Some Memories of the Life and Work of Bruno Latour (1947-2022)
This is wonderful stuff; the concept of premature naturalization of scientific findings (or 'findings") is particularly relevant in my field, where the legitimacy of public health epidemiologists among nutrition and metabolism practitioners was undermined by the premature naturalization of two hypotheses - "eating fat causes obesity and diabetes" and "eating saturated fat causes heart disease".
I've watched many of the people who pushed back as these errors became exposed by the progress of science squander the goodwill (which they certainly earned by helping thousands regain their health) by becoming outspoken "skeptics", or self-appointed experts in scientific fields well out of their expertise and experience - mRNA vaccines, ivermectin, immunology, infectious disease epidemiology - during the Covid epidemic. I've wondered why so many of these influential figures jumped off that cliff instead of sticking to and being protective of their most valid knowledge and their most important roles - after all type 2 diabetes will still be here and dangerous long after Covid is gone or insignificant. Certainly the experts made errors, but they weren't of the order that would automatically make an opposing view correct, and it had taken decades of careful work to expose the errors in nutrition.
At any rate premature naturalization of scientific theories can have disastrous real-world effects, both on public health directly, and on the credibility of scientific expertise once errors are exposed - which will itself have disastrous effects in the next emergency.
Boy cries wolf, has a few laughs, if only.
Thanks for this! I've always wanted to understand Latour better. This post was a great start!
Thank you for clearly articulating the major themes of Latour's work, and clarifying his views of the nature of facts and scientific pursuits.
Your essay prompted me to read his 'Matters of fact, Matters of Concern', and while overall it made me more receptive to Latour's arguments, I'm inclined to see more than a hint of regret and second-guessing on his part of his earlier positions, as much as refining them (mind you, this may simply be my own prejudices at play, as an ardent realist, even though in my younger years, as a grad student, I was emotionally drawn to consctructivism and narrative as demarcating the means of comprehending reality).
Latour clearly was troubled by witnessing what appeared to be a post-fact society, and seemed concerned that he had somehow contributed to an intellectual decay. (My impression is that our era is no more or less prone to nonsensical, farcical pronouncements held by many as 'more true' than empirically grounded knowledge.) He seemed genuinely surprised, if not shocked, that the country folk of his village would show absolute disdain for his education because he accepted as true the observed reality of terrorists flying planes into iconic American buildings and murdering thousands. Hence the need to rescue 'critical studies' from the clutches of politically motivated arsonists seeking to eradicate the insititutions of knowledge generation and propogation.
I recently read another essay about Latour, and my comment in reply may be more of a response to the author's version of Latour than Latour himself (I don't question that you would know much better than I), but in any event, I rerpise here, since it captures my views as clearly as I can articulate them:
As much as I’ve found empirical pluralism to have a certain emotional appeal (it seems somehow more egalitarian, I suppose), positivism has a nagging insistence, which is adroitly captured by the sage Groucho Marx- “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal’.
The mundane has an unglamorous incorrigibility to it, even if we are capable of embellishing it with wondrous abstractions. Our models and metaphors are indispenible for comprehending the maelstrom of interacting matter that crosses our perceptual field, but we are prone to being swept away with the cleverness of our abstractions, which are ultimately, inherently, derivative, not revelatory.
Knowing the politcal context of Mahsa Amini’s murder by morality police has value. It behooves us to reckon the cultural situation that cultivates and gives official sanction to men committing such atrocities ( I consider political views to be manifestations of worldview, a person’s worldview, or the collective worldview of a group, expressed in acts). What prompts us to reckon the cultural situation, to assess the worldview of the murderers, and to fathom what any of us might (must?) do in response, is the material fact that Mahsa Amini was alive, and now she is dead.
No disquisition, however elaborate, alters that fundamental reality. In fact, the horrific truth of her murder- as a brute fact- just might prompt us to critically reconsider all manner of disquisitions.
I’ll revise my earlier statement slightly: the mundane has an unglamourous, and urgent incorrigibility to it.
Lucky I skimmed the text version instead of just voiceover this time, the exhibition sounds beautiful strange exciting! Hope I can make it out, or that it eventually meanders to the opposite coast.
Fantastic article...thank you! İ wonder whether seeing the earth as a "pale blue dot" led us to think of ourselves (and it) as insignificant? As if the problem had been that we cared too much and desired lightness (Arendt: the paradox of discovering we're *only* creatures of the earth led to a desire to escape from it). Gagarin: "There's no God here."
