Tuesday 28 December 2021

Encanto: A Celebration of Invisible Labour

In this post, I reflect on what makes Mirabel, the leading character in the latest Disney movie, an unlikely hero.

On the surface, Encanto is the usual underdog story: in a family of exceptional people, blessed with magic and superhero powers, Mirabel has no special gift and is an embarrassment in the eyes of her grandmother and her much more accomplished sister Isabela. However, it is Mirabel, with the help of another outcast, her uncle Bruno, who will save the day.

To me, Encanto is about what it means to live in a society that does not acknowledge the patient, exhausting, and yet often invisible labour required in any sort of close-knit community--and often carried out by women. The weight of expectations suffocates the individuality of the members of the Madrigal family and takes the joy out of their lives. Such expectations are driven by labels that, once attached, are stuck to their owners: the strong and dependable Luisa; the “golden child”, perfect Isabela; the “weirdo” Bruno; big failure Mirabel; and the controlling matriarch, Abuela. 

Stuck in their determined roles, Abuela and Mirabel misunderstand each other. So they spend most of the film as enemies, but then they realise that there is more to the other than the label. Mirabel is giftless, but not useless. She is the glue keeping the family together, offering her sisters and cousins an opportunity to unload and be true to themselves. And it is not an easy task to placate anxious Luisa, get bottled-up Isabela to release her creativity, and encourage Dolores to make herself heard and pursue her dreams. Mirabel’s contribution is invisible because it is perceived only indirectly in everybody else's resilience: her dedication, compassion, and wisdom enable the rest of the family to cope. 

Mirabel helps Abuela too, to reassess her priorities and see her children and grandchildren as complex, imperfect people—and not as pawns in a game whose goal is to defend the family’s privilege. But Abuela is no villain: before she became a grandmother, she was young Alma, in love and full of hope. Love and hope that were crashed by tremendous adversities. Until the end we don’t even hear Abuela’s name, she is simply ‘Abuela’ as if there was nothing more to her than the role she plays. It is thanks to her interaction with Mirabel that we have a chance to hear Alma's story and appreciate her perspective.

In a recent research project on what makes for good clinical encounters, we found that young people seeking mental health support value validation and empathy above all: that is what Mirabel offers to her struggling family, a compassionate ear and genuine interest. Mirabel does not see other people as unidimensional labels, and it is when people talk to her that they realise that they can bring positive change and tackle their difficulties with adequate support. 

In our project we found that in successful interactions practitioners resist the temptation to treat the young person as a problem to be fixed and appreciate the whole person as an agent with multiple roles, interests, and goals. Being able to see each member of her family as a unique individual and to offer them emotional support at critical times are Mirabel's invisible superpowers. 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

When Unintelligence Makes a Group Smarter

This post is by Mandi Astola, a PhD student at Eindhoven University of Technology. This contribution is based on the article “Mandevillian Virtues”, published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2021.

Mandi Astola

Does one rotten apple spoil the whole bunch?
There is the saying “one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch.” This saying means that a single unpleasant person, “rotten apple,” can lower the morale in an otherwise nice group and ruin the vibe for everyone. Let us think about the literal meaning of the saying for a moment. The analogy with apples comes from the fact that rotten apples emit ethylene gas, which causes fruit to ripen faster. This is why rotten apples can make other fruit rot faster. But this also means that if you have a bunch of unripe, green bananas, you can actually ripen them faster by putting a rotten apple next to them. Therefore, one rotten apple does not always spoil the whole bunch! Sometimes it can improve the bunch, depending on what the bunch consists of.

Now let us think about the figurative meaning of the saying. Do people with “rotten” characteristics always lower the morale and ruin the vibe? If we think about group cognition, do unintelligent, boorish or closed-minded people always impact the intellectual climate negatively? I think there are many examples where our imperfections end up having a positive effect on the group or community that we are a part of. In many cases, having group members that are biased, less intelligent or less cognitively capable, can make the group smarter as a whole.

Here is one example: Some of us might have experience with overly dogmatic friends or family members. These are people who believe things firmly and are not easily convinced even when they have good reason to be convinced. However, what tends to happen when overly dogmatic people challenge their friends or family members? In many cases this results in a long discussion with heated arguments, googling and fact-checking. If this happens often enough, the family or friends group can get better at fact-checking, googling or arguing. Therefore, even if the dogmatic individual has an epistemically negative trait, this trait can play a systematic role in the whole group performing better epistemically speaking. This can be because it stimulates the group to engage in epistemic activity, perhaps to refute the dogmatic view. It can also widen the scope of possible answers to a question and make sure that the group considers all alternatives, even the ill-founded ones.

Are bad ways of thinking still bad if they make the group smarter?
Many people would say that it is a bad thing to be an overly dogmatic person. An overly dogmatic person is likely to think the wrong thing, and therefore also do the wrong thing, because they resist alternative viewpoints. One should not want to be overly dogmatic, at least from an epistemic viewpoint. And if one notices that one is becoming overly dogmatic, one has good reasons to try to work on oneself, to be less dogmatic. But if a dogmatic person causes their family to engage better in epistemic activity, then is their dogmatism still bad? Is there a need for such people to work on themselves? Or should we perhaps believe that such a person should stay as dogmatic as they are?

One might argue that we should see the trait in context, and not call it bad if it is an essential part of what makes one’s close community inquisitive in a positive way. But then again, when the dogmatic person leaves the good company of their family and goes to work, their resistance to alternative viewpoints causes problems. The rotten apple that ripens other fruits is still a rotten apple after all. What should we, then, think of such a dogmatic person’s dogmatism? How should we evaluate this character trait from an epistemic perspective?

