The generous philosopher | Aeon

Bruno Latour at home in Paris in 2018. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

Bruno Latour at home in Paris in 2018. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum


The generous philosopher

Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms

by Stephen Muecke + BIO

Bruno Latour at home in Paris in 2018. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

A humble virus, the Dead Sea, oil pipelines, Wonder Woman, a voodoo doll, Escherichia coli, the concept of freedom, monsoons, ‘extinct’ languages, and tectonic plates. All are real. All are active. And, in their own way, these and myriad other nonhuman entities are actors, enrolled in the production of our world. We’re still in the opening paragraph, but this is where Bruno Latour might have stopped us to make a slight correction: the production of worlds.

For Latour, who was one of most influential and provocative thinkers of the past century, the world is always multiple. Above all else, his thought is pluralist – this is his legacy. He died on 9 October 2022, leaving behind a pluralism that accommodates non-Western worlds but also, remarkably, the worlds of nonhumans, which are not just things or forces, but ‘actors’ with the potential to change their worlds. However, this pluralism is not an ‘anything goes’ relativism. In an age when worlds are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, its stakes are life and death.

Latour’s approach is radical because it shows just how active nonhumans have been in human affairs. His work calls for new political strategies that can acknowledge humans aren’t the only ones enrolled in the production of truth. In his view, forms of ‘nature’ – including nonhumans such as mountains, voodoo dolls, policy documents or door stoppers – are woven together in political networks. To use his phrase, they form a ‘political ecology’. If this is ‘ecology’, it is a particularly French kind. Among Latour’s many actors we find none of the piety of the North American wilderness tradition associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who sought spiritual transcendence in pristine nature. The ecology Latour was developing is practical, earthbound and problem-oriented. So where did he get his ideas?

Latour was born in the summer of 1947 into an old wine-producing family in Burgundy. As merchant-growers, Maison Louis Latour belongs to the exclusive club of French family-owned companies that have been continuously operating for more than 200 years – a deeply rooted Frenchness may have given him a taste for territorial belonging and the survival of traditions. Burgundy also showed him specific connections between nature, culture and technology among domesticated vines, terroirs, fermentation techniques, the vintner’s ‘nose’, the cooper’s craft, distribution networks and human sociability, too, topped up with fine wine. In such a transformed landscape, how could nature not become ‘nature’ to an observer like Latour? How could he not also be wary of modern agribusinesses and their lack of ecological care? As he grew up in this storied landscape, among vineyards and wine-makers, the ingredients for his pluralism were already assembling: a mise en place.

He didn’t come to ecology immediately. His first interest was theology and interpretation, which invited early questions about pluralism as he wrote his doctoral thesis: is there any space for God in a world when modernity increasingly insists on positivist secularism, on the solid and the factual? As we shall see, Latour thought God and science could co-exist. This idea begins to take shape even in the early years of his studies in philosophy, anthropology, literature and the history of sciences. It was during this time that he developed a particular writing style: intellectually generous, urbane, witty. His confidence as an intellectual was boosted when he came first in the national university professors’ qualifying exam, the agrégation – quite an achievement.

At university, his contemporaries were the soixante-huitards, the baby-boomer revolutionaries who brought the country to a standstill and nearly toppled the government in 1968 and ’69. But their legacy is certainly more intellectual than political. In the wake of the street protests and pitched battles, a new guard took over in the French university system, with exciting ideas that gave birth to what would later become ‘poststructuralism’ and ‘postmodernism’.

Latour was on the margins of this change, but he was no doubt influenced by a prevailing anti-humanism in France associated with structuralist Marxists such as Louis Althusser and, later, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. This anti-humanism was a reaction against a liberal humanism that smoothed over human differences and failed to see the inequalities that the Marxists highlighted. Class struggles were, of course, central. Latour had different, but parallel, ideas and found himself at odds with Marxist critical orthodoxy. Despite their anti-humanism, these thinkers viewed society as composed of human groupings alone – humans seemed to be the only real actors who mattered. Latour wanted to attribute power to nonhuman actors as well. He saw that not all forces were under our control, from germs to steam engines. This seemingly small idea was a direct challenge to the foundations of modern thought.

