Interview with Ian Hacking

Ian Hacking
Photo: Patrick Imbert

-You have a comprehensive bibliography with a wide variety of topics in your cv. When you look back, what themes do you look upon as most important?

My favourite book is The Emergence of Probability (1975), because that is when I really started to do philosophy in my own way. This has been re-published in 2006, with an introduction explaining, first, how much I took from Michel Foucault’s archaeology and, second, the relation of the book to the immense amount of subsequent work by others on related topics. Unfortunately the publishers, The New York branch of Cambridge University Press, made a bit of mess of this second edition, which is only now being corrected in a new printing.

-What topics concern you today?

Too many. I will describe the most important one in answering #3. I tend to gnaw away at related issues for a long time. I have yet to complete a book on the classifications of things in nature, although it is almost all done. It is a companion to what I call “Making up People” which will round out many topics mentioned in the citation. I started that work in 1983. I have re-developed an interest in experimental physical science, which began with Representing and Intervening (1983). I use recent work on ultracold (almost absolute zero) atoms as a key example. I have become involved in biotechnology, and especially the way in which it is changing our conceptions of ourselves, of who we are, our personal identities.

-How would you define your current intellectual project?

(As if I had one only!) My key long term project – which began in 1982 – is understanding the ways in which distinctive styles of scientific thinking have arisen from the early development of ancient mathematics, through the hypothetical modelling of the universe (Galileo), laboratory thinking, taxonomic classification (Linnaeus) and of course probabilistic reasoning, which is where I started. I have published a “promissory note” titled Scientific Reason, Taipei, 2009. This little book consists of some lectures recently given in Taiwan. I believe there are deep philosophical consequences about the nature of truth and objectivity.

-What role or function do you think social sciences should play in the 21st century?

I have no well thought out ideas. All successful or useful sciences re-create themselves every few years, and in my opinion it would be absurd to say what any group of sciences ought to be doing a few years from now. My mind is that of a physicist, rather than that of a biological scientist, let alone a “social scientist.” I have no idea how the various social sciences will evolve even in the next decade. But let me say this: I probably number more anthropologists than philosophers as acquaintances or friends whom I think of as having a frame of mind like my own.

-Do you have any knowledge about the research of social sciences in Scandinavia?

Not really, just as I have little real knowledge of social sciences in Canada or France. I tend to get involved at local rather than general levels. Thus I became interested in a vexing Swedish problem of the past decade: the children of families seeking asylum, children who totally drop out of the world, many to the extent of not talking, not eating, not getting out of bed, not going to the toilet. There are very different opinions about what is going on, and sociologists and psychiatrists often do not see eye-to-eye. I was introduced to this while lecturing in Uppsala in the fall of 2006, but in the past two weeks I have taken up corresponding with several of the mutually hostile parties once again.

-What is your view on international research prizes like the Holberg Prize?

Mixed. The Nobel prizes in the sciences really do raise the public profile of successful research, but Nobel has universal name recognition. Do the Kyoto prizes, the Kluge prize, and in particular the Holberg prize do the same? Not so well; perhaps in time things will change. What I like most about the Holberg is that it is tied to a junior prize for a young Nordic thinker, and to prizes to young Norwegians in school.

Every single person who knows I have won the Holberg prize says, “well-deserved”. I may deserve to be in a list of 2 or 3 thousand other thinkers, but after that it is good luck. I feel embarrassed by the size of the prize, and we will certainly give away a significant portion in a way my wife and I established long ago – a third of our gifts to education, a third to needy people who live close to our home and third to the needs of people in Africa and Central America. (But don’t ask for a donation! We have already made up our minds who gets what over the next couple of years.)