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Karen Neander: The Philosophy and Biology of the Mind
Durham, NC - For Duke professor Karen Neander, it's the thought that counts.
Neander, a new arrival this semester in the Duke Department of Philosophy, specializes in philosophy of mind and cognitive science -- the study of the mind and intelligence.
"I'm interested in the notion of mental representation," Neander said. "For a thought to be about something, it must represent that thing. For example, if you have a thought about cats, your thought involves a representation of cats. Philosophers want to know what it is about that thought that makes it a thought about cats."
"Teleological Theories of Mental Content" online paper, 2004.
"Functions as Selected Effects: The Conceptual Analysts Defence" in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 58, No. 2, June 1991, pp. 169-184. Reprinted in Nature's Purpose: analyses of function and design in biology, ed., by Colin Allen, Marc Becoff, and George Lauder, MIT Press (1997).
"Content for Cognitive Science" in Teleosemantics, edited by David Papineau and Gary McDonald (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).
"The Division of Phenomenal Labor: A Problem for Representational Theories of Consciousness" in Philosophical Perspectives, 12: Language, Mind and Ontology, A Supplement to NOUS, edited by James E. Tomberlin (Blackwells, 1998), pp. 411-434.
Neander contributes to the field of cognitive science, which draws upon a wide range of scholarship, including philosophy, biology, computer science, psychology, neurosciences, linguistics and anthropology.
As a philosopher, Neander's work is original as well as extensively and clearly argued, said philosophy department chair David Wong.
"She tries to understand how thought can be about the external world. How something that's in the head can be about something that's outside the head," he said. "Her work breaks new ground but is so carefully done and well-argued that it quickly becomes the view to beat, so to speak."
Neander's areas of specialty span two important fields -- the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of mind -- in the department, Wong added.
To get at this linkage, Neander uses philosopher's tools to argue biological questions, such as the role of natural selection in evolution. While her courses are mostly focused on contemporary discussions, she sometimes uses material from historical figures.
"When I talk about the idea that we have a material body and an immaterial soul, I discuss Rene Descartes, who is responsible for making that idea so popular in our culture," she said. "And when we talk about intentionality [mental representation], I introduce [late 19th century German psychologist and philosopher] Franz Brentano, who has an especially influential discussion of the problem."
Neander said she is excited about joining the philosophy department.
"The department is extremely strong academically and very lively," she said. "The Duke department is one of the top departments in the States in the fields of philosophy of biology and philosophy of mind. It's going to be tremendously stimulating."
Neander completed her doctorate in 1983 at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She taught at Sydney University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Wollongong and conducted research for eight years at the Australian National University. In the United States, she has served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Davis.
Known for her interactive style of instruction, Neander said she enjoys teaching on all levels and sharing the exploration of interesting questions with her students.
"To be interested, you have to understand," she said. "That process is valuable to a student. It extends the capacities for thinking creatively, carefully, rigorously and systematically."
Neander has drawn praise from past students. One student evaluation described her as "the nicest professor a student could have."
She will spend the fall and spring semesters finishing her book, "Mental Representation: The Natural and the Normative in a Darwinian World" (MIT Press), which explores the nature of mental representation via a study of representational functions of neural components in cognitive science.
She heads back to the classroom next year.
"My most immediate goals are to work on my book and to get to know people, especially the faculty and graduate students who have research interests related to mine," Neander said. "Next year, I will have a chance to meet the Duke undergraduates. From what I have heard, it will be fun and challenging to teach such talented and serious students."
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