying to make sense of what is happening in the context of her lifeworld as an embodied, situated person.

For example, one research participant (who I have called Andrew) was severely bullied at work and described it thus:

It’s that awful. You’ve seen the original ‘Planet of the Apes’… film, 1964 I think it is with Charlton Heston… and you know how he’s treated during it? Management treat you the… similar to that. That’s how it felt.

(In the film ‘Planet of the Apes’ human beings are treated like animals, used for slave labour, kept in cages and experiments are done on them.)

This constituted a radical alteration in his experience and his world-view. He had never experienced anything like this before and could not really understand what was happening or why it was happening to him. He went on to develop voice-hearing experiences which he described as God talking to him – these experiences assured him that justice would be done and perhaps prevented him from feeling utterly powerless in an impossibly difficult and distressing work situation.

The framework of the Enactive Approach posits that a person interacts with her environment in terms of sense-making and a vast array of factors (biological, psychological and environmental) are intermeshed to create a ‘person-environment system’. A person is not a discrete object; persons are comprised of bodies, stories, concepts, origins, commitments, connections, affordances - and so on - and are constantly reacting with their environment. 

Cognition emerges from the complex mereology of these many components. The mereology of the cognising (person-environment) system supposes that the parts (which include relational and environmental parts as well as bodily (person-level) parts) are arranged in a particular way, and that the relationship of the parts to each other is vital for the function of the whole (Varela et al., 1991).

From a clinical perspective, this demands an attempt to understand the phenomenology of the experience.

In this context the focus of treatment might then be directed towards affective, perceptual and emotional aspects of a person’s lived experience as well as environmental and relational factors. To think of delusion simply in terms of ‘false beliefs’ which are ‘firmly sustained despite… obvious proof or evidence to the contrary…’ (DSM-V, American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 819) is to limit them to cognitive anomalies, over-simplify the experience and deny the meaning an experience might hold for a given individual. 

There is a wide literature on the nature of stigma in mental illness (see for example Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2013; Mehta & Farina, 1997) and framing delusion formation in this way helps us to reduce stigma: how can a person who is doing her best to make sense of her world be ‘at fault’ or ‘bad’? 

We suggest that if the alteration in lived experience is sufficiently radical, then delusion formation is inevitable. A person strives for sense-making in whatever environment she finds herself. We are all susceptible to this possibility. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Delusions as Hetero-Dynamic Property Clusters

Today's post is by Shelby Clipp. If you want to know more, check her thesis, "Delusions as Hetero-Dynamic Property Clusters."

The standard position about the nature of delusions is doxasticism, according to which delusions are best characterized as a type of belief. However, the features of clinical delusions often differ from those typically associated with belief. For example, delusions tend to be highly resistant to counterevidence; and unlike typical beliefs they tend to exhibit limited or inconsistent behavioral guidance.

The discrepancy between the features of delusions and ‘normal’ beliefs has inspired an ongoing debate between doxasticists: those who take delusions to be beliefs and non-doxasticists: those who take delusions to be instances of some other kind of state, such as imaginings or acceptances. In my thesis, “Delusions as Hetero-Dynamic Property Clusters,” I refer to this debate as the doxastic status debate. Despite efforts, the doxastic status debate remains unresolved.

I’ve argued that this is in part because as the debate stands, it fits the bill for what Chalmers’s (2011) has described as a largely verbal dispute -- a dispute in which two parties agree on all of the relevant facts about a domain in question yet disagree on whether a certain term applies to a particular object of that domain. I attempt to advance the debate into more substantive territory, by putting forward the hetero-dynamic property cluster (HDPC) model, a new descriptive model for characterizing delusions.

I develop the HDPC model against the background of Boyd’s (1991) homeostatic property cluster (HPC) approach to categories, according to which category membership is determined by a cluster of features which tend to mutually reinforce each other. On this view, states such as beliefs and imaginings are each HPCs. An example of such reinforcement is the way in which the responsiveness to evidence of beliefs tends to enable it to guide behavior productively.

However, on the HDPC model, delusions are best understood as mental states characterized by an odd and unstable cluster of features: Odd, insofar as unlike with attitudes such as beliefs and imaginings, the combinations of features characteristic of delusions tend to resist one another rather than reinforce. For instance, unlike with beliefs which tend to be revised in light of counterevidence, an individual with Capgras delusion might cling to the assertion that their spouse is an impostor despite ample counterevidence, and this resistance to counterevidence subsequently creates problems for letting that state guide behavior -- e.g., one won’t find their ‘actual’ wife by searching for her.

