Laureation address: Professor Nancy Cartwright

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Lorna Milne, Vice-Principal (Proctor)

Friday 13 September 2013

Nancy Cartwright is Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society at the University of Durham; she also holds a chair in Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is an outstanding philosopher of science, with particular expertise in the conceptual foundations of both physics and economics. She is prominent in the application of philosophy to real-world problems, particularly concerning evidence and processes of decision-making.

The first member of her family ever to go to university, Professor Cartwright earned her BSc from the University of Pittsburgh where she went to study Mathematics but from which, having found her first choice of subject insufficiently demanding, she emerged with a Triple Major in Mathematics, Physics and Philosophy. Pittsburgh was at that time developing an increasingly strong reputation for excellence in the philosophy of science (which it retains to this day), and this encouraged the undergraduate Nancy Cartwright to reflect on how science was practised – on what scientists do, how their actions inform their science in very concrete terms, and most especially how their science can actually reshape the world around us.  Her PhD thesis, entitled Philosophical Analysis of the Concept of Mixture in Quantum Mechanics, submitted in 1971 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, brought together philosophy and physics to develop this focus on practical outcomes as well as theoretical investigations in what was then a largely novel departure for the discipline. James Boger explains Professor Cartwright’s earlier work which, he says, concerned itself with: “the suggestion that the phenomena that physicists try to explain are produced by interactions of non-Humean causal factors which are too numerous, whose interactions are too complicated, and whose influences differ too much from one physical setting to another for the phenomena they produce to be systematically explained or predicted without recourse to simplifications, idealizations, and unrealistic generalizations. The falsity of the laws, simplifications, and idealizations are the price physicists must pay for useful and cognitively manageable pictures of the physical universe.”

Professor Cartwright’s preoccupation with causal inference and with the contextualization as well as the analysis of evidence, all with a practical emphasis, has always remained present in her work, as the title of her most recent book, published with J Hardie, suggests: Evidence Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better (2012).

As that title also reveals, Professor Cartwright is, in her current work, giving free rein to a longstanding interest in the social sciences. In a YouTube clip discussing her more recent research, she explains how she evaluates the use of  ‘evidence’ as a basis for planning policy. If we collect evidence about child welfare, for example, what do we have to know about that evidence in particular and about the practice of inferring from evidence in general, to understand whether the information we have gleaned is a reasonable basis for developing policy, for deciding, as she says, “what we can or can’t do in the world and what the results might be” – and for example, whether it would be a good idea to separate a child from the family home. Once again in this area of her work, Professor Cartwright’s implacable commitment to the highest intellectual standards shines through; but so do the passion and warmth of her determination to see philosophical enquiry result in material benefits for people and society, through humane policies and wise public spending. She has several projects underway in this vein at present, including a number of interrelated schemes at the London School of Economics: ‘Evidence for Use’ is funded by the British Academy; the Arts and Humanities Research Council has supported ‘Choices of Evidence: tacit philosophical assumptions in debates on evidence-based practice in children's welfare services’, with Eleonora Montuschi and Eileen Munro. Just nearing its conclusion, a project entitled ‘God's Order, Man's Order and the Order of Nature’ was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. This vastly ambitious enterprise involved a large team of researchers from both the UK and the USA and considered new conceptions of how order arises and is understood in a wide range of scientific disciplines. The premise of this collaboration reflect Professor Cartwright’s conception of what she called, in a book published in 1999, the ‘Dappled World’ – that is, a natural world not, in reality, governed wholly by orderly, universal laws of physics, but shot through with complexity and discontinuity, thus presenting a patchwork – a “landscape plotted and pieced” – of separate orders. For the future, amongst other plans, Professor Cartwright will undertake a project on ‘Modelling Mitigation’ at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Professor Cartwright spontaneously refers to her social scientific interests as bearing most urgently upon “how you engineer society”: it is a characteristically purposeful turn of phrase, but also a moving one, coming as it does from the brilliant daughter of a father who wanted her to be an engineer. 

Besides her collaborative projects, Professor Cartwright’s thinking is developed in seven major books and a vast number of essays and talks. As a result of her achievements, she is a MacArthur fellow, a Fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of America's oldest honorary academic society, the American Philosophical Society. She is a titular member of the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. She also currently holds appointments at the Doctorate School of the Università Ca' Foscari, Venice, and at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. In 2012 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Southern Methodist University. Before taking up her current appointments, Professor Cartwright taught at the University of Maryland, Stanford University and the London School of Economics.

It was while Professor Cartwright was working in California that she originally met her second husband, the great English philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire, when they both attended the seminars of Paul Grice at Berkeley. After Stuart Hampshire returned to England, she looked him up in Oxford during a trip to the UK and he invited her for a drink before lunch. She accepted the invitation – and she never really left. Philosophers have not investigated what evidence-based analysis underlay that decision, but it led to a happy marriage, two daughters (Emily and Sophie, who are most welcome in St Andrews today) and a granddaughter, Lucy.

As my colleagues in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews say, Nancy Cartwright is the very model of a modern philosopher, working on issues of urgent relevance to the real world, whilst insisting on the very highest levels of rigour and conceptual clarity. She has been enormously influential in shaping the contemporary philosophy of science and its relationship to science itself. My colleagues also say – and all the evidence confirms that they are right – that she is an ‘absolute charmer’.