Sara Dellantonio


Long before the investigation of mind and behavior became the focus of experimental psychology, it was the prerogative of philosophy. The birth of scientific psychology lead to the separation of these disciplines and the development of two different traditions of research on mind that often do not communicate: an essentially theoretical philosophical tradition, and a largely empirical psychological one. The emergence of the “cognitive sciences” has offered to reconcile philosophy and psychology, by reuniting them in an interdisciplinary research project, whose aim is to arrive at an empirically based understanding of mental phenomena in all their complexity.  

The terms “Philosophy of psychology” and “Epistemology of the cognitive sciences” describe the philosophical traditions that have taken hold within the ambit of the cognitive project. They include a large variety of issues that range:

  • from the analysis of the methods, instruments and models adopted in psychology and other cognitive disciplines
  • to the development, in collaboration with these other disciplines, of specific psychological explanations
  • to the study of the (epistemological, social, ethical and other) consequences of the theories put forward by cognitive researchers.

A more specific description of each of the topics I address in this field is given below. 

Research directions

Representations, concepts, meanings

Concepts are essential constituents of thought: they are the instruments we use to categorize our experience, i.e. to classify things and group them together in homogeneous sets. In the field of cognitive research, concepts are characterized as the internal mental information (representations) that allow us, among other things, to master the words of natural language. By analyzing the way in which individuals master word meanings, I explore a number of hypotheses regarding the nature of concepts, the composition of representations and the relationship between language and thought, tackling issues such as:

  • What is the relationship between the perceptual and the cognitive system, i.e. between perceptual and conceptual information?
  • How are conceptual representations originally constituted?
  • What does the specific semantic mastery exhibited by people tell us about the nature of our concepts?
  • Does language learning influence the way in which we categorize the world?

I am not only interested in investigating the relationship between external perception and conceptualization. In fact, external perception is not the only source of information available to living creatures. They also have internal sensations that may help explain where at least some of their conceptual representations originate.

In order to explore the contribution of this latter information, I am especially interested in investigating specific word classes such as terms denoting bodily experiences (e.g. ‘pain’, ‘hunger’, ‘itch’ etc.); as well as terms denoting emotions and abstract words. Given their complexity and their links to other topics, emotions and abstract terms deserve a more detailed explanation.


The field of cognitive research is characterized by two large families of theories on emotions: the so-called cognitive and the perceptual theories of emotion. According to cognitive theories, we identify our emotions on the basis of the thoughts that correspond to them. In contrast, perceptual theories of emotion – whose basic ideas date back to William James and Carl Lange at the end of the 19th-century – suggest that we recognize our emotions on the basis of the bodily changes and sensations we experience when an emotion occurs.

In my studies, I argue for a perceptual theory of emotions. I suggest that there is a continuity between bodily experiences and emotions and that internal perceptual information is essential for the recognition and categorization of our emotions.

Abstract terms

The ‘standard picture of meaning’ suggests that natural languages are composed of concrete words whose meanings rely on observable properties of external objects as well as on abstract words which are essentially linguistic constructs. These two kinds of words do not belong to different conceptual classes; they rather form a continuum. In line with this view, it is usually assumed that concepts – as mental representations that support our semantic competence with these words – are also positioned along a continuum which is characterized, at the one pole, by concepts that are more directly based on perceptual information and, at the other, by concepts that rely chiefly on linguistic information. 

However, recent studies, largely carried out in the field of so-called embodied cognition, challenge this view and suggest that abstract words are not just linguistic constructs, and that at least some of them rely on sensory information that is not driven by external perception, but instead relates to internal states of the body. In fact, many non-concrete words are based – at least in part – on bodily information and on emotions: think, for example, of ‘balance’, ‘force’, ‘friendship’, ‘familiarity’, ‘respect’, etc. On the other hand, there are abstract words that are defined within the scope of a particular theory and appear to be more deeply definitional: think, for example, of ‘axiom’, ‘legislation’, ‘fallacy’, ‘hypothesis’ etc. 

I suggest that concrete and abstract do in fact constitute a continuum, but that this continuum is not simply defined by two poles (external perception and definitions), but by three: external perception, internal perception and definitions. In line with this scheme, the construction of abstract concepts might originate from and rely on either form of concreteness, that is, either external or internal perceptual experience.

