I am Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Nanyang Technological University. Starting in 2014, I will also be Marie Curie International Incoming Fellow at University of Leeds, working with Aaron Meskin on experimental philosophical aesthetics. I got my PhD from the University of Michigan (Go Grue!) and my BA from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I used to teach at Kansas State University.
My research projects span cognitive science, philosophy of mind, analytic aesthetics, and moral psychology. You can find my recent publications below.
I find teaching an effective and entertaining way to learn about new debates and to re-immerse myself in the classics. I have taught a variety of courses, ranging from applied ethics to metaphysics. I also really enjoy talking philosophy with students outside of the classroom!
On a personal note, I often get excited about artforms that connect an artifact’s aesthetic value to its non-aesthetic function, such as photojournalism, graphic design, typography, food, and data visualization. Oh, people call me “Sam”, and you can too.
Imaginative immersion refers to a phenomenon in which one loses oneself in make-believe. Susanna Schellenberg says that the best explanation of imaginative immersion involves a radical revision to cognitive architecture. Instead of there being an attitude of belief and a distinct attitude of imagination, there should only be one attitude that represents a continuum between belief and imagination.
We argue otherwise. Although imaginative immersion is a crucial data point for theorizing about the imagination, positing a continuum between belief and imagination is neither necessary nor sufficient for explaining the phenomenon. In fact, arguing against Schellenberg’s account reveals important but underappreciated lessons for theorizing about the imagination and for interpreting boxological representations of the mind.
Liao, S. and Doggett, T., forthcoming. The Imagination Box, The Journal of Philosophy.
Two lines of investigation into the nature of mental content have proceeded in parallel until now. The first looks at thoughts that are attributable to collectives, such as bands’ beliefs and teams’ desires. So far, philosophers who have written on collective belief, collective intentionality, etc. have primarily focused on third-personal attributions of thoughts to collectives. The second looks at de se, or self-locating, thoughts, such as beliefs and desires that are essentially about oneself. So far, philosophers who have written on the de se have primarily focused on de se thoughts of individuals.
This paper looks at where these two lines of investigations intersect: collective de se thoughts, such as bands’ and teams’ beliefs and desires that are essentially about themselves. There is a surprising problem at this intersection: the most prominent framework for modeling de se thoughts, the framework of centered worlds, cannot model a special class of collective de se thoughts. A brief survey of this problem's solution space shows that collective de se thoughts pose a new challenge for modeling mental content.
Liao, S., forthcoming. Collective De Se Thoughts and Centered Worlds, Ratio.
“Explanations, Aesthetic and Scientific”
Philosophy / email me for draft / abstract
Aesthetics is undergoing an evolution that takes it closer to the sciences methodologically. Taking this methodological convergence as the starting point, I argue for a pragmatist and pluralist view of aesthetic explanations. To bring concreteness to discussion, I focus on vindicating genre explanations, which are explanations of aesthetic phenomena that centrally cite a work's genre classification. I show that theoretical resources that philosophers of science have developed with attention to actual scientific practice and the special sciences can be used to make room for genre explanations in aesthetics. In turn, making room for genre explanations also demonstrates the plausibility of the pragmatist and pluralist view of aesthetic explanations.
An earlier version was presented at Royal Institute of Philosophy Conference: Philosophical Aesthetics and the Sciences of Art?.
Liao, S., forthcoming. Aesthetic Explanations, Philosophy Supplement Volume 74.
An emerging scientific consensus holds that happiness is best understood as a certain combination of psychological states including high positive affect, low negative affect and high life satisfaction. In contrast to this descriptive view of happiness, a number of philosophers have argued for an evaluative understanding of happiness, which holds that even when these descriptive criteria are met, one is not happy if one's life is not actually good. Here, we investigate the ordinary understanding of happiness and find that it differs in important respects from both conceptions. Unlike descriptive views, normative evaluations are central to determining whether an agent is happy, yet unlike evaluative views, people do not consider the agent's overall life when determining if the agent is happy, but rather focus solely on the agent's own psychological states. To be happy, according to the ordinary understanding, is to have positive psychological states when one ought to.
Phillips, J., Nyholm, S., and Liao, S., forthcoming. The Good in Happiness. In: Lombrozo, T., Nichols, S., & Knobe, J., eds., Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy 1. New York: Oxford University Press.
