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Sociology: People


Esje Stapleton

Esje Stapleton
Esje Stapleton
Edinburgh UK
Research Interests
Philosophy of Mind, Cyborgs, the structure/agency problem, Zombies, Queer Theory, Socially Extended Mind Hypothesis

How does intelligence emerge? How are we able to experience ourselves thinking and why? Which came first: the individual human or the human social group? What can self-organisation of slime mould cells tell us about the emergence of agency? Working in the boundaries between philosophy of mind, cognitive science, politics, and social theory, the thesis aims to develop a framework based upon complexity theory, founded upon a self-organisational, post-structural and intersectional rationale in order to develop a more up-to-date interdisciplinary model of the individual and the social. 

Going all the way back to the emergence of single celled organisms and the ways in which these organisms negotiate their environment, I’m looking at how the fundamental components of agency, emotion, intelligence and cognition are produced at the boundaries that separate the organism from the environment which it develops in relation to. Tracing the emergence of agency through the algorithmic movements of simple organisms in simple environments through to highly complex behaviours of animals in complex environments, the thesis argues that consciousness and self-awareness emerge as a response to, and as an effect of, complex social interaction. 

While these developments do not fundamentally change the processes of agency, perception and emotion which underly them, the emergence of consciousness and meta-consciousness (being able to think about being able to think) rather act as a lens through which conscious animals become able to experience these processes and enact different degrees of control over them. 

The argument aims to deconstruct the idea that agency and consciousness are specifically human qualities, and that consciousness is the basis of agency. By tracing out how certain forms of agency, emotion, perception, conception, and meaning precede (and enable) conscious awareness, the role of the emergence of consciousness can be more realistically examined in terms of why consciousness evolves in some animals and not others. Looking at how sociality is the common denominator between animals that exhibit consciousness, and how animals with extremely complex social networks such as dolphins, chimpanzees and humans additionally exhibit self-awareness, evidence will be drawn together to argue that social institutions (in a weak sense) not only precede the self-aware, meta-conscious individual, but actively produce it. 

This proposition stands in opposition to dualistic notions of agency and structure as they are conceived by critical realism, arguing that social institutions are in continual co-production with the phenomenological experience of selfhood, and that agency is not an effect of selfhood but is involved in actively producing it. This has widespread political implications in a field that often assumes agency to be an intrinsic part of human nature that stands outside of socialisation. 

That humans are irrevocably social animals is not by any means a new proposition, but the level to which sociality is involved with our physical and phenomenological evolution as a species and the ways in which these are involved in producing our senses of ourselves on an individual level opens up a very real problem with how we conceptualise free-will, accountability, victimisation and socialisation in our every day politics. The final chapter of the thesis proposes the ways in which these hypotheses both reflect and in turn can support a wider interdisciplinary understanding of the arguments of post-colonial, poststuctural and gender theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Halberstam, Derrida and Foucault. 

Also, I really like paramecia, slime mould and rats. They’re super cool. 



Dr Steve Kemp, Sociology; Dr Dave Ward, Philosophy of Mind; Dr Kate Orton Johnson, Sociology 


MSc Social Science; University of Edinburgh

BA (hons) Geography; University of Durham