Ian Hacking

Ian Hacking is the author of The Social Construction of What? and, on mental illness, Rewriting the Soul and Mad Travellers.

The new edition of the DSM replaces DSM-IV, which appeared in 1994. The DSM is the standard – and standardising – work of reference issued by the American Psychiatric Association, but its influence reaches into every nook and cranny of psychiatry, everywhere. Hence its publication has been greeted by a flurry of discussion, hype and hostility across all media, both traditional and social. Most of it has concerned individual diagnoses and the ways they have changed, or haven’t. Most critics attended to the trees, but few thought about the wood.

Diary: Walking in the Andes

Judith Baker and Ian Hacking, 10 September 2009

Our first glimpse of life in the highlands of the Andes was at the end of our last dirt road before ten days of walking. We were descending on Cachora in a van and encountered a girl-woman of 14 or 15 years of age. She was running fast uphill, above 9500 feet, number 11 on the back of her jersey. JB thinks she is training for football: Peruvian women do better at it than the men. IH imagines...

We are creatures: therefore biological, but also social. How much of each of us is biological, how much social? Usually, the question is asked about individuals: how much of what you do is the working out of innate, inherited capacities, how much acquired from people around you? There is also a more communal question: how much of our social behaviour as a group – how we talk, how we...

Almost Zero: Ideas of Nature

Ian Hacking, 10 May 2007

‘The word “nature” is encountered everywhere,’ notably in the writing and talk of poets, scientists, ecologists and even politicians. ‘But though they frequently employ the word, they seem not to have much considered what notion ought to be framed of the thing, which they suppose and admire, and upon occasion celebrate, but do not call in question or...

Whose body is it? Transplants

Ian Hacking, 14 December 2006

Harvest festivals, whether American Thanksgiving or the more modest celebration in the Church of England, are about fertility: the harvest referred to here is the harvesting, in the official euphemism, of organs from dead people. This book is about a new kind of fertility called rebirth, which allows people to celebrate their rebirthday after they have received a life-saving organ. It is a book about the soul, and how much of it gets transferred when a body part is transferred from one person to another.

I have long been interested in classifications of people, in how they affect the people classified, and how the affects on the people in turn change the classifications. We think of many kinds of people as objects of scientific inquiry. Sometimes to control them, as prostitutes, sometimes to help them, as potential suicides. Sometimes to organise and help, but at the same time keep ourselves...

Autism is devastating – to the family. Children can be born with all manner of problems. Some begin life in great pain that can never be relieved, but at least there is a child there. An autistic child – and here I am talking about what’s known as core autism – is somehow not there. ‘Nobody Nowhere’, as the title of Donna Williams’s autobiography (1992) has it. Very often physically healthy (though there is a high incidence of other problems) he – and it is usually a he – just does not respond. It is not merely that he does not learn to speak until years after his peers, and then inadequately. He has no affect; he never snuggles. He is obsessed with things and order, but does not play with toys in any recognisable way, and certainly does not play with other children. He mercilessly repeats a few things you say. With no comprehension. He has violent tantrums, not the usual sort of thing, but screaming, hitting, biting, smashing. This alternates with a placid gentleness, maybe even a smile – but not really for you. Serious Down’s syndrome is pretty bad too, but despite all the difficulties, physical and mental, there is a loving little child there. That is what is so dreadful about core autism: your child is an alien. Parents who guide their autistic infant through to adulthood, who create a human being who can be loving, who can to some extent compensate for his deficits, who can find some dignity and maybe a modest type of respected work – they are, in my opinion, heroes.

Alzheimer’s was revived in about 1970, not by the medical profession, but because the children of senile Americans began clamouring for more attention, more funds for research, more support for care. Alzheimer’s as a diagnosis is a product of advocacy groups. It is an absolutely objective neurological condition, but it might not have been remembered had it not been for the vigorous lobbying of associations of families whose elderly members had dementia. The history of late 20th-century medicine will be not only a history of truly breathtaking triumphs, especially in the field of engineering that we call surgery, and a history of the pharmacological industry, but also a history of advocacy groups. Think of autism.

