Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology as a Realist Puralism

There has been a stimulating discussion about pluralism from a number of bloggers recently. A pretty comprehensive list was compiled on Critical Animal here: The Pluralism Wars and there will surely be more to come. It seems a call from Levi Bryant was heeded by a number of bloggers, and the question of where pluralism fits with realism is a worthy enough question considering the existential threat that we all really face and the spectacular plurality of beliefs, opinions, and political factions out there spinning their tales. The whole thing has been very cordial, a far cry from how heated things use to get two years ago. I have no evidence or data to support this claim, but I still firmly believe that the big occupy rupture spiked people’s expressiveness – for good or ill of the conversation. It is when in the middle of an event, when a well argued speech or article might change the course of the assemblage and have a dramatic effect on people’s actions in concert that we bring out the big guns. It is when the “we need to calmly discuss this and carefully understand” becomes “we need to do this right Now!”.

There are many mentions of Latour, Whitehead, Stengers, and James, with James being the only philosopher I really have any decent grasp on. Stengers it seems has shunt tolerance, and cosmopolitics is no “let’s all get along” world peace plea. Latour as well talked extensively about war and its ecological shape with Gaia as a political actor (or maybe just entity). Anyways, when it comes to ontology and pluralism I thought I’d add my two cents while revisiting an old philosopher (he’s actually still alive) by the name of Ian Hacking. I was lucky enough to have Hacking as a professor in a senior seminar back at UC Santa Cruz in 2009. He was both challenging and friendly, opening us up to some of the more radical and intricate subjects in analytic philosophy at a time when we pined for the revolutionary philosophers of power, force, and deconstruction.

Hacking takes from Foucault’s genealogical work a historical dimension to truth and extracts it for analytical purposes. The method of looking back to history to understand the present is one that seeks not to solve a problem and give a definite answer as in a political decision, but situate oneself with a useful framing of the problem. The question is altered from “what is this being?” or “is being multiple or singular?” but “what process led to this or that being?” or “what effects does the naming of this being have?”. It is a fundamentally different question that places beings inside a continuum, a continuum that does not muse on the ontology by itself but rather changes in behavior, the disturbances brought on by beings, labels, names, and identities in their sites. To investigate how something came to be a thing at all, the coming-into-being of a being historically, does not get lost in whether beings are of a material quality or socially constructed. Hacking side steps these problems and asks a different one in a pragmatic way that skips right past pragmatist philosophy. He actually does research on child development, trauma, statistics, probability, and how naming – bringing a being into existence as a linguistic entity – is not just a description/explanation of a thing but effects it in a value-ridden way.

“This act of naming and labeling is far from arbitrary and it has powerful consequences for the actions one might take.” Declaring a being takes an utterance, an actor in a site or context that is far from impartial. Hacking invokes history as providing the inextricable place from which to situate beings: meaning that beings cannot be without their place. Far from an anti-realist, he says “I think of myself as a “dynamic nominalist” interested in how our practices of naming interact with the things that we name – but I could equally be called a dialectical realist, preoccupied by the interaction between what there is (and what comes into being) and our conception of it.”

A marked separation is held in Hacking where a thing has being on its own, aside from language and the names we give it; yet our naming and descriptions of these things are never neutral. The distinction {language – reality} is kept to avoid straw-man relativism, but there interplay is complex given the linguistic character of ‘being’. Being is in an unavoidable sense just a word. But when a thing is allowed to be called a being – it is granted access to being, gains currency, or becomes normalized – it takes on a material significance in the organization of matter.

The “linguistic turn” is closely studied by analytic philosophers and has something vital to say about a pluralist ontology: affirming the multiple over the single (as the paradoxical title of James’ A Pluralistic Universe embodies) does not rid us of a duality between word and world. ‘Worlds of discourse’ and the ‘hermeneutic circle’ that ensure that meaning must come from a place or context where other meanings bump into it and always have. We can be realists and hold the seemingly dualistic notion of words and things apart. I am not a realist, but that will have to be developed at another time (hint: think parallelism from Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy). On questions of ontology, this separation of language and real things (bodies and flesh if you will) is a major problem for any flat ontology that attempts to make objects all equally real (that is possibly oversimplified).

“In fact, “ontology” turns out to be perfect, for we are concerned with two types of being: on the one hand, Aristotelian universals – trauma or child development – and on the other hand, the particulars that fall under them – this psychic pain or that developing child. The universal is not timeless but historical, and it and its instances, the children or the victims of trauma, are formed and changed as the universal emerges. I have called this process dynamic nominalism, because it so strongly connects what comes into existence with the historical dynamics of naming and the subsequent use of name.”

To exacerbate the difference, a totally fictional being (a deity, a spirit) does not exist in material-reality. But problems sprout up immediately: the name “material-reality” has being in conjuring a linguistic entity and expressing it in discourse. The thing must have a site in language, in history. We can keep the distinction {reality – fiction} while paying attention to the way fiction alters reality in the perpetual act of naming and to the way reality asserts itself on the decision of naming a thing, or bringing something to being. Intertwinings abound, but this does not collapse the distinction.

For the purposes of philosophical inquiry and ontology as a subject within it, history works to situate beings in such a way as to enable deep analysis along with ethical implications for the present. Things neither completely lose their realness nor remain at a intangible distance from our (mostly language driven here) action through his being-altering nominalism. Both the linguistic operation and the real thing are kept apart even though his interests lie in the effects of the latter on the former. Those things exist separately, but new things come into existence that have a major influence on how we live, teach our children, deal justice, stereotype, and normalize certain behaviors over others.

