Robert Gordon


Research Professor


Robert Gordon (Ph.D., Columbia) works primarily in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and moral psychology. For his Master's degree he specialized in Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, with a thesis on Nicholas of Cusa. His doctoral dissertation was in ethics and metaethics, on universalizability and analogy in moral arguments.

While teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Gordon shifted to the topic of emotions, a part of the philosophy of mind. He was one of the earliest philosophers to develop a theory that emphasized the cognitive content of emotions, particularly the types of beliefs and other mental states that cause various emotions. His work on the topic was published in Philosophical Review, American Philosophical Quarterly, Analysis, Journal of Philosophy, and other journals, culminating in his book, The Structure of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Gordon's current focus is on developing the simulation theory, which he introduced in 1986 and developed further in numerous articles since then. The theory holds that we understand other human beings by mentally simulating them -- that is, by generating the same sorts of brain processes that guide our own behavior. Of course, we're not all in the same situation, and we're not all psychologically alike. That's where the sorts of processes that underlie pretending and imagining have to come into play, so that we can "put ourselves in another's shoes." Gordon's book on the simulation theory will be published by Oxford University Press in 2007.

The theory has been the topic of numerous books and articles by philosophers and psychologists, and several conferences, symposia, and workshops in the US and abroad. Although it was initially developed as an alternative to prevailing philosophical theories of our commonsense "folk psychology," Gordon applied it also to some experimental results concerning children's understanding of mind and behavior -- and the apparent lack of understanding on the part of people with autism. Subsequently the theory has become one of the two or three chief contenders in developmental psychologists' research on "the child's theory of mind."

In cognitive neuroscience, the simulation theory has had a major influence on recent work on mirror neurons. In zoology, it has even been called on to explain the deceptive food-hiding behavior of certain bird species. In social robotics, teams at MIT and elsewhere have been applying the simulation theory in developing robots that can "interpret" the behavior of other robots or of human beings.

Gordon has held research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1999 he directed an NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Florida, and was visiting professor at the University of Helsinki.