Scott Atran packs a lot into his subtitles. ‘Evolutionary Landscape’: that’s the new idea in this book about gods. The human mind has evolved with numerous capacities. Each distinct capacity is well adapted to performing a group of tasks in its domain. Individuals possess these capacities in varying degrees, but they are part of the universal genetic inheritance of the human...

Every once in a while, something happens to you that makes you realise that the human race is not quite as bad as it so often seems to be. In 1972, I was on the London Underground when a man failed to mind the gap. Not only did he put his foot between the train and the platform, but he did so as the train was starting; he was dragged a short distance before the train was halted, and his leg...

‘Screw you, I’m going home’

Ian Hacking, 22 June 2000

Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science and famous iconoclast about the sciences, wrote in Killing Time, his autobiography published post-humously in 1996, that ‘in an incautious moment’ he had promised his young wife that he would produce ‘one more collage, a book no less, on the topic of reality’. He stopped work in November 1993 when he became ill, and died soon afterwards, at the age of seventy. So now we have even more of a collage than he intended. Half the published book is literally half a book, for at page 128 we find the final footnote: ‘Here ends the manuscript.’ The remaining 140 pages are versions of papers written after 1989, which run parallel to the book he was writing. We owe the excellent editing to a Dutch engineer working for Shell: Bert Terpstra had sent an intelligent fan letter out of the blue, too late for Feyerabend to have read it. On the strength of that letter Feyerabend’s widow, Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, had the wit to choose him as editor.‘

English-language philosophy of science is still dominated by ideas brought to it by refugees. In the first wave, England got the Austrians, including Karl Popper and Otto Neurath (not to mention Wittgenstein), and later got Paul Feyerabend from Vienna and Imre Lakatos from Budapest. The United States got the Germans, including Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach. The famous Vienna Circle, or Wiener Kreis, was established by Moritz Schlick, a German, who brought other Germans to Vienna. Neither of the two most memorable Viennese philosophers, Wittgenstein and Popper, was a member of this discussion club, although there were various kinds of interaction between them all. The Germans who went to the United States were a solemn lot, at least in print, who have cast a sombre shadow of propriety over American philosophy of science to this day. The Austro-Hungarians, in contrast, were a wild bunch, never comfortable anywhere, but finding England the best refuge. Lakatos really was a refugee; he remained stateless and had to travel on a British Travel Document in lieu of a passport. Feyerabend was in no literal sense a refugee, but he never found a geographical home, even when, at the end of his career, he settled in Switzerland. He was adored by a generation of students in California, but he despised the philosophy practised there by his colleagues, and his spiritual home was certainly London, at least until Lakatos’s death.

Jonathan Rée takes some tomfoolery from Shakespeare for his title and uses it to create his own striking metaphor. The middle part of his book is about sign languages for the deaf: voices that one sees. The same trope served Oliver Sacks in Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989), but there is more to it than that for Rée. The quotation is from Bottom’s burlesque of love at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The swain says, ‘I see a voice’ – his lover’s – and then goes to the chink in the wall, or rather in the actor, Wall, ‘To spy an I can hear my This be’s face.’ Is this inversion of sight and sound mere silliness, or a more thoughtful playfulness on Shakespeare’s part? The plays – as befits the stage – are full of plays on voice, and for Rée this play is perfect. Although his subtitle refers to the five senses, it is two that preoccupy him, sight and hearing, and sound more than light. He would invert their roles in epistemology, if he could; he can’t, but at least he combats the philosopher’s obsession with vision as the model for perception, and in the modern period, for any type of thought. He also subverts, with barely concealed contempt, the Post-Modern doctrine that the text’s the thing, the notion that writing is paramount and speaking mere air.’‘

Taking Bad Arguments Seriously

Ian Hacking, 21 August 1997

The idea of social construction is wonderfully liberating. It reminds us, for example, that motherhood and its meanings are not the fixed and inevitable consequence of child-bearing and rearing, but the product of historical events, social forces and ideology. Mothers who know but fear standard canons of emotion and behaviour may see that the ways they are supposed to feel and act are not ordained by human nature. And if they don’t obey either the old rules of family, or whatever is the official psycho-paediatric rule of the day, they need not feel quite as guilty as they are supposed to feel.

