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Ian Hacking

SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research

Ian Hacking   "When my first book on statistical inference came out I was an unknown. Within weeks I got letters from professional statisticians who were delighted a philosopher was thinking about their work. I still have a little file of these amazing letters and that experience gave me the courage in later years to enter fields I know almost nothing about, and very confidently go to the best people and talk to them."

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Ian Hacking, winner of the 2008 SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on the history and philosophy of science.

For more than four decades, his research has demonstrated how our contemporary investigations of nature and of ourselves—our science, our philosophy and our definitions of chance, illness and the self—are shaped by the history of concepts, and how expert knowledge feeds back into society over time and changes the way we think about the world.

He has received numerous national and international academic awards, including the Killam Prize in 2002 and the Molson Prize in 2000. He is a companion of the Order of Canada, and a celebrated fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 2001 to 2006, he held one of the most prestigious professorships in the world as a professor at the Collège de France—the first anglophone ever to receive this honour.

Yet, his journey to becoming one of Canada’s most cited scholars in the humanities and social sciences began in an unlikely place. As an undergraduate in mathematics and physics at the University of British Columbia, Hacking worked his way through college in the woods of BC and later in oil exploration in Northern Alberta. His entry into philosophy came when he applied for a scholarship to Cambridge University to study what was then called “moral sciences.”

“If I hadn’t received the scholarship, I am certain I would have carried on in the oil industry,” says Hacking, now professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “But, going to Cambridge was just perfect for me. The process was very informal and allowed a great deal of freedom. I could think about anything, and that’s just what I’ve done all my life.”

Indeed, Hacking’s impressive body of research examines everything from multiple personality disorder to the emergence of probability in western society. He is in constant demand as a speaker on topics that range from adult education to biotechnology to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, and the quality of his work transcends boundaries inspiring new research in fields as disparate as autism and entrepreneurship.

“I often get books and letters from people saying, ‘I wanted to send this to you because you’ve had such an impact on my work’,” he says. “Sometimes the topics are so far removed that I’m astonished my work could have reached that far.”

His wide influence, however, seems natural given the tremendous range of his research. In 1975, he published the Emergence of Probability—a book he today refers to as his first love. It was the first time someone examined the rise of probability and statistical thinking from a historical-philosophical point of view, and it launched a new sub-discipline within the philosophy of science. The Taming of Chance (1990)—named one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century—expanded on this work, demonstrating how probability moved from the margins of society to mainstream thinking on everything from crime to medicine to debates about free will.

In Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (1995) Hacking used the emergence of multiple personality disorder to examine how scientific exploration of social and psychological conditions can produce the very phenomena it studies. In a completely different vein of research, Hacking’s 1983 book, Representing and Intervening, changed the way philosophers approach science by placing how experimental scientists carry out their work on equal footing with theorists.

For all the breadth of his thinking, his research is united by universal themes about humanity and how we construct and interpret the world around us. And this, perhaps, is why Hacking’s work has been embraced so completely by people from all walks of life around the world. 

The SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research is the Council’s highest research honour. It is awarded to an individual whose leadership, dedication, and originality of thought have significantly advanced understanding in his or her field of research, enriched Canadian society, and contributed to the country's cultural and intellectual life.