Mini-Book Review: Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?

I like to think of Ian Hacking as the “Oliver Sacks” of phil. science. Hacking – never a bore – makes reading and thinking about the history of science positively fun (and controversial!). Hacking’s writing is usually stocked with interesting facts, details, and stories. The Social Construction of What? is no exception. In this short collection of essays, Hacking dives into the Science Wars , sometimes called the “Culture Wars”, using a different “case study” per chapter. If you finish the book, you will have a better appreciation for  the myriad complexities in making sense of what people mean when they say “X is socially constructed” (the range and diversity of entities/predicates claimed to be constructed is phenomenal). Ambiguity is King in the Science Wars, but Hacking extracts the signal from the noise and states the relevant interpretations in an amicably clear fashion. Hacking makes a compelling case that these Wars represent “sticking points” of differing philosophical temperaments with a long and distinguished history e.g. the ancient debate between what Hacking calls nominalism and inherent-structuralism.

Hacking’s contributions to these debates involves clearing up a mess of conceptual confusions about what the debate amounts to, what the relevant terms mean and don’t mean, and how to resolve (or dissolve) the tension. Hacking seems to think that the term “social construction” is practically useless given the inevitable ambiguities and myriad meanings associated with the term. Ever ecumenical, Hacking nevertheless argues that both the realists and constructionists have a point worth making, and diagnoses the debates partially as a result of each side talking past each other with an ample dose of pamphleteering on both sides. Once a scientific question is well-posed, realists are right to insist there are determinate answers independent of what anyone thinks. But constructionists are right to point out that contingent personal, social, and cultural factors influence what questions are asked, as well as the standards and methods used to evaluate the answers to the questions. Thus, Hacking concludes that although the “content” of science is realist enough to warrant the term, the “form” of science is not.5/5 stars.


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Philosophy of science

One response to “Mini-Book Review: Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?

  1. Sounds really interesting, thanks for the recommendation : )

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