The Passing Show

Ian Hacking, 2 January 1997

Bryan Magee is a brilliant philosophical entrepreneur, host of two BBC television series in which he interviewed live philosophers and dead ones (the latter mediated by other live ones). The late Martin Milligan was a talented philosopher, one who was blind, not from birth but early in life. Magee, with characteristic panache, had a splendid idea: let’s get at some philosophical issues about perception by pursuing a dialogue. The resulting exchange of letters between the two men is printed here, with an Introduction and Afterword by Magee.

Aloha, aloha

Ian Hacking, 7 September 1995

This is a splendid work of refutation and revenge, judicious but remorseless, urbane yet gritty. It is germane to the American culture wars but vastly more interesting. It is an adventure story in itself, and a stepping-stone to better ones. My only regret is that this book – you can think of it as the third of a trilogy – will be more widely read than Sahlins’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) and Islands of History (1985). What ‘Natives’ Think is entirely focused on the question of whether the Hawaiians, on their first prolonged encounter with Europeans, not only regarded the white men as superior beings, but also took Captain Cook to be their god Lono, a very important one in their world, which was tilled with gods. Or, is that story a European myth in itself, subsequently foisted on Hawaiian self-memory by British and other foreign chroniclers? The latter is the thesis of Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992), an angry and powerful attack on what Sahlins wrote in his first two books about Captain Cook being taken for a god. What ‘Natives’ Think is Sahlins’s response.’

Pull the Other One

Ian Hacking, 26 January 1995

Late last autumn this book received a prodigious amount of attention in the United States. No one who has been exposed to any of the American media can have escaped it. Among the reactions was a chorus of élite liberal denunciations. The New Republic of 31 October ran a piece by Murray followed by 18 criticisms. Stephen Jay Gould spoke out in the New Yorker of 28 November. I especially recommend Alan Ryan’s analysis in the New York Review of Books of 17 November, followed in the 1 December issue by Charles Lane’s examination of some of the sources of statistical information in this book, sources closely connected with an Edinburgh publication, the Mankind Quarterly. Lane is particularly useful on Richard Lynn, a professor at the University of Ulster, who is cited 24 times in the book, but whose research will strike many readers as questionable.

What’s best

Ian Hacking, 27 January 1994

Robert Nozick has a unique place in the annals of rational choice theory: he refuted it. Or so say I in my role as the last of the true Popperians. That was back in 1969. But now the mature philosopher is out to turn the theory into, not exactly a transcendental reality, but something implanted deep in the minds of some, if not all, human beings who have been sculpted by Darwinian evolution. This is an ideological book, concluding with evolutionary premises implying a complacent vision in which something like our present social order arose out of biological facts. The book begins, innocently enough, with technical questions about making reasonable choices. I’ll follow Nozick up that garden path, which is wonderfully landscaped, fresh and fragrant. But I’m giving warning now that I’m afraid of the ogres at the bottom of his garden.

Plato’s Friend

Ian Hacking, 17 December 1992

I was completely gripped by this astonishing monologue, but the next person to pick up my review copy said it looked like one long run-on sentence. What is it, besides a monologue? ‘How weird your categories are! It’s philosophy, if you like – but what does that mean it’s thinking, and it’s a programme of action.’ That’s Crimond, the high-flyer, in Iris Murdoch’s 1989 The Book of the Brotherhood, replying to a question about his projected book. His envious interlocutor Gerrard asks:’


