Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Peter Menzies (1953–2015)

[Preprint of an obituary to appear in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, June 2015]

Peter Charles Menzies died at home in Sydney on 6 February 2015, the day after his sixty-second birthday, at the sad conclusion of a seven-year disagreement with cancer. No one who knew him will be surprised to learn that he conducted this long last engagement with the same strength of mind, clarity, and good-natured equanimity for which he was known and loved by friends, students and colleagues, over the three decades of his professional life. He continued working throughout his illness, teaching and supervising at Macquarie University until his retirement in 2013, and writing and collaborating until his final weeks. He will be remembered by the Australasian philosophical community as one of its most lucid and generous voices, and by philosophers worldwide as one of the most astute metaphysicians of his generation.

Menzies was born in Brisbane, and spent his childhood there and in Adelaide. His family moved to Canberra in 1966, where he attended Canberra Grammar School. He studied Philosophy at ANU, graduating with the University Medal in 1975. He went on to an MPhil at St Andrews, writing on Michael Dummett's views on Realism under the supervision of Stephen Read; and then to a PhD at Stanford, where he worked with Nancy Cartwright on Newcomb Problems and Causal Decision Theory. His Stanford experience was evidently formative, not merely in setting the course of much of his future work, but in establishing a fund of anecdotes that would long enrich the Coombs tearoom and other Australian philosophy venues. There is a generation of Australian-trained metaphysicians who know little about Michel Foucault, except that he had the good fortune to be taken out for pizza in Palo Alto by a young Peter Menzies, following a talk at Stanford. (Peter would add how delighted he was to discover that Foucault preferred pizza to something expensive and French.)

Returning to Australia in 1983, Menzies held a Tutorship at the Department of Traditional & Modern Philosophy, University of Sydney, from 1984 to 1986. He was then awarded an ARC Research Fellowship, held initially at the University of Sydney and then at ANU, where he won a Research Fellowship in the Philosophy Program, RSSS. He remained at ANU until 1995, when he took up a Lectureship at Macquarie University. He was promoted to a Personal Chair at Macquarie in 2005, becoming an Emeritus Professor following his retirement in 2013. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2007, and was President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy in 2008–2009.

Peter Menzies with Arnie Koslow, Cambridge 1992 – Photograph by Hugh Mellor.

The central focus of Menzies’ philosophical work, throughout much of his career, was the study of causation – both causation in itself, and causation in its relevance to other philosophical topics, such as physicalism, levels of explanation, and free will. From the beginning, he had a particular knack for putting his finger on difficulties in other philosophers’ positions, and for explaining with great clarity what the problem was. With this combination of talents, he was soon making a difference. At the beginning of David Lewis’s famous paper ‘Humean Supervenience Debugged’ (Mind, 1994), Lewis singles out "especially the problem presented in Menzies (1989)" as the source of, as he puts it, "the unfinished business with causation". The reference is to Menzies’ ‘Probabilistic Causation and Causal Processes: A Critique of Lewis’ (Philosophy of Science, 1989), and other early papers had a similar impact.

Most would agree that the business with causation remains unfinished, twenty years later, but that the field is greatly indebted to Menzies for much of the progress that has been made in the past three decades. As a philosopher who argued that we should understand causation in terms of the notion of making a difference, he certainly practised what he preached, within his own arena.

Fair-minded to a fault, Menzies was just as adept at putting his finger on what he saw as failings in his own work, and often returned with new insights to previously worked ground. His much-cited piece 'Probabilistic Causation and the Pre-emption Problem' (Mind, 1996) is such an example. Later classics include his ‘Difference-Making in Context’ (in Collins, et al, eds, Counterfactuals and Causation, MIT Press, 2004), and ‘Non-Reductive Physicalism and the Limits of the Exclusion Problem’ (JPhil, 2009), a piece co-authored with Christian List.

List is Menzies’ most recent collaborator and co-author, but several other philosophers, including myself, had earlier had this good fortune. In my case it happened twice, the first and better-known result being our paper ‘Causation as a Secondary Quality’ (BJPS, 1993), a piece actually written in the late 1980s, and first delivered in Philosophy Room at the University of Sydney at the 1990 AAP Conference. (I can’t recall how we divided up the delivery, but we certainly fielded questions jointly, and I remember complaining to Peter afterwards that he’d missed an obvious Dorothy-Dixer from a young David Braddon-Mitchell.) Whatever its qualities, or lack of them, the paper proved a stayer, and is for each of us our most-cited article, by a very wide margin.

As one of Menzies’ collaborators, it is easy to understand why he was such a successful teacher and supervisor, held in such grateful regard by generations of students. He combined patience, equanimity, generosity, and unfailing good-humour, with insight, exceptional clarity, and an almost encyclopaedic acquaintance with relevant parts of the literature. In effect, he made it impossible for his grateful students – and collaborators! – not to learn, and to enjoy the process. Many of his PhD students from ANU and Macquarie, such as Mark Colyvan, Daniel Nolan, Stuart Brock, Cathy Legg, Mark Walker, Joe Mintoff, Nick Agar, Kai Yee Wong, and Lise Marie Andersen, have now gone on to distinguished careers in Australasia and elsewhere. All remember him with fondness and gratitude. As Lise Marie Andersen, one of his last PhD students, puts it: “As a supervisor Peter was patient, warm and extremely generous with his time and knowledge. As a philosopher he was an inspiration.”

Menzies is survived by his daughter Alice and son Edward (Woody) from his former marriage to Edwina Menzies, and by Alice’s three sons, Joseph, Nicolas and Eli; by his partner Catriona Mackenzie, step-sons Matt and Stefan, and a step-granddaughter, Olivia, born a few weeks before his death; and by his brother Andrew and sister Susan. By his friends, students, and colleagues, as by his family, he will be very sadly missed.