We must learn to judge groups on their epistemic character
Examples like these show that we need to make a distinction between good and bad epistemic traits of individuals and traits of groups. The dogmatic family member clearly has a negative trait, but the family as a whole has a positive epistemic trait, for which the family as a whole deserves praise. Groups can also evolve epistemic traits and tendencies, virtues and vices, just like individuals can. Seeing the group as a whole, including the dogmatist, as a separate “person” with the trait of inquisitiveness solves the paradox of how to value the dogmatic person’s dogmatism. We can still say that dogmatism is a negative trait, but that the family just possesses an over-and-above positive trait, that of inquisitiveness.

We often tend to talk about intelligence, open-mindedness and inquisitiveness as traits that are possessed by individuals. However, we often display them in group activity. A group of scientists working together can sometimes be much more curious and accurate than an individual scientist. Many people also claim to produce their most creative work in groups with other people.

In the last decade, epistemologists have begun to focus extensively on collective epistemic activity, which is a good thing. But there is still quite some room for development in this area, especially when it comes to collective epistemic character traits, or collective epistemic virtues or vices. We should definitely develop accounts of what positive and negative epistemic traits of groups look like. For instance, in what ways can a group be inquisitive, or open-minded? And in what ways can a group be forgetful, inaccurate or lazy in their thinking?

Taking the group and individual as separate units of analysis makes it possible to distinguish between individual and collective epistemic behaviour. While they are connected to each other, they can still be evaluated differently. And this makes it possible to explain how a bad characteristic can still be bad, even if it plays a structural role in something good. Just as a rotten apple is still rotten, even when it makes bananas taste better.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

The Philosophy of Envy

Today's post is by Sara Protasi (Puget Sound) on her new monograph The Philosophy of Envy (Cambridge University Press, 2021). 

You are four years old, and you really want the heart-shaped lollipop that you have been staring at for days in the candy store window. And then, today, here it is, in the hands of your friend at school. You are so mad, and there’s this unpleasant ache, deep down in your tummy. “No fair!” you think. So, when the lollipop slips from your friend’s little hands and falls on the dirty ground, you cannot help but grin with satisfaction.

You are all grown up now, and are telling the lollipop story to your high school best friend with a mix of amusement and shame. As they laugh, you notice that today they look so cool, with their new fashionable haircut. You catch a glimpse of your shaggy hair in the mirror. That sinking feeling in your belly resurfaces. You repress a little sigh, and go on chatting, casually dropping a: “Hey, I saw Rainier making out with Sam in the cafeteria the other day. I thought you two were getting serious?” 

By the time you are a first-year in college, you and your high school bestie have grown apart. You are driven and hard-working, so you are heartbroken when you discover that the scholarship you cared so much about has been won by… your roommate, of all people! You are not an insecure teenager anymore, and you know they deserve it. But there’s this gnawing awareness that they are always a little better than you. So, you wish them all the best, and move out of the apartment. 

You have become a professor. You have spent years studying hard, looking up to people like your former roommate. You applied for more scholarships, won some of them, and were lucky enough to get a good job at a university near your hometown. When you go to your high school reunion, you are happy to see your long-lost friend. You feel a familiar pang when you note their new suit, but hug them and compliment them. And you make a mental note of buying a new outfit.

Do any of these scenarios resonate with you? Chances are some of them will. Everyone feels envy at some point in their life. Some people are more aware of their envy than others; some people are prone to feel envy more than others; some people feel more malicious kinds of envy than others; and some people are crippled by their envy more than others. Still, there is no culture that is devoid of envy, even though it takes different forms in different places and times. 

Notwithstanding envy’s ubiquity, it is a maligned emotion. It is condemned by all religious traditions, feared in all societies, repressed by most who feel it, and often kept a secret even to oneself. Because envy is a cross-cultural emotion, we have good reasons to think that it serves an important function in human psychology, and yet it has a terrible reputation. In my book I try to restore the truth about envy and argues that such a reputation is at least partially undeserved. Like other traditionally censured, but recently rehabilitated negative emotions such as contempt, anger, and disgust, envy has a role to play in our lives and may be essential to our flourishing. Once we can see the bright side of envy, its benefits and its reasons, then we can also better deal with its darkest features, its harms and its deceptions. 

My overarching argumentative strategy is to develop an original taxonomy of envy, to which I alluded in the four scenarios above: spiteful, aggressive, inert, and emulative envy, respectively. Once we know what envy is and how many varieties there are, we can look more fruitfully into how to deal with it, and into its value or disvalue. Thus, the first two chapters are devoted to laying out the ontology – what envy is. The remaining three chapters develop the practical normativity of envy – what is good and bad about envy in three main domains: ethics, love, and politics. The Conclusion tackles the axiology that stems from envy – the value of enviable things, which are more than you might expect. Finally, an Appendix traces the history of envy. 

Tuesday 7 December 2021

John McDowell on Worldly Subjectivity

Today's post is by Tony Cheng at National Chengchi University on his new monograph John McDowell on Worldly Subjectivity: Oxford Kantianism Meets Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences (Bloomsbury 2021). 

In this book, I explicate John McDowell’s philosophy with an emphasis on a specific Kantian how-possible question: how is subjectivity possible, given what we know about the world? This question is too vague until we specify what we do know (or at least claim to know) about the world. For example, if we ask: “how is subjectivity possible, given physicalism?”, McDowell might reply that with that specific worldview – physicalism – subjectivity can seem impossible. His general strategy is to broaden our metaphysical outlook: according to the picture he is recommending, physicalism is only half-right: it is right about the first nature, i.e., physical nature. What physicalism misses is the Aristotelian second nature, i.e., the nature that encompasses human intentionality and rationality. Given this relaxed naturalism, the above “how-possible” question will become much less urgent, or not urgent at all: subjectivity is not only possible but actual; it is an actual phenomenon that is inherited in our second nature.

