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August 26, 2009 - 10:27pm



When I read that Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher, had won a big prize - the Holberg, worth close to a million dollars - I certainly knew the name, though I couldn't remember having read anything by him. His books were all over our house, scattered among shelves.

Mr UD, a political science professor, has long admired Hacking. I spent last night reading some Hacking to see why.

Like Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty, Hacking hacks away at centuries of words and things in order to arrive at some conclusions about what we know, how we know it, and what it means to say that something is real as opposed to socially constructed...

Though, as I read his book The Social Construction of What?, he's really arguing that this is a false, reductive opposition, and a source of a nasty culture war at that.

Hacking's contribution here - one among many - has been to show the complex and dynamic relationship between things we might want to call constructions and things we might call (Hacking uses John Searle's terminology) epistemologically objective. It drives Hacking nuts when social theorists blithely assert that gender and pretty much everything else is entirely socially constructed. He goes after Stanley Fish pretty savagely along these lines.

He recalls the way Fish defended the journal Social Text after it was found to have accepted and published what turned out to be a hoax paper by Alan Sokal (background on the Sokal hoax here).

[In an] op-ed piece to the New York Times, [Fish] was at pains ... to urge that something can be both socially constructed and real. Hence (urged Fish) when the social constructionists are taken to say that quarks are social constructions, that is perfectly consistent with saying that quarks are real... Fish argued his case by saying that baseball is a social construction. He took as his example balls and strikes. "Are balls and strikes socially constructed?" he asks. "Yes. Are balls and strikes real? Yes." ... Fish wanted to aid his allies, but he did nothing but harm. Balls and strikes are real and socially constructed, he wrote. Analogously, he was arguing, quarks are real and socially constructed. ... Unfortunately for Fish, the situation with quarks is fundamentally different from that for strikes. Strikes are quite self-evidently ontologically subjective. Without human rules and practices, no balls, no strikes, no errors. Quarks are not self-evidently ontologically subjective. The shortlived quarks (if there are any) are all over the place, quite independently of any human rules or institutions.

In a more complicated way, Hacking considers in much of his work the intellectual as well as moral implications of our proceeding to act in the world with always imperfect knowledge. Take autism, and mental illness more generally:

There was a debate long ago between the anti-psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, and Robert Spitzer, who as editor of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals has directed American psychiatric nosology since 1974. Szasz argued that MDs should treat only what they know to be diseases. Psychiatrists treat troubled people, but cannot identify any genuine medical conditions, so they should leave the treatment to healers, shamans, priests, counselors. Psychiatry is not a branch of medicine. Spitzer replied: what about childhood autism? We know it must be neurological in nature, but we have no idea what the neurology is, so we treat it symptomatically, as psychologists. Is it wrong for us as doctors to try to help autistic children just because we do not yet know the neurology?

Hacking rejects the empirically-grounded-or-nothing extremism of Szasz, but he also understands the ethical, intellectual, and indeed political power some forms of constructionist thinking contain:

... I do not, myself, favor the language of social construction. I am discussing it in connection with psychopathologies because many deeply committed critics of psychiatric establishments find social-construction talk helpful. It enables them to begin with a critique of practices about which they are deeply skeptical. I respect their concerns and have, I hope, represented them fairly, if cautiously. On the other hand, I also respect the biological program of research into the most troubling of psychiatric disorders.

You can see why Rorty was a fan of Hacking's. In clear, straightforward English, both of these pragmatists seek ways of thinking that work, and work in the most important way -- to make us enlightened, and compassionate.


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