TSElosophers meeting 28.3.2023. Albrecht Becker, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki

Woodward, J. (2002) What is a mechanism? A counterfactual account. Philosophy of science, 69(3), p.366-377 & Woodward, J. (2021) Causation with a human face: Normative theory and descriptive psychology, Oxford University Press, p.1-14 (Introduction).


In Woodward’s approach, the philosophy of causation should clarify notions that are confused, unclear, and ambiguous and suggest how these limitations might be addressed. In particular, Woodward defends the interventionist account of causal explanation, where causality holds between two variables if an intervention (ideal experimental manipulation) on one of the variables would change the other variable. Woodward uses the interventionist account to discuss issues such as mechanistic explanation and modularity, especially in the context of systems.

Our discussion

TSElosophers generally found these texts interesting, yet rather demanding reads. We found it useful to get an idea of the “interventionist take on causality”, emblematic of Woodward, and how he wished to avoid drowning in the metaphysical debates on what the notions of causality should stand for and instead focus on how to decipher causality in practice.

Regarding the book Chapter, just based on the Introduction of the book, we did not get a quite clear idea of how precisely the “descriptive accounts” of causality – the beliefs that people have on causal relationships – bear relevance regarding what is, for Woodward, the more essential thing, the “normative account”. The latter refers to those causal claims which can be sustained by the interventionist approach, leaning on counterfactual analysis. However, the biggest concern among a few TSElosophers is whether, and if so, the potential performativity related to any utterings of humans, be they researchers or lay persons, might play a role in the system of thinking of Woodward. It seemed as if he had not taken that into consideration at all. Given that for Woodward, in line with his “minimal realism”, the central test of causal claims is how the world works, omitting performativity actually seems like a very notable issue – since it could bring an endogenous challenge to the analysis and thereby significantly complicate carrying it out. At least, the problem of performativity might complicate the use of Woodward’s theoretical frame in social sciences.

TSElosophers found the article on mechanisms in causality somewhat easier to grasp, yet perhaps a bit less inspiring. It did not add to the credibility of the text that there seems to be a typo in equation (2) on p.367. At least one of us had a pre-understanding that explaining through mechanisms means primarily ‘fleshing out’ the contents to the ‘explanation’ as compared to making causal claims on mere naked correlations: It opens up more precisely how e.g. the correlations can be seen as part of a meaningful explanation. TSElosophers found the take of Woodward notably stricter and narrower than this general idea. This is, in particular, since his definition requires the independence of the elements (“modules”) of mechanisms. This requirement seemed to us not well suitable for humanities and social sciences. We were left wondering whether Woodward’s take is actually too binary or black and white. Maybe it even leads to an overly idealistic picture of mechanistic explanation in social sciences, thus distancing the practice in the field from philosophical analysis – something Woodward accuses many other accounts of causation of doing.

Reading these texts gave a good lesson for TSElosophers on what kind of reasoning and write-up can be found from the representatives of the current frontiers of the philosophy of causality. It strikes us how there might be notable room for integrating the recent advances in the philosophy of causality with a more genuine take on how humanities and social sciences are surrounded and how they work. This could provide a more apt philosophy of causality for social scientists and humanists!