As a break from marking and catching up on journal work and email, I headed up the A1 to Newcastle to hear Ian Hacking speak at the University of Northumbria. I really like his early books The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance, and I’d never seen him speak before. He was speaking about his more recent work, which I know much less well, and was outlining his current project of bringing together a number of papers into a book that seems to be entitled ‘Making Up People’. (He also mentioned another forthcoming book on the philosophy of mathematics).
He gave two examples of the politics of naming in the natural and human sciences – the decision to change the designation of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet; and the decision to remove Asperger’s Syndrome from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and instead to classify these symptoms as part of the autism spectrum. While the first simply changes a scientific designation, but not the object so described, the second also changes how people perceive themselves, how they may act and react, and there is a resistance to this from within the community. The talk was somewhat loose, with lots of examples from the BMI to a Foucault anecdote to the history of ideas. I came away thinking that I should read more of Hacking’s recent work, but also interested in the autism material. While I’ve never read the academic literature on this, when I was an undergraduate I spent some time working with special needs children in London, some of whom were labelled as autistic. For people interested in his work, the preparatory reading for the seminar, “Kinds of People: Moving Targets”, Proceedings of the British Academy 151 (2007): 285-318, is available free online here.
Hacking has a really useful website that organises and makes sense of his diverse interests. Like Quentin Skinner, it was inspirational – a clear sense that what I really do, or at least aspire to do, in different projects and with different purposes, is the history of ideas.