Nativism vs. empiricism

Nativists believe that the mind comes equipped with many innate structures which are essential for explaining the various capacities humans exhibit. Nativists are opposed by empiricists. Their view has often been described as postulating that the mind is not equipped with any innate structure, but is rather a ‘blank slate’ on which experience impresses its traces. This is a mistaken picture of the contraposition between nativism and empiricism which is instead concerned with the quantity and kinds of innate structures the mind may be equipped with. As stated by Simpson et al. (2005) in the introduction of the first volume of their ambitious trilogy of volumes ‘The innate mind’: “Nativists are inclined to see the mind as the product of a relatively large number of innately specified, relatively complex, domain-specific structures and processes. Their empiricist counterparts incline toward the view that much less of the content of the mind exists prior to worldly experience, and that the processes that operate upon this experience are of a much more domain-general nature.” (Simpson et al. 2005, p. 5)

I endorse an empiricist view of the mind: in particular, I suggest that empiricist explanations should be pursued as far as possible. From an epistemological point of view, nativist explanations are based on the idea that the existence of inborn structures is the only possible way to account for the capacity exhibited by individuals. However, if one could show that this capacity can be explained using other, non-innate cognitive resources, a nativist explanation would become unnecessary and could be superseded. Indeed, the hypothesis of the research I propose is that – if we can explain the origin of a certain capacity within an empiricist framework – this explanation will ipso facto (by a principle corollary to Ockham’s razor) supplant the nativist position.


Studies of categorization in psychology and the cognitive sciences have made use of the notions of ‘category’ and ‘concept’ without precisely defining what is meant by either; in fact, often these terms have been used as synonyms, making it difficult to address specific issues related to conceptual development. Categories are defined as the means thorough which experience is originally (pre-linguistically) organized in a passive and fully unconscious manner on the basis of universal structuring principles. Conceptualization is then explained as a later process in which the earlier categorical macro-classes are further subdivided into more specific and detailed sets; this later process also relies on linguistic learning and exposure to culture. The hypothesis that our experience is categorically organized opens up many avenues for cognitive research. One of them is whether categories must be considered inborn or whether they can be explained, at least in part, as beginning from some more general capacities.

One specific categorical partition I have worked on is the dichotomy animate/inanimate. The specific issue addressed with reference to this dichotomy, is whether the capacity to distinguish animate from inanimate entities is innate or develops on the basis of information and organizational structure already available at a very early developmental stage. In line with an empiricist research project on mind, I tried to show how this capacity can be explained by starting with bodily information and then applying an analogizing mechanism. The bodily information is driven by self-monitoring mechanisms that inform the first-person about his/her internal states and movements and thus, implicitly, also inform her/him that s/he is alive.

Furthermore, the analogizing mechanism is capable of recognizing all the forms of movement that are analogous to those detected by the self-monitoring mechanism (biological, intentional and self-propelled movement) in the external world. In this way, the subject will be able to distinguish between entities that move like her/him (which are therefore animate) and entities that do not move like her/him (which are therefore inanimate).


Nativism is one of the defining traits of the cognitive approach to mind since its beginnings. The version of nativism that characterizes this approach can be traced back to Fodor’s modularity thesis. Fodor relies on the classical metaphor of the mind as a computer and distinguishes between two kinds of system: the input systems and the central system. Input systems provide the central system with information on the external world, while the central system codifies this information in a unique format and uses it for any kind of thought. The modularity thesis in Fodor’s version concerns the input system only: input systems are modular in the sense that they are highly specialized, domain specific and informationally encapsulated computational mechanisms whose operations are mandatory, fast, and operate below awareness. Fodor’s interpretation of modularity is considered to be modest because it is limited to the input systems.

However, another important tradition of research supports a view called massive modularity according to which the central system is also organized into separate modules. Massive modularity gives rise to a model of mind described as a ‘Swiss army knife’, i.e. an assembly of genetically determined tools (modules) which are specialized for some particular purpose and autonomous from each other.

This version of the modularity theory leads to a revision of the very notion of module and has relevant consequences for many research fields, including psychological research on morality. In our studies, we argue against the massive modularity thesis. Furthermore, we suggest that its use in explaining our ‘moral competence’ in the field of morality is questionable.

Philosophical Psychology and Experimental Philosophy

The boundaries between the psychological and philosophical research on mind are getting progressively blurrier and difficult to define. As e.g. Mason, Sripada and Stich maintain: “in the last quarter of the century, the distinction between psychology and the philosophy of psychology began to dissolve as philosophers played an increasingly active role in articulating and testing empirical theories about the mind and psychologists became increasingly interested in the philosophical underpinnings and implications of their work.” (Mason, K. Sripada, C.S., Stich, S. (2008). Philosophy of Psychology, p. 583; in: D. Moran (ed.) Routledge Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophy).

The mind is a unitary research object and there are not two ways – a philosophical and a psychological one – to account for it. The differences are rather due to the fact that these disciplines pursue, in part, different interests and approaches.
The interests of psychology are chiefly empirical and related to the possibility of developing very specific hypotheses that can be entirely controlled by experimentation. Philosophy is primarily interested in developing theories that are as wide, coherent and inclusive as possible and that allow us, among other things, to address classical issues on the nature and structure of human knowledge.

