I will be an assistant professor of philosophy at University of Puget Sound starting January 2016. I am currently a Marie Curie fellow at University of Leeds, working with Aaron Meskin on experimental philosophical aesthetics.

In the past, I have been an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, a visiting assistant professor at Kansas State University, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, and a BA student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

My research is on the interface of mind (cognitive science and philosophy of mind) and value (ethics and aesthetics). I deploy methods and results from each of these areas to pursue novel solutions to problems in the others. Fundamentally, I am interested in those aspects of our minds that make us valuing creatures—creatures who can make evaluative judgments and use these judgments to shape their social world. On the mind side, I work on modeling these vexing aspects of our minds at the functional level. On the value side, I work on connections between moral psychology and aesthetic psychology.

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 am working on diversifying my syllabi to include works outside of the standard Western canon. And I 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.

Research Articles

“Aesthetic Adjectives: Experimental Semantics and Context-Sensitivity” (with Aaron Meskin)
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research / PhilPapers / more info

One aim of this paper is to make a contribution to understanding aesthetic communication—the process by which agents aim to convey thoughts and transmit knowledge about aesthetic matters to others. Our focus will be on the use of aesthetic adjectives in aesthetic communication. Although theorists working on the semantics of adjectives have developed sophisticated theories about gradable adjectives, they have tended to avoid studying aesthetic adjectives—the class of adjectives that play a central role in expressing aesthetic evaluations (e.g., ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘elegant’). And despite the wealth of attention paid to aesthetic adjectives by philosophical aestheticians, they have paid little attention to contemporary semantic theories of adjectives. We take our work to be a first step in remedying these lacunae. In this paper, we present four experiments that examine one aspect of how aesthetic adjectives ordinarily function: the context-sensitivity of their application standards. Our results present a prima facie empirical challenge to a common distinction between relative and absolute gradable adjectives because aesthetic adjectives are found to behave differently from both. Our results thus also constitute a prima facie vindication of some philosophical aestheticians’ contention that aesthetic adjectives constitute a particularly interesting segment of natural language, even if the boundaries of this segment turns out to be different from what they had in mind.

Shen-yi Liao and Aaron Meskin (in press). “Aesthetic Adjectives: Experimental Semantics and Context-Sensitivity”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

“Aesthetic Adjectives Lack Uniform Behavior” (with Louise McNally and Aaron Meskin)
Inquiry / PhilPapers / more info

The goal of this paper is to show that aesthetic adjectives—exemplified by ‘beautiful’ and ‘elegant’—do not pattern stably on a range of linguistic diagnostics that have been used to taxonomize gradable adjectives. We argue that a plausible explanation for this puzzling data involves distinguishing two properties of gradable adjectives that have been frequently conflated: whether an adjective’s applicability is sensitive to a comparison class, and whether an adjective’s applicability is context-dependent.

Shen-yi Liao, Louise McNally, and Aaron Meskin (in press). “Aesthetic Adjectives Lack Uniform Behavior”. Inquiry.

“The Imagination Box” (with Tyler Doggett)
Journal of Philosophy / PhilPapers / more info

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 addition, arguing against Schellenberg’s account reveals important but underappreciated lessons for theorizing about the imagination and for interpreting boxological representations of the mind.

Shen-yi Liao and Tyler Doggett (2014). “The Imagination Box”. Journal of Philosophy 111(5): 259–275.

“Empirically Investigating Imaginative Resistance” (with Nina Strohminger and Chandra Sekhar Sripada)
British Journal of Aesthetics / PhilPapers / more info

Imaginative resistance refers to a phenomenon in which people resist engaging in particular prompted imaginative activities. Philosophers have primarily theorized about this phenomenon from the armchair. In this paper, we demonstrate the utility of empirical methods for investigating imaginative resistance. We present two studies that help to establish the psychological reality of imaginative resistance, and to uncover one factor that is significant for explaining this phenomenon but low in psychological salience: genre. Furthermore, our studies have the methodological upshot of showing how empirical tools can complement the predominant armchair approach to philosophical aesthetics.

Earlier versions were presented at Aesthetic Anarchy III: Methodology of/and/in Aesthetics, National Yang Ming University of Taiwan, and the 2008 University of Buffalo Experimental Philosophy Weekend. The data sets are available on Open Science Foundation.

Shen-yi Liao, Nina Strohminger, and Chandra Sekhar Sripada (2014). “Empirically Investigating Imaginative Resistance”. British Journal of Aesthetics 54(3): 339–355. DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ayu027

“Explanations: Aesthetic and Scientific”
Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement / PhilPapers / more info

Methodologically, philosophical aesthetics is undergoing an evolution that takes it closer to the sciences. 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?.