This book aims to uncover the many faces of human subject via exploring aspects of McDowell’s worldview. More specifically, the aim is twofold: first, how does a Homo sapiens, an animal, can nevertheless be a Cogito, i.e., having the capacities for being responsive to reasons as such, and to think about oneself? Second, how can this minded human animal be a perceiver, knower, thinker, speaker, agent, person, and conceptual cum self-conscious being in the world? This takes the entire book to unpack, and here is not the place to rehearse or summarise it. Below I highlight two elements in the subtitle, namely: phenomenology and cognitive sciences.

McDowell has been engaging many western philosophical traditions throughout his career, but when it comes to the continental phenomenological tradition, his engagements have been minimal and reactive. It began with Hubert Dreyfus’ criticisms (circa 2006) based on works by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Samuel Todes. McDowell and Dreyfus had a series of exchanges on conceptualism in perception and action, but the moral in that exchange is rather limited: Dreyfus construes McDowell’s view on the mental so narrowly that phenomenological objections naturally apply to that view, but with some careful readings we know that McDowell does not hold that view. There is much to learn in their actual exchanges, but the take-home message is simple and even disappointing. Now, the phenomenological tradition is huge, and there is much more to explore in that direction. 

In this book, what I offer is only some early steps toward that aim. As a dedicated Kantian, McDowell’s overall framework is sometimes restricted by Kant’s original ideas. For example, according to Kant, varieties of synthesis are all active, but this might be in tension with McDowell’s view that conceptual capacities are passively operative in experiences. This is where Husserl’s passive synthesis can come in, though the actual details need to be worked out. Similarly, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have different notions of the body, and that can shed lights on the embodied and embedded mind picture that can already be found in Mind and World

As for cognitive sciences, a prominent example is Ned Block’s discussions of experiential imprecision and overflow in vision science. For McDowell, the richness argument and the fineness-of-grained argument are two important considerations against his conceptualism. In the empirical literature, Block’s discussions of overflow and imprecision roughly correspond to the richness and the fineness-of-grained arguments. This does not imply that the original conceptual arguments can be replaced by their empirical counterparts, but considerations from the cognitive science literature can definitely shed light on the original discussions.

I hope this has given enough incentives for you to read the book. I am glad to receive feedbacks and questions electronically; feel free to write to me about this and other stuffs! I also work on many other topics, which can be found in my personal website: tonycheng.net.

Friday 3 December 2021

Technology and Democracy: A paradox wrapped in a contradiction inside an irony

This is part of a series of posts on the new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol) and Peter Pomerantsev (Johns Hopkins University). Their forthcoming article ‘Technology and democracy: a paradox wrapped in a contradiction inside an irony’ will be published shortly as part of the journal inaugural collection.

Stephan Lewandowsky

Numerous indicators suggest that democracy is in retreat globally. Even countries that had been considered stable democracies have recently witnessed events that are incompatible with democratic governance and the rule of law, such as the armed assault on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and the unlawful suspension of the British parliament in 2019. 

Although the symptoms and causes of democratic backsliding are complex and difficult to disentangle, the Internet and social media are frequently blamed in this context. For example, social media has been identified as a tool of autocrats, and some scholars have questioned whether democracy can survive the Internet. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that social media can cause some anti-democratic political behaviors ranging from ethnic hate crimes to voting for populist parties.

In the opposing corner, social media has been heralded as “liberation technology”, owing to its role in the “Arab Spring” and other instances in which it mobilized the public against autocratic regimes. Similarly, protest movements around the world have relied on social media platforms for the coordination of collective action.

This is the fundamental paradox of the Internet and social media: They erode democracy and they expand democracy. They are the tools of autocrats and they are the tools of activists. They make people obey and they make them protest. They provide a voice to the marginalized and they give reach to fanatics and extremists, and all of those views can appeal to supporting evidence.

We suggest that this basic paradox can be resolved only by examining the unique pressure points between human cognition and the architecture of the information ecology

Peter Pomerantsev

For example, people are known to attend to news that is predominantly negative or awe inspiring, and they preferentially share messages couched in moral-emotional language. When this fundamental attribute of human attention is combined with the social media platforms’ desire to keep people engaged, so that users’ attention can be sold to advertisers, it becomes unsurprising that online content has become outrage-provoking and toxic in so many instances: Misinformation on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was particularly likely to provoke voter outrage and fake news titles have been found to be substantially more negative than real news titles

Protecting citizens from misinformation, and protecting democracy itself, therefore requires a redesign of the current anti-democratic reinforcement structures of the online “attention economy”. In an Internet with democratic credentials, users would be able to understand which of their own data has been used to target them and why. Users would know why algorithms show them one thing and not another. During elections people would immediately understand how different campaigns target different people with different messages, who is behind campaigns, and how much they spend.

And as individuals should have more oversight and control over the information environment all around them, so should the public have greater oversight and control over tech companies in general. The public need to be able to understand what social engineering experiments the companies tinker with, what their impacts are, and how the tech companies track the consequences of these experiments. 

We consider the redesign of the internet to be the defining political battle of the 21st century—the battle between technological hegemony and survival of democracy.

Thursday 2 December 2021

The Triangular Self in the Social Media Era

This post is part of a series on the new journal Memory, Mind & Media. Today, Qi Wang talks about her research on the triangular self. Her paper, ‘The triangular self in the social media era’, is now available open access.

Qi Wang is Professor of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University. Her research examines how cultural forces, including the Internet technology, impact autobiographical memory and the sense of self. She is the author of The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture (OUP 2013) and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Qi Wang

In the era of social media, we can share online our daily experiences as our lives unfold, at any time and as frequently as we’d like, with diverse audiences physically afar. This way of remembering and sharing personal experiences is unprecedented in human history. It also uniquely contributes to how we view ourselves in a digitally mediated world. I propose a triangular theory of self to characterize the sense of self and identity specific to the era of social media. 

One form of selfhood, as traditionally understood, is how we privately view ourselves, our traits and attributes, our social relations, and our life experiences. I call it the represented self. This form of selfhood is externalized to the public sphere in the social media era. Through our online sharing actives, we strive to connect with others and express ourselves, and how we share our experiences later becomes how we remember and tell our life stories. 