Latour is very happy with facts; he just wants to know where they come from

In the late 20th century, ‘humanity’ began to topple from its central pedestal in Western systems of thought after reigning supreme since the Enlightenment. Emerging in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea of Man dominating Nature became part of a modernist triumphalism that sought to colonise the globe. Latour’s early book Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (1991) – later translated into English as We Have Never Been Modern (1993) – was an attempt to deflate this triumphalism. It asked disconcerting questions about where some of our most trusted institutions, particularly the sciences, were taking us. Latour queried the extent to which these institutions embraced the idea that universal truths about the natural world can be ‘discovered’ through positivist scientific work.

Instead, Latour and his colleagues presented scientific knowledge as a deliberate construction, a product of various social, political and economic interactions that are in constant competition. This pluralist view of knowledge is at the origins of the field of science and technology studies, which critically analyses the sciences while also trying to build bridges with the humanities – between ‘matters of fact’ and ‘matters of concern’, as Latour put it. Latour was a founder of what would become the field’s main approach, actor-network theory. This is not so much a theory as a method. It asks us to follow the nonhuman actors doing things to each other, and to not focus on the artificial oppositions we have built between, for instance, subject and object. That opposition is at the heart of positivist science, which tends to insist that facts are just waiting to be discovered in an objective world and, once discovered, become permanent.

For some, it is scandalous to doubt this. These critics might turn to Latour and ask if he would be comfortable jumping from a window on the 21st floor of a building, since he believes the laws of physics are a construction. Latour might respond by saying he is very happy with the laws of physics – with facts – but he just wants to know where they come from, which involves a more complicated story than ‘just waiting to be discovered’.

According to Latour, facts have careers, which highlights his argument for pluralism. At one time it was a fact that asbestos was harmless, stable, fire-resistant and termite-proof – an excellent building material. We mined it and made it part of our world. But these facts soon went into competition with facts from the world of medicine about mesothelioma (a cancer caused by asbestos). Next, asbestos-producing industries were taken to court where legal truths were established for the benefit of the victims, and asbestos was expelled from our domestic world. This plurality of institutionally based knowledges thus battled to decide the fate of a far-from-passive actor, and no one could afford to discount any of them in advance.

Latour’s first book, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar, was carried out in this spirit. Latour had done some initial anthropological work on the Ivory Coast in Africa, but had no interest in perpetuating that kind of exotic anthropology, so he turned his gaze on those he would come to call ‘the Moderns’: the ‘tribe’ of Westerners with a particular institutional structure to their world. In October 1975, he was welcomed into the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California to do an ethnographic study of how scientists went about their business. The director, the American virologist Jonas Salk, was something of a renaissance man, and invited all sorts of thinkers to the institute, including the Russian American linguist Roman Jakobson and the French philosopher Edgar Morin. This was during the mid-1970s, and California – a cultural context replete with experimentalism – was in full ‘free-spirit’ mode.

Latour spent nearly two years in the laboratory of Roger Guillemin, a neuroscientist who later shared a Nobel Prize for studies of ‘peptide hormone production of the brain’. Salk had given Guillemin 900 square metres of free space to set up his own lab, so there was plenty of money around. Guillemin, it turned out, was a compatriot of Latour from Burgundy, and as a boy had sung in a church choir that had been directed by Latour’s uncle.