Ian Hacking, 11 June 1992

Stephen Braude is a philosopher who thinks that the phenomenon of multiple personality teaches something about the human mind. Until recently he would not have had much of a phenomenon: a thin diet of 19th-century anecdotes, a little flurry of cases in France after 1875, and a few more described at greater length in America after the turn of the century. Or he could have resorted to the Doppelgänger of romantic literature, well enough covered in past issues of the London Review, and analysed in that amazingly many-layered book Doubles by its co-editor, Karl Miller. But something new and strange has been happening in North America – a veritable epidemic of multiple personalities. It began about 1972. It was called an epidemic by one psychiatrist in an essay published in 1982. By 1992 the disorder is flourishing. Not that there is any consensus that there ‘is’ such a condition. There is what can only be called a multiple personality movement built roughly as a pyramid. At the top is a relatively small number of dedicated psychiatrists who diagnose literally hundreds of patients. Then there is a larger number of clinical psychologists who recognise some of their clients as multiples. Next, at least in some regions, there is a very substantial number of social workers who find the condition in their case work. And finally there are the multiples themselves, some of whom organise themselves into self-help groups, publish newsletters and the like.’

His Father The Engineer

Ian Hacking, 28 May 1992

There’s widespread distrust of science and technology abroad in (at least) the prosperous English-speaking countries. It shows up where it hurts most. I don’t mean in lack of national funding for research, especially research for its own sake. There is, even in Britain after Thatcher, an amazing proportion of national treasure invested in the sciences. It may be spent unwisely on weapons or on grandiose enterprises like the human genome project. It may be necessary to do a lot of toadying about practical applications of pure research when asking for patronage. But public and private money is still being spent lavishly compared to any era of human history before the Manhattan project. No: where it hurts is in lack of students. Young people, we hear on all sides, are voting against science.

Locke rules

Ian Hacking, 21 November 1991

If it is true, as it seemed to Whitehead, that the whole of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, then it must be equally true that the philosophical writing of the English-speaking peoples consists chiefly of ‘problems from Locke’. Not moral philosophy, for sure, but examinations of what we know, how we think, what there is, what a person is. It is astounding that Locke should have had this power. It is no surprise that philosophers are reread: Plato captivates his readers in any language, and most of the memorable philosophers can get us high on a phrase, a chapter, a book. Hobbes and Descartes had a great deal to do with forming the distinct prose styles of their respective languages, and hence, I imagine, formed our several ideas of what an argument is. But Locke – Locke plods. Aside from Michael Ayers, how many contributors to this issue of the Review, reviewers or reviewees, have read Locke’s Essay, word for word, from beginning to end? Fewer, perhaps, than would like to admit it.’

Living Things

Ian Hacking, 21 February 1991

‘War,’ said an old peacenik poster with the words scrawled across a child’s drawing of a tree, ‘is harmful to children and other living things.’ This subtle and sophisticated book has a little of that same power to shock by innocence. It is about how children think of living things, less a matter of what they learn than of what human nature teaches about nature. That is a pleasing picture but not a popular one. Atran is not in search of opponents, but here are a few of the things he is up against … Every people classifies in its own ways: it is cultural imperialism to expect our sortings of life to be duplicated by others (standard all-purpose cultural relativism). Aristotle was a disaster for biology: he taught that plants and animals should be defined by a priori essences that not only devalued observation but also made it impossible to attend to variations among the species, thereby impeding evolutionary thought for two millennia (textbook history of biology). The taxonomies of natural history are an artwork of the Enlightenment; the Renaissance was mired in a wonderful world of resemblance, natural magic and the doctrine of signatures, whereby plants were the signs of minerals which were the signs of stars (François Jacob, Michel Foucault). The semantics of natural kind terms is such that, when we speak of living things, we are referring, whether we know it or not, to the fundamental kinds at which science aims (Saul Kripke and, sometimes, Hilary Putnam). We have an obligation to integrate our commonsense categories into the best knowledge available; when there is conflict, common sense yields to knowledge (most good scientists, starting with Aristotle).


Ian Hacking, 5 April 1990

For deaf people, especially for those born deaf, this has been the best of quarter-centuries. The happy events have not been medical but social. The deaf have been irreversibly granted their own language. Sign languages are now known not to be parasitic on spoken ones, and not to be a form of pantomime, a kind of charades. They do not have anything much like the structure of any spoken language, but they have comparable expressive power. Nor has the breakthrough been the invention of some new and better kind of Signing: it has been the hard-won understanding that Signing is language. That understanding is rapidly changing the education and the life of the deaf. It is changing the languages themselves, for they are now free to flourish. They are no longer kept almost as secrets, admissible in personal relationships among deaf people but separated from the larger realm of human experience, thinking, knowledge and civilisation. This new understanding of Sign – as any of the natural and regional sign languages may be called – matters to all of us. It will, I think, have profound effects on what future generations think that language ‘is’.’

