On Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1993) with guest Lynda Olman.
What’s the “modern” ideology of science, and is there something we should critique about it? Latour wants us to think about science not abstractly through the eternal truths it supposedly discovers, but through the concrete practices of scientists. This means acknowledging the phenomenology of science: It may well be that there’s a totally objective, human-independent world that scientists are trying to get at, but their actual products are a mixture of nature and culture, or what Latour calls a “hybrid.”
In talking about hybrids, Latour is referring to both the ideas that science comes up with (like the idea of a quark, a particular extrapolation from some data involving particle colliders and things; Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks tells a long story about the contingent historical circumstances that caused scientists to develop that particular conception) and technological objects that science develops, like computers, whose political component is partly a matter of how it changes our lives.
Latour describes “modernity” as an era characterized by a Constitution, which is conceptually a thing like Hobbes’s social contract. It’s a set of interlocking ideas that we’ve implicitly agreed to insofar as we’re still enacting modernity, and as the title of this book indicates, he thinks we’ve never really wholly bought into this Constitution.
The Constitution primarily involves a strict separation of the scientific from the political. Science is objective; it’s about us discovering things in the mind-independent world, and while yes, scientists have biases, these can be set aside so that we can get at truths that anyone who does the research should be able to agree on. On the other hand, the political is entirely our group creation: There are no divinely appointed monarchs, just structures that we’ve created, whether by centralized design or by a series of uncoordinated actions by individuals.
So what’s wrong with these two claims? First, if nature really were something entirely separate from us, it would be alien and hostile; we couldn’t do anything with it. No, science has always been not just about discovering objective truth, but about human utility. On the side of politics, if leadership were really a pure extension of our group will, then that would be an unrestricted, whimsical democracy. Instead, we posit some things like “rights” as if they were God-given. Both science and politics mix the objective and group-subjectivity.
Latour thinks that this Constitutional myth of modernity whereby science and politics are kept separate has on the one hand been very productive in allowing science to advance, and thus (ironically) technological hybrids to proliferate. By denying that hybrids exist, it actually encourages more hybrids. However, this willful ignorance has its downside: Scientists ignore the probable social effects of their creations, from the atom bomb to the emissions that have caused climate change to the throngs of people that we have saved with our medical but also removed the need for by automating away their jobs.
One parallel that comes up in the discussion: Mill’s ideas on free speech are very much the product of modernity. He believed that we can separate out a forum for the free exchange of ideas (like the exchange between scientists) from different, overtly political speech acts like bullying and hate speech. A more sophisticated view (in Latour’s view) would recognize that these can never be fully separated, and our codes of conduct need to recognize this (a la Fish in our free speech episode).
Despite all impressions, Latour insists that he’s not a relativist, and he has nothing but contempt for post-modernism. His solution as outlined at the end of the book is a modified contract that keeps most of the benefits of modernism but does not insist on its myth-driven abstractions. We want technology, but we want careful scrutiny of its social effects. Extreme social constructionists set no bounds for the way our concepts could have been mapped out, but Latour acknowledges that much of what science deals with is “resistant” (this is his phenomenological way of saying “objective”) to our attempts at reinterpretation or denial. He uses the term “quasi-object” to describe something that’s “more more social, much more fabricated, much more collective than the ‘hard’ parts of nature, but they are in no way the arbitrary receptacles of a full-fledged society… They are much more real, nonhuman and objective than those shapeless screens on which society—for unknown reasons—needed to be ‘projected.'” (p. 55).
You might remember Lynda from when her last name was Walsh, and she appeared with us on ep. 96 about her book on Robert Oppenheimer and the rhetoric of science advisors.
Buy the book or try this online version. We restricted ourselves in this discussion to books 1 and 2 through section 3.2, plus sections 5.1 and 5.2 to get an idea of Latour’s solution at the end. The book that Latour discusses so much about Robert Boyle vs. Thomas Hobbes is Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985).