Hacking almost helps us see what Hacking overlooks

The Social Construction of What? (Harvard UP, 2000) by philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, critically reviews the possible meanings of social construction in the context of scientific knowledge and technology.  However, there is one meaning of construction that he does not consider, perhaps the most obvious one to the common person, namely, the process of building a structure from diverse materials, as in the foundations, frames, walls, roof, plumbing and electrical circuits, and so on. (2011 post)

A 1975 book of Hacking’s, What does language matter to philosophy?, almost allows us to see what he overlooked at that time and still did in the 2000 book, namely, that knowing always involves engaging [*] or acting as if the world were like our explicit and implicit theories and representations of it.

In the following schemas of mine from 1989, just recovered (thanks to ezdraw software) from the archives, I tease out this idea. (To read more about what is omitted from the 2000 book, see the link in the quote above.)

The 1975 book argues that what philosophical issues mean changed in a very fundamental way from the 17th century to the 20th. It does not make sense for a modern philosopher to take up issues from the earlier time; the issue now refers to different things:

This awareness could have primed Hacking to look for further qualitative shifts underway. If he had done so, he would surely have noticed that sociology of scientific knowledge at that time was examining what was required in practice to establish or to dispute knowledge claims:


One way to synthesize these shifts is to array them as metaphors (“as if”s) involved in making claims about reality:


It is a puzzle to me why Hacking did not follow his own lead and why commentators on his work, as far as I know, have not noted this missed opportunity.


* Around 1985-6 I started to call this “representing-intervening” but was frustrated to find a 1983 book had “stolen” the term, moreover using it to argue something quite different.  As Hilary Putnam put it in a review of said book, “His realism is a robust belief in the independent existence of certain objects (‘if you can spray them [i.e., reliably intervene through experiments], then they are real’), not a belief in the objective truth of the schemes of representation and explanation we call scientific theories.”  The book is Representing and Intervening, also by Hacking!

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