By not reinforcing one another, the features of delusions are unstable in that there’s nothing to hold them together as a cluster, so to speak. This instability essentially loosens restrictions on the mental state’s movement both within the property space of a particular attitude and among one property space to another, thereby allowing the features of an HDPC attitude to freely waver between distinct property clusters. To some extent then, delusion’s odd and unstable nature has served as a catalysis to the doxastic status debate in that it inexorably contributes to delusion’s failure to resolve neatly into any one kind of more familiar cognitive attitude.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Insights into the Workings of an Epistemic Frame Trap

Today’s blog post by Marion Nao adds a discourse analytic perspective to imperfect cognition via Goffman’s sociological theory of frame trap. It presents some key insights from a recent paper in Language and Communication, entitled:  'The lady doth protest too much, methinks': Truth negating implications and effects of an epistemic frame trap.

Marion Nao holds a PhD in Language and Communication Research from Cardiff University, UK, and currently teaches online for Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain.


Many of us may be uncomfortably familiar with the concept and experience of a double-bind or Catch-22 situation, in which, crudely put, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Add to the complex a discursive mechanism by which the more you do, the more damned you are, in anticipation of which being damned if you don’t might seem like the lesser of the two evils, and you likely have the workings of a frame trap. In short, and metaphorically, with increased resistance, you tighten your own noose. So, how does frame trap work, and why might it be relevant to biased beliefs?

In a recent paper, I explored this concept, which can be attributed to Goffman (Frame Analysis, Harper and Row, 1974), in relation to one specific expression: “The lady/thou doth protest too much, methinks” (Nao, 2020). This I classed as an epistemic frame trap, on the basis that it invalidates the very truth of its recipient, who is guilty of untruth whether or not they protest their innocence in response—and all the more so, the more they do. Consequently, it can be said to operate by a mechanism of recursive truth negation.


As a formulaic expression used with a high level of fixity (and only minor variations in formulation), its meaning is figurative in representing more than the literal sum of its parts. As such, it conveys a good deal of pre-packaged meaning in a conventionally applied way, supporting habitually unexamined assumptions about the way the world works and what it is we are going about doing in it. A crucial component of such formulaicity is ‘protest too much’, which indicates an excess of protestation. Problematically, such excess is itself presumed to be evidence of untruth.


From online users’ definitions of what the expression means, we can see that excess remains ambiguous with regard to whether it refers to either the amount of speech or its emotive force, or both. Undifferentiated in its evidential basis, it is questionable whether excess is at all measurable, and if so, to what extent any criteria might be judiciously applied given its formulaicity of meaning and axiomaticity of use, not to mention the imperfect cognition of its user.

Core to the operation of the frame trap is the conversational expectation of denial in the face of an unjust accusation, without which it is taken to be true. Yet, the mechanism of recursive truth negation means that a heightened emotional response, or indeed any response at all, is likewise and greater evidence of guilt. As a tool, whether consciously used or not, the expression thus offers its user considerable scope to maintain their own set of beliefs about the world and the people in it to the disadvantage of another’s.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Delusion-Like Beliefs: Epistemic and Forensic Innocence?

Today's post is by Joe Pierre, Acting Chief at the Mental Health Community Care Systems, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The blurry line separating psychopathology and normality, in the real world and the DSM, has been a longtime interest. Twenty years ago, I attempted to disentangle religious and delusional beliefs using the “continuum” model of delusional thinking based on cognitive dimensions. More recently, I’ve tried to understand other “delusion-like beliefs” (DLBs) including conspiracy theories, a frequent topic of my blog, Psych Unseen. A forthcoming paper models belief in conspiracy theories as a “two component, socio-epistemic” process involving epistemic mistrust and biased misinformation processing.

Delusions and DLBs remain challenging to distinguish in clinical practice and in the internet era where fringe beliefs are often validated. Continuum models can be helpful, along with some categorical guidelines. Delusional beliefs are false; DLBs may not be. Delusions are usually idiosyncratic/unshared, based on subjective experience, and self-referential; DLBs usually aren’t. On the contrary, DLBs are typically based on learned misinformation if not deliberate disinformation.

In forensics, the distinction between delusions and DLBs can be crucial. Mass murderer Anders Breivik nearly eluded criminal conviction based on how Norwegian law treats psychosis as an exculpatory factor (see Dr. Bortolotti et al’s nuanced account). For prosecutors and expert witnesses supporting their cause, the potential exculpatory role of DLBs therefore presents a sizeable headache. Consequently, a group of forensic psychiatrists led by Dr. Tahir Rahman has proposed a new diagnostic category called “extreme overvalued beliefs” to describe DLBs that they claim are easily differentiated from delusions:

An extreme overvalued belief is one that is shared by others in a person's cultural, religious, or subcultural group. The belief is often relished, amplified, and defended by the possessor of the belief… The individual has an intense emotional commitment to the belief and may carry out violent behavior in its service.

