Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

Dr Emma Otterski

Teaching Fellow, Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

Emma recently completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis looked at theories of our psychological ability to attribute mental states to others, arguing that there are phenomena that traditional theories are unable to account for. She also has interests in feminist and social philosophy. 

What is your current area of research?

How we attribute emotions to others. The philosophical and psychological research on mental-state attribution has mainly focused on beliefs and desires, but it’s not clear how emotions fit into the models developed for these states. I'm interested in how social dynamics affect this ability, autistic people's understanding of other people's emotions, and also to what extent animals have this ability. 

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

All these areas are related in that they require us to think about social cognition: cognition as it relates to social worlds and functioning. I became interested in this area because I found the state-of-play in the literature a little strange. It felt like the ‘social’ was missing in a lot of the research.

More narrowly, I was interested not just in how we understand each other, but how we misunderstand each other. Perhaps this says more about me, but the idea that we just understand each other most of the time seems optimistic. What’s more, the world seems such that the effort expended in understanding others varies widely.

A lot of the work that actually engages with misunderstanding is about autism and autistic people’s understanding of others. Once again, I found a lot of this literature off the mark. Which led me to the phenomenon of ‘camouflaging/masking’ in autism. I can trace all my current work to trying to answer the question of what ‘camouflaging’ actually is.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

Perhaps, oddly, becoming quite disillusioned with philosophy. It led me to metaphilosophy, the sociology of philosophy, and thinking about how philosophy interacts with other disciplines. It also made me think very carefully about how I wanted to teach philosophy, as well as how I approach my research topics.

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

I like the idea of forging new ways of looking at certain topics. Also, social cognition research developed through collaboration between psychologists and philosophers, so it’s never been anything other than interdisciplinary. This means that I have to learn about psychology, neuroscience, and animal cognition in order to be able to contribute anything meaningful. Which is pretty cool.

What do you like to do when you aren`t working?

Read novels, watch most kinds of sport, crochet, go to yarn shops, take long walks. Spend time with my two nieces. I like to be by the sea. 

What are you currently reading?

Actress by Anne Enright. 

Do you have a favourite movie?

I don’t. I don’t remember much about films. Two of my closest friends are very into them — when they talk to each other about films I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

Is there a work of art that inspires you?

After I finished my PhD but was still teaching in Edinburgh, I used to go to the National Portrait Gallery at least once a fortnight. It’s a beautiful building. I'm not sure if I was more inspired by the building or the art, but I always went back to The Three Oncologists by Ken Currie, and Unknown Man by the same artist. I also really like Catherine Lucktaylor’s pottery and Janie Crow’s crochet designs. 

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

I love rugby! My family is Welsh — it’s been a tough Six Nations.

April 2024