Furthermore, through sharing our views and experiences on social media platforms, we acquire a digital extension of our selfhood, which I refer to as the registered self. The registered self as we present in social media often depicts our uniqueness and our ideal self-images, with the assistance of rich technology features in multimedia forms, such as text, photo, video, hyperlink, and even livestreaming and augmented reality. It is also open and communicative, to invite and engage our audience. 

Also, with short, frequent, and real-time posts of "what I'm doing right now" and often immediate reactions from our audience, we experience a sense of constant presence of others in our lives. The third form of selfhood is what I call the inferred self, where the virtual audience collectively form knowledge about us based on our social media posts and through their engaging in various ways with our posts. Working through a transactive mind, the virtual audience make sense of the disparate experiences we share online and interweave the slices of information into a coherent life story about who we are.

The three forms of selfhood mutually influence each other. For example, our personalities and motives influence how we share our experiences online. How others respond (or not respond at all) to our social media posts can in turn affect how we feel about ourselves and our self-esteem, as well as how we share our experiences in the future. 

In summary, the triangular theory of self conceptualizes the self as represented in the private mind of the person, the public sphere of social media platforms, and the transactive mind of the virtual audience. The three forms of selfhood interact in dynamic ways and together constitute our sense of self and identity specific to the social media era.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Gender and Narrative in Meaning-Making: An interview with Robyn Fivush

In this post, part of a series on the new journal Memory, Mind & Media, Katie Laker interviews Robyn Fivush, whose article, co-authored with Ariel Grysman, is entitled: 'Narrative and gender as mutually constituted meaning-making systems’ and is available open access.

Robyn Fivush

KL: Firstly, thank you for being part of the Memory, Mind & Media inaugural collection. Why was MMM a good fit for your paper?

RF: The two core constructs that we explore in our paper, narrative and gender, are inherently interdisciplinary and culturally mediated. No single discipline can fully define or even describe either of these constructs; they require a broad synthesis across multiple ways of knowing. And both are fully culturally mediated; both narrative and gender derive from socially and culturally saturated lenses that find expression in multiple media formats, from books to memes. 

MMM is committed to fostering conversations at the intersection of cognitive, social and cultural approaches to how memory works in the world, and so was an ideal outlet for our paper. Publishing in MMM allowed us to explore in more depth how narratives and gender are both constructed by and with cultural tools, including media, that shape how we remember and recall our personal experiences. Moreover, our arguments, while rooted in deep evolutionary, psychological and feminist theory, is speculative. 

MMM provided a space where we could bring together these theoretical threads to weave a new way of thinking about how narrative and gender co-create each other in the process of remembering our personal experiences within the framework of culturally-mediated narrative forms.

KL: Why did you and your co-author Azriel Grysman decide to focus on gender and narrative in meaning-making?

RF: The two of us, both individually and collaboratively, have been studying the relations between gender and narratives in autobiographical remembering for many years. Our work has focused on gender differences in how individuals narrate their personal experiences, with women narrating their past in more elaborated, emotional and relational ways than do men. But why we see these differences has been more elusive. 

We know that narratives are fundamental to how humans make sense and meaning of their world, and thus gender differences in these narrative expressions suggest that there may be differences in meaning-making by gender. We also know that gender is a foundational category/dimension across human history and societies. So the question of if and how gender and narratives co-construct each other emerges as critical in understanding meaning-making more broadly.

KL: What key perspectives does your article cover?

RF: Our core argument is that the very act of narrating is a gendered activity that constructs, represents and narrates gender as a primary category of human existence, and these fundamentally gendered ways of narrating then construct, define and reify gendered ways of being in the world. We argue from multiple theoretical perspectives, including evolutionary, psychological and feminist theory, that both narrative and gender are foundational to human cognition. 

From an evolutionary perspective, biologically based reproductive division of labor focused women on emotions and relationships, using narrative means to create community, and narratives that focus on emotions and relationships, in turn, reify these as gendered ways of being in the world. 

From a psychological perspective, gender may undergird the basic duality of agency and communion, themes that are expressed in personal narratives that structure meaning-making. 

Finally, from a feminist perspective, narrative that focuses on multiple perspectives through emotional and relational language, becomes a form of consciousness for women in ways that it is not for men. From this perspective, narratives construct gender as a form of voice, and gender constructs narrative as a form of double consciousness focused on the emotions, intentions and relationships of multiple participants.

KL: What future research does your article direct people towards?

RF: Moving beyond stereotypes of gender, a narrative approach provides a framework for understanding how gender is created along temporally unfolding narrative dimensions of emotion and communion, and how gender underlies narrative processing along these same dimensions, in an ongoing dialectical relation. To fully understand this process requires deep qualitative and dialectical analyses that explores how narratives unfold in everyday culturally mediated interactions.


Tuesday 30 November 2021

Stories as Evidence

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) who talks about the role of stories in public debates. She is summarising a paper co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti and recently published in the inaugural issue of Memory, Mind & Media. The paper is available open access here.

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

We are all drawn to stories in their many forms, and the prevalence of them on digital media may be one reason why we have embraced those media so much. On social media we see lots of stories being told, often in support some general claim. For example, people have been sharing experiences of getting the COVID vaccine and of not getting the vaccine, often in the hopes of supporting general claims about whether people should get vaccinated. However, can personal stories be taken as evidence supporting general claims? 

People’s stories about what kind of things happened to them after having the COVID vaccine might not get at the truth about the potential side effects of the vaccine. They don’t capture the causal relationship between getting the vaccine and experiencing side effects. When we attend to a story, we tend to be drawn to its aesthetic features, we are moved by how it makes us feel, and are motivated to think and act in ways that are consistent with the morale of the story. Often, stories are edited so that they fulfil these purposes, being moving, engaging, and inspiring. This means that they may omit details that would be important to assessing the relevant causal relationships, or include details that would not. 

