Research team

Centre for Philosophical Psychology

Expertise

I'm a cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind, working on perception, attention, mental imagery and action. I also work on topics in aesthetics.

Understanding ideological bias through data-driven methods: testing cognitive social learning processes through intersectional analysis of past data (c.1800-c.1940) 01/01/2021 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

Ideological bias concerning age, gender, ethnicity and social class is a major ethical concern in contemporary society, influencing human behaviour both at macro- and micro-levels. Recent studies have demonstrated that machine learning methods (from artificial intelligence) not only capture, but amplify the ideological biases in the data they are trained on. In this project, we aim to strategically turn this undesirable property to our advantage and exploit the study of ideological biases for visual cultures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (c.1800-c.1940). Recent cognitive studies make clear how ideological biases largely result from processes of social learning. To study the construction and dissemination of ideological bias we put forth three case studies in crucial areas of social control: education (children's literature), mass communication (magic lantern slides and performances), and regulation (police reports). These interlinked areas of study come with a wealth of rights-free digitized material and pre-existing scholarship. Through the application of standard routines from machine learning, we aim to elicit implicit patterns and trends relating to ideological bias and confront these with received knowledge. The current project is innovative in its methodology through its study of pixel data through computer vision in the humanities which has received too little attention so far. Moreover, it uses data-driven technology to present a novel intersectional viewpoint on the construction of ideological bias in the past. Finally, by being embedded in recent cognitive studies, the project will be able to make claims on how implicit bias functioned in the past, understanding better what people thought and how such thinking structured behavioural interactions with their surrounding world.

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The Reliable Bias Model of Implicit Cognition. 01/10/2019 - 30/09/2023

Abstract

Ruth believes it is racist to think that all black men are dangerous. Nevertheless, when she encounters a black man at night, she is afraid and tries to avoid this man. Ruth does not explicitly endorse the claim that all black man are dangerous but there seems to be an implicit aspect of her mind that does. This aspect is called "implicit bias". Psychological studies suggest that someone can be implicitly racist or sexist. Implicit bias is widely discussed, both in academia and in public debates about racism and sexism. Recently, the standard psychological models of implicit bias have been criticized. The standard models mistakenly claim that if a response is automatic (i.e. unintentionally activated and quick), it is the result of a mental shortcut which avoids a person's goals and desires. This project proposes a different model: the Reliable Bias Model of Implicit Cognition. The model can explain why some mental states are automatic but nevertheless goal-directed. Ruth's avoidant behaviour is guided by the goal to stay safe. It is not because a response is automatic that one's goals are not taken into account. This model will not only be useful for psychological research. There are also philosophical questions related to implicit bias, such as: Are we to blame for our implicit biases? Are we able to and should we control them? What does implicit bias tell us about our ability to gain knowledge? The project will use the Reliable Bias Model to answer these questions.

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The Art of the Impossible: A Philosophical Study of Theatrical Magic (PhiloMagic). 01/08/2019 - 31/07/2021

Abstract

PhiloMagic is an interdisciplinary project in philosophical aesthetics in the analytic tradition. It focuses primarily on the art of theatrical magic (think David Copperfield, not Harry Potter), which the American Society for Aesthetics recognizes as a "neglected art." PhiloMagic builds on my prize-winning essay, "The Experience of Magic," which is the first systematic philosophical treatment of theatrical magic in the analytic—or, to my knowledge, any—tradition. For my fellowship, I will spend 24 months at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp under the supervision of Professor Bence Nanay. While in Antwerp, my main objectives are to complete a book manuscript (entitled The Art of the Impossible), write and submit for publication three accompanying scholarly articles, and organize a series of four study groups (each culminating in a public lecture) as well as an international workshop in the philosophy and psychology of magic.

