In this post, I will attempt to have an extended dialogue with Latour on his terms (for my original thoughts on Pandora’s Hope by Bruno Latour, see my previous post on this subject for an introduction to the topic). I will attempt to line by line, paragraph by paragraph, engage with Latour’s text and try to extricate some meaning out of it. I really do believe this is an excellent book- groundbreaking even. It is essentially an apology for science studies, the study of science philosophically and anthropologically. Nonetheless, I will try to add to it, as an “interlocutor”.
For now, I will limit myself to Chapter 1 of the book. Latour refers throughout the chapter to the reader as a friend, and as a friend, I cannot help but engage with the subject matter as an outside observer who knows how texts are put together. This is what I mean by deconstruction. However, as Latour points out, deconstruction is often satisfied at taking apart the pieces and not forming any kind of conclusion- I will attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct Latour’s discourse, to engage with the actual ideas put forth by him, but I will attempt to salvage the concept of deconstruction in the process.
The book starts out, as I said before, with a psychologist asking Latour “do you believe in reality?” Latour goes on to say that:
“The psychologist’s suspicion struck me as deeply unfair, since he did not seem to understand that in this guerrilla war that being conducted in the no-man’s land between the “two cultures”, we were the ones being attacked by militants, activists, sociologists, philosophers, and technophobes of all hues, precisely because of our interest in the inner workings of scientific facts. Who loves the sciences, I asked myself, more than this tiny scientific tribe that has learned to open up facts, machines, and theories with all their roots, blood vessels, networks, rhizomes, and tendrils?…Then I realized that I was wrong.” (3)
Latour portrays himself as a lover of science, not its “deconstructer”, in the sense offered by postmodernism and Derrida. He will turn to this question later. However, he goes on to say that he acknowledges this is not how science itself sees him, and science studies, that science views it as an attack on its legitimacy. Here Latour acknowledges struggling openly with this question of the “science wars”. First, he tries attempting to find a “genealogy” of the epistemological perspective of science. He starts with Descartes, and here I agree with him, when he says that the concept of an “outside” reality separate from us started principally with Descartes.
“Descartes was asking for absolute certainty from a brain-in-a-vat, a certainty that was not needed when the brain (or mind) was firmly attached to its body and the body thoroughly involved in its normal ecology…Absolute certainty is the sort of neurotic fantasy that only a surgically removed mind would look for after it had lost everything else…For Descartes the only route by which his mind-in-a-vat could reestablish some reasonably sure connection with the outside world was through God. My friend the psychologist was thus right to phrase his query using the same formula I had learned in Sunday school: “Do you believe in reality?”- “Credo in unum deum”, or rather “Credo in unum realitam”
In this passage, Latour points to the fact that the Cartesian cogito is a disembodied mind, that Cartesian dualism has been an error that has divorced the mind from the body and thereby formed the basis of the rationalist error which Nietzsche sought to correct, by remembering that the human being is also a flesh and blood body that feels pain. “I think therefore I am”- the cry of the navel-gazing philosopher. So far so good. I wish there was a kind of summarizing statement, despite the fact that he quotes Lyotard, that science in its current form contains a metanarrative about reality, the Cartesian metaphysical inheritance and baggage. Maybe he’s trying to convey this to a more popular audience, but he doesn’t have to. The book actually becomes very technical.
Here’s where I start to take issue with Latour’s philosophical narrative. Latour goes through the admittedly “slapdash” history of Western philosophy by saying that the conception of the mind got slowly more disconnected from reality, essentially implying that Western philosophy was committed the error of solipsism. Not quite, but Latour is doing two jobs at once. First, he dismisses the epistemology of empiricism and the tabula rasa by saying that in this conception of the world “they were still dealing with a mind looking through the gaze at a lost outside world”. Latour basically claims that the principle of the cogito still acts in empiricism, subtly, even though empiricism first and foremost a critique of Cartesian rationalism. I fault him for not going further into this, even though I think he has a point about this part. Latour starts going off the rails when he talks about Kant.
“This philosophy was thought, strangely enough, to be the deepest of all, because it had at once managed to abandon the quest for absolute certainty and to retain it under the banner of “universal a prioris”, a clever sleight of hand that hid the lost path even deeper in the thickets. Kant had invented a form of constructivism in which the mind-in-a-vat built everything by itself but not entirely without constraints: what it learned from itself had to be universal and could be elicited only by some experimental contact with a reality out there.”
