Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher widely hailed as a giant of modern thought for groundbreaking contributions to the philosophies of science, probability and mathematics, as well as his widely disseminated insights into issues such as race and mental health, died on 10 May at a retirement home in Turin. He was 87 years old.
His daughter Jane Hacking said the cause was heart failure.
In an academic career that included more than two decades as a professor in the philosophy department of the University of TorontoAfter his appointments at Cambridge and Stanford, Professor Hacking’s intellectual reach seemed to know no bounds. Because of his ability to span multiple academic fields, he has often been described as a bridge builder.
“Ian Hacking was a one-person interdisciplinary department on his own,” Cheryl Misak, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, said in a telephone interview. « Anthropologists, sociologists, historians and psychologists, as well as those working on probability theory and physics, believed it to have important insights for their disciplines. »
A lively and provocative, if often highly technical writer, Professor Hacking wrote several seminal works on the philosophy and history of probability, including « The Taming of Chance » (1990), which was named one of the top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century from the Modern Library.
His many honors included the Holberg Awardan award recognizing academic scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, law and theology, which he won in 2009. In 2000, he became the first English-speaker to win a permanent position at the Collège de France, where he held the chair of philosophy and history of scientific concepts until his retirement in 2006.
His work in the philosophy of science was revolutionary: he moved away from concern with issues that had long preoccupied philosophers. By arguing that science was as much about intervention as it was about representation, being helped to bring experimentation to center stage.
On one such question—whether invisible phenomena such as quarks and electrons were real or merely theoretical constructs of physicists—he argued for reality in the case of phenomena that figured in experiments, citing as an example an experiment at Stanford that involved spraying electrons and positrons in a niobium ball to detect electric charges. « As far as I’m concerned, » he wrote, « if you can spray them, they’re real. »
His book « The Emergence of Probability » (1975), which is said to have inspired hundreds of books by other scholars, examined how the concepts of statistical probability have evolved over time, shaping the way we understand not only arcane fields such as quantum physics, but also everyday life.
« I was trying to figure out what happened a few hundred years ago that made it possible for our world to be dominated by probabilities, » he said. in a 2012 interview with Public Culture magazine. « We now live in a universe of possibilities and everything we do – health, sport, sex, molecules, climate – takes place within a discourse of probability. »
As the author of 13 books and hundreds of articles, including many in the New York Review of Books and its London counterpart, he has established himself as a formidable public intellectual.
Whatever the subject, whatever the audience, one idea that pervades all of his work is that “science is human feat”, wrote Ragnar Fjelland and Roger Strand of the University of Bergen in Norway when Professor Hacking won the Holberg Prize. “It is always created in a historical situation, and to understand why current science is the way it is, it is not enough to know that it is ‘true’ or confirmed. We need to know the historical context of its birth ».
Influenced by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, Professor Hacking has often argued that as the human sciences have evolved, they have created categories of people and that people have subsequently defined themselves as falling into those categories. Thus human reality becomes socially constructed.
« I have long been interested in classifications of people, how they affect the people classified and how it effects people in turn change classificationshe wrote in “Making Up People,” a 2006 article in The London Review of Books.
« I call it the ‘looping effect,' » he added. « Sometimes, our sciences create types of people that didn’t exist in a sense before. »
In « Why Running Still Matters » a 2005 article in the journal Daedalus, explored how anthropologists have developed racial categories by extrapolating from superficial physical characteristics, with lasting effects, including racial oppression. « Rate classification and judgment are seldom separable, » she wrote. « Racial classification is evaluation ».
Similarly, he once wrote, in the field of mental health the word « normal » « uses a power as old as Aristotle to bridge the fact/value distinction, whispering in your ear that what is normal is also right. »
In his influential writings on autism, Professor Hacking charted the evolution of the diagnosis and its profound effects on those diagnosed, who in turn expanded the definition to include more people.
Encouraging children with autism to think of themselves that way « may separate the child from ‘normal’ in a way that’s not appropriate, » she told Public Culture. “Definitely encourage weirdness. Don’t criticize the quirks in any way.
His emphasis on historical context has also illuminated what he called transient mental illnesses, which appear to be so limited in their time that they can vanish as times change.
For example, he wrote in his book “Mad Travellers” (1998), « hysterical fatigue » was a short-lived epidemic of compulsive wandering that emerged in Europe in the 1880s, largely among middle-class men who had become paralyzed by stories of exotic places and the lure of travel .
His book « Rewrite the Soul » (1995) examined the short-lived concern about the purported epidemic known as multiple personality disorder, which arose around 1970 from « a few paradigmatic cases of strange behavior. »
« It was quite sensational, » he wrote, summing up the phenomenon in the London Review article. « More and more unhappy people have started experiencing these symptoms. » First, she added, “a person had two or three personalities. Within a decade the average number was 17″.
‘This carried over into diagnoses and became part of the standard set of symptoms,’ he said, creating a looping effect that broadened the number of those apparently affected, to the point where Professor Hacking recalled visiting one’ split bar » that catered to them, which he likened to a gay bar, in 1991.
Within a few years, however, multiple personality disorder was renamed dissociative identity disorder, a change that was « more than a diagnostic act of housecleaning, » she wrote. « As symptoms evolve, patients are no longer expected to come with a list of entirely distinct personalities, and they don’t. »
Ian MacDougall Hacking was born February 18, 1936 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the only child of Harold Hacking, who handled cargo on merchant ships and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his service in the Canadian Army during the World War II and Margaret (MacDougall) Hacking, a milliner.
His intellectual leanings were unmistakable from an early age. « When she was 3 or 4, she would sit and read the dictionary, » said Jane Hacking. « Her parents were completely baffled. »
He studied mathematics and physics at the University of British Columbia and, after graduating in 1956, went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his doctorate in 1962.
In addition to his daughter Jane, Professor Hacking leaves behind another daughter, Rachel Gee; a son, Daniel Hacking; a stepson, Oliver Baker; and seven grandchildren. His wife, Judith Baker, died in 2014. His two previous marriages, to Laura Anne Leach and philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, ended in divorce.
Even in retirement, Professor Hacking has retained his trademark sense of wonder.
In a Interview 2009 with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, conducted in the garden of his Toronto home, he pointed out a wasp buzzing near a rose, which he said reminded him of the physical principle of nonlocality, the direct influence of an object on a another distant object, the subject of a speech he had recently heard from physicist Nicolas Gisin.
He wondered aloud, the interviewer noted, whether the entire universe was governed by nonlocality—if « everything in the universe is aware of everything else. »
« That’s what you should be writing about, » he said. « Not me. I’m an amateur. My keyword is ‘curiosity' ».