Do you passively receive information, or perceive the world actively?

Does the Aristotelian tradition describe humans well, or is the Augustinian view more accurate? According to José Filipe Silva, these questions of the history of philosophy are still current.

Last autumn, Mediaeval researcher José Filipe Silva was embarking on a professorship in Madrid, which he quickly forgot about when he heard of a significant European research grant being awarded to his project Rationality in Perception: Transformations of Mind and Cognition 1250-1550.

Now José Filipe Silva has resettled in Helsinki and is beginning his work in the position of associate professor in Mediaeval philosophy.

“Most of all, I’m interested in the concept of perception – of how we gain information about the external world. My other research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of mind and the body-soul relation,” Silva explains.

“The University of Helsinki has a long, strong tradition of research in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of science and logic, but no professors in the field of the history of philosophy have been appointed until now.”

What is perception?

José Filipe Silva is especially interested in what the Augustinian philosophers wrote about perception in the Middle Ages, from 1250 onwards.

“The general understanding is that Aristotelian philosophy was dominant at the time, meaning that humans were thought to receive information passively. The Augustinians, however, believed that we actively engage in perception. This is the focus of my project: what and how did the Augustinians write about perception, and what did they think active perception entailed,” Silva says.

“We are also making these Mediaeval texts available to others. We’re working on annotated translations and other publications in order to introduce Augustinianism to people who cannot read the original texts. This is important, because these philosophers have a great deal to give to our contemporary discussions on the philosophy of perception.”

José Filipe Silva was granted funding from the European Research Council (ERC). In addition to Silva, his project employs three postdoctoral researchers and one doctoral student.

Tips for international funding applicants

The application process for international research funding often involves multiple steps and may include an interview with an expert panel.

“Go to the interview with an optimistic mind. Don’t underestimate the panel members. They know what a good application looks like even if they might not be top experts in your specific research field. An aggressive attitude will not help your application, but a friendly one might,” advises Associate Professor Silva.

“The main thing is to believe in your research idea and to write about it in a way that feels right to you. I also encourage everyone to have their texts read by others. I have read the applications of others myself and am happy to help new ERC applicants, even though it’s not easy to comment on texts written by experts of other fields.”

From Portugal to Finland via Italy

José Filipe Silva’s path to becoming a philosophy scholar began at the University of Porto, where he completed his Master’s degree. A course in Mediaeval studies took him to Rome for further study. The Eternal City sparked his interest not only in Mediaeval philosophy but also in Finland, as one of his fellow students on the course was a Finn who would later become his wife.

Silva wrote to Professor Simo Knuuttila in Helsinki and asked him to supervise his dissertation. Knuuttila agreed. After completing his doctoral degree, José Filipe Silva was employed as a researcher at Knuuttila’s Philosophical Psychology, Morality and Politics Research Unit.

The ERC-funded project originated during Silva's years as a fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, but it is currently based at the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies.

Other recent recipients of ERC funding are particle researcher Mikael Ehn, butterfly researcher Marjo Saastamoinen and cell researcher Henna Tyynismaa, who all, like Silva, received the ERC Starting Grant. The latest recipient of the ERC Consolidator Grant, intended to launch the next stage of a researcher’s career, was Satu Mustjoki, who studies autoimmune diseases.