Before we get into Latour’s interpretation of Kant, what is this “lost path” of which he speaks? Naive realism. No joke! Here is his conclusion:
“Through a series of counter-Copernican revolutions, Kant’s nightmarish fantasy slowly lost its pervasive dominance over the philosophy of science. There was again a clear sense in which we could say words have reference to the world and that science grasps the things themselves. Naivete was back at last, a naivete appropriate for those who had never understood how the world could be “outside” in the first place.”
Now, before we get into this, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what Latour calls the “fear of mob rule” and its effect on scientific reasoning. This is the best part of the chapter by far. It offers a sociological and genealogical explanation of why the psychologist asked the question. He traces its deep roots back to Plato’s Gorgias and how Socrates’ argument with Callicles, which took the form of a debate on whether Might makes Right, was already in an aristocratic frame in which Might was a moral might of the ruler, not the mob of common people that had only “brute strength”.
Here is Latour’s summary of it:
“As I said, two fears lay behind my friend’s strange question. The first one, the fear of a mind-in-a-vat losing its connection to a world outside, has a shorter history than the second, which stems from this truism: if reason does not rule, then mere force will take over” (10)
In essence, Latour is saying that scientists want to guard against the postmodernist idea what is true is only what the mob deems true at a given moment, and thus more input by non-scientists into the field is seen as an attack on scientific objectivity. This statement, taken by itself, is pure genius. The two fears are essentially correct. My problem is what goes around them. The fear of the mob is also most associated with an essentially Hobbesian politics, where the human subject is essentially something to be controlled. No mention of Hobbes in the book. This can be forgiven in my mind, but his defense of naive realism and dismissal of Kant cannot.
But first let me get to Latour’s conclusion:
“Science studies, as I see it, has made two related discoveries that were very slow in coming because of the power of the settlement [between epistemology, morality, politics, and psychology] that I have now exposed- as well as for a few other reasons I will explain later. This joint discovery is that neither the object nor the social has the inhuman character that Socrates’ and Callicles’ melodramatic show required…When we say that science is social, the word social for us does not bear the stigma of the ‘human debris'”.
Again, this is brilliant. The chief insight is the connection between fear of mob rule and scientific construction of facts. Latour attempts to reconnect reality, by way of a simple diagram, by saying that nature, society, mind, etc were never separate. My problem is namely the epistemology he defends at the end of all this, the epistemology I claim is not his real one.
Latour invokes the poetics of a world in which the objects shape people and people shape objects, the scientist is shaped by his experiments as much as he shapes his experiment. What absolutely puzzles me is that despite Latour’s focus in later chapters on scientific method and on the precise way that scientific data is categorized, systematized, etc. Latour chooses to defend a naive realism. I chock this up to the fact that Latour is associated with object oriented ontology. As I have stated in other posts, OOO talks about the interaction between objects in the real world. Latour chooses to see the construction of scientific facts as a result of interaction between objects, social actors, etc. Latour defends interdisciplinary studies in this way, in which more connections is good. I have no problem with this. My problem is his obvious disdain for Derridean deconstruction, which I believe accounts for his disdain of Kant.
For one, Latour has his philosophical history incorrect. Latour should find a worthy ally in Kant in science studies, with a few tweaks. By taking Kant’s transcendental a priori categories through which the mind views reality, and substituting leaned cognitive interpretive mechanisms, Latour could see Kant in his proper context as properly revolutionary, instead of a relic of a bygone era. Latour does not recognize how his entire project, indeed his entire philosophical existence, depends on Kant’s innovation, on Kant’s simple recognition that the reality is experienced through the mind, and that space and time are categories by which we experience reality, not natural categories inherent to reality itself. Latour, despite this, seems to defend a Newtonian view of the world proper to Descartes, who he rightfully despises. Latour has abandoned his philosophical predecessors as simply those who confused and constructed virtual “prison cells” of thought, who kept us from viewing reality as it always was, just simple connection, simple embeddedness. Latour thus, in a very strange way, implies that we should analyze things and interactions between people “through the lens of our everyday experience of reality”, believing our eyes, etc. As if this is not what the scientists do that he is supposed to critically examine! Latour does not go as far as to defend “common sense”, since he believes this common sense in our culture has been hijacked by fear of mob rule and the Cartesian cogito, but he commits another sin which is not as easily recovered from- ultimately believing in his perceptions. In that sense, his critique of empiricism is also strange, because he seems to be one, just like the philosophers he intends to criticize.
