Ian Hacking Interviewed by Andrew Lakoff
Andrew Lakoff (AL): Your work covers an impressive range of topics — from the history of probability, to inductive logic, the sciences of memory and trauma, styles of scientific reasoning, the concept of race, autism, and more. Can you provide a brief taxonomy of the kinds of problems you’re interested in, the topics or questions you’ve continually returned to, so that we can understand what ties together this seemingly heterogeneous set of problems?
Ian Hacking (IH): In a word, curiosity. I’ll start with a taxonomy of things that preoccupy me now. I’ve been working for decades on three different projects.One is what I call “making up people,” which is about the interaction between classifications of people and people. That began with a talk in 1983 at Stanford and is still going on.
Another is “styles of scientific reasoning,” which I hope to bring to an end very soon. It is about a relatively small number of distinct ways of thinking about nature and learning how to change it. They rely on the discovery of fundamental human capacities. It has become, or is becoming, part of what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls the world system. It’s everywhere, now. These distinct styles — which are now used in all the sciences to different degrees — evolved primarily in Mediterranean (pagan, Greek, and Islamic) civilizations and then in Europe. Somewhat related practices evolved in China and India, and so on. But this is not a historical project. It is philosophical, directed at how these distinct styles of thinking and acting modified reason, truth, and language. It began with a piece in 1982 called “Language, Truth, and Reason”: yes, decades is correct.
A third thing I’m trying to do right now is what I started with as a lad: the philosophy of mathematics. I have never published much about that, but it has been festering. It was the subject of the Howison Lectures here at Berkeley last fall. They were preceded by a closely related set of lectures in the Netherlands, the René Descartes Lectures. I am at this moment trying to finish them up for printing.
AL: I’m going to return to all three of these projects. But before that I’ll ask one more general question: When you took a chair at the Collège de France, your professorship was named “the philosophy and history of scientific concepts.” Can you say a little bit about what a scientific concept is?
IH: My line is that a concept is a word in its sites. The sites include not just the spoken and written- down sentences, sort of Michel Foucault’s archive, but also the people who use the words with authority, the kind of place in which the words are used. That’s what a concept is. A scientific concept is primarily used in sites where people try to understand, explain, predict, create, and control phenomena.
AL: Would you say that that rubric of the “philosophy and history of scientific concepts” is a way of tying together the three lines of research you mentioned?
IH: Look, the name of the chair was partly a political decision as to what the other members of the Collège would see as possible. Remember there is a maximum of fifty chairs in all subjects, and it is the active holders of those chairs who vote on a new chair. (Chair does not mean chairman, as in America; it means what it did when the Collège was founded in 1530, cathedra.) So a proposed chair has to win the approval of all fields — mathematics, the sciences, humanities. It’s the only real election for which I have competed in my entire life. That is, there’s a subset of fifty possible profs who vote, and that’s it. And there was a real competitor in another field.
AL: Let me ask about your intellectual trajectory: How did you get interested in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mathematics in particular?
IH: The philosophy of mathematics comes historically long before the philosophy of the sciences. I started out with an undergraduate degree in Vancouver in mathematics and physics, and so I’ve always had an interest in those topics. When I went as an undergraduate to Cambridge to read for the moral sciences tripos, I was interested in logic, and then I became totally captivated by Wittgenstein’s remarks on the foundations of mathematics, which had just been published. They obsessed me and still obsess me.
AL: What was it about Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics that fascinated you?
IH: Well, I can’t swear — you know, I’m talking fifty years ago — but I imagine that I’ve always been impressed with the apparent but unintelligible certainty and necessity that was then associated with mathematics. Nowadays most mathematicians are perfectly happy to say, you know, our results are not certain, and that’s just a fact. Half a century ago it was a common assumption of most working mathematicians that they were working in an absolutely settled field where everything was certain, when an adequate proof was certain. Now there are all sorts of fascinating questions about, for example, proofs that are excessively long.Some of these proofs require computers to check major parts. A proof seems to become accepted when no one can find a gap in it. When I was young, the ultimate certainty of mathematics was accepted. And it seemed that where mathematical results had a bearing on the world, the world itself had of necessity to be that way. That has always puzzled me, as it has philosophers from the time of Plato. Wittgenstein said radical things that would, to use a word he would never have used, deconstruct such ideas. That was what captivated me.
AL: Was this a milieu in which a lot of people were interested in these questions?
IH: Cambridge was a very small place. And I think the answer is no. I certainly never went to a lecture on Wittgenstein. Although all the elders there had known him, in some cases very well, they never talked about Wittgenstein to the young. It was only among undergraduates that we talked about Wittgenstein, endlessly. It was a wonderful type of education, for me, but not for all.
AL: And then you stayed for graduate school in philosophy. Did you continue in that line of investigation?
IH: In those days there was no graduate school in the American sense; there were just “research students.” I’m very much a self-motivated person. So I mostly did my stuff on my own. I also did a little mathematical logic, some proofs of new theorems. That I did with a faculty adviser who pointed me in the right direction — who said, this is an interesting question, and then talked about how you deal with it.
AL: How did you first get interested in probability, which became a central topic of your work?
IH: Originally, I was interested in logical questions about statistical inference. At a certain moment, that turned into “archeological” work in the form of two books, The Emergence of Probability (1975) and The Taming of Chance (1990). And that bit of my intellectual wandering I can explain. I taught in Uganda for two years, from 1967 to 1969, and we had a little mini- Canadian philosophy department, paid for by the Canadian government. My Canadian colleague there had grown up in Paris (hiding from the Nazis) and so had an initial French education. He gave me a copy of the first abridged Foucault book on madness, which totally fascinated me. And so I got into Michel Foucault much earlier than most conventional philosophers.
AL: And then The Order of Things came out soon after that. You’ve reflected on this turn in your work in some of your writings. What was that like for the first few years, from the late sixties to the early seventies, as you were figuring out how to incorporate these new approaches into your work?
IH: I just did whatever I did. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve always been able to be employed doing whatever I want. Nowadays, graduate students have to kowtow to whatever is the orthodoxy of questioning, if not of answering, whereas I’ve always been extremely privileged.
AL: You’ve described what you do as a philosophical use of history, rather than history proper. I’m thinking of the period of your work that includes The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance. Both of these books looked at major transformations in scientific and mathematical understandings of probability.What is the difference between what you do in these books and what a typical historian of science working on the same topics might do?
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