In memoriam: Ian Hacking (1936-2023)

Published: May 10, 2023

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It is with deep sadness that the Department of Philosophy announces the passing of one of its most eminent members, Professor Emeritus Ian M. Hacking, CC, FRSC, FBA. The influential scholar, dedicated teacher, and prolific author—whose wide-ranging work probed foundational questions about the nature of concepts and who is credited with bringing a historical approach to the philosophy of science—passed away on May 10, 2023, after years of declining health.

Born in Vancouver in 1936, Hacking studied mathematics and physics at the University of British Columbia (BA, 1956) before moving on to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1958) and a PhD (1962) in Moral Sciences.

Having taught at the University of British Columbia (1964-69; seconded to Makerere University College, Uganda in 1968-69), Cambridge University (1969-74), and Stanford University (1975-82), Hacking joined the University of Toronto, where he taught in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology from 1982 to 2004. In 1991, the University accorded him its highest honour by appointing him University Professor. In 2000, Hacking became the first Anglophone elected to a permanent position at the Collège de France, where he held the Chair in the Philosophy and History of Scientific Concepts until his retirement in 2006. In addition, he held visiting positions at universities around the world.

Hacking’s research achievements are legion: he has to his name 13 books translated into more than a dozen languages, as well as hundreds of articles, on a staggering array of topics: probability, experimental physics, philosophy of language, and logic, but also social constructivism, mental health, race, and poverty, to name a few.

Some of his most groundbreaking books include The Emergence of Probability (Cambridge University Press, 1975, 2006), the French version of which won the Prix Risques—Les Echos in 2003; Representing and Intervening (Cambridge University Press, 1983); The Taming of Chance (Cambridge University Press, 1990); Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Harvard University Press, 1995), which received the Pierre Janet Prize in 1995 and was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times History Prize; Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (University of Virginia Press, 1998); Historical Ontology (Harvard University Press, 2002); and Why Is There a Philosophy of Mathematics at All? (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

A self-described dilettante, Hacking followed his peculiar, restless curiosity wherever it would take him, though one unifying thread ran through all his work: an investigation into how phenomena, and their corresponding concepts, came into existence, in turn shaping our lives and interactions.

This overarching concern with the infrastructure of knowledge production, writes University Professor of Law and Philosophy Arthur Ripstein, uniquely bridged the gap between “theoretical philosophy” (examining the structure of reality and the nature of thought) and “practical philosophy” (thinking through questions of value and how to live), a divide conventionally attributed to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

And yet, despite his inclusive probing, Hacking had no interest in “grandiose theorizing,” Ripstein continues. Instead, the elder scholar preferred to draw his conclusions from careful micro-histories, written, as Professor Donald Ainslie notes, in “his distinctive voice—absolute originality in unadorned prose.”

Hacking’s friend and colleague Professor Emeritus James Robert Brown agrees: “Explicit, real examples always meant a lot to Ian,” in his view outstripping the significance of arguments in the history of philosophy. Specificity and clarity for Hacking underwrote “the philosopher’s primary task . . . to understand how and why problems arise in the first place,” noted Jack M. C. Kwong, a professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University, in a 2005 profile of his former mentor; “finding solutions, if necessary, comes later.”

Searching for this understanding brought Hacking into direct contact with thinkers and researchers from varied fields. Uniquely, his work held sway outside of the discipline of philosophy as well. In addition to the recognition he received in the social sciences and humanities, Hacking stood out as a philosopher who attracted respect and praise in the natural sciences, seeing several of his essays included in annual collections of the best writing in mathematics, for example. He also found himself in constant demand as a public intellectual, penning transformative pieces for newspapers and magazines such as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

His many honours—easily enough to fill multiple impressive résumés—lend further evidence to the significance of his work: He was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College Oxford, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Killam Fellow. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; as well as a Companion of the Order of Canada. He won the Isaak Walton Killam Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts (2002), the Gold Medal from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2008), the Holberg Memorial Prize (2009), and the Balzan Prize (2014). In 2005, the French Le Nouvel Observateur named Hacking one of the 25 greatest thinkers in the world.

Yet the man behind the accolades was a gentle, generous one, a person as genuinely interested in people as he was in ideas. University Professor Cheryl Misak remembers: “Ian was not only a giant in philosophy, but he had a giant heart as well. I first met him at a large conference in New York, when I was a less-than-happy graduate student at Columbia, thinking of leaving for perhaps the University of Toronto. I happened to find myself standing next to the great Ian Hacking at a reception. Far from being imposing, he was so kind that, in a few minutes of chat, I had an invitation to come to Toronto to look it over and stay with him and his wife, Judith Baker. I didn’t take them up on that offer, but the generosity of it was staggering. When I (much later) moved to the University of Toronto as a faculty member, it was a huge pleasure to become not only a colleague of Ian’s but a friend.”

Eran Tal, an associate professor of Philosophy and Canada Research Chair at McGill University, likewise recalls Hacking’s generosity of spirit at a time when the established scholar had already officially retired and Tal himself was just beginning his doctoral studies. Hacking, at 70 years, was not at “the career stage when one usually cares to listen to a first-year grad student rambling about their half-baked ideas,” Tal writes, “but that’s exactly what Ian wanted to do.”

Why? Likely a mixture of humility, good pedagogy, and persistent inquisitiveness. And maybe also because Hacking valued the privilege of being able to pursue the intellectual life, something, as Tal recalls, his mentor almost had to give up: denied a graduating scholarship from UBC at the end of his undergraduate studies and told to “get a job,” Hacking “was about to go to work for Shell finding oil in Alberta.” At the last moment, he won an entrance scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge—changing his life’s trajectory, and that of philosophy, forever.

Hacking was truly a titan of the field, an exceptional scholar whose outstanding commitment and creativity transformed both his discipline and public discussion of the fundamental questions in human life. His death leaves a gaping hole not only in the lives of all those who knew him but in the world of philosophy and the history of science as a whole. Undiminished, the influence of his ideas holds strong and will continue to serve as a guidepost for much philosophical thinking in years to come. We cannot thank him enough.

Our deepest condolences go out to Ian Hacking’s family, friends, and colleagues around the world.

Read Ian Hacking’s obituaries in the Globe and Mail (published May 25, 2023), the New York Times (published May 28, 2023), and the Lancet (published July 22, 2023). You can also read a short memorial piece penned by Professor Emeritus James Robert Brown, published in the Globe and Mail on June 1, 2023.