Philosophy, Emotion and Finding your Feet in Interdisciplinary Research

In conversation with Giovanna Colombetti, Associate Professor at Exeter University

Giovanna Colombetti

Giovanna, let’s dive right in. Why did you become a Philosopher?

I didn’t know what to do when I finished school. I remember after my first year of university, when I was still undecided, I was reading Horace — the old Latin poet. He was writing about contentment and the middle ground; and I thought; OK, what do I want to do? That’s when I came to Philosophy — although it wasn’t that popular with my family… I studied Philosophy of Science, because it meant I didn’t have to choose between either a ‘pure science’ or a ‘pure humanity’ (that’s how the Italian university system was organised at the time); rather, the philosophy programme allowed me to engage with both — to find my own middle ground!

You’re particularly interested in emotion — tell us a bit about your research.

I’m a philosopher of cognitive science, that’s the official title. But I’m primarily interested in emotions and ‘affective science’. Affective science, like cognitive science, is an interdisciplinary research area that involves not only philosophy but also psychology, neuroscience, computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as anthropology and other social sciences. The main difference is that affective science focuses on emotion and affect, rather than only cognition. Because it’s so interdisciplinary, emotion is often approached in very different ways.

Emotions are very much ‘embodied’ mental states, recently I’ve been looking at the possibility that they might even be ‘extended’ into the world

How do you approach emotions in your work?

My work starts from existing ideas and debates in the philosophy of what we call ‘embodied cognition’. In this approach, cognition has a material basis, not just in the brain. It also includes material processes in the rest of the body and even in the external world.

In my work I look at the implications of this for emotions and other affective phenomena. It strikes me that emotions are very much ‘embodied’ mental states, and more recently I’ve been looking at the possibility that they might even be ‘extended’ into the world.

I love being free to explore how different fields address questions, what answers they give to those questions, and what is left unaddressed.

It sounds like your background is really interdisciplinary, even before you started working in Philosophy. What’s your experience of doing interdisciplinary work?

I find it very stimulating and challenging. For me, it’s frustrating and limiting to stick to one specific field, and I like interdisciplinary because it allows me to reach beyond those boundaries. I love being free to explore how different fields address questions, what answers they give to those questions, and what is left unaddressed. But, interdisciplinarity has its challenges too. If you find people in other disciplines who are open to talking to you it can be really rewarding. At other times, you might find the opposite. I have had a number of experiences, especially while looking for PhD and postdoctoral positions, when scientists told me ‘you’re very welcome to study here, you seem like a smart girl, but you’ll have to leave philosophy for evening conversations at the bar’.

What’s your response been to this kind of experience?

I understand where these people are coming from. Often it’s a matter of not having shared knowledge and so not being able to reach mutual understanding. But I still think that there have to be different approaches to what we study, and different languages to explore them. We can’t always be interested in the same thing from the same perspective.

Take ‘love’ for example. This can be explored from a psychological or philosophical perspective. Multi-disciplinarity gives us a pluralistic perspective and avoids oversimplifying complex phenomema.

At The Human Mind Project we have been talking about the difference between inter-disciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity. What do you think?

I think people use these terms in different ways. For me, multi-disciplinarity means people from different disciplines giving their perspective on one topic so that it can be seen in its complexity. Take ‘love’ for example. This can be explored from a psychological or philosophical perspective, and each discipline will highlight different aspects of it. Multi-disciplinarity gives us a pluralistic perspective and avoids oversimplifying complex phenomena.

The secret for good interdisciplinary research is to identify questions that need and can benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration.

Multi-disciplinarity is also where you can begin to see points of convergence — the starting point for inter-disciplinarity. Here you have two or more disciplines working on a specific problem together, complementing each other and challenging each other to address concerns that a single discipline would otherwise not be able to.

However, it is very hard to create good interdisciplinary research, because questions are often posed from within one discipline. Sometimes you are simply asking a question that can only be answered from within your discipline. So the secret for good interdisciplinary research is to identify questions that need and can benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration.

You’re joining us for an event on Emotion, Memory & the Mind in Brighton this week. How have you chosen to approach this topic?

As the workshop is about bringing in perspectives from the humanities, I thought I would talk about the idea of ‘body memory’ developed by philosophers like Merleau-Ponty. It’s basically the idea that memory is not just about representing the past, but about re-producing the past now, in our body.

My body is an accumulation of interactions and practices; the way in which I move is a form of memory.

In virtue of what you do with your body in the present, you are remembering something. The idea is that the body I am now is the result of a past, during which all sorts of habits and skills have settled. My body is an accumulation of interactions and practices; the way in which I move can be seen as a form of memory.

Emotion, Memory & the Mind — July 7–8, Brighton UK

I also want to explore the emotional dimension of body memory — for example, the way I express emotions in my body can be seen as a form of body memory. Also, our body can retain traces of traumatic experiences that influence our experience of the world in the present. I’m going to say something about this — although I’m not quite sure what yet. You’ll have to listen to the talk!

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