On digital media especially, stories have the power to reach a very large audience very quickly. Stories shared online can be co-constructed, in that multiple-storytellers engage with the story via liking, commenting, and sharing (Page et al. 2013). This means that people who are geographically and culturally separated can come together and contribute to stories which embody and reflect shared identities. In a way, stories can be very valuable ‘windows into other worlds’. By accessing stories, we learn about other people's first-person experiences and perspectives. For instance, members of disabled and marginalised groups sharing their experiences has been particularly valuable for raising awareness about problems of discrimination and stigma, and starting to tackle them. 

However, there may also be concerns about the reliability of stories. All of us have imperfect memories and tend to ‘fill in gaps’ in ways which support our conceptions of ourselves. Often, we confabulate. This happens when we offer an explanation for why we made a certain choice that doesn’t capture all the relevant causal factors and also misrepresents the circumstances of our choice. So, the explanation isn’t well supported by evidence. We don’t mean to lie or deceive when we do this, but we are motivated to give an answer to a question about why we chose as we did that allows us to share information that matters to us. As has been noticed in the literature, this enables us to interact with others (Stammers 2020) and signal to them that we are rational decision-makers (Ganapini 2020).

Here is an example. Some students start a protest against having to wear masks on campus. They are asked by the local press: “Why are you protesting? Why don’t you want to wear a mask?”. Students respond by saying: “They are our faces, we decide what to do with them”, “We’re fighting for freedom”, “We do not belong to the government or to the college”. They tell a story where the refusal to wear a mask is a point of principle, namely a defence of their individual freedom. They have seen these themes emerging in the speeches of political leaders in the previous weeks and upholding freedom sounds like a good, even noble reason to resist a mandate. However, the factors leading to their behaviour may be broader, and include also considerations about convenience, a desire for non-conformity, or a denial of COVID being a serious health threat, just to mention a few.

So, does the widespread phenomenon of confabulation mean that stories can never be used as evidence? We argue that what is required is a closer examination of what exactly stories can be evidence of. There is no doubt that presenting messages in the form of stories is very powerful; a teenager who got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes described the anti-vax movement as interacting with parents mainly “on an anecdotal level, sharing stories and experiences. That speaks volumes to people because it reaffirms, especially for my mom, that her position is correct” (Helmore 2019). At the same time, this attention-grabbing and persuasive nature of stories can be used to educate the public effectively about the science of vaccinations and provide solutions to issue of disengagement and misinformation (Rogers 2021). 

In considering which stories can be taken as evidence for a particular claim, we need to know what stories give us information about. We suggest that although stories might not tell us about the causal relationships between events, they tell us about how people want to be seen by others, what people value, and how people interpret their experiences. The students on campus wanted to be seen as defenders of freedom, a value which they have come to hold for themselves after consuming messages on social media which provide these compelling narratives for rejecting masks and failing to comply to other health and safety recommendations. These narratives are compelling because they give people a sense of agency over their choices, a sense that they can control what happens to them. 

Stories can be informative whether or not they involve confabulation, as learning about what people value and care about can inform future communication strategies. But, stories are not always by themselves sufficient evidence for the viewpoints they are used to support. Stories as evidence for general claims still need to be critically assessed, especially when they are shared online and can have significant influence on public opinion. This might enable us to enhance the quality of debates among citizens, whilst still valuing what is attractive and valuable about the stories people share.

To learn more, you can also watch a video where we introduce the paper in less than 4 minutes!

Stories as Evidence - an MMM introduction from Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy Hollies from CUP Academic on Vimeo.

Monday 29 November 2021

At the Crossroads of 'Memory in the Head' and 'Memory in the Wild'

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow) and Amanda Barnier (Macquarie University), Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of the journal.

Andrew Hoskins


In September 2018, Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared before the United States Judiciary Committee as part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a new US Supreme Court Justice. During the confirmation process, Blasey Ford alleged that in the summer of 1982 when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, he sexually assaulted her at a party. Blasey Ford recalled the assault in detail, describing the events as “seared” into her memory. But when given his opportunity before the Committee, Kavanaugh unequivocally and angrily denied this accusation.

We, Andrew and Amanda, were in the same place at the same time – in Glasgow – when Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh gave their testimony. Together, we watched the questions and reactions of the Senators and other people in the Senate room. And we followed on mainstream news, social media and blogs the evolving reactions to their competing claims. We noticed how much Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s conflicting memories spilled out into the world, offering a fascinating case study of the collision of memory in the head (the study of the human world of remembering) and memory in the wild (the study of the social/cultural world of remembering). We also noticed what each of us noticed about the case, which often was quite different.

Amanda Barnier

What we saw were multiple, colliding “ecologies” of memory; reporting and discussion of personal memories in many different settings. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memories were described and then challenged in the Senate Judiciary Hearing Room, dissected as a live televised “event”, and spread and interpreted in real-time across social and other media.

As Andrew has argued, such memories are not “something purely personal to be treated in terms of accuracy and error”. Rather, they illustrate “a new memory ecology, a new twenty-first century (re)ordering of the past by and through multiple connectivities of times, actors, events and so on”.

Social media enables new ways for memories to “travel”. One Australian journalist, reacting to Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memory disclosures on the other side of the world, wrote:


I am sixteen-and-a-half thousand kilometres away from the rooms in which these events have transpired, yet late at night and in moments of quietude, I am in all of them – rendered something supernatural and out of space and time by a rage that’s as hot and thick as lava. And I’m not alone.

These memories also “travelled” via misinformation and conspiracies; strange claims shared and reshared thousands of times on the internet.