We refine a line of feminist criticism of pornography that focuses on pornographic works’ pernicious effects. A.W. Eaton argues that inegalitarian pornography should be criticized because it is responsible for its consumers’ adoption of inegalitarian attitudes toward sex in the same way that other fictions are responsible for changes in their consumers’ attitudes. We argue that her argument can be improved with the recognition that different fictions can have different modes of persuasion. This is true of film and television: a satirical movie such as Dr. Strangelove does not morally educate in the same way as a realistic series such as The Wire. We argue that this is also true of pornography: inegalitarian depictions of sex are not invariably responsible for consumers’ adoption of inegalitarian attitudes toward sex in reality. Given that pornographic works of different genres may harm in different ways, different feminist criticisms are appropriate for different genres of pornography.
Earlier versions were presented at Yale’s Minority and Philosophy Working Group, Aesthetics, Art, and Pornography: An Interdisciplinary Conference, and the 2010 European Society of Aesthetics Conference.
Liao, S. and Protasi, S., 2013. The Fictional Character of Pornography. In: Maes, H., ed., Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 100–118.
Narrative representations can change our moral actions and thoughts, for better or for worse. I develop a theory of fictions’ capacity for moral education and moral corruption that is fully sensitive to the diversity of fictions. Specifically, I argue that the way a fiction influences our moral actions and thoughts importantly depends on its genre. This theory promises new insights into practical ethical debates over pornography and media violence.
An earlier version was presented at Carleton College’s departmental colloquium.
Liao, S., 2013. Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94(2), pp. 269–289. doi:10.1111/papq.12000.
David Lewis argues that centered worlds give us a way to capture de se, or self-locating, contents in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. In recent years, centered worlds have also gained other uses in areas ranging widely from metaphysics to ethics. In this paper, I raise a problem for centered worlds and discuss the costs and benefits of different solutions. My investigation into the nature of centered worlds brings out potentially problematic implicit commitments of the theories that employ them. In addition, my investigation shows that the conception of centered worlds widely attributed to David Lewis is not only problematic, but in fact not his.
Earlier versions were presented at the 2008 Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference and the 2007 University of Texas–Austin Graduate Philosophy Conference. A predecessor was cited in Andy Egan’s "Billboards, Bombs and Shotgun Weddings" under the title "Time Travellers and Centered Worlds".
Liao, S., 2012. What Are Centered Worlds?. The Philosophical Quarterly, 62, pp. 294–316. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9213.2011.00042.x.
The problem of imaginative resistance holds interest for aestheticians, literary theorists, ethicists, philosophers of mind, and epistemologists. We present a somewhat opinionated overview of the philosophical discussion to date. We begin by introducing the phenomenon of imaginative resistance. We then review existing responses to the problem, giving special attention to recent research directions. Finally, we consider the philosophical significance that imaginative resistance has—or, at least, is alleged to have—for issues in moral psychology, theories of cognitive architecture, and modal epistemology.
Liao, S. and Gendler, T.S., forthcoming. The Problem of Imaginative Resistance. In: Gibson, J. and Carroll, N., The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature. New York: Routledge.
“Pretense and Imagination” (with Tamar Szabó Gendler)
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science / PhilPapers / abstract
Issues of pretense and imagination are of central interest to philosophers, psychologists, and researchers in allied fields. We provide a roadmap of some of the central themes around which discussion has been focused. We begin with an overview of pretense, imagination, and the relationship between them. We then shift our attention to four specific topics where the disciplines’ research programs have intersected or where additional interactions could prove mutually beneficial: the psychological underpinnings of performing pretense and of recognizing pretense, the cognitive capacities involved in imaginative engagement with fictions, and the real-world impact of make-believe.
Liao, S. and Gendler, T.S., 2011. Pretense and imagination. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2(1), pp. 79–94. doi:10.1002/wcs.91.
Nanyang Technological University
Perennial Questions of Philosophy: East and West (Fall 2013)
Moral Philosophy (Fall 2013)
Kansas State University
Introduction to Moral Philosophy: Biomedical Ethics (Spring 2013)
Business Ethics (Fall 2011, Fall 2012)
Introduction to Moral Philosophy: the Ethics of Food (Fall 2011, Fall 2012)
Metaphysics Seminar: Identity and Nearby Relations (Spring 2012)
Medical Ethics (Spring 2012)
University of Michigan
Moral Principles and Problems (Spring 2011)
Knowledge and Reality (Summer 2009)
I used to advise the Kansas State Philosophy Club. We had a lot of fun together.