Shen-yi Liao (2014). “Explanations: Aesthetic and Scientific”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 75: 127–149. DOI:10.1017/S135824611400023X

“Collective De Se Thoughts and Centered Worlds”
Ratio / PhilPapers / more info

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.

Shen-yi Liao (2014). “Collective De Se Thoughts and Centered Worlds”. Ratio 27(1): 17–31. DOI:10.1111/rati.12025

“The Good in Happiness” (with Jonathan Phillips and Sven Nyholm)
Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy / PhilPapers / more info

There has been a long history of arguments over whether happiness is anything more than a particular set of psychological states. On one side, some philosophers have argued that there is not, endorsing a descriptive view of happiness. Affective scientists have also embraced this view and are reaching a near consensus on a definition of happiness as some combination of affect and life-satisfaction. On the other side, some philosophers have maintained an evaluative view of happiness, on which being happy involves living a life that is normatively good. Within the context of this debate we consider how people ordinarily understand happiness, and provide evidence that the ordinary understanding of happiness reflects aspects of both evaluative and descriptive views. Similar to evaluative views, normative judgments have a substantive role in the ordinary understanding of happiness. Yet, similar to descriptive views, the ordinary understanding is focused on the person’s psychological states and not the overall life they actually lived. Combining these two aspects, we argue that the ordinary understanding of happiness suggests a novel view on which happiness consists in experiencing positive psychological states when one ought to. This view, if right, has implications for both philosophical and psychological research on happiness.

Jonathan Phillips, Sven Nyholm, and Shen-yi Liao (2014). “The Good in Happiness”. In: Tania Lombrozo, Shaun Nichols, and Joshua Knobe (eds.), Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy 1 (New York: Oxford University Press), 253–293. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198718765.003.0011

“The Fictional Character of Pornography” (with Sara Protasi)
Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography / PhilPapers / more info

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 Minorities and Philosophy Working Group, Aesthetics, Art, and Pornography: An Interdisciplinary Conference, and the 2010 European Society of Aesthetics Conference.

Shen-yi Liao and Sara Protasi (2013). “The Fictional Character of Pornography”. In: Hans Maes (ed.), Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography (New York: Palgrave MacMillan), 100–118. DOI:10.1057/9781137367938.0012

“Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions”
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly / PhilPapers / more info

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.

Shen-yi Liao (2013). “Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions”. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94(2): 269–289. DOI:10.1111/papq.12000

“What Are Centered Worlds?”
The Philosophical Quarterly / PhilPapers / more info

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".

Shen-yi Liao (2012). “What Are Centered Worlds?”. The Philosophical Quarterly 62: 294–316. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9213.2011.00042.x

Literature Review Articles

“The Cognitive Architecture of Imaginative Resistance” (with Kengo Miyazono)
The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination / PhilPapers / more info

Where is imagination in imaginative resistance?

We seek to answer this question by connecting two ongoing lines of inquiry in different subfields of philosophy. In philosophy of mind, philosophers have been trying to understand imaginative attitudes’ place in cognitive architecture. In aesthetics, philosophers have been trying to understand the phenomenon of imaginative resistance. By connecting these two lines of inquiry, we hope to find mutual illumination of an attitude (or cluster of attitudes) and a phenomenon that have vexed philosophers. Our strategy is to reorient the imaginative resistance literature from the perspective of cognitive architecture. Whereas existing taxonomies of positions in the imaginative resistance literature have focused on disagreements over the source and scope of the phenomenon, our taxonomy focuses on the psychological components necessary for explaining imaginative resistance.

Kengo Miyazono and Shen-yi Liao (in press). “The Cognitive Architecture of Imaginative Resistance”. In: Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (New York: Routledge).

“The Problem of Imaginative Resistance” (with Tamar Szabó Gendler)
The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature / PhilPapers / more info

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.

Shen-yi Liao and Tamar Szabó Gendler (in press). “The Problem of Imaginative Resistance”. In: John Gibson and Nöel Carroll (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature (New York: Routledge).

“Pretense and Imagination” (with Tamar Szabó Gendler)
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science / PhilPapers / more info

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.

Shen-yi Liao and Tamar Szabó Gendler (2011). “Pretense and Imagination.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 2(1): 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 often referee papers, but preferably for open access journals, and never for Springer and Elsevier journals. (I don't submit to those journals either.)

I helped to start a Minorities and Philosophy chapter at the University of Leeds.

I used to advise the Kansas State Philosophy Club.

I started Go Grue.