And yet, in terms of scholarly responses and analyses of this event, commentary and published contributions overwhelmingly came from psychologists. The hearings and testimony were reported as mostly in the head issues by experts on cognition, trauma and individual remembering and forgetting. There didn’t seem to be much, if any, coverage devoted to memory in the wild perspectives. There was almost no focus on the evolving contexts in which memories were formed, expressed, changed and of course, lost.

Is it that psychologists are wary about making claims about memory in the wild, or what Daniel Schacter in our Inaugural Essay calls ‘domain-general’ effects? Are social and cultural worlds seen as beyond the scope of traditional psychological experimentation because they are not easily replicable or testable? And why didn’t non psychologists – sociologists, historians, cultural studies or media scholars – see this case as within their scope?


Perhaps because the memory phenomena at play in the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh are not reduceable to head or wild. Instead, to invoke Schacter’s essay again, they are always multi-domain. To accept this we must combine our disciplinary perspectives to navigate complex collisions of individual and social/cultural memory; of intersecting “memory ecologies”. This seems especially so when environments for reporting and interpreting memories are far from neutral; when memory can become “radicalised” and expertise about memory and its impacts questioned.

Our journal, Memory, Mind & Media published by Cambridge University Press, offers a unique new venue for these complex cases and interdisciplinary conversations as we explore the impact of media and technology on individual, social and cultural remembering and forgetting.

Our journal is situated at a juncture of transformational digital change. Today, the “connective turn” – the abundance, scale and immediacy of digital media, communication networks and archives – forces a view unprecedented in history. It has re-engineered memory, liberating it from traditional bounds of the spatial archive, the organization, the institution, and distributed it on a continuous basis via connectivity across minds, bodies, and personal and public lives. This opening up of new ways of finding, sorting, sifting, using, seeing, losing and abusing the past, both imprisons and liberates active (intentional, conscious, purposive) human remembering and forgetting.


Another rationale for Memory, Mind & Media is a persistent question we have asked one another and others in our more than decade long collaboration: is it possible to journey from individual, disciplinary, separate perspectives about memory, mind and media to find common, transformative language, questions and approaches? We think yes!

So, we welcome your contributions. We want the journal to be a home for scholars working within, across and beyond history, philosophy, media, communication and cultural studies, law, literature, anthropology, political science, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, computational science and more.

We seek high-quality, interdisciplinary conversations that combine scientific and humanistic approaches to the study of memory in the digital era. And we will preference jargon-free contributions that encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and debate as well as engagement by non-experts and student readers. 

All this week on the Imperfect Cognitions blog, authors of the agenda-setting papers from our Inaugural Collection will describe their work, including:
Please visit us at Memory, Mind & Media, follow us on Twitter and send us your work!

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Epistemic Decolonisation

This post is by Veli Mitova (University of Johannesburg), who guest-edited a special issue of Philosophical Papers on Epistemic Decolonisation and here introduces the topic to us and presents the seven essays contributing to the special issue. 

Veli Mitova

We live in an epistemically colonial world; that’s no secret. Although the Global North physically left as colonial ‘master’ long ago, it still gets to tell the Global South what counts as genuine knowledge and real science. The call to epistemic decolonisation – which is gaining increasing traction in both academia and everyday life – is the dual call to dismantle the North’s self-arrogated epistemic superiority, and to re-centre the South’s knowledge enterprise onto our geo-historical here and now. 

Decolonising Knowledge Here and Now

Veli Mitova, the guest editor of the special issue and the author of this post, models epistemic decolonisation on Kwasi Wiredu’s conceptual decolonisation: it involves the dual imperative to get rid of undue colonial conceptual influences and to draw on indigenous epistemic resources in our knowledge-production. She argues that this conception gets fresh light from the literature on epistemic injustice. Key concepts here are those of hermeneutical injustice, epistemic oppression, as well as the South American concept of ‘epistemic disobedience’ and its African equivalent of ‘epistemic freedom’.

Veli is Professor in Philosophy and Director of the African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, at the University of Johannesburg.


Whither Epistemic Decolonization?

Bernard Matolino issues a serious challenge to those working on epistemic decolonisation in Africa. Show why we should continue this work, the challenge goes, given that it has never benefited the victims of coloniality. On the contrary, it has instead distracted us from the political and material disempowerment of these victims, and has made them overly preoccupied with defining themselves in opposition to the coloniser. The paper, thus, sets important constraints on epistemic decolonisation: it should not be pursued at the cost either of political and economic flourishing, or of neglecting one’s rich African identity.

Bernard is Associate Professor of Philosophy, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


Epistemic Agency Under Oppression

Gaile Pohlhaus offers a related moral for epistemic decolonisation, through considerations of epistemic oppression. Drawing on Maria Lugones’s notion of a ‘horizontal practice of resistance’, Pohlhaus argues that epistemic decolonisation should be likewise horizontal. That is, marginalised knowers should resist spending all their epistemic energy on the oppressor, as Matolino similarly urges. Instead, they should spend more energy reflecting on each other’s experiences and marginalised knowledge systems.

Gaile is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Miami University.


Towards A Plausible Account of Epistemic Decolonisation

Abraham Tobi echoes the need for horizontal exchange, and diagnoses one of the epistemic ills of colonialism as the epistemic distrust of dominant knowers. Such distrust, he argues, is an epistemic vice that makes coloniality a form of epistemic injustice. This suggestion arguably sets another constraint on epistemic decolonisation: however it proceeds, it should not undermine trust amongst differently situated knowers.

Abraham is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.

Epistemic decolonization as overcoming the hermeneutical injustice of Eurocentrism

Lerato Posholi argues that the main motivation for epistemic decolonisation is that Eurocentric conceptual resources are inadequate for theorising global problems and hence infelicitous for finding solutions to them. The need for epistemic decolonisation is, thus, grounded in the (hermeneutical) injustice of imposing on the marginalised epistemic resources that are inadequate for theorising their experiences. Epistemic decolonisation emerges as the only therapy for this injustice.

Lerato is a SNSF Fellow at the Centre for European Studies, University of Basel.


