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Dr Nat Hansen

Nat Hansen believes that working across disciplines and learning from students at the University of Reading shows the way forward in his research into the philosophy of language.

"My main research area is the philosophy of language, which is increasingly being informed by psycholinguistic experiments. Combining methods from philosophy, psychology, and linguistics, I investigate the philosophical foundations of experimental studies of meaning and develop novel experimental ways of testing theories of meaning.

"I'm particularly interested in the meaning of colour words, like 'green' and 'red'. Some philosophers think that these words just refer to particular colours. If that's right, we need to know what colours are.

"Are colours physical properties, or do they depend on our eyes and minds? Can the meanings of colour words be different for different people? I've run experiments with psycholinguists in order to begin to answer some of these questions, but so far we've only scratched the surface of this fascinating topic."

Learning from students

Nat's students at Reading inform his research:

"Teaching gives me the opportunity to make connections between detailed research questions and classic philosophical debates on one hand, and important problems that we're grappling with in contemporary life on the other. I'm currently teaching two third-year modules that connect with my research in these ways: Speech Attacks, and Colour. I have also taught the first-year module Reason and Argument, which is an introduction to logic and critical thinking.

Watch Dr Nat Hansen talking about the Reason and Argument module

"Second, supervising papers written by students has given me a look at many relevant areas of research that I would have otherwise been unaware of. I've learned about vagueness, the ethics of 'nudging' in behavioural economics, and theories of fictional objects from supervising excellent undergraduate dissertations. An Italian MA student informed me of empirical studies of Italian basic colour terms that I didn't know about.

"I am constantly learning from my excellent PhD students' research currently I am learning about context-sensitivity, the semantics of number terms, and framing effects from reading my students' work.

"I have also co-authored an article with a former PhD student on experimental approaches to investigating how ordinary speakers assess whether someone knows something."

A collaborative approach

Nat believes that understanding the meanings of words requires collaboration across academic disciplines:

"I have had wonderful experiences doing research with linguists, psychologists, researchers in the digital humanities, as well as other philosophers.

"We will only understand word meaning if we use the resources of a bunch of different academic disciplines.

"I recently wrote a paper with philosopher Zed Adams (New School for Social Research) in which we argue that there is not a single, unified concept of colour, as some philosophers have assumed. How people think about colour varies between individuals, situations, and across different historical periods. For example, people will say that colours are properties of an object's surface until you ask them to consider an object like a mirror, where colours are totally dependent on viewing angle and lighting conditions. When they start to notice the way the colour of ordinary objects can also depend on those factors, then the fact that objects seem to have persistent, unchanging colours itself becomes a puzzle!

"I have also worked with digital humanities scholar J.D Porter and psychologist Kathryn Francis to show how epistemologists have overlooked several ordinary uses of the word 'know'. The result of our research has been to argue that philosophy would benefit from adopting a more sophisticated, 'big data'-driven approach to the investigation of word meaning in certain circumstances.

"I am proud of the fact that my research has become thoroughly interdisciplinary, uncovering cool and unexpected facts about meaning."

Research impact

"My research aims to improve our understanding of basic questions about meaning and experimentation. But research can have unexpected real-world applications. For example, my research on the context-sensitivity of meaning inspired a graphic design firm in New York City to create a context-sensitive typeface ("Visage"), which was used on t-shirts, jumpers, and promotional materials for the Yale University art museum."