I am a philosopher of mind with a strong background in Continental philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular. So although my research primarily concerns issues current in the contemporary Anglo-American analytic tradition, my treatment of these issues typically reflects Continental perspectives. Similarly, the slate of courses I normally teach includes some with exclusively Anglo-American content (e.g., Philosophy of Mind, Theory of Knowledge, and recent graduate seminars covering the work of Michael Bratman, Alvin Goldman and Helen Longino); and some with exclusively Continental content (e.g., Existentialism, Contemporary Conti…
I am a philosopher of mind with a strong background in Continental philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular. So although my research primarily concerns issues current in the contemporary Anglo-American analytic tradition, my treatment of these issues typically reflects Continental perspectives. Similarly, the slate of courses I normally teach includes some with exclusively Anglo-American content (e.g., Philosophy of Mind, Theory of Knowledge, and recent graduate seminars covering the work of Michael Bratman, Alvin Goldman and Helen Longino); and some with exclusively Continental content (e.g., Existentialism, Contemporary Continental Tradition, and graduate seminars on the work of Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche). In addition, I regularly teach courses with content bridging these two traditions (e.g., Technology and Values), and in the history of philosophy (e.g., 19th Century Western Philosophy).
My dissertation and early research concerned the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, particularly the critiques of AI advanced by thinkers such as J. R. Lucas, Joseph Weizenbaum, John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus. The most interesting of these, in my view, is the Heidegger inspired work of Dreyfus and John Haugeland, which I interpreted as calling into question the representational theory of intentionality assumed in AI. In my dissertation and subsequent publications I tried to extend their work in the direction of a non-representational theory of intentionality, drawing not only on Husserl and Heidegger, but on some then new developments in AI, particularly the robotics work of Rodney Brooks and his students.
My current research grew out of this interest in robotics. Ultimately, robots must be able to negotiate the cultural world of artifacts and built environments. This means dealing not only with the natural features of things, but with their functional features; and it requires participation in the socially mediated activities involved in the production and use of material culture. But how do we do this? There is virtually no philosophical literature dealing with any aspect of this question. Function theory in philosophy is tailored to questions about biological function; and action theory has historically focused on questions about the nature of intentions and individual intentional action, with no particular reference to material culture. My current research is aimed at filling in these lacunae in function theory and action theory.
The function theory strand of this research started with the question of whether and to what extent philosophical theories of biological function apply to artifact function. The quick answer, frequently encountered, is that function in material culture is completely unlike biological function in that it depends on the intentions and beliefs of intelligent agents. But my research so far indicates that this answer is much too quick, since the functions of artifacts do not depend in any straightforward way on the intentional states of individual agents, or even identifiable groups of agents (design teams, for instance). Further complicating this story is a phenomenologically salient difference in material culture between the proper functions of artifacts—the purposes they are supposed to fulfill in virtue of design, longstanding custom, etc.—and what I call their system functions—the other purposes they are called on to fulfill by their users. For example, a tableknife may be used to put in screws, transplant seedlings, loosen the skin of garlic cloves, and so on. These functions clearly depend as much on the physical structure of the artifacts as on any intentions and beliefs of the agents involved. And this in turn points back to general questions about structure and function in material culture, such as how the reproduction and variation of structures is related to the reproduction and variation of proper functions.
The action theory strand of my research started with the question of whether and to what extent philosophical action theory provides an adequate foundation for a philosophical account of material culture. Two problems surfaced right away. First, action theory has recently appropriated the planning model of action common in AI and cognitive science as the basis for understanding intentions and intentional action. But the activity involved in both the production and the use of material culture is typically improvisatory, and is not captured by the planning model. So one major component of my research is a theory of improvisation. I believe that a similar difficulty may exist with regard to habit; and I hope to make a theory of habitual action the topic of a future project. The second problem is that action theory has historically focused on individual action, and has only very recently begun to consider action involving multiple agents. But the activity involved in the production and use of material culture is not only typically collaborative, but is thoroughly social—that is, it depends on supra-individual practices of a culturally and historically local sort. So a second major component of my research in this area is to integrate an account of collaboration and sociality into my theory of improvisation.