‘Civility,’ the Civilizing Project, and Epistemic Decolonization

Nora Berenstain adds yet another dimension to epistemic decolonisation by unmasking the hidden axiology of colonial epistemologies, which place the value of civility above that of justice. Such justice would require the restoration of Indigenous lands to their rightful owners, something obscured by the rhetoric of civility and the epistemic machinery that goes with it. This not only enriches the imperative to epistemic decolonisation, but neatly links it to other forms of resistance to systematic violence against the marginalised.

Nora is Associate Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Intersectionality Community of Scholars at the University of Tennessee.


Cognitive confinement, embodied sense-making, and the (de)colonization of knowledge

Konrad Werner construes quite literally the need for grounding knowledge production in our geo-historical here and now, by taking seriously the idea that knowers are embodied creatures in an environment that can be congenial or not to cognition. Drawing on cognitive science tools, he uses the notion of ‘cognitive confinement’ to model the central epistemic ills of colonisation as a situation in which one’s epistemic environment transforms in ways that are inimical to one’s sense-making and practical projects.

Konrad is a lecturer at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw.

This is no more than a taste for rich and subtle essays on a complex and important topic. But it at least gives an idea of the ways in which the special issue makes an important contribution to scholarship on epistemic decolonisation.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Models and Idealizations in Science

This post is by Alejandro Cassini (University of Buenos Aires) and Juan Redmond (University of Valparaiso) who recently edited Models and Idealizations in Science: Artifactual and Fictional Approaches (Springer, 2021). Here they present the book.

This book is intended both as an introduction to the philosophy of scientific modeling and as a contribution to the discussion and clarification of two recent philosophical conceptions of models: the artifactual and the fictional views. 

The first chapter provides a rather elementary but fairly complete and extensive introduction to the present state of the philosophy of scientific models. It also offers a brief historical narrative of the rise and the early development of the philosophy of scientific models since the middle of the 20th century. 

Juan Redmond

The commented bibliography at end of the book complements this narrative by offering a classified list of the main relevant books on models and idealizations in science preceded by short commentaries intended to guide the search for further readings on the different topics. 

The rest of the book is a collection of ten previously unpublished articles by different philosophers of science, who deal with a wealth of topics concerning models and idealizations in science. Among the many issues they address, it can be mentioned the artifactual view of idealization, the use of information theory to elucidate the concepts of abstraction and idealization, the deidealization of models, the nature of scientific fictions, the fiction view of models defended from its critics, the structural account of representation and the ontological status of structures, the role of surrogative reasoning with models, and the use of models for predicting and explaining physical phenomena. 

Alejandro Cassini

The pervasive use of models and idealizations in all sciences was slowly, and lately, acknowledged by philosophers of science since the last two decades of the twentieth century. By contrast, during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, there was an explosion of different kinds of philosophical studies regarding scientific modeling. 

However, philosophers of science have not yet reached an agreement concerning the precise terminology to be used in dealing with scientific models and, for that reason, the vagueness and ambiguity of some key terms, such as “model system”, “target”, “abstraction”, and “idealization”, among many others, are still a hindrance for the communication between philosophers of different persuasions. 

In turn, the ubiquitous concept of representation, one of the most elusive in Modern philosophy, has defied the many attempts at elucidation in the many philosophical disciplines in which it was employed, such as the philosophies of language, mind, and art. 

This book also aims at contributing to the clarification of these and other concepts that belong to the toolkit with which philosophers of science address such questions as what models are, what they are used for, and how they represent -if they do it- the phenomena we encounter in the real world.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

What is Hagioptasia?

Today's post is by Dan Laidler, who introduces the notion of hagioptasia and explains why it points to something interesting about how humans interact with their environment.

Hagioptasia (meaning 'holy vision') is our natural tendency to imagine an otherworldly quality of 'specialness' in certain places, people or things. It is an evolved, adaptive psychological mechanism, which evokes in us a deep sense of longing.
“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

Like Lewis, I had also wondered a great deal on these deep, enigmatic feelings, which everyone appeared to share in a very similar manner from early childhood onwards. Although, rather than strengthen my notions of spirituality, this inquiry led me to a naturalistic explanation, culminating in my theory of hagioptasia as an evolved instinct, inspiring emotional feelings of attraction, admiration and competition.

In 2015 I made a video explaining my ideas, and with great good fortune it was seen by psychologist John A. Johnson. John was keen to test the theory, and his consequent findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences

Daniel Laidler

While hagioptasia is a new concept, and this research is the first attempt at assessing it, John's work in showing that such an instinct exists is significant for enabling us to see how hagioptasic experiences have previously been misinterpreted, both on a personal and a cultural level. As is commonly the case, C.S. Lewis believed that these profound feelings of specialness were glimpses of the divine, and they gave his notions of spirituality and religion a reassuring sense of authenticity.

The ambiguous, illusory qualities of hagioptasia have clearly played major role in the development of religion, and other areas of human culture which employ the powers of mystique, glory and ‘glamour’. Likewise, our appreciation of the 'sublime' in celebrated works of art may owe far more to our evolved animal nature than any contributory intellectual prowess. 

But while most of us may not be expecting the wonderment of heavenly glory to materialize any time soon, other more everyday expectations to satisfy the promises of hagioptasia inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration. The dream car, house or holiday, career success, status and celebrity may all eventually be achieved, yet the 'specialness' we yearn for exists only as a fleeting, intangible notion.

Undoubtedly the desire to attain the illusory aspirations of hagioptasia continues to be a major source of trouble for our species. However, it seems evident to me that an understanding of this instinctive drive – being aware of how and when it is influencing our thoughts and behaviours – can help us to alleviate these problems, and will enable people to use their hagioptasic experiences more constructively.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Extreme Beliefs: An Interview with Rik Peels

Today I interview Rik Peels (Amsterdam) on a new exciting project he is leading, addressing extremism and fundamentalism. The project is funded by an ERC Starting Grant and is named, "Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism" (2020-2025). 

