Skip to main content

Canadian Ian Hacking, winner of Norway'sHolberg Prize.JENNIFER ROBERTS

Like a beagle following his nose, Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking has followed his curiosity for 45 years into the intellectual puzzles of physical and social science, and Tuesday, Norway's parliament rewarded his work with an academic prize worth $750,000.

The breadth of interests the 73-year-old scholar - a professor at both University of Toronto and Collège de France in Paris - have been internationally celebrated for years as breathtaking.

He has written books on physics, the history and philosophy of the mathematical field of probability and statistical inference, autism, obesity, multiple personality disorder and other psychopathologies, child abuse, memory, the soul, weapons research, free will, determinism and the phenomenon of how people classify each other and are changed by the classifications - what he calls "making up people."

The citation for the 2009 Holberg Prize says his research has altered human understanding of key concepts and their implications in the natural and social sciences.

His 1990 book The Taming of Chance was rated by Random House publishers' Modern Library as one of the best 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century.

A reviewer of another of his books wrote that reading it was "like a casual visit to the British Museum. In one room we find studies of suicide by Quetelet and Durkheim, in another an assessment of the French judicial process at the time of Condorcet, and in yet another the demographics of Prussian Jews during a wave of anti-Semitism in the 1870s."

University of Toronto president David Naylor called the Vancouver-born philosopher "one of the true great scholars in the history of University of Toronto. He has transformed how we think about the concepts of probability and chance and he has made major and subtle contributions in topics such as the classification of mental illnesses and the nature of objectivity."

Prof. Hacking began an interview in his Toronto back garden Tuesday by pointing to a wasp flying past a rose, and then describing the physics principle of non-locality, the direct influence of one object on another distant object. It was the subject of a talk he had heard earlier in the day by University of Geneva physicist Nicolas Gisin, who received a University of Toronto prize for quantum mechanics research.

Just suppose, Prof. Hacking said enthusiastically, that the whole universe is governed by non-locality, that everything in the universe is aware of everything else. "That's what you should be writing about," he said. "Not me.

"I'm a dilettante. My governing word is 'curiosity.' That's why I'm fascinated by this work on non-locality. I would be very happy if you were to note that one of the features of me is that I'm curious. I would really be happy if you were to say up front that when you came in, the first thing I wanted to talk about was another prize given at University of Toronto this very day."

U of T philosopher Ronald de Souza said Prof. Hacking once told him that he was good at starting things.

"That would have been immodest coming from anyone else but him," Prof. de Souza said. "He's had an amazing career at starting intellectual industries.

He said Prof. Hacking's philosophical and historical research, first into the origins of statistics and then the rise of statistics in the last 19th century "when people started counting everything," has led to hundreds and hundreds of books by other scholars.

His argument that the essential business of science is experiment rather than theorizing - that unless you intervene in the world you don't get anywhere - ignited another line of research. As has his research into categorizing people, a phenomenon that touches on every aspect of how human beings describe themselves.

In his book Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory , Prof. Hacking argued that possession of memory is possession of the soul, and the soul is a form of self-consciousness or an awareness of how we have created ourselves, the politicization of personal memory.

"Child abuse, and repressed memories of child abuse," he has written, "are supposed to have powerful effects on the developing adult. What interests me is less the truth or falsehood of that proposition than the way in which assuming it [to have taken place]leads people to describe their own past anew. . . . Each of us becomes a new person as we re-describe the past."

Asked by the Holberg Prize committee about what topics concern him today, he replied: "Too many."

The prize, established in 2003, will be given to him at a ceremony in Bergen, Norway, on Nov. 29.

Interact with The Globe