This website gives an overview of my research. This is organized around three main themes: the philosophy of skilled action, the affordances of art, and the phenomenology of patients with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).
Erik Rietveld, photo by Juliana Gomez
With my team I investigate the entire spectrum of skilled action, from situations in which a psychiatrist reflects on the impact their treatment has on a patient, to situations in which visual artists are jointly experimenting intuitively. 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 engineers 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 the entire spectrum of skilled action. Artists and architects can create new affordances by working with materials, which makes their practices of making interesting to study.
My focus on unreflective skillful action has resulted in many publications both in philosophy journals (e.g. Mind, Inquiry, Phenomenology & 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.
Since 2014 I have broadened my scope by studying also reflective forms of skilled action. We use ethnograpy to investigate such skilled action in practices of making visual art, architecture and medical practice.
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-laureate Ronald Rietveld, and I founded in 2006. We did research on the affordances of 4.326 vacant buildings and presented their enormous potential with an art installation at the Venice Biennale 2010, a high impact event in the worlds of art and artchitecture. 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 shown artworks at international exhibitions in Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Oslo, Mumbai, Moscow, Jakarta, Chicago and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. RAAAF was elected Dutch Architect of the Year in 2013.
For more information you can download RAAAF’s portfolio here: PDF portfolio RAAAF.
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 skills of the psychiatrists involved and the changes in phenomenology that the patients experience as a result of the DBS-treatment. Our articles in BBS and the special issue on Neurophenomenology edited by Evan Thompson for Frontiers give an impression 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 coming years (with Julian Kiverstein, Jasper van den Herik and Anja Novak) please read these two posts: One on my ERC Starting Grant project on affordances and skilled action in context, which will include work on ‘higher’ cogntion such as social cognition, language, reflection, imagination and long term planning.
The second one on my recently awarded NWO VICI grant. Climate change, social cohesion and the pandemic require collective behavioural change, they require what I call “Change-Ability“. This philosophical research uses insights into the role that the environment plays in everyday action to understand societal change. We will study material interventions by visual artists and experimental architects that increase people’s openness to surprising possibilities for collective change.
Last but not least, I am Socrates Professor at the University of Twente (1 day a week) where I focus on the topic of ‘Making Humane Technologies’. You can read my inaugural lecture here: The Affordances of Art for Making Technologies.