Joulia Smortchkova

(c) privat

(c) privat

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Ruhr University Bochum for the Volkswagen Foundation project “Situated Cognition: Perceiving the World and Understanding Others”. In my work I connect debates in philosophy of mind with empirical research in cognitive science.
My first encounter with philosophy happened during my high school years: In Italy (I’m Russian-Italian) every “liceo” has three years of mandatory history of philosophy. Among all the subjects, philosophy was for sure the most challenging one, but also the most rewarding.
I did my BA in Bologna, Italy, where I had a well-rounded education, ranging from esthetics to logics, but I was mostly interested in history and philosophy of science. I wrote my first BA thesis on history of logic, and took some advanced classes in history, logic and philosophy of science at Paris I – Sorbonne, where I spent a year thanks to the Erasmus program. At the same time, I was a scholarship student at Collegio Superiore in Bologna – an institution that offered housing and funding to outstanding students, in exchange for a complementary interdisciplinary training in a variety of subjects that we could freely choose.
After the Erasmus, I stayed in Paris for six more years, thanks to a scholarship from the Ecole Normale Supérieure that offered me the opportunity to pursue my studies in an intellectually vibrant and interdisciplinary atmosphere. I finished two master degrees: one in history and philosophy of science with a thesis on naturalistic approaches to mathematics, and another in cognitive science with a thesis on consciousness, attention, and mental demonstration. A stay at NYU was a turning point in my studies, and after years of oscillating among different topics, I settled for empirically oriented philosophy of mind. From 2010 to 2014 I did a PhD at the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris with a thesis on the social contents of visual experiences, under the supervision of Pierre Jacob.
In my PhD dissertation, I explore social perception, an area of research between philosophy of perception and social cognition. I claim that we can perceive some social properties in others, in particular we can perceive others as agents (and not as inanimate objects), we can perceive their goal-directed actions, and even some of their mental states, such as their emotional expressions. I argue that social perception, rather than an alternative to mindreading and to cognitive ways of understanding others, is a complementary mechanism, that works in automatic ways and is connected to core systems in development. My interest in this topic stems from an old skeptical philosophical problem: the ‘other minds problem’. It arises from the (epistemic) asymmetry between the direct way we access our mental states and the indirect way we access the mental states of others, which are, for us, opaque and elusive. The skeptic draws on this fact to challenge our certainty that others have inner lives similar to ours. While social perception per se is not a reply to the skeptical problem, I think that it shows that there is an innate and basic psychological mechanism that gives us a sense of the inner lives of others.
In general, social perception challenges some of the received views in philosophy and cognitive science about the contents of perception, the divide between perception and cognition, and the way we understand each other. It is also an empirically grounded claim, because much of recent research in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and developmental psychology bears on the issue.
My current projects concern the exploration of the role of the body in perceiving social properties; the explanatory role of mental representations in cognitive science, and a collaborative work with Michael Murez and Brent Strickland on mental files and singular thought.
Concerning the first project, I am mostly interested in a theory that would allow for a proper embodiment of emotional states, in order to answer a worry about the claim that we perceive emotions. According to this worry, we do not access the emotional mental states, but merely their behavioral manifestations (because mental states are not visible and outwardly manifest). The second project stems from my interest in developmental psychology and in the role of mental representations in scientific explanations. In particular, I focus on the debate about the non conceptual format of representations. This debate often appeals to infants’ mental states as paradigmatic examples of states with non conceptual format, but seldom looks at empirical evidence. I think that a fruitful discussion about non conceptual format cannot abstract from a closer look at the empirical evidence from developmental psychology.
For more information and for contacting me please visit my personal page: https://jouliasmortchkova.wordpress.com