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International Network for Sensory Research. 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2021

Abstract

Psychologists, philosophers and cognitive scientists have assumed until very recently that we can study the senses – vision, audition, olfaction – independently from one another. The assumption was that we can study various aspects of, say, vision, without paying much attention to the other sense modalities. But recent empirical evidence shows that this has been a mistake: our perceptual processes are normally multimodal – different sense modalities influence each other in various ways. The aim of the International Network for Sensory Research is to trace the theoretical, empirical and methodological consequences of these findings. The new evidence about the multimodality of perception radically changes the lay of the land in a number of classic and contemporary debates about perception and about the mind in general. And sometimes it even changes the way we should ask questions about perception.

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Understanding the conscious brain: connecting features of consciousness to features of neural processes 01/10/2017 - 31/03/2021

Abstract

Our understanding of how the brain produces consciousness is very limited, and it is claimed that this will not change because consciousness simply falls outside the scope of scientific explanations. During the first three years of my FWO postdoctoral fellowship, by emphasising how scientific explanation in certain cases proceeds, I argued that this is not necessarily so. My goal now is to demonstrate that this explanatory schema can be applyied to anchor consciousness to brain processes by identifying structural or functional similarities and establishing explanatory links between features of consciousness and features of neural mechanisms. In my proposed research, I will concentrate on three different sets of features of conscious experience, each being in the centre of fundamental contemporary psychological and philosophical debates. The focus areas of my proposed research will be: (1) degraded conscious experiences as in the case of inattention, brief presentation time, and brain damage, (2) the richness (detailedness) of conscious experiences even when one cannot report all the details, (3) the fact that certain conscious experiences, like seeing the colour red, are simple (unstructured). My proposed research will address these topics by linking these central features of consciousness to features of underlying neural representations and the mechanisms modulating them.

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Seeing things you don't see: Unifying the philosophy, psychology and neuroscience of multimodal mental imagery (STYDS). 01/09/2017 - 28/02/2023

Abstract

The aim of this research project is to bring together empirical findings about multimodal perception and empirical findings about (visual, auditory, tactile) mental imagery and argue that on occasions like the one described in the last paragraph, we have multimodal mental imagery: perceptual processing in one sense modality (here: vision) that is triggered by sensory stimulation in another sense modality (here: audition).

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Bonus ERC project 'Seeing things you don't see'. 01/09/2017 - 31/08/2022

Abstract

The aim of this research project is to bring together empirical findings about multimodal perception and empirical findings about (visual, auditory, tactile) mental imagery and argue that on occasions like the one described in the last paragraph, we have multimodal mental imagery: perceptual processing in one sense modality (here: vision) that is triggered by sensory stimulation in another sense modality (here: audition).

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Emphasis on the similarities between our mind and animal minds. Against over-intellectualizing the 01/09/2015 - 31/08/2025

Abstract

The project in philosophy of mind, psychology and cognitive science focuses on mental states that represent objects as edible, climbable, reachable. In other words, mental states that represent objects as affording actions for us. I make four claims about these mental states First, they play a very important role in our mental life, because each time we are performing an intentional action, we must be in a mental state of this kind. Second, these mental states are in fact perceptual states. It is an important question in the philosophy of perception what properties we perceive objects as having. Shape, size and color are obvious candidates. I argue that we perceive objects as having a property that is less obviously perceptual: the property of affording an action. Hence, I call these mental states action-oriented perceptual states. Third, I argue that animals and small children can be in action-oriented perceptual states. Even if they cannot have some more complex mental states, such as beliefs or thoughts, they must have action-oriented perceptual states. Thus, these mental states are evolutionarily and developmentally basic. Finally, I also claim that these mental states are explanatorily basic, in the sense that the way they represent the world can be explained in a relatively simple manner, one that does not apply in the case of more complex mental states. There is no monolithic explanation for how the mind works: different explanatory schemes apply in the case of different mental states. The underlying motivation for focusing on these action-oriented perceptual states is to emphasize the similarities between our mind and animal minds. A big chunk of what goes on in our mind is very similar to the simple mental processes of animals. Our complex linguistic and reasoning abilities could be described as the icing on the cake.

