UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of July 2017: Natalia Washington

Natalia Washington

McDonnell Postdoctoral FellowWashington University in Saint Louis


AOS: Bioethics/Medical Ethics, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology

My research is situated within the scope of empirically informed philosophy of mind, psychology, and cognitive science. This growing trend and its interdisciplinary aspirations are vital to my central project: Using the conceptual and critical tools of philosophy, I seek to understand how human minds are both shaped by and integrated with our physical and social environments. Ultimately, I believe that appreciation of these perspectives—what are sometimes called ‘externalist’ or ‘ecological’ viewpoints—and their normative implications can inform and improve human lives.

As an ecologically-minded philosopher, I have had the opportunity to pursue work on implicit racial biases and social cognition, and work in the philosophy of psychiatry. In a paper published with Daniel Kelly, “Who’s Responsible for This?” I investigate how the shape of our epistemic environment mediates blame and responsibility for bias, and in another with Nicolae Morar, “Implicit Cognition and Gifts” these issues are brought into the practical arena of the interaction between doctors and the medical industry. More recently, I have been investigating the theoretic and conceptual foundations of psychiatry as a science and as an evaluative system, and recent attempts to negotiate the tricky philosophical territory where the normative and descriptive meet. Two examples: First, in “Culturally Unbound”, published last year in Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology (PPP), I take up the question of so-called culturally bound syndromes, and argue that reliance on conceptions of ‘normal’ or ‘universal’ human nature hinders the taxonomization of mental disorders. Second, in “Contexualism as a Solution to Paternalism in Psychiatric Practice”, also forthcoming from PPP, I argue that what it means to be mentally ill or mentally healthy must be grounded in the concerns and interests individual patients. I am presently developing these critiques into a more general worry about how theorists and researchers in many domains rely on ‘naturalized norms’–explanations which depend on statistical typicality as a scientifically grounded source of normativity.

In the future I plan to extend my research in philosophy of psychiatry in an attempt to build a rigorous understanding of the concept of mental health—one that makes room for individual differences in values, and in what is in our best interest when it comes to the quality of our mental lives. This is exciting to me not only because of its theoretical connections to concepts of the good life, but because I hope my project will help shape future discussions of mental illness in clinical and practical arenas as well.