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Introducing Karen Lewis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

What is your specific area of research? What are you currently working on?
My work deals with the philosophy of language, particularly questions of meaning and communication. I consider questions like, how is it that words come to have meaning at all, and how do those particular meanings evolve? What are the meanings of particular expressions? How much of what is communicated in a conversation is a result of the expressions used, and how much is a result of conversations that are typically purposeful, cooperative activities among rational agents?
 
One of my current projects explores the nature of meaning, and the relationship between meaning and conversational context. I’m looking at two views, the first where meanings act directly on contexts, like instructions to the people in a conversation. The second, more traditional view, is the opposite—where meanings do not act directly on contexts, but rather context is updated based on what is said and the purpose of the conversation. I argue that the traditional view can account for more about conversations than is commonly thought. Another project I am working on deals with counterfactual conditionals, which are sentences like ‘If Jane had dropped the vase, it would have broken.’ I’m trying to answer the question of why sentences like this seem true in many contexts, despite the fact that in the same context, people will often go along with conditionals like ‘If Jane had dropped the vase, she might have caught it before it hit the floor.’
 
What are your other research/teaching interests? Any broader projects or initiatives you're involved with in your field?
 Another area of research that I’m interested in is pragmatics—what is communicated through a particular use of a sentence or expression, beyond the conventional meaning. I am also interested in the applications of philosophy of language; for example, I’ve previously taught a course that examines what it would take for a machine to engage in meaningful conversation.
 
What is most exciting to you about joining Barnard's faculty? What are you looking forward to most about being here?
Barnard seems like a very tight-knit community. I’m excited to become part of a vibrant research and teaching environment, and I’m really looking forward to working closely with students. Also, New York City currently has the world’s most extensive and active research community in the field of philosophy of language, so I’m looking forward to interacting with colleagues at nearby institutions.
 
What courses will you be teaching?
 This fall, I’ll be teaching “Introduction to Philosophy.” I love teaching intro because for many students, it is their first exposure to philosophy and it is so much fun to see their interest, excitement, and surprise at the ideas we discuss. It brings me back to my own first philosophy course. In the spring, I’ll be teaching “Introduction to Philosophy of Language.”
 
Outside of your academic life, any interests, hobbies, accomplishments of note?
My favorite things to do outside academic work are cycling, cooking, and reading novels – I do a lot of all three!