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Constructive memory. Rethinking memory to redefine personal identity. 15/07/2019 - 14/07/2020

Abstract

The question of the relations between memory and personal identity is a key question in the history of philosophy, but also is at the confluent of several research fields, such as psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of mind. My work inherits from a philosophical tradition in which self continuity is grounded in memory (Locke, 1694; Parfit, 1984). Nevertheless, I argue that the concept of memory itself needs to be rethought to endorse this function, and in particular has to be consistent with recent empirical findings on episodic memory. The analysis of phenomena like non-pathological false recognition and memory distortions (Schacter, Guerin, St Jacques, 2011), the consequences of episodic amnesia on the ability to think about one's future (Tulving, 1985) compel us to redefine both the mechanisms and the functions of episodic memory and to consider its relevance for the definition of the self from a different perspective. In particular, according to the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis (Schacter and Addis, 2007) one of the functions of episodic memory is to allow individuals to recombine elements of their past experiences in order to prepare their own future. Accordingly, we have to rethink the significance of episodic memory for the personal self, as it is not only the instrument of self-recognition but the means to a different end, the construction of a self that envisions its future.

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Disentangling Consciousness and Attention: Using a Multilevel Analysis of Cognitive Control to Account for Mental Action 01/10/2018 - 30/09/2020

Abstract

This project investigates the relation between consciousness and attention, a relation which needs to be specified in order to make progress on the problem of consciousness. The central questions are whether there can be consciousness without attention and whether there can be attention without consciousness. Progress on both questions is stagnating, because they are currently posed as if attention were a single phenomenon. This is not the case, as research on attention shows. The problem is that there's currently no satisfying taxonomy of the different attention types, which makes it very difficult for consciousness researchers to translate and integrate findings from the attention literature into their theorizing. The aim is to fill this lacuna, by developing such a taxonomy. This will lead to a reformulation of both questions according to the identified attention types. These new questions will then be reassessed on the basis of relevant empirical findings. The result will be a more fine-grained account of the relation between both concepts, which will undoubtedly fuel subsequent theorizing and experimentation in the field of consciousness. My results will impact two related philosophical problems, which will also be addressed: the first concerns the 'metaphysics' of attention or finding its essential features. The other is to assess whether attention can provide counterexamples to representationalism, which states that the character of experience is determined by its content.

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Imagination As A Lens (IAL). 01/09/2018 - 31/08/2020

Abstract

Invocations of the imagination to describe and explain aspects of our thought and action are commonplace all across philosophy: in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, of science, and so on. Beyond philosophy, imagination is also invoked in psychology, religious studies, English literature, anthropology, and other disciplines. The diversity of these invocations raises the worry that there is no unanimous conception of imagination lying behind them; if this is so, the explanatory concept being invoked is ambiguous and perhaps vacuous. The aim of this project is to argue for a unified conception of imagination, the lens approach, via three research objectives: (1) to motivate a unified conception by arguing that it's possible and desirable; (2) to articulate and argue for the lens approach as the best such conception; (3) to apply the approach to two problems of imagination, thus demonstrating its utility. Each objective will result in two papers. The project also incorporates a fourth outreach objective involving training and participation in public engagement. The project matches the theoretical expertise, in-depth topic knowledge, and international training of the Experienced Researcher (ER) with the empirical experience, wide subject background, and advantageous collaboration networks of the supervisor, Bence Nanay, and the host organisation, the University of Antwerp's Centre for Philosophical Psychology. The project will substantially improve the ER's career prospects, especially given the supervisor's excellent track record of training post- doctoral researchers; meanwhile, the host will benefit from the ER's contribution to its research activities, and acquire greater networking and collaboration opportunities both during and after the project.

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The puzzle of imagistic cognition 01/01/2018 - 31/12/2020

Abstract

We often use mental imagery to solve practical problems. If I am an experienced builder of wooden bird houses, I can build a bird house without a plan on paper. I can imagine what the finished bird house should look like. I can imagine what the dimensions of the various pieces should be. I can cut the pieces of wood to the dimensions I have imagined. I can then put the pieces together to form a bird house that looks just like what I had imagined. In using mental imagery in such ways, we exercise a distinctive kind of knowledge – call it imagistic knowledge. The aim of this project will be to conduct and stimulate research into the nature of imagistic cognition, with the aim of characterizing the kind of knowledge it employs.