Although I agree that DLBs deserve to be separated from delusions, and that DSM-5 doesn’t help much, I’m a critic of “extreme overvalued beliefs” as a solution for several reasons (see here and here for more details):

First, diagnosing “extreme overvalued beliefs” isn’t nearly as easy as is claimed.

Second, DLBs shouldn’t be “swept under the rug” of a new psychiatric umbrella term. A fuller understanding would benefit from integrating established concepts from psychology (e.g. conspiracy theories), sociology and political science (e.g. terrorist “extremism”), and information science (e.g. belief in misinformation).

Third, “extremism” in overvalued beliefs is defined by criminal behavior, not on dimensional features of the belief itself, leaving unresolved why some commit violent acts in the service of DLBs, but most don’t.

And finally, the conceptualization has a concerning prosecutorial bias, seemingly in the service of thwarting defense efforts to claim incapacity and argue for sentence mitigation due to DLBs. Since many DLBs are learned or indoctrinated, a more nuanced view might see them through a lens of not only epistemic innocence, but potential forensic innocence as well. In a world where misinformation and disinformation now runs rampant, we should at least consider that the distributed responsibility for DLBs and their occasional forensic impact extends beyond the individual.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Ecumenical Naturalism

Today's post is by Robert N. McCauley, William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor at the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University and George Graham, Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University.

Robert N. McCauley

Our book, Hearing Voices and Other Matters of the Mind, promotes a naturalistic approach, which we call Ecumenical Naturalism, to accounting for the long recognized and striking cognitive continuities that underlie familiar features of religiosity, of mental disorders, and of everyday thinking and action.

The case for those continuities rests on two considerations. The first is empirical findings that mental phenomena (e.g., hearing voices) associated with mental disorders are more widespread than typically assumed. The second consideration concerns those continuities’ grounding in one sort of intuitive, unconscious, automatic, instantaneous (System 1) cognition, viz., maturationally natural cognition (MATNAT). MATNAT systems address a host of cognitive tasks that are critical to individuals’ survival and that have nothing to do either with one another or with religion. MATNAT systems manage fundamental problems of human survival -- handling such matters as hazard precautions, agency detection, language processing, and theory of mind (to name but a few). The associated knowledge and skills, which recur in human minds across cultures, are not taught and appear independent of general intelligence.

The by-product theory in the cognitive science of religions contends that much religious thought and behavior can be explained in terms of the cultural activation of MATNAT systems. Religions’ representations cue these systems’ operations and, in doing so, they sometimes elicit responses that mimic features of cognition and conduct associated with mental disorders. The book looks at three disorder-specific illustrations.

One occurs both in schizophrenia and in religions when people purport to hear voices of agents other than themselves, even though the experiences consist of their own inner speech and no other speaker is present. Appealing to a collection of MATNAT systems, including source monitoring, agency detection, linguistic processing, and theory of mind, the book provides an account of the perceived alien (non-self) source of a voice – distinguishing between what is experienced (one’s own silent speech) and how and when it is experienced as a voice of another agent (such as God).

A second disorder is a type of depression sometimes called a dark night of the soul, in which the inability of depressed participants to communicate with or sense their religions’ powerful, caring gods can exacerbate their depression. It is associated with prayers of petition that are perceived to be unanswered. Understanding the depression requires an exploration of cognitive systems (such as agency detection and theory of mind) at work in linguistic communication, but in which God is conceived as a displeased or indifferent listener.

George Graham

Third, by way of their rituals and pronouncements about moral thought-action fusion (TAF), i.e., the position that untoward thoughts are fully comparable morally to untoward actions, religions often can domesticate the concerns and compulsions of people with OCD. This peculiarly religio-moral exemplification of OCD is known as “scrupulosity.” Even more to the point, though, religious rituals and claims for moral TAF evoke, at least temporarily, similar obsessions and compulsions in the general population.

We contend that an exception (Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)) helps prove the rule (the by-product theory). Exceptions only prove rules or support theoretical principles when those principles explain why the exception is exceptional. The earlier examples show how religions utilize cultural materials to elicit and frame experiences that excite the same cognitive apparatus that is implicated spontaneously in the corresponding mental disorders. By contrast, the cognitive impairments associated with ASD concerning theory of mind should, correspondingly, suggest constraints on religious understanding and inferential abilities among this population. We expect people with ASD as a population to prove exceptional on some fronts regarding some salient dimensions of religious cognition. Such negative findings here, then, do support the by-product theory.

Ecumenical Naturalism’s approach to mental abnormalities and religiosity promises both explanatory and therapeutic understanding. The book closes with a discussion of the therapeutic positive applicability of its theses about cognitive systems to disorders of religious significance.