Although I have a broad research interests, much of my work coheres around a few foundational topics. More information about these topics can be found below.
Affordances and How Artworks Mean
In this project I use methods drawn from philosophy of technology to develop a new picture of artistic meaning. Working from within both philosophy of technology and philosophy of art, I outline a neopragmatist picture of the cognitive functions—that is, the ‘meanings’—of works of art: a picture grounded in a theory of knowledge capable of accounting for non-propositional performances. Armed with this theory of knowledge, I argue that the cognitive functions of works of art should be understood in terms of the ‘affordances’ that they provide.
Philosophers of technology use ‘affordances’ to capture the ways in which technical artefacts facilitate certain kinds of performances. Swimming goggles afford seeing underwater. Paintbrushes afford the precise application of paint. Rockets afford travelling to the moon. Affordances, in short, provide a means of conceptualising what different technologies do for us. In this way, affordances give us a way to speak about the cognitive functions of technology, without bogging us down in questions about the semantic contents of those technologies. The cognitive function of a given piece of technology lies not in the knowledge that it instantiates, but rather in what it can teach us via the performances that the technology affords.
This insight, I think, also offers us a means of making sense of the ‘meaning’ of works of art. Assuming we buy the notion that works of art also constitute examples of technology, then we find ourselves in a position to avail ourselves of affordances to cash out these questions about meaning. To that end, the central thesis of this project is that works of art provide distinct social, political, cultural, and phenomenological affordances. These affordances manifest as superlative, knowledge-bearing performances, providing clear empirical evidence of the cognitive value of works of art. It is, I think, a genuinely exciting a novel approach to the problem of meaning vis-à-vis works of art.
Groundwork for a Philosophy of Design
Despite the huge number of enormously important important philosophical questions posed by design, philosophy of design is itself underdeveloped. Philosophers who write about design tend to do so from the perspective of one or other philosophical domain: usually philosophy of technology or aesthetics. Both philosophy of technology and aesthetics have real insights to offer philosophy of design. Both are, after all, materially-oriented philosophical disciplines: both are about human-made stuff in the world, even though there are undeniable difference in their respective approaches. Furthermore, both of these bodies of literature offer powerful methodological approaches and trenchant insights. Unfortunately, these interrogations and analyses do not in and of themselves constitute a coherent philosophy of design; there is no scholarship integrating and systematising these various approaches. Indeed there is remarkably little overlap, of any kinds, between the two subfields regarding the subject of design. All this leaves philosophy of design a rather tragic and piecemeal sort of affair.
This should strike us as strange! After all, philosophers of technology and aesthetics share a number of foundational questions about design: questions about how and why material objects look the way they do; the ways in which meaning is expressed and/or communicated by those objects; the functions they fulfil and their appropriateness for those functions; the ways in which they both influence and are influenced by the cultures in which they are embedded. This disciplinary divide is even more confusing when we realise that it’s very difficult to generate a prima facie justification for ‘aesthetic objects’ and ‘technical objects’ constituting discrete categories. Aesthetic objects have technical features; technical objects have aesthetic features. Analyses of aesthetic objects that fail to consider the technical aspects of those objects are obviously incomplete, just as there is no unambiguous and well-motivated way to disentangle aesthetics from engineering when it comes to analysing the design and proper functioning of technical objects.
Thankfully, this lacuna does not indicate the presence of a principled incompatibility between these sub-fields. To the contrary, I am convinced that the insights of each of these disciplines are entirely mutually reconcilable. Given those observations—first, that both philosophy of technology and aesthetics each have valuable things to say about the nature of design, and second that there is no principled reason why these respective insights cannot be integrated and systematised—we have in our possession the insight that is the germ of the research project posed here. I want to bring these disparate corners of scholarship into active conversation. This is the groundwork for a philosophy of design.
Establishing the Good Life in the Smart City
Smart cities are inherently political artefacts. Under the guise of motivating ‘socially responsible behaviour’, smart city systems are made to encourage the expression of prosocial norms, via strategies that range from the coercive to the seductive.
Unfortunately, these political artefacts are often designed absent sufficient meta-ethical, collaborative, and/or procedural scrutiny. This presents two problems. First, these systems presume that the public good is monistic and prosocial: claims that are both incorrect and insufficiently sensitive to the fact that social and political norms change across time. Second, smart city systems are designed and implemented in a way that is opaque to intuition and everyday experience. This is unfortunate given the wealth of literature claiming that technologies, when opaque to intuition, can be existentially and phenomenologically deleterious.
We need a new way to think about smart city systems. Not only to make sure that smart cities act in in service to the robustly pluralistic notion of the good upon which democracy is premised, but also to guarantee that smart city systems furnish phenomenologically rich political and aesthetic experiences. In meeting both of these criteria, we can ensure that smart city systems facilitate some commonly-shared notion of the good life.