Ian Hacking of Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? and, much more recently, Historical Ontology fame has an article in the 17th August 2006 edition of the London Review of Books entitled Making Up People.
The London Review of Books is probably our planet’s best comic since the The Listener went belly-up. If you don’t know the LRB then don’t be put off by the title: with the exception of the location of lectures on topics such as British and Irish Contemporary Poetry, it has nothing to do with London and its connexion to books is also somewhat tenuous. Many of the articles, it must be admitted, are cast in the form of a review of a particular book but the quality, experience and knowledge of the reviewer often exceeds that of the author and the “review” becomes a deep declamation on the subject with a passing mention of the book in the last paragraph. In many cases, such as Hacking’s article, the pretence of reviewing is discarded and the author is given the liberty (and space) to write a thought-provoking article.
Hacking’s article relates back to another article of his in the 11th May issue. The earlier article dealt with autism and the current one contrasts Dissociative Identity Disorder and obesity. All of these conditions have been named recently and Hacking’s thesis revolves around “…the classifications of people, …how they affect the people classified and how the affects on the people in turn change the classifications”. Dissociative Identity Disorder was named in the 1980s and Hacking considers (amongst others) the statement
There were no multiple personalities in 1955; there were many in 1985.
Some people would say that this is false because there were many multiple personalities in 1955, they were simply not diagnosed. Other people would say that this is false because multiple personalities is a specious diagnosis and there were none in 1985 either.
Towards the end of the article, Hacking refers to John Stuart Mill’s distinction between saying that Dobbin is a horse and saying that Dobbin is white. Saying that Dobbin is a horse carries a lot of information about things Dobbin has in common with other horses. Saying that Dobbin is white says nothing about Dobbin’s commonality with other objects other than their whiteness. Mill concerned himself about whether telling someone about Joe’s race and sex is equivalent to saying Dobbin is a horse or Dobbin is white but Hacking is comfortable saying that autism is horse-like and obesity white-like.
Hacking’s loop of classifying and naming something, that classification affecting the behaviour of the people concerned and the behaviour of the people concerned affecting the classification, is nowhere clearer than in my trade—computer programming. I could paraphrase Hacking’s statement quoted above as
There were no object-oriented programmers in 1970; there were many in 1995.
and it would be subject to the same two objections:
- there were many object-oriented programmers in 1970 but they were not recognised as such
- object-oriented programming is a poorly-defined discipline and most of those in 1995 claiming to be doing it were actually writing non-object-oriented code in an object-oriented language.
We are now standing at the top of the cliff waiting for the push from behind to take us from object-oriented programming, which is now passé, to component-oriented programming. Does this mean that there were no component-oriented programmers in 1995? Does “John is an object-oriented programmer” tell us something horse-like or something white-like about John? The answer must be horse-like.
In his article, Hacking says that in 1986, writing about split personalities, he wrote that there could never be “split” bars, analogous to gay bars. In 1991 he went into his first “split” bar. May I predict now that there could never be “component-oriented” bars in the way that there are gay bars? See you there in five years.