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Research team(s)

Imagination as a Lens (IAL). 01/05/2017 - 30/04/2018

Abstract

This one-year project has three aims. The first is to allow the main researcher (Wiltsher) to further develop a novel approach to imagination, the lens approach, that he has been pursuing in recent work. This will be achieved by way of three papers to be written over the year. The second is to establish collaborative links between the main researcher and members of the Centre for Philosophical Psychology, through participation in seminars, workshops, and more informal joint enterprises. The third is to facilitate the writing of grant applications to extend Wiltsher's stay with the Centre, and further cement those collaborative links.

Researcher(s)

Research team(s)

Disentangling consciousness and attention: a neurophilosophical outlook. 01/10/2016 - 30/09/2018

Abstract

This project investigates the relation between consciousness and attention, a relation which needs to be specified in order to make progress on the problem of consciousness. The central questions are whether there can be consciousness without attention and whether there can be attention without consciousness. Progress on both questions is stagnating, because they are currently posed as if attention were a single phenomenon. This is not the case, as research on attention shows. The problem is that there's currently no satisfying taxonomy of the different attention types, which makes it very difficult for consciousness researchers to translate and integrate findings from the attention literature into their theorising. I will fill this lacuna, by developing such a taxonomy. This will lead to a reformulation of both questions according to the identified attention types. These new questions will then be reassessed on the basis of relevant empirical findings. The result will be a more fine-grained account of the relation between both concepts, which will undoubtedly fuel subsequent theorising and experimentation in the field of consciousness. My results will impact two related philosophical problems, which will also be addressed: the first concerns the 'metaphysics' of attention, or finding its essential features. The other is to assess whether attention can provide counterexamples to representationalism, which states that the character of experience is determined by its content.

Researcher(s)

Research team(s)

When Self-Control Breaks Down: Motor Imagery and Action Initiation. 01/07/2016 - 30/06/2017

Abstract

What happens when self-control breaks down? How are actions that go against our self-control triggered? Suppose that you are grading student papers and the idea of watching TV occurs to you. You exercise self-control for a while and stick with the grading, but eventually, the self-control breaks down and you reach for the remote. How is this action (which I will call ASC action (short for action against self-control) initiated? The main aim of the research project is to use some recent neuroscientific findings to explore the role of motor imagery in the initiation of such actions and, more generally, in how self-control breaks down.

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Aspects of Religious Experiences: Investigations from science, Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. 01/06/2016 - 31/05/2017

Abstract

Some decisions put us in an epistemically opaque situation. If I need to decide between two options, at least one of which is such that taking that option changes me fundamentally, then the only way I will know what it is like to go with that option is by doing so. L. A. Paul calls decisions of this kind 'transformative decisions'. Deciding to have a child or to become a vampire would be some widely discussed examples of transformative decisions. The aim of this project is to examine the complex role imagination plays in transformative decisions.

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The diversity of unconscious mental processes. 01/01/2016 - 31/12/2019

Abstract

The last two decades of philosophy of mind has been to a significant extent about consciousness. The main questions philosophers tried to answer about the mind was how to understand (and how not to understand) consciousness. But recent findings from a number of empirical fields of study (unconscious perception, unconscious attention, unconscious action, unconscious emotion, unconscious biases on decision making, unconscious learning) point to a very different direction – consciousness may be an interesting feature of the human mind, but it is not the holy grail of thinking about the mind. It seems that the vast majority of what goes on in our mind is unconscious. The aim of this research project is to examine how philosophy of mind should be transformed in the light of these findings.