In short, Latour, in the introduction to his book on the critical study of science, of how science actually is practiced, ends up being an apology to his critics. Latour ends up making the absurd statement that “we in science studies may have finally found a way to free the sciences from politics”- unless I’m missing some deep point, the idea that science can be ultimately extricated from political and social forces, or even redeemed of these forces, made cognizant of them so that that “bias” can be eliminated, is absurd!!
In my naivete, I had assumed before reading that Latour was a Foucauldian. Now I realize he must find Foucault abhorrent (he states this explicitly in a later chapter), rather than acknowledging that he owes a great debt to Foucault, without whom he might not exist. Maybe the simple expression “Power/Knowledge” is an oversimplification- the idea that they are inextricably interlinked, especially in the realm of what was previously considered “objective” hard science, is now unquestionable. His purposeful distancing of himself from his French forebears is bizarre.
Latour consciously positions himself as a Researcher, as a defender of Research, and an anti-postmodernist, in order to rid himself of the stench of the humanist that he is. He positions himself as completely in between the sciences and the humanities, rather than simply a social scientist, an anthropologist. Latour is at his best doing what anthropologists do- simple and clear thick description. Normally, anthropologists start out their books without complex philosophical interludes, explaining their research methods. Not for the hybrid philosopher-anthropologist! Latour is so obviously and culturally French that its impossible that he is aware of it. This is why Latour’s critique of postmodernism’s obsession with reflexivity, of questioning one’s own interpretation, seems suspicious.
In conclusion, Latour’s project itself is interesting and worthwhile. I am less than impressed with the philosophical history, despite his pedigree. There seems to be a veritable obsession in his work with theory, and despite this, I see that he has taken sides in a philosophical battlefield and revealed certain prejudices. The section in the first chapter about what science studies offer the sciences and the humanities is very telling, but can essentially be boiled down to a call for more collaboration. The idea that philosophical revelations will unfold or that the sciences will once and for all overcome mortal human weaknesses I find not only funny, but something that undermines what Latour is trying to do. I believe Latour could approach this whole project with a deeper degree of humility.
Latour will undoubtedly see my critique (if I he ever sees a lowly grad student’s musings on this subject) as the ramblings of die-hard humanist, deconstructivist relativist. Far from it! I simply believe that Latour needs to retake Anthropological Theory. Through my anthropological training, I cannot help but see any text, including Latour’s, as the product of culture, or more precisely, as the limited product of a human mind, necessarily unfinished and driven toward a particular audience. His book, including the chapter “The Invention of the Science Wars”, is meant to allay the fears of the scientists he studies- “do not worry, we are your allies!”. Latour does discuss how politics intertwines with science of course, through funding, institutions, etc. But must he realize that science is never neutral, that there are ideological enemies, that the science wars are already raging among the scientists themselves! Of course he must, he knows this subject better than anyone else. But Latour basically suffers from a principle misconception of what deconstruction is, which Derrida criticized so often its almost impossible Latour himself didn’t hear it in grad school. As an interpreter of Derrida says:
“Deconstruction is not synonymous with “destruction”, however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word ‘analysis’ itself, which etymologically means “to undo” — a virtual synonym for “to de-construct.” … If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text’s critical difference from itself.”
Latour’s critical difference from itself, the construction of a kind of master discourse about Science, without the necessary degree of reflexivity, is what makes his work, in my mind, at least in this first chapter, insufficiently anthropological. In other words, the interpretive mechanisms through which Latour analyzes a given scientific practice are largely unstated, and the inner workings of his thought process and how he comes to a conclusion (reflexivity) is apparent in this text.
“Latour has a well-referenced bibliography, that’s how he came to his conclusion! His thought process is apparent throughout the book!” Latour’s dismissal of the concept that Western philosophy has relied on a metaphysics of presence over absence reveals his lack of awareness of how exactly the construction of an “outside world”, his principle question, is even accomplished. The metaphysics of presence, logocentrism- all of these could be Latour’s tools and conceptual weapons. Instead, he chooses to ally himself with naive realism, and leave the blueprints of his narrative of philosophical history sketch to the imagination. That is what I mean