This website gives an overview of my research. This is organized around three main themes: the philosophy of skilled action, affordance-based design in architecture, and the phenomenology of patients with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).

Erik Rietveld@KNAW

Erik Rietveld at KNAW, photo by Alva Noë

Skillful Action

The philosophy of unreflective skillful action investigates activities that we do without deliberation in everyday life, for example riding a bike or moving to an appropriate distance from others in an elevator, as well as in expert performance, e.g. the way architects may intuitively improve a design. It is a young, broad domain with lots of potential because of its importance for cognitive science and fundamental issues in philosophy.

I have had the opportunity to specialize in it, thanks to my work as a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard – where I worked with Sean Kelly – and my NWO VENI-research project in which I investigate unreflective action from an integrative perspective, relating complementary insights from phenomenology/philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. The possibilities for action provided to us by the environment, or ‘affordances‘, are crucial for understanding skilled action. Architects can create new affordances, which makes them an interesting profession to study.

Rietveld Landscape Free Port Amsterdam

My focus on unreflective skillful action has resulted in many publications both in philosophy journals (e.g. Mind, InquiryPhenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences) and interdisciplinary journals (e.g. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Harvard Design Magazine, Behavioral & Brain Sciences, BBS). Philosophy journal Mind published my analysis of Wittgenstein’s descriptions of architects at work, which is a good introduction to my philosophical ideas on skillful action. In the next few years would like to broaden my scope and write more on reflective forms of skilled action.

Translational Embodied Cognitive Science

Besides fundamental research in philosophy I am also experimenting with what I call ‘Translational Embodied Cognition’. I develop concepts that are able to bridge different levels of description and different fields of research. The aim is first to translate the philosophical insights via in depth collaborations to concrete testable hypotheses for other academic disciplines such as psychology or neuroscience (with Nico Frijda, Richard Ridderinkhof and Jelle Bruineberg) as well as to convincing proof-of-concept work for real-world applications in architecture and medical practice. These applications, in turn, function as reality checks of my philosophical framework and generate excellent feedback on it.


Part of my VENI- and VIDI-projects has been a collaboration with RAAAF [Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances], which my brother, Prix de Rome Architecture-laureate Ronald Rietveld, and I founded in 2006. We did design research on the affordances of 4.326 vacant buildings and presented their enormous potential at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010, a high impact event in the world of architecture. This had a wonderful spin-off, including an invitation to develop our own Master’s program at the renowned Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy/Sandberg Institute. As Course Director and Head of the Master Vacant NL Department we have started the world’s first Master’s program in the upcoming field of Vacancy Studies and published a book on that topic. We have won the Rotterdam Design Prize 2011 and shown work at international exhibitions in Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Oslo, Mumbai, Moscow, Jakarta, Chicago (forthcoming in 2015) and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. RAAAF was elected Dutch Architect of the Year in 2013.

Deep Brain Stimulation

A grant awarded by the Research Council of the Academic Medical Center (AMC) allowed me to initiate a unique collaboration with Damiaan Denys (AMC Psychiatry/KNAW-NIN) on the phenomenology of patients with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). The PhD-student who works full-time on this project is Maarten van Westen. Together we are developing an affordance-based framework for understanding the changes in phenomenology that the patients experience as a result of the DBS-treatment. Our recent articles in BBS and the special issue on Neurophenomenology edited by Evan Thompson for Frontiers give some first impressions of this novel framework.

Current academic affiliations and future research plans

Currently I am leading the VIDI-project titled ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind‘ as a Senior Researcher at the University of Amsterdam. I am affiliated with various institutes of my university: the Department of Philosophy, ILLC, the Academic Medical Center (AMC), and Amsterdam Brain & Cognition/CSCA.

Read more on the VIDI-project here: interview with SMART Cognitive Science

If you are interested in my research plans for the next five years please read this post on my new ERC Starting Grant project on affordances and skilled action in context, which will include work on ‘higher’ cogntion such as social cognition, imagination and long term planning.

2 thoughts on “Introduction

  1. beste Erik, naar aanleiding van je vraag heb ik gisteren, vrijdag 30 September, nog overlegd met iemand in Leiden die bekend staat voor zijn werk aan netwerken en complex systems. Stuur me even een email naar, dan vertel ik je er meer over. Er is een hele community in NL waar ik je mee in contact kan brengen. Groeten! Wim

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