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Philosophy of Life: In conversation with Professor Nancy Cartwright at 80

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Professor Nancy Cartwright’s exceptional contribution, not just to philosophical studies, but also to the life of the University, arises from a combination of academic brilliance, generosity of spirit, and tireless hard work.

But don’t imagine that age is slowing her down any time soon! At 80, Nancy combines a youthful energy and a timeless, forward-thinking outlook with a regard for her colleagues and collaborators that has the tangible warmth of ‘family’.

No surprise then that the University chose to mark the occasion with a party in honour of her extraordinary career, with a guest list comprising her past and present research collaborators. 

Dialogue caught up with Nancy between research meetings and student supervisions for a few questions... 

Nancy Cartwright with past and present colleagues at her 80th party: Kenworthy Hall, St Mary's College, Durham, 22 June 2024 (Images: Donal Khosrowi Djen-Gheschlaghi)
Nancy Cartwright with past and present colleagues at her 80th party: Kenworthy Hall, St Mary's College, Durham, 22 June 2024 (Images: Donal Khosrowi Djen-Gheschlaghi)

What has shaped your career?

I have tended to do what I love and what I was good at!

I started out working in philosophy of physics, initially at the University of Maryland, and then Stanford University, but I was always interested in the social sciences - how they work and how they might work better to understand and change the world. So later, when I was offered the job at London School of Economics (LSE), I took the opportunity to change direction from philosophy of natural science to philosophy of the social and economic sciences. 

The philosophy of social sciences and economics is much harder than philosophy of physics, in my opinion! In the philosophy of social science, the 'net' of high-quality research is far looser, meaning that it's easier for projects you start to simply fall through!

I loved being at LSE because throughout the school, there was a widespread general feeling that, despite the way that disciplines didn’t cooperate very much, everyone was there to help figure out social problems. 

So, it turned out that I am good at the kind of analytic philosophy that has respect. I was way better at this than philosophy of mathematics and physics. It came easily. I do love it and I happen to be good at it.

What brought you to Durham University?

Professor Robin Hendry! Robin was a postgrad at LSE when I first arrived there. We spent a lot of time talking together and kept in touch. Around 15 years ago, I encountered him at a conference in Athens, where he told me it would be lovely if I would move to Durham. I thought maybe it was time for a change, and laughingly said 'Ok, go whistle me up a job!'  

I arrived here to find Durham’s Department of Philosophy a totally supportive and welcoming environment, rich in innovative ideas, including the bid programme on social inequality, with which I became associated. At the time, the University had just launched an exciting new programme to support 'The Engaged Humanities', encouraging scholars across the faculty to interact more regularly and connect effectively with colleagues from other disciplines in Durham. I was asked to set up a centre for the engaged humanities - this was too exciting an opportunity to pass up!  This is how CHESS (the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society) was born.

To which areas of research have you contributed?

Oh, let me think… Studies of the philosophical issue of scientific realism, or 'are theories really true?'; understanding what the laws of science are and how they work; how models are used in the natural and social sciences; methods of causal inference; evidence-based policy; evidence and objectivity, especially for evidence-based policy.

Also, I co-founded the Stanford School of Philosophy which stressed pluralism, particularism, and putting philosophy to practical use. At LSE, I founded the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science (CNPSS).

What do you think is your most important contribution to philosophical studies?

Inside the profession, I have been most interested generically in seeing that the ideas and skills honed in philosophy are brought to interact with those from other domains in a very concrete way, in order to understand the world and change it for the better. 

To facilitate respect for my area, I have tried to launch a new sub-field, the philosophy of social technology, that uses philosophy interactively with other research and researchers in other fields, to figure out how better to understand and improve society. 

Much of my work has been interdisciplinary, which is unusual in philosophy. Even within philosophy I work collaboratively on joint projects and tend to publish joint papers. I think it’s better in collaboration with others - the usefulness of our ideas is always broadened by working them through with other approaches and applying them to solving other kinds of problems.

Nancy with Anna Alexandrova
Nancy with Anna Alexandrova

What are your thoughts about women in philosophy today?

There aren't enough of us! But many women I know have dropped out because they find conventional philosophy too inward-looking. It's not always the case that philosophy departments aren't making sufficient effort to hire women. 

We should award more prestige to interdisciplinary work, and encourage projects at the edges of our discipline, where philosophy is interacting with other fields. This work currently is seen by conventional philosophers as 'borderline', and so not as important as 'pure' philosophical studies. 

Are there women philosophers who have really inspired you?

Throughout my four undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh, I encountered only one woman lecturer, who was teaching Russian - her native language. I did encounter a woman philosopher, the magnificent Professor Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), who came from the UK to give a seminar.

When it was time to apply to graduate schools, I was keen to avoid what seemed to me as 'standard, high prestige' departments, as it seemed to me the atmosphere there was highly competitive. At the time, a new department had just been founded at University of Illinois, Chicago (Congress Circle campus), by the famous modal logician, Ruth Barcan Marcus (1921-2012). One of my undergraduate teachers recommended I go there, explaining that I could learn to be a philosopher most anywhere, but at Chicago Circle with Ruth, I would learn to survive as a woman philosopher.

Ruth became a dear friend and mentor for the rest of her life. The only advice of Ruth's I did NOT take was to avoid calling my first book 'How the Laws of Physics Lie', on account of it not being serious enough. This is the book for which I am most well-known..!

Should we encourage our scientists to engage more actively with philosophers?

It depends on whether the scientists are willing to work with the right kind of philosophers. Not everyone thinks the way sociologists think, so there can't always be an easy dialogue. But there is a need for more philosophers with the right skills to engage with interdisciplinary research, across many situations. For instance, I served on the US National Research Council’s panel for evidence for Social Science and Social Policy, alongside a famous science studies scholar. That panel interacted exceedingly well, and we (the science studies people) were acknowledged as having played an important role and made joint recommendations. These (and other) kinds of panels would benefit from a philosopher's input. 

What's your advice to young philosophers today?

I don’t have any… Philosophy has so many forms and applications. I think philosophy should be of practical use, but this is only one way of ‘doing’ philosophy. It's important that this kind of applied activity has at least the same prestige as conventional mainstream ‘pure’ philosophy (ie where philosophers speak primarily to other philosophers). 

What else lights you up?

My family. I have marvellous daughters and granddaughters.

Find out more

Read more about Nancy’s research on her own website



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