“At its boldest, historical ontology would show how to understand, act out, and resolve present problems, even when in so doing it generated new ones. At its more modest it is conceptual analysis, analyzing our concepts, but not in the timeless way for which I was educated as an undergraduate, in the finest tradition of philosophical analysis. That is because the concepts have their being in historical sites. The logical relations among them were formed in time, and they cannot be perceived correctly unless their temporal dimensions are kept in view. This dedication to analysis makes use of the past, but it is not history.”

Problematization is the edge here. Taking concepts in there sites (his mantra is “a concept is a word in its sites”) takes a look at the big picture from a suspended moral position. One can begin with the aim of generating a positive good with one’s work, but also forgo value-judgments in that work. To frame the problem and broaden one’s perspective is one way of philosophizing: to look at the historical site, the processes leading up to it, and the series of effects that it has taken on bodies. The distinction {figure – ground} is also kept here, even if the ground is not-so solid. A better distinction would be {thing – place}, usually in the form of named-being and history in Hacking. Problematizing makes us sharper as well as more humble theorists by paying attention to the place/site at which we fashion our concepts, making them more potent tools for critical theorists. A good example of this is Colin Koopman’s nascent project of Infopolitcs:

Writing on Foucault, Hacking draws a distinction between two attitudes and shows how one can operate under one and exclude the other, but switch at a later time. One can be “intrinsically moral” and/or “extrinsically meta-moral” in one’s endeavors. Foucault’s histories were extrinsically meta-moral because they began from a problem in the present and went on to explore the emergence of that problem rather than propose a quick fix. There was a demand to know what he valued, what Foucault thought was right since he was a popular public intellectual with a wide reaching audience, but his project sought to get us to ask the right questions and understand how we got where we are in order for right action to develop on its own rather than prescribe it in theory.

“It is also extrinsically meta-moral. By this I mean it can be used to reflect on evaluation itself. The reflection can be done only by taking a look into the origin of our idea… But it is a social rather than personal formation of the concept. It involves history. The application is to our present pressing problems. The history is history of the present, how our present conceptions were made, how the conditions for their formation constrain our present ways of thinking. The whole is the analysis of concepts. For me that means philosophical analysis.”

This emphasis on history and process in concepts is clearly meant to bring the radical contingency of concepts into the fore. Universals exist in social arrangements, hermeneutic circles, and historical sites but in a constrained way. This constraint is a direct result of taking the meta-moral long-view and, in the same way that pluralism tends to promote harmony and respect for the other, the historical-contingency outlook does discourage an imperialistic “my way is the only way” mentality. We can turn around and take the intrinsically moral stance however and act in the present, which would be made better equipped by understanding the site (historically/genealogically/geographically) more clearly, having switched perspectives to the long-view in the past.

Suddenly the fire comes back. We throw around universals and make assertive claims to correctness in the present. An ethical urgency returns and the immediacy of the situation bears down on us so that we are making claims with the weight of the universal behind them. This weighty force can actually be increased by our prior change in perspective.

Just to bring it home: a climate scientist is wrapped up in a schizophrenic situation where they must be objective and take that distant world-view as a requirement for their job. The skeptical, impartial-as-can-be attitude has been ingrained in scientific training in a long history of refinement and revolution. To then take one’s findings and speak out in a present political situation is to make a qualitative leap from the extrinsically meta-moral researcher to the intrinsically moral lobbyist or expert. One can be on one side at one time and then on the other side in an other time. The trick is to be able to identify when you are being the broad and skeptical experimenter and when you are the policy-driven politico. The ability to switch up perspectives and see the world from a plurality of angles means that the universal one must be included with them. It is a matter of selection between site-determined stances and not the demand to hold them all available discreetly that would characterize an ethical pluralism.

Hacking’s style is of the analytic flavor – contrary to my own. The obsession with systematic logic and propositions turned me off at an early age. But his conclusions have much to offer across the divide. It is an exercise in switching one’s perspective, becoming more interesting and creative (in the Nietzschean sense of giving style to one’s character) that allows thinkers and philosophers to build bridges and make leaps between the divides that plague effective policy and scientistic authority.

I’ll end with a quote out of Hacking’s chapter where he most analytically and summarily treats language and realism called ‘Anarcho-Rationalism’:

“1)There are different styles of reasoning. Many of these are discernible in our own history. They emerge at definite points and have distinct trajectories of maturation. Some die out, others are still going strong.
2)Propositions of the sort that necessarily require reason to be substantiated have a positivity, a being true-or-false, only in consequence of the styles of reasoning in which they occur.
3)Hence, many categories of possibility, of what may be true or false, are contingent upon historical events, namely the development of certain styles of reasoning.
4)It may then be inferred that there are other categories than have emerged in our tradition.
5)We cannot reason as to whether alternative systems of reasoning are better or worse than ours, because the propositions to which we reason get their sense only from the method of reasoning employed. The propositions have no existence independent of the ways of reasoning towards them.”

And then to really finish:

“Anarcho-rationalism is tolerance for other people combined with the discipline of one’s own standards of truth and reason.”

All quotes are from Historical Ontology (Harvard, 2002)


Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

One thought on “Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology as a Realist Puralism”

  1. Thanks for bringing Ian Hacking into this discussion. He is a really great thinker, but somehow often gets left out. One of the early and great thinkers of biopolitics, but often gets left out of those discussions. A wonderful thinker of constructivism, but often is ignored for the big three (Latour, Stengers, and Haraway). Anyway, a lot to digest in this post.

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