The philosophy of Bruno Latour part II

In the last post, we touched on some of Latour’s ideas that have been so influential in the history and philosophy of science, notably the work Laboratory Life and the later concept of Actor Network Theory.

An early contribution that should be mentioned is Latour’s study of the work of Louis Pasteur: in The Pasteurization of France , Latour published a history of Pasteur’s work that laid great emphasis on the social forces at work at the time, and on Pasteur’s harnessing of those forces. In the book, Latour goes to some lengths to argue that the widespread acceptance of Pasteur’s work by French society was not primarily a matter of evidence or reason, but due to a large degree to social factors that had been neglected in earlier accounts. This work went on to become very influential in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).


What is really unusual about Bruno Latour is that this particular philosopher published a review paper in 2004 that seemed to question the fundamental premises of most of his career. Titled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” , the paper contains a critique of much of his own work and of the social criticism of science in general. Latour specifically asks  “Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?” and suggests that much of social criticism may have been directed at the wrong target.

What caused this apparent change of heart? One reason is that, like many STS scholars, Latour seems concerned that many of his cherished critical ideas have been appropriated by constituencies whose agenda is anti-science; specifically by “conspiracy theorists, including global warming skeptics and the 9/11 Truth movement“. He expresses concern that his attempts to lay bare “the lack of scientific certainty inherent in the construction of scientific facts” have now been appropriated in a manner he never intended; “I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique.”

A second cause for a rethink is that Latour feels there are some fundamental flaws in social critique; in particular that “there are inconsistencies and double standards that go largely unrecognized in the field”. His point here is that “social critics tend to use anti-fetishism against ideas they personally reject; to use “an unrepentant positivist” approach for fields of study they consider valuable; all the while thinking as a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish.”

These are serious criticisms and Latour goes on to suggest that in order to maintain any vitality or relevance,  social critique of science requires a drastic reappraisal; in particular “it must embrace empiricism, to insist on the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude – to speak like William James”. Embrace empiricism? Speak like William James? Much of the above seems a fairly radical U-turn for an outstanding proponent of the constuctivist view of science. However, it should be pointed out that there are different interpretations of Latour’s 2004 article as we shall see below.


Latour’s 2004 paper has received a great deal of attention. Many scientists, and some historians of science, see it as a recant. Sentences such as “the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posing as matters of fact …but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as ideological biases” resonated with many scientists, as did “ dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save lives”. This was a common criticism of the social study of science all along – that there was a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater i.e. that social critique of science was serving to undermine hard-won scientific discoveries, all on the basis of sociological methodologies that were themselves far from perfect.

On the other hand, scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies point out that a careful reading of Latour 2004 shows that he is talking about the future, not the past; his paper is primarily concerned with future directions for fruitful research in the social study of science, not with past studies. This is more marked in the second part of the article; Latour’s real point is that the world has changed, but the target of social critique may not changed to match this. He is particularly concerned at the instant revisionism he reads, from 9/11 conspiracies to moon landing fables. In a nutshell his main concern is ” what if explanations resorting to power, society discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique?…threats might have changed so much that we might still be directing all our arsenal east or west while the enemy has moved to a very different place”.

What interpretation is correct? It’s hard to say, as always with Latour. In any case, it is an extremely thought-provoking article from a major figure in the social studies of science ..I strongly recommend reading it for yourself


Filed under History and philosophy of science

5 responses to “The philosophy of Bruno Latour part II

  1. Hi Cormac,

    thanks a lot for these notes on philosophers. I’m an HEP experimenter and my ideas about the pruning of incomplete or not-quite-correct theories are very similar to yours. I think you made an important distinction between theories that have limited validity but are still useful and enlightening, such as Newtonian Mechanics or classical Electrodynamics. After all, we spend most of our time teaching/learning these “eliminatable” theories because they do contain grains of truth. How would we discuss friction or dielectric materials if we restricted our curricula only to the “correct” theories of Special Relativity and Quantum Electrodynamics?

    thanks again

  2. cormac

    Hi Micheal, didn’t see this comment for ages, apologies. Are you still at CERN?

    • Hi Cormac, no unfortunately not. I am back at Northwestern with teaching and other duties… I will return to CERN for a couple of weeks in June. Are you there on the long term?

  3. cormac

    I wish! Stuck in my little college, living obscurely in the country. Great blog, by the way, well done

  4. Kraig

    Hello Cormac~
    Lakatos wrote a fair bit on the balance of science and politics of which he would place Latours ideas. His comments on the creation of the studies of medieval science by marxist is enlightening in the relationship of looking for alternative forms of knowledge. Lakatos believed that science should always have the upper hand over politics and that the latter he described as crimminal. He presents some good historical examples in Stalin not liking certain genetic studies outlawing them, executing what is now recognized in the west or Mao outlawing western medicine. It was one of the points that fueled the respectful debate between him and Feyerabend.