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Research team(s)

Flat photography and two-dimensional pictorial organization. 01/01/2016 - 31/12/2017

Abstract

The aim of this project is to connect up philosophical work on the appreciation of photographs and works of photography that raise philosophical problems themselves. The focus of the research is the ways in which the pictorial organization (or composition) of photographs contributes our general appreciation of what the photograph is about (and of). Bert Danckaert's photographs are very unusual and provocative in formal terms inasmuch as they are 'flat' photographs – their pictorial organization is based on very different principles from a random family snapshot. And Bence Nanay did a lot of research on two-dimensional versus three-dimensional pictorial organization, which is directly applicable to Danckaert's photographs, leading to a truly collaborative approach. The deliverables of the project are three public events and three publication projects.

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Imagination and Religious Credence (IRC). 01/06/2015 - 31/07/2016

Abstract

The research aim of the project is to elaborate on my theoretical apparatus to produce a book-length monograph that will serve philosophers and cognitive scientists interested in religious "belief," and the corresponding aim for public dissemination is to make this research popularly available through essays, blogs, radio, and public debate.

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International Network for Sensory Research. 01/01/2014 - 31/12/2016

Abstract

Psychologists, philosophers and cognitive scientists have assumed until very recently that we can study the senses – vision, audition, olfaction – independently from one another. The assumption was that we can study various aspects of, say, vision, without paying much attention to the other sense modalities. But recent empirical evidence shows that this has been a mistake: our perceptual processes are normally multimodal – different sense modalities influence each other in various ways. The aim of the International Network for Sensory Research is to trace the theoretical, empirical and methodological consequences of these findings. The new evidence about the multimodality of perception radically changes the lay of the land in a number of classic and contemporary debates about perception and about the mind in general. And sometimes it even changes the way we should ask questions about perception.

Researcher(s)

Research team(s)

Towards a scientific understanding of consciousness. 01/10/2013 - 30/09/2016

Abstract

Although the fact that we have conscious experiences is a fundamental feature of our everyday life, our scientific understanding of consciousness is very limited for a principled reason: according to the received view, consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific explanations. The main aspiration of my proposed research is to change this received view, and turn scientific approaches to consciousness into theories with real explanatory power that, over and above pinpointing which neural mechanisms are crucial for the occurrence of conscious experiences, are also able to tell why that is so by accounting for features of consciousness in terms of the characteristics of corresponding brain processes.

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Towards an Emotive Theory of Action. 01/10/2013 - 07/10/2014

Abstract

My project aims to use new insights on the nature of emotion to formulate a theory of action. A theory of action with an important role for emotion is not the same as a theory of 'emotional actions'. An example of an emotional action is running away because of fear. It isuncontroversial that emotions play a key role in bringing about some of our actions. The question that I want to ask is: Could it be that the role of emotions extends to action that we do not normally consider to be emotional? I will describe a theory of action with an important role for emotions as an 'emotive theory of action'.

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The Emotions of Rational Agents. 01/10/2012 - 30/09/2013

Abstract

The project will describe the relation of affective and rational capacities in terms of asymmetrical explanatory relations. This can be done by thinking of agents as embodied subjects, who through complex selfrepresentational and self-regulative abilities structure their actions in the light of rational considerations. This approach to the unity of the subject has historical antecedents in Fichte (1794) and Hegel (1830).

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From theory of mind to vicarious perception (TMVP). 01/11/2011 - 31/10/2015

Abstract

This project represents a formal research agreement between UA and on the other hand EU. UA provides EU research results mentioned in the title of the project under the conditions as stipulated in this contract.

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Perception, Action and What's in between? 01/10/2011 - 30/09/2016

Abstract

The aim of this research project is to argue that the vast majority of what goes on in our mind is very similar to the simple mental processes of animals. Our complex, sophisticated, rational and linguistic abilities could be described as the icing on the cake. The right methodology for philosophy of mind is to understand those simple mental capacities that we share with animals fust and then explain those uniquely human, highly intellectual mental capacities that make the human mind so remarkable.

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From Theory of Mind to Vicarious Perception 01/07/2011 - 31/12/2015

Abstract

I urge a shift of emphasis in the study of social cognition from 'theory of mind' to a simple perceptual process: the perception of objects as affording a certain action to another agent. This perceptual process, which I call 'vicarious perception', is different from, and much simpler than, theory of mind as it does not imply the understanding (or representation) of the mental (or even perceptual) states of another agent. I argue that the most convincing experiments that are supposed to show that non-human primates have theory of mind in fact demonstrate that they are capable of vicarious perception. The same is true for the experiments about the theory of mind of less than 12 month old infants.

