I am a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Kansas State University. I got my PhD from the University of Michigan (Go Grue!) and my BA from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Starting in the Fall of 2013, I will be an assistant professor of philosophy at Nanyang Technological University. For a few semesters, I will also be a Marie Curie international incoming fellow at University of Leeds.

My research projects span cognitive science, philosophy of mind, analytic aesthetics, and moral psychology. I am working on experimental approaches to philosophical aesthetics, the role of imagination in cognitive architecture, the nature of de se mental content, and the psychology of moral persuasion. In addition to this website, you can also track my work on PhilPapers and on Google Scholar.

I find teaching an effective and entertaining way to learn about new debates and to re-immerse myself in the classics. I have taught a variety of courses, ranging from applied ethics to metaphysics. I also really like talking philosophy with students outside of the classroom!

On a personal note, I often get excited about artforms that connect an artifact’s aesthetic value to its non-aesthetic function, such as documentary, photojournalism, graphic design, typography, and food. Oh, people call me “Sam”, and you can too.


“Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions”
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly / penultimate version / abstract

Narrative representations can change our moral actions and thoughts, for better or for worse. I develop a theory of fictions’ capacity for moral education and moral corruption that is fully sensitive to the diversity of fictions. Specifically, I argue that the way a fiction influences our moral actions and thoughts importantly depends on its genre. This theory promises new insights into practical ethical debates over pornography and media violence.

An earlier version was presented at Carleton College’s departmental colloquium.

Liao, S., forthcoming. Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

“Aesthetic Explanations”
Philosophy / email me for draft / abstract

I argue for a pragmatic and pluralist approach to aesthetic explanations. My argument focuses on genre explanations—explanations of aesthetic phenomena that centrally cite a work’s genre classification. Philosophers have provided genre explanations for a wide variety of aesthetic phenomena. However, Gregory Currie argues that genre explanations categorically fail because they are relatively fragile and relatively uninformative. To respond to Currie’s challenges, we need to gain a better understanding of explanations from contemporary philosophy of science.

An earlier version was presented at Royal Institute of Philosophy Conference: Philosophical Aesthetics and the Sciences of Art?.

Liao, S., forthcoming. Aesthetic Explanations, Philosophy Supplement Volume 74.

“The Fictional Character of Pornography” (with Sara Protasi)
Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography / penultimate version / abstract

We refine a line of feminist criticism of pornography that focuses on pornographic works’ pernicious effects. A.W. Eaton argues that inegalitarian pornography should be criticized because it is responsible for its consumers’ adoption of inegalitarian attitudes toward sex in the same way that other fictions are responsible for changes in their consumers’ attitudes. We argue that her argument can be improved with the recognition that different fictions can have different modes of persuasion. This is true of film and television: a satirical movie such as Dr. Strangelove does not morally educate in the same way as a realistic series such as The Wire. We argue that this is also true of pornography: inegalitarian depictions of sex are not invariably responsible for consumers’ adoption of inegalitarian attitudes toward sex in reality. Given that pornographic works of different genres may harm in different ways, different feminist criticisms are appropriate for different genres of pornography.

Earlier versions were presented at Yale’s Gender and Philosophy Working Group, Aesthetics, Art, and Pornography: An Interdisciplinary Conference, and the 2010 European Society of Aesthetics Conference.

Liao, S. and Protasi, S., forthcoming. The fictional character of pornography. In: Maes, H., ed., Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

“The Good in Happiness” (with Jonathan Phillips and Sven Nyholm)
Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy / email me for draft / abstract

There has been a long history of arguments over whether happiness is anything more than a set of certain psychological states. On one side, some philosophers have endorsed a descriptive view of happiness, which argues that there is not. Affective scientists, in turn, have embraced this view and are reaching a near consensus that happiness is some combination of affective experience and life-satisfaction. On the other side of this debate, some philosophers have maintained an evaluative view of happiness, on which being happy also involves living a life that is normatively good. Given this long-standing debate, a question arises as to how people ordinarily understand happiness. Taking up this question, we provide evidence that the ordinary understanding of happiness reflects aspects of both evaluative and descriptive views. Similar to evaluative views, normative judgments have a substantive role in the ordinary understanding of happiness. Yet, similar to descriptive views, the ordinary understanding focuses solely on the psychological states a person experiences. Combining these two aspects, we argue that the ordinary understanding of happiness suggests a novel view on which happiness consists in normatively good mental states. This view, if right, has surprising implications for both philosophical and psychological research on happiness.

Phillips, J., Nyholm, S., and Liao, S., forthcoming. The good in happiness. In: Lombrozo, T., Nichols, S., & Knobe, J., eds., Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy 1. New York: Oxford University Press.

“What Are Centered Worlds?”
The Philosophical Quarterly / penultimate version / abstract

David Lewis argues that centered worlds give us a way to capture de se, or self-locating, contents in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. In recent years, centered worlds have also gained other uses in areas ranging widely from metaphysics to ethics. In this paper, I raise a problem for centered worlds and discuss the costs and benefits of different solutions. My investigation into the nature of centered worlds brings out potentially problematic implicit commitments of the theories that employ them. In addition, my investigation shows that the conception of centered worlds widely attributed to David Lewis is not only problematic, but in fact not his.

Earlier versions were presented at the 2008 Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference and the 2007 University of Texas–Austin Graduate Philosophy Conference. A predecessor was cited in Andy Egan’s "Billboards, Bombs and Shotgun Weddings" under the title "Time Travellers and Centered Worlds".

Liao, S., 2012. What are centered worlds?. The Philosophical Quarterly, 62, pp. 294-316. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9213.2011.00042.x.

“The Problem of Imaginative Resistance” (with Tamar Szabó Gendler)
The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature / email me for draft / abstract

The problem of imaginative resistance holds interest for aestheticians, literary theorists, ethicists, philosophers of mind, and epistemologists. We present a somewhat opinionated overview of the philosophical discussion to date. We begin by introducing the phenomenon of imaginative resistance. We then review existing responses to the problem, giving special attention to recent research directions. Finally, we consider the philosophical significance that imaginative resistance has—or, at least, is alleged to have—for issues in moral psychology, theories of cognitive architecture, and modal epistemology.

Liao, S. and Gendler, T.S., forthcoming. The Problem of Imaginative Resistance. In: Gibson, J. and Carroll, N., The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature. New York: Routledge.

“Pretense and Imagination” (with Tamar Szabó Gendler)
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science / penultimate version / abstract

Issues of pretense and imagination are of central interest to philosophers, psychologists, and researchers in allied fields. We provide a roadmap of some of the central themes around which discussion has been focused. We begin with an overview of pretense, imagination, and the relationship between them. We then shift our attention to four specific topics where the disciplines’ research programs have intersected or where additional interactions could prove mutually beneficial: the psychological underpinnings of performing pretense and of recognizing pretense, the cognitive capacities involved in imaginative engagement with fictions, and the real-world impact of make-believe.

Liao, S. and Gendler, T.S., 2011. Pretense and imagination. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2(1), pp. 79-94. doi:10.1002/wcs.91.


Kansas State University
Introduction to Moral Philosophy: Biomedical Ethics (Spring 2013)
Business Ethics (Fall 2011, Fall 2012)
Introduction to Moral Philosophy: the Ethics of Food (Fall 2011, Fall 2012)
Metaphysics Seminar: Identity and Nearby Relations (Spring 2012)
Medical Ethics (Spring 2012)

University of Michigan
Moral Principles and Problems (Spring 2011)
Knowledge and Reality (Summer 2009)


I advise the Kansas State Philosophy Club. It is awesomely fun.