Rik Peels

LB: How did you become interested in fundamentalism?

RP: It was a combination of two things. On the one hand, ever since the start of my PhD in 2008, I’ve been working on the ethics of belief. In times of polarization and misinformation, I think the issue of how people form their beliefs and how they should form them has become even more important. On the other hand, especially since 9/11, the so-called new atheists have severely critiqued religious faith on both moral and epistemic grounds, but it has always struck me, as a religious person myself, that they seem to target only fundamentalist and other extreme versions of religion. I felt it was only natural to combine the two interests and the rise of terrorism, right-wing extremism, and conspiricism have only added to that. The public and academic conceptual conflation between, say, extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and fanaticism has been a final reason for me to engage in this topic.

LB: Your project deals with the epistemological and ethical issues raised by extreme beliefs. What are your research questions?

RP: The five main research questions are: 
  1. What turns a person’s extreme beliefs into fundamentalist beliefs and how do they relate to other epistemically detrimental phenomena like narrow-mindedness and belief in conspiracy theories? 
  2. How does the social environment affect the rationality and other epistemic statuses of fundamentalist beliefs of the individual and of the group? 
  3. What are people’s general and context-specific moral and epistemic obligations regarding fundamentalist beliefs? 
  4. Under which conditions are people excused for violating their moral and epistemic obligations regarding their fundamentalist beliefs? 
  5. And exactly how does an epistemology and ethics of individual and group fundamentalist belief help us to better understand, explain, and assess fundamentalism?

LB: What expertise is required to study fundamentalism? Does your project team involve experts in different disciplines? If so, how will they work together?

RP: The challenging thing about fundamentalism is that, in order to properly understand and explain it, one needs expertise in countless disciplines, at least: philosophy, theology, religious studies, law, history, psychology, sociology, criminology, and arguably even much more than that. My project team combines philosophical (particularly epistemological and ethical) expertise with empirical expertise.

LB: Some believe that philosophy has a role in helping tackle serious problems. Will your project inform societal responses to extreme beliefs?

RP: That is indeed also an aim, one that will become more important towards the end of the project, as the results are coming in. We are involved in public debates in newspapers, for instance, on how to respond to Covid-19 conspiricism. We provide input for policy documents by ministries and public safety agencies (the equivalents of the FBI). We are involved in other projects building resilience towards extreme beliefs among various groups in three Dutch cities. All our work, both academic and public, will be made freely available on our website.

LB: What is the final goal of the project?

RP: Since the start of the project in early 2020, I have come to see (I believe) that what is needed now is a new paradigm for studying fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism, conspiricism, and fanaticism that: 
  • combines insights into these movements rather than studying them in isolation;
  • takes the first-person perspective of, say, the extremist – her reasons, beliefs, narratives – seriously, something that has been neglected for years now; and 
  • synthesizes ideas and methods from the empirical sciences and more theoretical (conceptual, normative) approaches as developed in philosophy. 
The long-term and rather ambitious goal, then, is to develop this paradigm with numerous other philosophers as well as empirical and historical scholars, that is, to find the right terms and concepts needed to articulate it, back it up by empirical evidence and rigorous argumentation, and make it flourish.

Friday 29 October 2021

The Epistemic Relevance of CBT

Chloe Bamboulis, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, works on the relationship between classic philosophical views and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In this video, she talks for three minutes about self-knowledge in Plato and in CBT. In today's post she summarises a commentary co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti on the utility of CBT, forthcoming in Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology.

Chloe Bamboulis

A common idea about CBT is that it does not contribute to the person's understanding of reality (validity) but encourages ways of thinking that boost the person's wellbeing (utility). In our brief commentary, we argue that CBT can also contribute to some of the person's epistemic goals.

Suppose James comes to believe that he will not be offered his dream job, the one he is going to be interviewed for. James arrives at this self-prediction by accepting a negative automatic thought about himself as someone who does not perform well at job interviews. Accepting that things will go badly due to negative biases may give rise to the correct prediction, but this does not mean that the prediction reflects  a careful consideration of the factors that are likely to contribute to the future outcome. 


By inviting James to think about his past performance during interviews and getting him to realise that he actually did get a few jobs, CBT might make additional explanations for James's negative perception of himself over and beyond the thought that “he is rubbish”. What if some of the job he interviewed for in the past were extremely competitive? What if James had not shone in previous interviews because he was tired or stressed? If there is evidence against the view that James "is rubbish" at job interviews, this evidence should be taken into account. 

The mere consideration of additional evidence and alternative hypotheses enables James to imagine another reality. A reality in which not getting the next job is not the only outcome. This has implications for the discussion of the aims of CBT: the epistemic relevance of a therapeutic approach does not merely depend on whether it increases the overall number of accurate representations and correct hypotheses, but in whether it encourages grounding representations and hypotheses on experience and evidence.


An epistemic goal has been served by a therapeutic approach that helps James resist the power of a negative bias. If CBT can habituate people to adopt a thinking style where hypotheses are not accepted blindly, but explored and weighed up against alternatives before being accepted, this suggests a significant epistemic progress. It leads people to become more sensitive to evidence.


We all find obstacles on the way to pursuing our goals. When we overestimate our talents and how rosy our future will be, we are less likely to give up pursuing our goals at the first setback. We are motivated to persevere, and more likely to achieve our goals than if we had given up earlier. Some of these relevant goals may be epistemic and contribute to our exchanging information more effectively within our social environment, and gaining a better understanding of ourselves and the world. 

Finally, James's self-predictions can become self-fulfilling. If he is convinced that he will not get the job, he might not even be motivated to prepare for it. But if he thinks he has a chance, he might do his best to perform well. CBT seems to have an important role in the process of learning how to develop effective strategies to sustain future motivation.