The apparent ‘solidity’ of facts is dependent on the ongoing support of the social apparatuses

Once Latour arrived in the lab, he began his ethnographic fieldwork of the scientists there. Ethnographers make detailed empirical descriptions through embedded observation, but they also ask awkward questions revealing that what scientists might claim is ‘pure science’ depends on an array of nonscientific activities: funding bodies, technical instruments, debates, curiosity, collegiality, legal battles, and so on. It was Latour and Woolgar’s innovation to dispassionately describe the network of all these contingencies and effects. Their resulting book, Laboratory Life, begins in the milieu, quoting what people were saying:

Chapter 1
5 mins. John enters and goes into his office. He says something very quickly about having made a bad mistake. He had sent the review of a paper … The rest of the sentence is inaudible.
5 mins. 30 secs. Barbara enters. She asks Spencer what kind of solvent to put on the column. Spencer answers from his office. Barbara leaves and goes to the bench.
5 mins. 35 secs. Jane comes in and asks Spencer: ‘When you prepare for IV with morphine, is it in saline or in water?’ Spencer, apparently writing at his desk, answers from his office. Jane leaves.
6 mins. 15 secs. Wilson enters and looks into a number of offices, trying to gather people together for a staff meeting. He receives vague promises. ‘It’s a question of 4,000 bucks which has to be resolved in the next two minutes, at most.’ He leaves for the lobby.

And on the next page they start an equally meticulous description:

Every morning, workers walk into the laboratory carrying their lunches in brown paper bags. Technicians immediately begin preparing assays, setting up surgical tables and weighing chemicals. They harvest data from counters which have been working overnight. Secretaries sit at typewriters and begin recorrecting manuscripts which are inevitably late for their publication deadlines. The staff, some of whom have arrived earlier, enter the office area one by one and briefly exchange information on what is to be done during the day. After a while they leave for their benches. Caretakers and other workers deliver shipments of animals, fresh chemicals and piles of mail. The total work effort is said to be guided by an invisible field, or more particularly, by a puzzle, the nature of which has already been decided upon and which may be solved today.

The observer is in the middle of a network in which scientific facts are being carefully coaxed into being, verified through repetition and peer review, and finally published. The apparent ‘solidity’ of facts is dependent on the ongoing support of the social apparatuses both in the lab and among other professional bodies outside it. When Latour and Woolgar wrote this groundbreaking book on the sociology of science, there was much more confidence and ‘belief’ in science. But today, in the wake of populist leaders such as Donald Trump, we have seen the defunding and weakening of those scientific institutions and the corresponding loss of support for factuality, something that would later give Latour pause.

Some of Latour’s critics struggle to accept the agency of nonhumans. Surely, they ask, only humans can fix the problems that humans have created? But Latour’s most vocal critics have been those sociologists and scientists most dedicated to defending objective and universally valid truths as if they were fortresses to be protected and bastions for future progress. And they have a point, especially in a world full of ‘inconvenient truths’ that powerful institutions and individuals would like to change. The enemies of ‘inconvenient truths’ – including the idea that smoking causes cancer, or that burning fossil fuels causes climatic changes – will attack any perceived weaknesses.

The networks that support facts can vary in strength. Trump’s claims on truth may be weak, but they were supported by presidential institutions and a strong social media network. Latour, though seen as poking holes in ‘facts’ (and supposedly weakening scientific truth), would defend the sciences with a little qualifier: the truth has to be well constructed, it isn’t ‘just’ constructed. Simply claiming objectivity, and in the process bracketing out all subjectivity, is not part of a realistic description of what goes on when science does a good job and establishes a truth. Just as each branch of science rarely solves problems on its own – physics might need algebra; sociology might need a bit of geography or statistics – a realistic description must embrace a heterogenous array of actors. This was the basis of Latour’s pluralism. He would later develop this view of heterogeneity into a system based on multiple ontologies, allowing himself a dig at those philosophers who recognise only two sides to reality, the objective and the subjective – ‘two hooks’, Latour joked, to ‘suspend a hammock destined for philosophical snoozing’. Everything such snoozers encounter is heading either to the status of the solid brick or towards that of ineffable human consciousness.

Is there a risk in setting people free from the idea there is only one objective world?