Also, if it's ultimately (or fundamentally?) a choice of how we read the world aren't we back to scepticism?
> Latour is one of the few philosophers who succeeds at using etymology to illuminate, rather than to obfuscate
I have often thought the same of you, Justin.
Though it is not your main focus of concern: Aren't you, on several occasions here, guilty of the same confusion that most of us realists are so exasperated about with Latour and constructivists in general? Namely the refusal to distinguish between a phenomenon and *our concept of* a phenomenon - between gravity and *the theory of* gravity?
You say at one point for instance that "Arguably, it is at this moment that the Earth itself became a thing". But that claim is silly if you read it literally, isn't it? What one should say, to be accurate, is rather that it is at this moment *our conceptualization* of the Earth became *a concept of a thing*. The Earth didn't change. What changed was how we looked at it and conceived of it.
Physicists never constructed gravity; they constructed theories of gravity. Meteorologists construct models of the weather; they don't construct the weather. Medical researchers construct theories of viruses and introduced us to the concept of a virus; they didn't introduce the virus. And that distinction is rather crucial. Failure to draw the distinction is what makes natural phenomena, like gravity or viruses, seem contingent: that gravity could be different if we had different theories, and by extension, that you could change reality by replacing the scientists who study it (or if the discourses in scientific groups were different). It's the blurring of that crucial distinction that tends to make scientific findings appear to be merely discursively constructed (that is: How could they not be merely discursively constructed unless you draw the distinction?) And the reason we tend to blame Latour, in part, for the post-truth environment rests largely on his tendency not to be willing to draw that distinction.
A hackneyed example of the confusion is that claim that it is anachronistic to say that Rameses II died of tuberculosis because tuberculosis wasn't part of the conceptual scheme (or whatever) at the time. But of course it isn't: tuberculosis exists independently of our concept of tuberculosis. That his contemporaries wouldn't describe it as such doesn't make it any less historically accurate for us to conclude that he did, and thinking that there is an anaochronism here reflects a confusion between a thing and the conceptualization of it.
So did, you think, Latour accept the distinction? If he did, he can surely be accused of being abstruse. If he didn't, I think it is reasonable to still view him as belonging more on the side of the enemy in our attempts to combat the dangers of the post-truth political discourse.
thank you for this and all these pieces. Two-thirds into The Internet is Not What You Think It Is I am recommending it to every serious reader I know. Mind changing, game changing, literally -- no more wordle, quordle, or spelling bee for me. Not to make light of the work involved in drawing all these threads together (reading the weaving chapter). And I love your use of the comma. So rare to read such clear, articulate and at the same time complex, penetrating academic prose -- and to find it exploring and expressing radical (sadly radical) readings of centuries, even millennia of thought.
Used a massive quote from your work here Justin.
Also thought that I had left a comment here a year ago. Mystery.
Thank you for those beautiful words in memory of Latour. May the earth be light on him who worked so tirelessly that human beings might be at home on Earth.
I’ve read this article twice, this second time also listening to your reading, which helped settle a few ambiguities I wasn’t sure about during the first hasty reading a few weeks before. I’m glad you and Latour were not throwing the baby out with the bath water. The differentiation between reality (everything), truth (parts of that everything perceived and salient to us), science (tentative consensus on truth hypothesis using the scientific method in its most inclusive sense), and the practice of science (sociology) is something not everyone is aware of (like not seeing our own eye balls while looking at the world). My own quick mental definition is probably not accurate, either, but I think there are many layers of what commonly is called “truth” and “objective reality”. It’s not about replacing one by the other, it’s about understanding in which flight altitude we’re cruising, in which conservation. All layers exist, positing good faith of people espousing them.
I have yet to meet a postmodern/ deconstructionist/ “objective reality” denier who has consented to me pulling the trigger of a non-textual pistol on him/her/they/it/&all. I always promised never to put it into words, narratives, or discourses, but to no avail. They never wanted to put “truth beyond the text” to the test. Oh well, saved me a lot of hassle, I guess. But it does leave me with the nagging suspicion that these subjects espoused their causes in bad faith... Your radical careerists (or probably today, already the trickle down laggards and dimwits).
Have a great weekend. I’m going down to contemplate the varying flight altitudes with which to experience my breakfast. :)