Featured Philosop-her: Josefa Toribio

Josefa Toribio

Josefa (Pepa) Toribio joined ICREA (Catalan Institut of Research and Advanced Studies) in 2009 and is currently an ICREA Research Professor at the University of Barcelona. Pepa Toribio got her PhD from Complutense University, Madrid, in 1988. She worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at Complutense University between 1989 and 1991. She was then awarded a postgraduate fellowship by the British Council to work in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex (1991-1993). She was Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis (1993-2000), Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex (2000-2002), Associate Professor at the University of Indiana, Bloomington (2002-2004), and Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh (2004-2008). She is a member of the research group LOGOS (Research Group in Analytic Philosophy) at the University of Barcelona. Since September 2010, she is also president of the Spanish Society of Analytic Philosophy (SEFA).

Experiencing, judging, believing

Josefa (Pepa) Toribio

A big thanks to Meena for running this fantastic blog and for inviting me to contribute to the series.

My goal in philosophy has long been the same: to explore the nature of the mind within a naturalistic framework. What is most distinctive of my research is my on-going effort to respect scientific findings about mental phenomena while insisting on the critical importance of the method of analysis and the theoretical tools provided by philosophy. I thus try to balance the two factors and to develop a fully integrated approach where each informs and constrains the other. In research, this enables me to pursue an agenda that tackles questions that the very best current scientific accounts leave unanswered. In teaching, it enables me to draw upon many traditions and to make contact with students whose inclinations are social and humanistic, as well as with those with those of a more standardly scientific persuasion. I believe strongly in the importance of this kind of balance.

My intellectual trajectory began with a dissertation about realism and anti-realism in semantics. The dissertation was in part a reflection on some of Michael Dummett’s ideas about the plausibility of characterizing certain metaphysical theses in semantic terms. Soon, what started out as an interest in the metaphysical commitments underlying the notion of truth in certain theories of meaning, morphed into an interest in the empirical and computational aspects of the architecture and the content of mental representations. I became more and more interested in those aspects of cognition that, while being rationally responsive, are not explicitly represented or consciously driven.

My current research focuses on the complex relations between perceptual experiences, beliefs, and mental actions, and covers two different but related topics: (i) the structure and nature of the content of perceptual experiences, and (ii) the nature of mental actions and how they relate to agency. I’ll say a little bit about the kind of work I have done within these two different but closely related areas. I’ll do it in reverse order.

When considering the things that we do, albeit mentally, the list uncontroversially contains mental actions such as imagining, calculating, deciding, reasoning or trying. It is more debatable whether or not judging should also be added to this list. As opposed to those who think that judging is involuntary and hence not an action, I press for the view that judging is a type of mental action and argue that judging is specifically a type of non-voluntary mental action. My account of the non-voluntary nature of the mental act of judging differs, however, from standard non-voluntarist views, according to which ‘non-voluntary’ just means regulated by epistemic reasons. In addition, judging is non-voluntary, I contend, because it is partially constituted by the exercise of a skill whose cognitive scaffolding often remains rationally opaque to the subject. This skill, which I call ‘critical pop-out’, consists of an unreflective, often unconscious, ability to detect the kind of situations in which the reflective abilities that also partially constitute our acts of judging should be deployed.

The main problem with standard non-voluntarism about judging, I argue, is that responsiveness to reasons is all they appeal to in explaining why our judgments make us objects of assessment. Responsiveness to reasons, and our answerability for such reasons, are the core of their agential view of judging. Yet, agency, I contend, runs deeper than rationality. This is particularly clear in our noticing or failing to notice those situations that demand the deployment of the rational abilities we exercise in judging. Such patterns of awareness reflect the kind of epistemic agents we are and thus make us worthy objects of epistemic assessment. They are shaped essentially by our education, socialization, friendships and the like. What matters for the critical pop-out constituent of the act of judging to count as agential is that we are indeed held responsible for this ability—the ability that makes us select certain parts of the world around as deserving of our rational engagement.

