UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of January 2017: Susanna Siegel

Susanna Siegel

Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University


 AOS: Epistemology, Phenomenology, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology, Social and Political Philosophy

My work focuses on the nature of perception and its roles in reasoning and action. My first book, The Contents of Visual Experience, was about that nature of conscious visual perception. It investigated what this form of perception can inform (or misinform) us about reality. I argued that visual experiences can represent (and misrepresent) complex properties such as kind properties, causal properties, and personal identity. In subsequent work I’ve investigated how the psychological precursors of perceptual experiences, such as fears, beliefs, desires, and prejudice, can influence perception.

My second book The Rationality of Perception argues that perceptual experiences themselves, along with the routes by which we come to have them, can be appraised as epistemically better or worse. I came to this view by considering possible cases lumped under the broad category of ‘cognitive penetration’ – a label that is used so widely that it encompasses many different phenomena. For instance, suppose a person’s racist outlook (whether implicit or explicit) leads them to perceive a threatening man with a gun, when in fact what they’re seeing is a boy playing in a playground. If the racist outlook comes to be baked in to the perceptual experience, can the perceiver end up with a reasonable belief about what he sees, just by believing his eyes? I think the answer is No.

But if in this case it isn’t reasonable to believe one’s eyes, why not? Many answers to this question could be given. My answer is that it’s not reasonable because the perceptual experience itself is as unreasonable as the racist outlook it. This position has a lot of explaining to do. Does anything in the nature of experience preclude its being epistemically appraisable? How can perception ever play the role of allowing us to check our beliefs against reality? What distinguishes between the psychological influences on perception that are epistemically good and the ones that are epistemically bad? I address these questions in The Rationality of Perception, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press. 

In addition to research in epistemology and the philosophy of mind, I have taught courses in political philosophy for the program in the General Education.  In the summer of 2016, I directed a 4-week summer institute with Nico Silins on Presupposition and Perception: Reasoning, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics. I’m also committed to fostering analytic philosophy in Spanish, and together with Diana Acosta, Laura Pérez, and Patricia Marechal, I’ve hosted a series of philosophy workshops in Spanish at Harvard in recent years.