“I am a philosopher of the particular case”: An Interview with Ian Hacking

I absolutely love Ian Hacking’s work. He takes the best parts of Michel Foucault and the best parts of analytical philosophy and mashes it up into something truly brilliant, clarifying, and wise. For example, his Historical Ontology is the closest thing I’ve found to a methods text for the kind of dissertation I am writing. The most recent issue of History of the Human Sciences contains a lengthy interview with Hacking (on the occasion of his winning a prize in 2009) that covers the full arc of his career: from early research on the emergence of probability as a style of reasoning, to his contemporary projects on mental illness and “the looping effects of human kinds.” The interview is a nice introduction, if you are unfamiliar with his work, and a delightful refresher if you’re already a fan. There’s also a great deal about his relationship to the work of Foucault, and why he identifies as a philosopher but not a historian. Below are a few choice quotes.

Here, Hacking summarizes his first two major books on the history of probability and statistics:

MSØ: But, could you say something about what you think happens in the history of sta- tistics in the 17th, 18th centuries that perhaps is of relevance for today’s thinking.

H: It is not so much about today’s thinking about statistics, it’s more about how we came to live in a universe of chance in which we think of everything in terms of probabilities. The newspapers are constantly concerned with probabilities of sport, equally of sex; everybody reads stories about the risks of various diseases. When a new building is to be put up on the hill here, there will be an environmental protection report which will discuss use-risk analysis and decision theory. We think, in physics that quantum phenomena are essentially indeterministic. In most studies of the human genome, and of what it teaches about illness and ancestry, what we get are probabilities. We live in that world of chance. There was no such world in the 17th century. I’m interested in how that complete change in our conception of the universe and ourselves came into being. I tried to tell the first part of that story in The Emergence of Probability (1975a), and to tell the second part in The Taming of Chance (1990).

The ‘moral scientists’ of the 19th century attended to the enormous amount of varia- tion between people. But, it’s not just variation: they found that there are regularities in this variation. They became convinced that there is a Gaussian curve for any particular attribute of humanity, whether it is the length of the male arm, or the speed with which men can run – or (they used to say) the extent to which people feel morally responsible. Thus it is no longer the Human, it is instead the average man with a statistical dispersion. Then comes the idea that it is important to normalize people. For instance, that the psychiatric patient is a deviation from the norm, who will be cured by normalization. The goal of medicine, and the goal of much else that is connected with people, is to try to make us normal. That’s a very different conception of being human from the Enlightenment one.

MSØ: Yes, so the whole idea of normality in that sense is a pretty recent invention?

H: Well, in my scale of ‘recent’, yes. But for most young people today, recent is at most 6 years ago, and that’s the end of recent.

Here, Hacking emphasizes a frequent distinction that he makes between categories, names, “kinds” that are potentially looping or interactive (because the objects named might care about the names in question) with those that are not:

When we discover a new kind of beetle, or a new kind of mineral, or a new kind of subatomic particle, we classify it in a new way, but our classification does not interact with the insect or rock we have identified. We tend to think that recognizing a new kind of person is very much the same. To use your loaded example, which by now has been too overworked for me to want to return to the subject, it was thought perverts were just there to identify; they were a kind of person that medicine got round to recognizing, and then the law got round to punishing. But kinds of people are not like kinds of beetle. In the case of ‘perverts’ we have a striking example of a relatively recent phenomenon, of how a ‘kind’ of person can take control of the ‘kind’ and redefine it both in theory and in action. Homosexuals have taken control of a classification originally introduced by medicine and the law. That is one of the things that Gay Pride is all about.

Finally, here’s a quote about Hacking’s conflicted, but mostly appreciative, relationship with Foucault:

Yes, we found problems with Foucault’s citations. I have always been pretty lenient about this, because I think that the main thrust of his analysis is correct. I give examples of his errors, and explain my willingness to be generous about them, in a little squib I wrote much later, ‘Night Thoughts on Philology’, reprinted in my Historical Ontology [2004c].
At the time I was trying to write a book explaining Foucault to an English-language readership which, in 1976, had not yet taken to his work. I became increasingly dissatisfied with what I was writing. Finally I decided I had to stop. So one day I took the entire manuscript, at least 200 pages of self-typed material, and fed it into the large dustbin in the Stanford quad outside the philosophy department. A number of grad. students watched in glee – one joked that each student present should salvage a chapter and use it for his PhD thesis.

Føllesdal recalls that I also tore up some small part of the book earlier, in his presence, right after one of our classes had met. Doubtless at that moment I was moved by dissatisfaction with Foucault, but I destroyed the whole typescript because I was dissatisfied with myself. I came to the conclusion that Foucault is the man to read about Foucault. There are now a hundred books about Foucault, and I still think Foucault is the only one to read.

Bonus: In answering the last question, Hacking reveals his love of Scandinavian crime fiction, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!



  1. LJ

     /  April 3, 2014

    Hello there,
    I agree & I also love to read Ian Hacking! This paper is a great one! It reminded me to go looking back at some of his work but also gave me great hope about academics always remaining curious and interested across the span of their careers…neat blog!

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