Putnam’s Change of Mind

Ian Hacking, 4 May 1989

Big issues and little issues: among established working philosophers there is none more gifted at making us think anew about both than Hilary Putnam. His latest book is motivated by large considerations, most of its arguments are driven by small ones, and its topic is deliberately restricted to something middle-sized: the brain, the mind and the computer program. At the end he soars and contemplates all of metaphysics and epistemology. The book will mostly be read as Putnam’s denunciation of his former philosophical psychology, to which he gave the name ‘functionalism’. I’ll try to explain that, but first a glance at what Putnam calls, when he soars, his ‘approach/avoidance’ relation to a family of large ideas.

Making up the mind

Ian Hacking, 1 September 1988

‘Perhaps the mind stands to the brain in much the same way that the program stands to the computer.’ That is the vision behind this admirable book for newcomers. Introductions to cognitive science are seldom neutral. They’re not like beginners’ textbooks of Norwegian grammar or topology, nor do they much resemble popular science-writing about quarks or gene-splicing. Instead they are evangelical. Alongside Dr Johnson-Laird’s friendly and often charming account of ingenious computational ideas, there’s the message – which is his own conception of cognitive science, of psychology, of the mind.’


Ian Hacking, 4 February 1988

This is the first half of a survey of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. The division into two quite slim volumes does not mean that Professor Pears accepts a received view: that the man had two philosophies. The split is practical. University courses are commonly about either Philosophical Investigations or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1953 and 1921 respectively. Pears’s own lecture courses at Oxford and UCLA (from which this book is drawn) may have followed this pattern, but he encourages continuity. He is not one to say, with Mr Bryan Magee in his recent BBC series The Great Philosophers, that ‘since Wittgenstein repudiated his own early philosophy, and since in any case it is now his later philosophy that is much the more influential, I don’t think we ought to devote too much of our time to the early work.’


Ian Hacking, 18 December 1986

This is the delightfully short, exuberant, slightly jerky and certainly tumultuous product of five lectures that could have been advertised under the ponderous title ‘Human Knowledge and the Social Order’. The lectures were weighty, I think, but ponderous they were not. Douglas dances over an amazing array of topics. The effect is some sort of intellectual hopscotch; the reader hops from square to square, sideways, diagonally, sometimes landing with feet in different squares. The squares have amazing titles like ‘Institutions remember and forget’ or ‘Institutions do the classifying’. The second square is titled ‘Institutions cannot have minds of their own’, but only as a proposition to be rebutted. The assertion that institutions think is never seriously put in question. But what does it mean?


What’s best

27 January 1994

There is one important difference between Robert Nozick and myself (Letters, 10 March). He speculates that rationality might be an evolutionary adaptation. He calls it a ‘trait’. I think of it as cultural. I do not conceive of it as a trait at all (trait meaning ‘a genetically determined characteristic or condition’ – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,...

What made Albert run: Mad Travellers

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, 27 May 1999

Suppose that this desire to flee becomes an obsession, a truly irresistible compulsion. Suppose further that it all happens in a state of absence and you cannot remember any of it: you arrive somewhere,...

Read More

When I was a graduate studying psychology in the Seventies, I was taught that multiple personality was a rare, almost unheard of disease. One textbook said that there was one multiple per million...

Read More

Faith, Hope and Probability

Mary Douglas, 23 May 1991

The author of The Emergence of Probability (1975) has written another formidable book on the history of probability theory. The first described the development in the 17th and 18th centuries of a...

Read More

Guilty Statements

Hilary Putnam, 3 May 1984

Ian Hacking has written an interesting, confusing, fast-reading, slow-digesting, exasperating, idiosyncratic book which is must reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of science. The...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences