With my co-editor, Stuart Glennan (Butler), I am now in the final stages of preparing the final manuscript of our latest book to deliver to Routledge in December:
Routledge Handbook of Mechanisms and the Mechanical Philosophy (2017) Routledge.
Phyllis Illari and Stuart Glennan (editors.)
What that actually means is we are busy gathering in revised papers, and checking abstracts, author bios and permissions.
It’s a lot of work, because it’s going to be a weighty tome, with thirty-five chapters, in four parts. The first part covers the history of thinking about mechanisms, spanning from ancient Greece to cybernetics, illustrating the rich and lengthy history of the idea. The second and third parts cover the metaphysics and philosophy of science issues of mechanism respectively, including causality, the mechanism parts, mechanism discovery and modelling. The final part on ‘Disciplinary perspectives on mechanisms’, has a whopping fifteen chapters covering physics, many life sciences and social sciences, and extending to computation and technology. One chapter, of course, covers the use of mechanisms of disease and cure in causal inference in medicine.
The book aims for a snapshot presentation of the state of the art in thinking about mechanisms now. I hope it succeeds. It’s certainly been a fascinating journey to get this far, and I realise that Stuart and I are in a unique position: we are currently the only two people to have read the book!
As a whole, the book shows how philosophical work on mechanisms is flourishing, while making clear how important thinking about mechanisms is across the sciences. Indeed, that extends far beyond the life sciences and social sciences where much philosophical work on mechanism concentrates. Philosophers can use the book to learn about work on areas adjacent to their own, while scientists can read a survey of issues in their own field, and learn about how other fields face similar problems. We can see that mechanisms are used to understand, to explain, to reject reliance on mere surface patterns and, again and again, to fit together empirical results into some kind of coherent whole. Mechanicism is a way of thinking that has been fruitful in understanding things as different as the mind, physical phenomena, chemical reactions, populations of organisms, and societies. And that fruitfulness is surprisingly old, which means that mechanicism is now thoroughly woven into our thinking about laws, causality, reduction – and even the nature of explanation itself.
It’s been a privilege putting this together, and I would like to express my deepest gratitude to so many colleagues who have committed passionately to their own chapters – and especially to those who have supported the whole project with an enthusiasm I have come to rely on.
Words by Phyllis Illari