Philosophy of perception is really the core of my research. Over the years, I have defended a representationalist view of the content of perception and have endorsed a non-conceptualist view about the content of perceptual experiences in a series of papers. The notion of personal-level non-conceptual content at issue here has to be understood along the lines of the original proponents of the idea. For any perceptual experience E with content C, C is non-conceptual if and only if C is essentially different in kind to the content of beliefs, where, importantly, the content of beliefs is characterized in neo-Fregean terms. A different formulation of the notion of non-conceptual content, also commonly found in the first papers on non-conceptualism reads as follows. For any perceptual experience E with content C, any subject S, and any time t, C is non-conceptual if and only if it is not the case that in order for S to undergo E, S must possess at t the concepts that a correct characterization of C would involve.

On the first (content) view, perceptual non-conceptualism is a thesis about the kind of content perceptual experiences have. On the second (state) view, perceptual non-conceptualism is a thesis about the relation that holds between a subject undergoing a perceptual experience and its content. It may thus seem consistent to hold that both perceptual experiences and beliefs share the same (conceptual) content, but that for a subject to undergo a perceptual experience, the subject need not possess the concepts involved in a correct characterization of such content. Let’s call this thesis T.

I have argued against T along the following lines. First, I show how T’s consistency is only possible once we abandon the neo-Fregean contrastive notion of conceptual content discussed by the original players in the debate. According to this neo-Fregean characterization, conceptual content is composed of concepts, which are, in turn, understood as abstract ability-types. There is nothing more to the nature of those ability-types than their instantiation in the form of the set of abilities that a subject exercises when she entertains thoughts containing that concept. Second, I argue that abandoning this neo-Fregean approach to concepts and concept possession threatens content attribution, i.e., threatens the necessary link between the ways a subject takes the world to be and her relevant cognitive abilities—those that need to be invoked to explain the subject’s intentional behaviour. Yet, if we were to keep it, T would become incoherent, as it entails that a subject could exercise cognitive abilities that she does not possess. When the contrastive notion of conceptual content is construed in the relevant neo-Fregean terms, I argue, state and content view are nothing but the two sides of the very same thesis. This line of argument also allows me to stop the attempt to use T’s alleged consistency to show that the form and core of the conceptualism/ non-conceptualism debate is undermined or ill conceived.

My work also touches on issues relating to the relationship between perceptual non-conceptualism and some empirical theses, such as the thesis of the cognitive empenetrability of early vision. I have argued against the view that the (alleged) cognitive impenetrability of early vision states is a necessary and sufficient condition for their content to be non-conceptual—the mutually entailing thesis, as I call it. Even if we grant that that the property of being non-conceptual admits two different interpretations—corresponding to the distinction between the state and the content views as formulated above—the mutually entailing thesis fails. I first argue for the falsity of the state-non-conceptualist reading of the thesis on the grounds that it mistakenly takes being non-conceptual to be a causal instead of a constitutive relationship. The content-non-conceptualist understanding of the thesis, I then argue, is disproved by plausible views regarding the content of experience. The mutually entailing thesis could only be true, I contend, on a non-standard, causal interpretation of the notion of nonconceptual content. Yet, on that reading, the thesis would either be trivially true or would entirely fail to engage with the contemporary literature on perceptual non conceptualism.

Finally, in my most recent work, I explore the relation between the alleged richness of the content of perceptual experience and the idea that perceptual experience is cognitively penetrable by background states, such as beliefs, desires or emotions. According to so-called “thin” views about the content of experience, we can only visually experience low-level features such as colour, shape, texture or motion. According to so-called “rich” views, we can also visually experience some high-level properties, such as being a pine tree or being threatening. One of the standard objections against rich views is that high-level properties can only be represented at the level of judgments. I have recently offered rich theories a plausible escape route from this objection based on some recent studies in social vision. I have also tackled a different but related issue, namely, the relationship between rich views and the view that visual experience is cognitively penetrable. Despite their logical independence, both theses tend to go hand in hand in the literature. I argue, however, that the very criterion that establishes the genuine visual nature of our representations of some high-level properties makes the entailment from rich views to cognitive penetrability problematic.

The nature of the content of the mental states involved in paradigmatic cases of implicit bias has emerged lately as a key platform to carry on thinking and writing about issues in this vicinity. What all these threads have in common is that they arise at the barely-explored intersection between scientifically-informed philosophy of mind / cognitive science and what might be dubbed the ‘normative image’ of mind, according to which a proper account of the mental cannot be developed without attention to matters concerning value, ethics and responsibility.

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