Representing… Emma Gordon

Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains their research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Emma  C. Gordon introduces her work on two topics; the Epistemology of Understanding and Bioethics and Enhancement.


north berwickEGEmma Gordon received her PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where her supervisor was Professor Duncan Pritchard. Her interests are mainly in epistemology and bioethics.


The Epistemology of Understanding

There are two main types of understanding that tend to appear in epistemology—understanding-why (e.g. “I understand why we can’t win the war”) and objectual understanding/understanding of a subject matter (e.g. “I understand Scotland’s history.”) While the former is more frequently discussed, the bulk of my work on understanding is focused on the latter—objectual understanding—which I think is both incredibly interesting and significantly underexplored. For example, in a co-authored paper in American Philosophical Quarterly, I argue that cases in which understanding-why seems especially valuable may actually be cases in which the value in question is best explained with reference to objectual understanding in the background. In addition, I continue to work on considering how we might flesh out the popular claim that understanding requires, in some sense, “grasping” or “seeing” important connections (e.g. coherence-making relations) between pieces of information, and I also explore the extent to which one can have understanding of a subject matter while nonetheless having certain false beliefs about it. For example, while it seems too strict to say that a leading doctor cannot understand cardiology if she has one false belief about (say) the year in which a pioneering procedure was first attempted, it also seems that we must be careful about allowing too many false beliefs to be compatible with understanding. However, carving out an appropriate middle ground is challenging.

I am also interested in—and have published work that engages with—some of the implications understanding has for debates in social epistemology, and in particular, debates about assertoric norms. To borrow an example from Jennifer Lackey, suppose that a doctor asserts to you that you have pancreatic cancer. You later find out that the doctor who gave you this diagnosis had never even seen your chart (indeed, had not even glanced at it for a moment), but had merely heard second-hand that you had pancreatic cancer from another doctor who was actually familiar with your condition. In such a case, it seems as though, upon finding out the doctor who diagnosed you was just repeating what she heard and with little appreciation for why it’s true, you would plausibly be in the right to criticise the doctor’s assertion on epistemic grounds; a reasonable expectation about the epistemic pedigree of the assertion was not met. And this is so even though the doctor plausibly has testimonial knowledge that you have cancer (after all, the doctor who gave you the diagnosis had no reason to think the other doctor was lying). While Lackey herself has suggested that cases like this pose problems for the view that knowledge is a sufficient epistemic credential to warrant assertion, I’ve argued that in examples of this kind, it may be that a specific type of understanding (rather than knowledge) constitutes the required epistemic credential. If this is right, then an interesting further issue is whether there is any unique epistemic norm governing assertion at all.

In addition to these issues, I sometimes work on areas in which epistemology overlaps with other disciplines.  Along with S. Orestis Palermos and J. Adam Carter, I argue in a paper forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology that we can generate an emotionally-oriented analogue of currently popular hypothesis of extended cognition much more easily than one might first suppose. Specifically, we suggest that mainstream theories of emotion that give cognition a central role, suitably paired with the hypothesis of extended cognition, can—on the basis of weaker assumptions than one would be inclined to think—jointly generate the thesis that some emotions (like anger and fear) can in certain cases extend beyond skin and skull to parts of the external world. I also have a developing interest in emotion more generally, which is reflected in my co-editing a forthcoming volume of papers on the emotion of pride (in Mark Alfano’s series “Moral Psychology of the Emotions”). In this collection, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists will discuss a diverse range of perspectives on the nature of pride, its connection to other emotions, its status as a virtue or virtue, and the roles it plays in our intellectual and moral lives.

Further, working at a centre for relationship counselling has led me to consider how elements of my counselling work connects with issues in epistemology. For example, I am increasingly curious about the ways in which understanding is facilitated in the counselling room, and in how some of the techniques employed by counsellors might be generalized to give us ideas about how to facilitate understanding more broadly. I’m currently completing a paper on this topic for a volume on understanding edited by Stephen Grimm and colleagues. I suspect that there are many fruitful avenues to explore at the intersection of psychotherapy and social epistemology.

Bioethics and enhancement

Outside of epistemology, my main philosophical interests are in bioethics. Along with co-author J. Adam Carter, I have published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the contentious topic of selecting for certain non-disease traits in children, looking specifically at whether Julian Savulescu is right to attest that we are morally obligated to test for and select embryos that are more likely to be intelligent. In addition to briefly considering the practical implications, of such a proposal, the paper argues that the project of testing and selecting for intelligence is significantly less likely to be effective than Savulescu supposes, and offers considerations against his claim that children who are more intelligent are likely to have better lives.

Meanwhile, a paper I’ve recently published in Bioethics (2014) critically evaluates recent work suggesting that (i) cognitive bio-enhancement is currently too risky and (ii) moral bio-enhancement is morally mandatory. The line I defend cautions against assuming easy separability of cognitive and moral enhancement as distinct aims, partly by showing that bringing about moral enhancement partly involves aiming to improve certain cognitive capacities that are essential to moral flourishing.

Finally, my growing interest in enhancement extends to emotional enhancement, where some of my works in progress consider ethical implications of using pharmacological interventions to enhance troubled relationships. I am hopeful that in future research, my training in counselling will help give me a unique perspective from which to engage with the interplay between romantic relationships and advancements in both medicine and technology.


Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’? If you are, or have been, a student or faculty member from Edinburgh, and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group, then please get in touch!

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