After Latour, philosophers can no longer thump on tables or point at glasses of water when they want to evoke the real. There are no primary, more solid realties followed up by secondary effects such as subtle feelings or meanings. Rather, everything is real, and it is approached with a rigorously empirical and experimental attitude. This means that everything is a work in progress, a negotiable alliance of things. A religious ceremony can attain its desired reality – as a mode of religious existence – through an alliance of a congregation, a representative of God, sacred words, artefacts and icons, music, the smell of incense. It is a work in progress where the ongoing effort makes something gel; its reality can’t be given in advance or summarised, which would reduce it to dogma. And its description should be more like a fine performance of Hamlet than a two-page plot summary for schoolchildren.

What about a more difficult example: those who continue to believe that Earth is flat? A view of negotiable alliances of things does not mean that Earth really would become flat if the network of flat-Earthers were strong enough. It is just that flat-Earthers have found they can inhabit a world where they can continue to think, and publicly say, that Earth is flat. They can rely on this false ‘truth’ without their world crumbling. This appears to be a challenge to Latourian pluralism: is there a risk in setting people free from the idea there is only one objective world? There is a real danger in the way tobacco companies, petrochemical conglomerates, and others – those corporations that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in 2010 dubbed ‘merchants of doubt’ – undermine science in order to defend their accumulation of wealth. With their well-paid scientists and PR campaigns, they create their own alternative realities. So, are we now in a ‘post-truth’ era? Latour acknowledged the dangers of our ‘post-truth era’ and responded in his own signature way: our current ecological issues won’t be solved by treating the climate as an objective phenomenon, but instead by focusing on the ways that climatic changes are tied up with politics and the interests of big business.

When The New York Times published a profile on Latour in October 2018 – ‘Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science’ – Latour was naturally disappointed that he was headlined as a ‘Post-Truth Philosopher’, right in the middle of Trump’s presidency. He would rather have been seen as a philosopher who embraces many truths, none of which can be universal. But common ground, he would say, is still worth striving for. It is not the case that the truths of the European enlightenment are piling up one by one and the rest of the world is eternally grateful for them. Europeans liked to think so, but certainly not those whom they colonised. This form of modernity should be ‘recalled’, Latour argued, like a defective product; recalled and rebooted through new diplomatic negotiations with other cultures who may not need this kind of modernisation, and are rethinking its importance as our era is besieged by common crises. They are feeling the agency of the climate at present, and perceive the dangers inherent in a dominating discourse of the economy, as if the concept of a ‘green Wall Street’ could be a solution for climate change affecting Bangladesh. Paradoxically, finding solutions to a common crisis like the climate requires a plurality of knowledges. Solutions to problems like these need to come from all fronts. Reductionism is not going to help us.

In 1972, when he was only 25 years old, Latour had an epiphany that gave rise to a foundational treatise called Irreductions. At the time, he was a teacher at a high school in Burgundy. It was late winter, and while driving along ‘the road from Dijon to Gray’, he recounts, ‘I was forced to stop, brought to my senses by an overdose of reductionism.’ For Latour, reductionism is epistemic arrogance. We might see this arrogance when a physicist laughs at someone who is not immediately aware that ‘everything is made up of atoms’; or when a social psychologist reduces religious belief to ‘human behaviour’, after doing a quick study of the Catholic mass; or when a political advisor tells the world that: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Instead of watching these different ways of knowing try to defeat each other, Latour wanted to level the playing field:

I decided to make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they needed to ‘stand at arm’s length’. I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself: ‘Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.’ This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one … I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head. I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and … for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

The problem is, it is also possible to reduce any one thing to another, providing you have enough support or allies. For religious fundamentalists, ‘everything’ can be the result of one thing: God’s will. And when science wanted to bed down the truth that Earth revolves around the Sun, it needed to build a strong secular support network. Otherwise, such daring science could face the Inquisition (as Galileo did in 1633). But rather than demolishing Latour’s call to view ‘things unreduced’, these counterexamples only bolster his claim: truths are not always solid and cumulative, they can be fragile and in need of constant maintenance. One of the sites where these fragile truths are maintained is the scientist’s laboratory with its associated knowledge networks, which is where Latour’s ambition to write an anthropology of the Moderns started. What he and his collaborators produced at the Salk Institute in the 1970s was nothing less than an anthropology of ‘Western society’ – something that anthropologists had often called for.

