My research focuses primarily on the nature and normativity of mental and rational agency. Mental actions are things we do with our minds. Such actions consist paradigmatically in the intentional formation, modification, or maintenance of mental states or processes. The principal focus of inquiry in the philosophical literature on mental action is the agency expressed in a subject’s forming, modifying, or maintaining such states or processes. For instance, what is involved in an agent’s summing two numbers in her head, rotating an imagined figure, or switching her attention between conversations that qualifies these happenings as actions that she is performing? My dissertation seeks to provide an answer to this and related questions. 

The Powers Framework for Mental Action: I introduce a framework for thinking about mental agency in terms of learned dispositions for performing mental actions. On what I call the “powers framework,” mental agency is distinguished as a kind of rational agency consisting in complex capacities and tendencies whose paradigmatic expression is the principle-driven formation, modification, or maintenance of intentional states or processes. Mental actions, then, are expressions of the agent’s rational powers.

I show that, in contrast to standard causalist accounts of mental action, the powers framework makes room for habitual and skillful mental action. According to standard accounts, mental actions are mental states or processes that are non-deviantly caused by an intention to form, modify, or maintain such states or processes. In order to account for non-deviance, standard accounts must posit additional guiding states that are supposed to persist alongside the performance of the mental action. I argue that such additional states are not necessary for either habitual or skillful mental actions. Rather, habitual and skillful mental actions are guided by the agent in virtue of being manifestations of both her rational tendencies and capacities. The intelligence and control exemplified in their performance stems from the agent’s having shaped the corresponding tendencies and capacities through training and practice. In practicing, the agent internalizes the principles (as well as methods, techniques, heuristics and so on) that guide the performance of the relevant mental action. These principles come to partially constitute the agent’s rational powers as such. Manifesting those powers is, in the good case, already in accordance with the imposition of those principles. 

Imagining as a Skillful Mental Action: I substantiate the powers framework by using it to give a nonreductive action-first account of imagining as a type of skillful mental action (Goldwasser, under review). Imagination appears to play conflicting roles in the mental economy. In both philosophy and the behavioral sciences, it is thought to play a role in pretense, engagement with fiction, predicting others’ behavior, reasoning about possibility and necessity, hypothetical or counterfactual reasoning about contingent matters of fact, and so on. These further behaviors call on imagination to do conflicting things: some require that it justify belief and motivate action, others that it only justify belief or motivate action, and yet others that it do neither. Given this conflict, it is difficult to see how imagination is a unified mental kind. I show that taking imagining to be essentially a type of skillful mental action allows us to account for its conflicting roles in contributing to these learned behaviors. In particular, I provide an account of imagination as a power to construct representations and select their contents as a means to performing some other learned behavior like pretense, engaging with fiction, and so on. At the limit, agents imagine for its own sake. Skillful act-types in general admit of conflicting roles among their instances. Painting a rococo piece will involve many of the same types of action as painting the wall of a home. Yet, each instance of painting is likely to exhibit properties contrary to the other instance: one will require delicacy, whereas the other will require decisive and firm movement. The aesthetic properties of each movement are likely to be contrary to each other as well. Nonetheless, we can identify both instances as instances of painting, that is, instances of at least minimal aesthetic expression through color as part of an art form. Applying this to imagination, if imagining is a skillful type of action then its playing conflicting roles in contributing to predicting others’ behavior, reasoning about possibility and necessity, and so on is to be expected. Such behaviors make conflicting demands on imagination. But this is no problem if we take the faculty to be one for producing a specific kind of skillful mental action. 

Episodic Remembering as an Imaginative Project: I extend the account of imagining to episodic remembering (Goldwasser, under review). I argue that such remembering is paradigmatically a kind of imagining by virtue of being the agent’s actively constructing a representation and selecting its content as a means of performing the learned behavior of navigating her personal past. This account of episodic remembering resolves a tension within accounts of memory as a mental action. On accounts of memory as a mental action, episodic memories are both selectively constructed by the agent and constrained by the past. Yet, being constrained by the past seems to imply that these memories cannot be selectively constructed. And being selectively constructed seems to imply that these memories cannot be constrained by the past. The account of imagining I provide suggests that, in fact, all imagining is constrained. A fortiori, epistemically useful imagining is constrained, including episodic memory. Remembering is of a kind with behaviors like pretense, engagement with fiction, and so on by being an act of representation formation in which the properties and content of the representation are constrained by the end for which its formation serves as a means. For pretense, the end is to represent the goings-on of the game in a way that motivates play. For remembering, the end is to represent events from the personal past in a way that justifies beliefs about that past. On the account of active imagining I offer, selective construction and constraints on content go hand-in-hand. Thus, their going hand-in-hand in the case of episodic remembering is to be expected. Finally, I indirectly corroborate this conclusion by appealing to empirical and philosophical considerations that episodic remembering is skillful (Goldwasser, 2022). 

The Competence to Remember Traumas and Trusting Trauma Survivors: Beyond my interest in the agential character of imagining and episodic remembering, I investigate the epistemological significance of traumatic memory. In two recent co-authored articles (Springle, Dreier, and Goldwasser, 2023; Goldwasser and Springle, 2023), my colleagues and I approach traumatic memory from within an empirically informed metaphysics of mind. We defend the epistemological significance of traumatic memory by appealing to Katherine Hawley’s account of trust and trustworthiness and to evidence from the empirical study of memory. We argue against a common misconception that first-hand accounts of traumatic events are not to be trusted. We then argue for an approach to interviewing trauma victims about the relevant event(s) that differs from the approach normally taken towards interviewing non-victims about their non-traumatic memory. Reports of traumatic events should be taken later, retrieval of central events and details should be emphasized over peripheral details, and an open-ended narrative approach to interviewing should be preferred to straightforward questioning. 

Normal-Proper Functions in Cancer Biology: Whereas my first project concerns the nature and normativity of certain rational activities, namely, mental actions, a second project concerns the nature and normativity of certain biological processes, namely, normal-proper function. This second program stems from two articles on the ascription of normal-proper function in cancer biology (Goldwasser, 2023a,b). Normal-proper functions are activities that parts of biological systems are, in some minimal sense, supposed to perform. I argue that standard accounts of normal-proper function cannot capture cases in which biologists ascribe a normal-proper function to a part of an organized biological system that they at the same time recognize as pathological. In particular, neither accounts that understand the normality of normal-proper function in terms of statistical typicality nor accounts that understand it in terms of natural selection can make sense of the fact that normal-proper functions are routinely ascribed to parts of cancer by oncologists (Goldwasser 2023a). I then argue that, because of this, we need a novel pragmatist organizational account of normal-proper function. According to this account, which I call the Modeling Account of Normal Function, the concept of normal-proper function is primarily an epistemic tool for biologists. Their ascription captures activities that contribute to the self-maintenance of individual organized biological systems—including organisms as well as cancers—as part of the scientific practice of modeling those systems. So, while the normativity of normal-proper function exists in the first instance at the level of the individual biological system, the sense in which the relevant activity is what the relevant parts of systems of the type are supposed to do is primarily epistemic (Goldwasser 2023b). 

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