CenSes, Director Series, Interviews, Philosophy
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Interview with Professor Barry Smith

We talk to the director of the Institute of Philosophy (IP) about fostering collaborative links between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists and the launch of CREATE, a centre for experimental aesthetics.

Professor Barry C Smith is director of the Institute of Philosophy as well as the founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, which pioneers collaborative research between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists. He is Leadership Fellow for the AHRC Science in Culture Theme, and is a philosopher of language and mind who has published on self-knowledge, linguistic understanding, consciousness, the emotions, taste, smell and flavour.

What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Philosophy?
No two days are the same at the Institute of Philosophy, which is both exciting and a challenge. I could be meeting visiting speakers or fellows, running and attending conferences or workshops, holding lab meetings or conducting experiments with our colleagues from neuroscience. There is also  talking to funders, or the press, and trying to finish articles. There are always deadlines. Beyond the office there is travelling to meetings with collabporative partners or to speak at other universities or organisations. And through it all, the need to keep up with email and admin.

Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
We’ve been leading the agenda in fostering collaborative links between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists at the Centre for the Study of the Senses to understand our perception of the world and ourselves. And we’re keen to extend the research insights coming out of work on the senses to understanding our aesthetic experiences and preferences in, the visual, performing and culinary arts, for which we’re launching a new centre: CREATE. Another initiative with colleagues in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies is a project on language and law to study the drafting and interpretation of legislation, and here philosophers of language and linguists play a key role.

What was your own experience of being a student like?
As a PhD student in cognitive science at Edinburgh, I was lucky to be exposed to interdisciplinary working early. It was challenging and at time frustrating but I’m very glad I persevered. Today some of the most innovative research comes from unexpected interactions between the arts, humanities and the sciences.

What’s the focus of you current research?
More and more of my research is on taste, smell and flavour. I am fascinated by the often hidden role smell plays in our lives, in modulating our emotions and helping to fix our memories. Smell also plays a large role in what we call ‘taste’, which is more accurately described as flavour. Flavour perception is one of our most multisensory experiences involving taste, touch and smell and affected by sight and sound, and the study of it may hold clues to the nature of the senses and experience in general. Many of our creative collaborators are beginning to look at the overall impact of our sensory surroundings on our enjoyment or food, or wine or art.

Why do you think an institution like IP remains relevant today?
The Institute of Philosophy is there to enhance the national and international research landscape of philosophy. It does so in several ways: fostering research initiatives with partners and collaborators in many fields, hosting cutting-edge workshops and conferences that help to develop new research agendas, providing opportunities for early career and established researchers to contribute to their field. Pressures on funding today make it vital to share our resources and do more with less, so that collectively we can show the strength and vitality of philosophy and its increasing importance to thinkers in a number of different fields.

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