University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

What’s in a Name?

Labels may end up suiting the people we apply them to

Whether we label a person a “football hooligan,” a “social butterfly” or a “sex addict,” we may end up creating a person who fits that label, says a U of T philosophy professor. People may actually change their personality after they have been classified – or labelled – by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other authority figure, says Professor Ian Hacking. However, the meaning of the classification can also change, because those being labelled change in response to it. “For example, the classification of ‘genius’ has changed numerous times over the centuries as have the consequences of being labelled a genius,” he says. In Greek times, for example, genius was looked upon as divine inspiration, while in the Romantic period, it was associated with a kind of madness. Today, he says, it is linked with scores on intelligence tests. We do not need to abandon classifications, says Hacking, but must be aware of both their positive and negative repercussions. “Calling a horse a horse doesn’t mean anything to the animal one way or another,” he says, “but in many of the sciences that study humans, there is a strong drive to think one is producing classifications that are totally innocuous to the individual being classified.”

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