Thus, ‘philosophical psychology’ is a way of doing psychology that emphasizes the need for wide-ranging theories that also deal with fundamental issues concerning e.g. the structures that allow us to acquire knowledge, whether they are innate or learned, the implication that these have for the kind of knowledge we can develop and so on. My research is oriented towards a form of philosophical psychology understood in this sense. Typically, philosophy does not do experiments, but it uses a critical-comparative approach that ultimately relies on empirical evidence obtained from other disciplines.

However, recently in the field of philosophy a movement called ‘experimental philosophy’ (X-Phil) has taken hold whose aim is to address philosophical questions also by doing experiments. In the light of the idea that the mind is a unitary research object, this perspective turns out to be attractive and promising. However, I believe that philosophy cannot begin to build its own experimental research tradition, distinct from that of the empirical sciences. In the spirit of the unity of scientific research, philosophy should rather seek an alliance with the empirical disciplines. Consistent with this perspective, my research activity relies on cooperation with researchers in empirical psychology.

This collaboration is not meant to be a passive one, in which psychology offers its services to philosophy and performs experiments to test the hypotheses put forward by philosophy. This is rather a common, critical and integrated enterprise in which philosophy collaborates with psychology including with respect to methodological issues (contributing e.g. to the development of new instruments: new scales, questionnaires, etc.) and in which psychology is also called on to make its contribution to theoretical issues (e.g. by offering philosophy constructs and operationalizations that are evidence-based and make the theories on mental phenomena easier to control from an empirical point of view).

Internal collaborations

Esposito Gianluca, Professore associato
Job Remo, Professore ordinario

External collaborations

Dolcini Nevia, University of University of Macau, Macau
Mulatti Claudio, Università di Padova, Italia
Pastore Luigi, Università di Bari, Italia
Saulo de Freitas Araujo, Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil.
Stephan Achim, University of Osnabruck, Germany

Selected publications


  • Dellantonio, S., Job, R. (2017). La concretezza del corpo. Una revisione della concezione classica di astratto e concreto. Sistemi intelligenti, XXIX, n. 1, aprile 2017, pp. 9-32; DOI: 10.1422/86616.
  • Esposito, G., Dellantonio S., Mulatti C., Job R. (2016). Axiom, anguish and amazement: How Autistic Traits Modulate Emotional and Proprioceptive Mental Imagery. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 7:757. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00757.      
  • Dellantonio, S., Job, R. (2015) La natura della spiegazione scientifica. Alcuni riflessioni su neurocentrismo, meccanicismo, riduzionismo e determinismo. Giornale italiano di psicologia, XLII, n. 1-2, pp. 117-122. DOI: 10.1421/79834.
  • Dellantonio, S., Mulatti, C., Pastore, L., Job, R. (2014). Measuring inconsistencies can lead you forward: Imageability and the x-ception theory. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, n. article 708. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00708.
  • Dellantonio, S., Mulatti, L., Job, R. (2013). Artifacts and tool categorization. The Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 4, n. 3, pp. 407-418. DOI: 10.1007/s13164-013-0140-9
  • Dellantonio, S., Innamorati, M. Pastore, L. (2012). Sensing Aliveness. An Hypothesis on the Constitution of the Categories ‘Animate’ and ‘Inanimate’. In: Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, Volume 46(2), pp. 172-195. DOI 10.1007/s12124-011-9186-3*

Book Chapters:

  • Pastore, L. Dellantonio, S., Mulatti, C. & Job, R. (2015) On the Nature and Composition of Abstract (Theoretical) Concepts: The X-ception Theory and Methods for its Assessment. In: L. Magnani, L. Ping & W. Park (eds.), Philosophy and Cognitive Science II. Vol. 20, Springer, Heidelberg/Berlin, pp. 35-58. 10.1007/978-3-319-18479-1_3
  • Dellantonio, S., Pastore, L. (2014). Freedom and Moral Judgment. A Cognitive Model of Permissibility. In: L. Magnani (ed.) Model-Based Reasoning in Science and Technology: Theoretical and Cognitive Issues, Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics. Volume 8, Springer, pp. 339-361. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-37428-9_19


  • Dellantonio, S., Pastore, L. (2017). Internal Perception. The Role of Bodily Information in Concepts and Word Mastery, Springer, ISBN 978-3-662-55761-7.
  • Dellantonio, S. (2008). La dimensione interna del significato. Esternismo, internismo e competenza semantica, ETS, Pisa. [Published also in German]


Further information can be found at the following webpage: ResearchGate - Sara Dellantonio