“Perception is not a mere transparent window, it involves influences from our background beliefs, desires, and biases.” —Teng Lu
As a philosopher, Teng Lu, from Changsha, Hunan Province, is particularly interested in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), and philosophy of mind—a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind and its relationship to the physical body.
She joined NYU Shanghai as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in 2017, having just completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. As a graduate student at Cornell University, she developed a preference for working in quiet, public spaces, motivated by the focused energy of others working around her.
Recently, Professor Teng took us to her favorite working spot, Yan Jiyou bookstore in Shanghai’s Hongkou district, for the following interview.
What do you appreciate about philosophy that most people might not see at first?
For me, falling in love with philosophy has been a gradual process. I do a lot of research on perception, memory, and imagination and address questions of how we acquire knowledge, what is knowledge?
Philosophy covers a variety of topics, ranging from the existence of God, free will, personal identity, rationality, morality, and social justice, which is fascinating. What ties all these topics together is the method of argument construction and evaluation. Because of the emphasis on such a method, philosophy also trains one’s critical thinking and analytical writing skills in a way that goes beyond specific questions discussed in class. For example, I know quite a few people who studied philosophy as undergraduates and later went to law school.
Your research interests are Epistemology and the Philosophy of Mind. How are these areas meaningful, and what are the driving forces behind your research?
Epistemology is a subarea that examines the nature of knowledge and rationality. I am particularly interested in the epistemology of perception, imagination, and memory—whether and why we acquire knowledge/rationality from these faculties.
On the other hand, these faculties themselves are the study subjects of the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. For example, there is discussion in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science on what is perception and how perception is related to or differs from imagination. Hence, there are natural overlaps between the kind of epistemology I am interested in and the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. The epistemology of perception has been a main topic in epistemology since Descartes. But the discussion, for a long time, relied on some quite naive notions of perception.
A driving force behind my research is to make epistemology less “armchair” (referring to how philosophers come up with their ideas and arguments through intuitive deliberation alone, which connotes that empirical research is not so relevant). I want to channel epistemology to more sophisticated and psychologically plausible conceptions of perception, imagination, and memory.
What is the relationship between memory and imagining?
Traditionally speaking, people think that memory is very different from imagination. But there is more and more empirical research now showing they are actually closely connected.
With imagination, we put together different information sensorially—like how I might visualize a pink elephant flying in the room or how I might imagine a scenario propositionally. When I try to recall an experience that I had when I was a little child, I might also bring in information that was not originally there.
Novelist John Banville once said: “For memory, we use our imagination. We take a few strands of real time and carry them with us, then like an oyster we create a pearl around them.” The two mechanisms might just be quite similar to each other.
Does memory provide us with knowledge? If so, how?
We usually think that people can acquire knowledge based on their memory, but what if memory is just an imaginative process? Can we still say that we know based on memory? If not, what kind of new theory or framework can we provide to incorporate this new empirical finding? It's an interdisciplinary project in a sense that philosophers run or look at empirical studies on memory and imagination to examine theoretical questions like: What is knowledge? What is our theory of knowledge or rationality? We might need to revise our current theories based on the empirical findings.
This is similar in the case of perception. We usually think that perception is like a window, we look through it, and find the relevant information. But now cognitive scientists and psychologists develop more nuanced views of perception. Perception is not a mere transparent window, it also involves influences from our background beliefs, desires, or biases. It is more constructive than we used to think. This finding importantly matters to how we think about acquiring knowledge/rationality through perception.
Have you developed any habits towards your research and study of philosophy?
Like many other philosophers, I read a lot, think a lot, and write a lot. When I have new ideas and drafts, I present them at workshops and conferences, and try to get as much feedback as possible. I usually work on multiple (related) projects at the same time. If I need a break from one project, I switch my attention to another.
I also find teaching a great way to learn. In order to prepare for teaching, especially for upper level courses, I need to read comprehensively on a topic, and follow up with the most recent publications. This gives me a lot of opportunities to think about the specific issues under the topic.
Any upcoming research projects on your checklist?
In general, I am interested in how the causal history of an experience—no matter whether it is perceptual, imaginative, or memory—influences its power to justify/rationalize our beliefs.
I have several research projects right now. One is a development of my dissertation, and is about the epistemology of cognitive penetration. Another, which won the Shanghai Pujiang Program Grant, is about the relationship between memory and imagination and its implication for the relevant discussion in epistemology. It’s a two-year program that started September of this year and will run until August 2020.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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