Was Fleming a more important agent in this moment, or the mould? Or the relationship of both?

Such an anthropology required a new method for writing descriptions of unreduced relations. Latour proposed actor-network theory, a radical, even revolutionary, way of seeing the world that recognised the agencies of all that is nonhuman: objects, machines, animals, plants and even Earth itself. A plain, scientific, objective description is not enough if an ethnographer hopes to describe what is going on when a scientist makes a discovery. ‘What is going on’ is actually a messy hybrid of agencies, a plurality of ontologies, and Latour had to develop a writing style to bring out their precarious existences.

Consider the ‘discovery’ of penicillin in 1928, when the Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming returned from holiday to find a Petri dish covered in a mould that inhibited the growth of bacteria. Was Fleming a more important agent in this moment, or the mould? Or the relationship of both? As Latour says in his study of Louis Pasteur: ‘speaking of events defined in terms of their relations, I am sketching here the history of Pasteur and his yeast, of the yeast and its Pasteur.’ Against a long tradition of considering agency only if it has human intentions attached to it, Latour was simply being agnostic about what agency might pop up in any given situation – humans aren’t the only ones who can change the course of history. This was a radical proposal. Latour was effectively including nonhumans in ‘society’, revolutionising what we might mean by that common, overworked, reductive concept. By viewing science in this way, Latour was suggesting that knowledge was a co-production. Scientists weren’t the only ones involved in making fragile truths.

When the science wars flared up in the 1990s, Latour was placed on the side of some social theorists who believed that science was ‘merely constructed’. Observers may have thought that Latour’s anti-reductionist ideas of an expanded ‘society’ (and its plural truths) were embracing an easy relativism – that one way of knowing was as good as another. Defenders of pure science feared that their hold on objectivity was under threat, and that rational sciences could thus be put on the same footing as a religion or an indigenous cosmology. But true to his ‘irreductionist’ principle, Latour was arguing that any ‘same footing’ needs to be built up, and that the grounds for each way of being in the world, each ontology, must be described according to its unique capabilities.

It was a ‘radically empiricist’ approach, to use a phrase from the American philosopher and psychologist William James. In the 1990s, Latour increasingly turned to similar American pragmatist philosophers of the early 20th century, to develop an empiricism that suited the descriptive work demanded by actor-network theory. Radical empiricism allows one to build descriptions of networks, not as firm structures but as ongoing processes. It’s an assertion that the relations between things are just as real as the things themselves.

Relations are the links in actor-networks, which we can describe based on experience. As in the case of asbestos, a material best described pluralistically. When it was redefined as dangerous, it became a different ‘thing’. But it was never only one homogeneous substance; it was always a complex of attributes and attachments.

The political ecologies he described during the 1990s have taken on planetary proportions

Latour saw ‘actors’ like asbestos as not only material but also political – they are caught up in a political ecology. In the late 1990s, Latour took up the political nature of these networks of relations by suggesting that nonhumans should be allowed to vote. He would fight to bring nonhumans into the democratic society of humans, in the same way that women once had to fight to enter the society of men. Yes, he would argue, if a dam is to be built, then the salmon migrating upstream should have a say, even if their agency is expressed through detailed descriptions tabled by specialised scientists. At the height of modernisation during the middle of the 20th century, dams were built without asking affected beings, such as salmon. Now, it seems, there is a compelling ‘logic’ to the way in which salmon ‘think’ about river flows. From this perspective, the formerly foundational concept of society – so integral to anthropology, sociology and politics – begins to lose its descriptive or analytical power. Society is not just objectively ‘there’, and it’s not just comprised of people. After Latour, society is a network of associations to be composed, to be negotiated among beings who speak different languages.

