About Ian Hacking

Ian Hacking (born in 1936 in Vancouver, British Columbia) is one of the world's leading scholars in the fields of philosophy and history of science. He has made important contributions to areas as diverse as the philosophy and history of physics; the understanding of the concept of probability; the philosophy of language; and the philosophy and history of psychology and psychiatry. In spite of this diversity there is one regulative idea that pervades all his work: Science is a human enterprise. It is always created in a historical situation, and to understand why present science is as it is, it is not sufficient to know that it is “true”, or confirmed. We have to know the historical context of its emergence.

Ian Hacking
Photo: Patrick Imbert/Holbergprisen.

By Ragnar Fjelland & Roger Strand, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen.

Hacking has been called a “true bridge-builder”. He is so in several respects. Hacking’s approach is historical, interdisciplinary, and always highly original. Furthermore, his research is a central contribution to bridging the gap that characterised the academic debates of the latter decades of the 20th century on how to understand science. This gap often manifested itself in terms of contested understandings of scientific knowledge, and in particular around the degree to which scientific knowledge was to be seen as socially and historically constructed. Always far from the trenches of these so-called Science Wars, Hacking paved the way forward and showed by example how analytical and historical perspectives may work in combination, as in The Social Construction of What? (1999). Canadian of origin, Hacking has proven the value of bringing into contact and synergy anglophone philosophical traditions with intellectual perspectives often associated with French scholars such as Michel Foucault, never embracing either of them uncritically. This is one of the reasons why his works have been influential not only within history and philosophy, but also in science and technology studies and in a wider audience within social, natural and medical science. Hacking’s clarity, originality and – it should be added – elegant pen have also won a greater audience through his extensive publication in general journals and newspapers. It is no coincidence that he became the first anglophone scholar to be appointed to a permanent chair at Collège de France, in 2002.

Hacking’s early research focused on the concept of probability and statistical inference. In this, he shows how, during the second half of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century, probability theory and statistics came to change both science and our everyday life. For example, in physics, the concept of probability is the cornerstone of the most important theory of the twentieth century, quantum mechanics. At the other end of the spectrum it is the basis of one of the so-called gold standard of clinical research, the randomized trials. In the by-now classic Logic of Statistical Inference (1965) Hacking already developed the approach that characterizes all his later work: In contrast to much of previous philosophy of science, he did not refrain from going into the details and the complexity of probability theory and statistics as it is used in practice, with attention to what practitioners in the field regarded as the real problems. In the ground-breaking The Emergence of Probability (1975) Hacking sparked off a broad interest in the history of probability. Here, he started by asking the traditional question: Why was there no probability theory in the West before Pascal in the seventeenth century? If the question is put this way – as it traditionally has been – it is tacitly assumed that there is an intellectual object, probability, which has not been discovered or adequately thought about until Pascal. And this “non-discovery” needs an explanation, which would include missing factors or factors that prevented the discovery. Hacking rejected this assumption, and argued: “We should not ask ‘Why did people fail to study these objects?’ We should ask instead, how did these objects of thought come into being?” Accordingly, to understand the very concept of probability, it is imperative to understand how it emerged. But it is not just a question of giving a historical explanation of the concept. More important is the very preconditions for the emergence of the concept. And Hacking shows that to understand the concept of probability, it is important to understand that it has from its beginning a dual nature and an inherent tension: On the one hand it is connected with degree of belief, and on the other hand it connected with tendencies, as measured by relative frequencies. Probability theory and statistics did not only change science, but dispersed to all parts of our daily lives. This dispersion is the topic of The Taming of Chance (1990). Hacking describes how probability theory influences debates about free will, and changes our view of crime, suicide, and is applied in the fields of sociology, medicine and the writing of history. The book was on The Modern Library's 100 Best Non-Fiction Book in English in the twentieth century.

Representing and Intervening (1983) carries the subtitle “Introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science”. In spite of the modesty of the subtitle the book has had a deep and lasting influence on philosophy of science as a discipline. In it, Hacking passed a verdict upon anglophone philosophy of science that may have been hard, but fair and certainly necessary: “Philosophers long made a mummy of science. When they finally unwrapped the cadaver and saw the remnants of an historical process of becoming and discovering, they created for themselves a crisis of rationality. That happened around 1960.”

Thomas Kuhn's famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) played a major role in the creation of this “crisis of rationality”. In spite of Kuhn’s intentions, his “thesis of incommensurability” was widely interpreted as an argument in favour of relativism, not to say, irrationalism: If the world can be described in radically different ways, within mutually incompatible frameworks, we have to give up notions of truth and scientific progress. Hacking showed that Kuhn, in spite of his novelty, fell victim to the same bias as his colleague-philosophers, reducing science to the production of theories that are supposed to give a representation of the world. However, this is only half of the story, or less. Scientific activity is not just producing representations of the world. To produce science we have to act in the world and intervene in it. Science both represents and intervenes, and the intervening part has been neglected by most philosophers of science, who regarded the intervening part as just “accidental”. But intervention is not just a contingent part of scientific work, according to Hacking. It is a necessary precondition for science. In the book, and subsequent articles, Hacking developed what he called a “realism of entities”. If we can argue that for example electrons exist, it is not because our theories of electrons are true. They may all be false, but we may still maintain that electrons exist because we can manipulate them in experiments. “If you can spray them, they exist!”

In this way, the impact of Representing and intervening has added a double layer of meaning to the book title. In its opening chapters, Hacking gave a representation of how philosophy had been preoccupied with how science represents the world. By the subsequent chapters and in his research in general, he effectively intervened in the philosophy of science by showing the significance of how science intervenes in the world. In his later work, such as in Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (1995) and Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness (1998), Hacking continues to show how the dichotomy “real or socially constructed” is inadequate in addressing such problems of change. Indeed, representing becomes intervening: Through the development of science, new “kinds of people” are created, with immense human and social consequences. In order to grasp the immense changes experienced in the 20th century, and to be experienced in the 21st century, one needs to understand the relationships between science, technology and society. That entails, however, a need to attend to the complex relationships between theory and practice; between facts and values; between representing and intervening; between what is and how it emerged. We cannot see that any living scholar has contributed more to the urgently required understanding of these complexities than Ian Hacking, and this is why his work is studied with interest and excitement throughout the humanities and well beyond.