Cyborgs – interactive or indifferent kinds

On this blog I already mentioned Ian Hackings groundbreaking work “The Social Construction of What?”

His central argument is that much of the work that has been done to ‘unmask’ certain phenomena as constructions often starts from the idea that these constructions are ‘false’ or in any case a ‘bad thing’ and according to Hacking this does not need to be so:

“Social constructionists about X tend to hold that:

1. X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

Very often they go further, and urge that:

2.X is quite bad as it is.
3.We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

A thesis of type (1) is the starting point: the existence or character of X is not determined by the nature of things. X is not inevitable. X was brought into existence or shaped by social events, forces history, all of which could well have been different. Many social construction theses at once advance to (2) and (3), but they need not do so. One may realize that something, which seems inevitable in the present state of things was not inevitable, and yet is nor thereby a bad thing. But most people who use the social construction idea enthusiastically want to criticize, change or destroy some X that they dislike in the established order of things”. (p. 6-7)

He goes even further by stating that the denial of the truth value of these constructions is in fact the incentive for talking about is as a construction:

“Notice how thesis (1) – X need not have existed – sets the stage for social construction talk about X. If everybody knows that X is the contingent upshot of social arrangements, there is no point in saying that it is socially constructed.
People begin to argue that X is socially constructed precisely when they find that:

0.In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted, X appears to be inevitable.

Statement (0) is not an assumption or presupposition about X. It states a precondition for a social constructionist thesis about X. Without (0) there is no inclination to talk about the social construction of X.”


Hacking makes an important distinction between interactive and indifferent kinds of construction. An interactive construction means that the subject of this construction “interacts” with it, it is influenced/ changed by the fact it is constructed this way and responds and acts (willingly or not) accordingly.

“Interactive” is a new concept that applies not to people but to classifications, to kinds, to the kinds that can influence what is classified. And because kinds can interact with what is classified, the classification itself may be modified or replaced.

I do not necessarily mean that hyperactive children, as individuals, on their own, become aware of how they are classified, and thus react to the classification. Of course they may, but the interaction occurs in the larger matrix of institutions and practices surrounding this classification.

The classification hyperactive did not interact with the children simply because the individual children heard the word and changed accordingly. It inter-acted with those who were so described in institutions and practices that were predicated upon classifying children as hyperactive.

We are especially concerned with classifications that, when known by people or by those around them, and put to work in institutions, change the ways in which individuals experience themselves—and may even lead people to evolve their feelings and behaviour in part because they are so classified.

(p.102 – 103)

Indifferent kinds are phenomena (however constructed) that are not “aware” that they are being constructed. It makes no difference for the phenomenon at hand to be “classified” as such. Here Hacking wants to counter “extreme” social constructionists who state that even natural phenomena and the exact sciences are “merely” constructions. He does not say that they aren’t constructions but he wants to make clear that this doesn’t have to be a problem as such.

All I want is a contrast to interactive kinds. Indifferent will do. The classification “quark” is indifferent in the sense that calling a quark a quark makes no difference to the quark.
Indifferent does not imply passive. The classification plutonium is indifferent, but plutonium is singularly nonpassive.

In denying that horse is an interactive kind, I am not denying that people and horses interact. I am saying that horses are no different for being classified as horses. Indeed it will make a difference, in law and to a Shetland pony, whether ponies are classified as horses: but not because the ponies know the law.

(p. 107)

In the rest of this chapter Hacking deals with phenomena that are difficult to distinguish as being interactive or indifferent kinds, that is psychopathologies such as mental retardation, childhood autism, and schizophrenia. Before he deals with this he counters critics who would confront him with another type of construction that is not easy to distinguish as either interactive or indifferent.

More iconoclastic thinkers than the philosophers of natural kinds will argue that there is a continuum between indifferent kinds and interactive kinds. I sympathize, but suspect that there is less of a continuum than a lot of fuzzy edges.
What about cyborgs? When the word “Cyborg” was first introduced (with a capital letter C) by two polymaths, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline (1960/1996), they meant a biological feedback mechanism that was not self-aware, attached potentially to human beings who were self-aware, and who thanks to the Cyborg would be more free to engage in thinking, exploring.4 Cyborgs were planned to be truly indifferent kinds of things, attached to things of an interactive kind. Science fiction modified the word so that cyborgs became self-aware machine-human compounds. These are interactive. The distinction between the interactive and the indifferent holds up surprisingly well for cyborgs, both real and fictional ones. (Hacking 1998e). But I do not count on that situation continuing. George Dyson (1997) may persuade us that we are in the midst of a wholly new stage of evolution, in which artificial intelligence becomes intelligent, in which machines are beginning to participate in evolution itself. Perhaps we will become aware of the ways in which machines are classifying us.

I am not yet obliged to answer questions that arise from this new movement of posthumanism. They are not pressing here, because in none of these questions is there enough of awareness to incline us to talk of interactive kinds. There is feedback, for sure, but not feedback in which self-conscious knowledge plays much of a role.

Maybe these questions will become pressing some day…

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