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Perception and Action 01/01/2011 - 31/12/2012

Abstract

The aim of this research project is to argue that the vast majority of what goes on in our mind is very similar to the simple mental processes of animals. Our complex, sophisticated, rational and linguistic abilities could be described as the icing on the cake. The right methodology for philosophy of mind is to understand those simple mental capacities that we share with animals first and then explain those uniquely human, highly intellectual mental capacities that make the human mind so remarkable. My claim is that the human mind can be better understood if we consider what I call 'action-guiding perceptual representations' to be the basic units of our mental capacities. The human mind, like the mind of non-human animals, has been selected for allowing us to perform actions successfully. And the vast majority of our actions, like the actions of non-human animals, could not be performed without perceptual guidance. The mental state that mediates between perception and action is the basic building block of the human mind. I call mental states of this kind action-guiding perceptual representations. Action-guiding perceptual representations are the immediate mental antecedents of action. And they are also genuine perceptual states. They guide, and often monitor, our ongoing bodily activities and they are also bona fide perceptual states: they provide a direct mediation between perception and action. If we accept that the basic building blocks of the mind are action-guiding perceptual representations, then most classic questions in philosophy of perception and of action will look very different. The goal of this research project is to trace the various consequences of this way of thinking about the mind in a number of branches of philosophy as well as in other disciplines.

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Emphasis on the similarities between our mind and animal minds. Against over-intellectualizing the mind. 01/09/2010 - 31/08/2015

Abstract

The project in philosophy of mind, psychology and cognitive science focuses on mental states that represent objects as edible, climbable, reachable. In other words, mental states that represent objects as affording actions for us. I make four claims about these mental states First, they play a very important role in our mental life, because each time we are performing an intentional action, we must be in a mental state of this kind. Second, these mental states are in fact perceptual states. It is an important question in the philosophy of perception what properties we perceive objects as having. Shape, size and color are obvious candidates. I argue that we perceive objects as having a property that is less obviously perceptual: the property of affording an action. Hence, I call these mental states action-oriented perceptual states. Third, I argue that animals and small children can be in action-oriented perceptual states. Even if they cannot have some more complex mental states, such as beliefs or thoughts, they must have action-oriented perceptual states. Thus, these mental states are evolutionarily and developmentally basic. Finally, I also claim that these mental states are explanatorily basic, in the sense that the way they represent the world can be explained in a relatively simple manner, one that does not apply in the case of more complex mental states. There is no monolithic explanation for how the mind works: different explanatory schemes apply in the case of different mental states. The underlying motivation for focusing on these action-oriented perceptual states is to emphasize the similarities between our mind and animal minds. A big chunk of what goes on in our mind is very similar to the simple mental processes of animals. Our complex linguistic and reasoning abilities could be described as the icing on the cake.

Researcher(s)

Research team(s)

MITT - Mobility of Ideas and Transmission of Texts Vernacular Literature and Learning in the Rhineland and the Low Countries (ca.1300-1550). 01/09/2009 - 31/08/2013

Abstract

"Mobility of Ideas and Transmission of Texts" (MITT) is a research training programme (2009-2013) that studies the medieval transmission of learning from the ecclesiastical and academic elites of the professional intellectuals to the wider readership that could be reached through the vernacular. The programme focuses on the medieval dynamics of intellectual life in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, nowadays divided over five countries (Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands) but one cultural region in the later Middle Ages. Here, the great fourteenthcentury mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Jan van Ruusbroec and their contemporaries produced a sophisticated vernacular literature on contemplative theology and religious practice, introducing new lay audiences to a personal relation with the Supreme Being. The project seeks to develop a new perspective on this literary culture by looking at the readership, appropriation and circulation of texts in the contemporary religious and intellectual contexts.

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