The Presidential Address
Fellows Reading Group
December 12, 2012
Jim Woodard's interventionist account of causation has become the favored account in philosophy of science. It has been swept up by the community with rare enthusiasm and is now applied to problems and in ways that Jim likely never expected. His 2003 Making Things Happen is lengthy. Nearly a decade has passed since its publication. Has his understanding migrated? Would Jim give us a canonical statement of what he thinks now, informed by the events of the past decade?
That statement came at the Philosophy of Science Biennial Meeting in San Diego last November. As its President, Jim gave a presidential address that was a tour-de-force. In the space of around an hour, Jim laid out a synoptic picture of how he understood his project in relation to other approaches to causation and how his ideas should and should not be applied. He spoke in a huge hall to many hundreds of philosophers of science. Since these meetings have grown with each offering, it was perhaps one of the greatest assemblages of philosophers of science ever in North America.
What ensued was a disappointment. Talks are traditionally followed by questions. That is when we in the audience and the speaker find out what the audience really thinks. Perhaps by tradition, that did not happen. When the speech was over, there was no question time. The hall emptied quickly. Perhaps its occupants were drawn by the promise of a reception or they were just weary from days of conference talks. I felt let down and I expect Jim did too. I lingered and exchanged a few words with him in the suddenly empty hall.
Back in Pittsburgh, our Fellows reading group has been meeting weekly since the start of term in early September. It has been a closed meeting: Fellows only (and me). That is essential if the group is to develop a sense of camaraderie and mutual trust. That sense is now firmly established and we can branch out.
We were planning our coming meeting. Maria asked "Could we invite someone on the faculty? Say--James Woodward?"
"You can do anything you like," I answered in a lie that was close enough to the truth. "It's up to everyone here to decide."
Maria invited Jim and he suggested a choice of one of two papers for the reading. One was the text of his Presidential Address.
"Which should we read?" Maria was hovering in my door, delighted to have this problem. She favored the other paper. The temptation to be just a little dictatorial was strong, but I resisted.
"Hmm. . . Why not put it to a vote? I'll vote for the Presidential address."
The vote was cast by email. It came back a split vote: four to four. Since Alex could not attend, in a display of procedural correctness, Maria decided that Alex would toss the deciding coin. He did and the Presidential address won. I was more pleased than I dared to reveal to Maria.
The meeting came. We had buttery Russian tea cakes and tangerines. Kyle was our presenter. Shortly ahead of the meeting, he covered the whiteboard in text. "There's a lot of red there," I had muttered to him.
"That's Jim's material." Kyle gave a very serviceable summary of Jim's Address. As before, his idea of five minutes was elastic. "Just turn it over," he instructed.
Then the floor was opened and a boisterous inquisition began. It was what should have happened in San Diego. It was happening at last and in an extended and more intimate setting. Marta was chairing, keeping the list of "hands." That is the list of people who have new points to raise. I added my hand to the list after about an hour. The back and forth was so busy that my turn only came in the last five minutes. If I recall correctly, my judgment of five minutes was as elastic as Kyle's.
Serife had invited us back to her apartment for dinner. It was a happy event. There were spouses and progeny and Jim joined us. Somehow, I felt a cosmic misstep had been put right.
What is the photo at the head of this report? I decided not to take photos of our reading group meeting with Jim. It felt like a special and private moment. No matter how quietly I do it, there is something intrusive in a camera lens pressed into your face. Back in San Diego, while Jim was giving his Presidential address, my attention wandered from time to time, as it often does. (Don't tell Jim! I never stopped listening.) I began to pay close attention to the enormous glass chandeliers. Even though they hovered far overhead in dim light, I realized that, with just a little care, I could get a quite good photo of them. I did.
John D. Norton