Latour had always wanted to understand how such networks work, particularly in so-called Western societies like his own. He carried out detailed studies of key institutions: Pasteur’s laboratory in Les microbes (1984), translated as The Pasteurization of France (1988); the peak French administrative law court in La fabrique du droit (2002), in English The Making of Law (2010); religion in Jubiler ou les difficultés de l’énonciation religieuse (2002), in English Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (2013); and urban transport in Aramis ou l’amour des techniques (1992), in English Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996).

This work has taken on new urgency as the shadow of the climate crisis grows larger. In the early 21st century, Latour moved from the confines of the laboratory to the planet itself. The question of truth is no longer one of fragile networks between small groups of scientists and their tools, species and techniques, it’s about vast assemblages and ways of being. The political ecologies he described during the 1990s have taken on planetary proportions. In Enquête sur les modes d’existence: Une anthropologie des Modernes (2012), in English An Inquiry into Modes of existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013), Latour deals with 15 different modes of existence, or ontologies, including political, economic, referential (scientific), reproductive (living), technological, fictional, legal, moral, and more. Each is equally real, each has its own ‘felicity conditions’ enabling it to proceed through the world in its own particular way. One cannot be reduced to another, or dominate another, without impoverishing this kind of world. (Latour scoffs at philosophers who don’t even need the fingers of one hand to be able to count the number of possible ways of ‘being in the world’.)

Latour’s pluralism is thus well equipped for him to deal with, or at least write about, the realities of climate change. Climate change is not just a phenomenon, it has the potential to usher in a new civilisation if we respond adequately, which is partially why he preferred to refer to it as the ‘new climatic regime’ – all our institutions, our ways of knowing, would be subject to radical changes. In earlier ‘modern’ times, the climate was external to human affairs. It was ‘natural’, subject to the strictly objective laws of nature (at least those that could be pinned down). But when we move out of ‘modern’ understandings of how our world is constituted, into the Anthropocene, everything changes in ways that Latour’s pluralist, anti-reductionist philosophy helps us understand more clearly. Humans have caused the climate to change, so it is no longer external to ‘us’ in the way that we used to think when we were happy to see ourselves in ‘culture’, while everything else – animals, plants, stars, climate – was in an objective and largely passive ‘nature’.

The climate used to be left up to climatologists and other scientists to deal with, but the Anthropocene and the new climatic regime means that it now acts across all of Latour’s modes of existence. The climate has been the major political actor over the past three decades, and politicians ignore its effects on voting at their peril. As Latour wrote in Où atterrir – comment s’orienter en politique (2017), in English Down to Earth (2018): ‘we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and centre.’ The climate is making history in ways that will redefine the human (and nonhuman) story. Paying for environmental damage is increasingly becoming economists’ major concern, but they have been slow to come to those calculations because, for them, negative changes to the climate were always an ‘externality’. For Latour, the climate, as an entanglement of human and nonhuman factors, has pervasive plural effects – the kind that call for a radical empiricism incorporating the sciences and humanities.

Latour’s thought and method is a bit like that of the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt, who travelled the world in the 18th and 19th centuries – as a scientist, philosopher, and artist – immersing himself in different environments, making scientific calculations, philosophical interpretations, and even drawings. Both practised methods of careful, detailed description that reached across disciplinary boundaries. The ‘two cultures’ divide between the sciences and the humanities emerged only later, and it is as irrelevant today as the corresponding artificial division between nature and culture – artificial because our pluralist worlds are better described in a multirealist fashion. Latour spoke to us of future possibilities and dangers. He showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms. This radical reorientation is his legacy. Through it, the climate crisis becomes an opportunity for a renaissance-like reset of the sciences, the arts, the law, and politics – an escape of thought turning in circles in these self-validating disciplines. Through it, he offers us hope for a new kind of civilisation: one in which we put aside human mastery and learn the ‘languages’ of rivers, mountains, oil pipelines, baboons, voodoo dolls, and viruses. For these are the many murmurs of Earth itself, growing louder and louder.

Thinkers and theoriesPolitical philosophyAnthropology

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