Pandora’s Hope, by Bruno Latour

After having been fairly impressed by Laboratory Life, another book by Bruno Latour, co-authored with Steve Woolgar, I picked up Latour’s Pandora’s Hope without much hesitation when I saw it in a used bookstore. This was at a time, I think during my undergrad at Concordia, when I was particularly interested in questions around the reality of scientific phenomena and constructivist versus realist epistemologies (a distinction that, after reading Pandora’s Hope, it is clear Latour would dislike).

While it was enjoyable, thought-provoking, admirable in its intentions and refreshing in its style, I felt it ultimately fell short of its goal, which was, as Latour puts it throughout and again in the conclusion, to walk away from the realist/constructivist debate and to show how actual scientists (and most actual people) do not operate within its fact/fetish binary. Latour contends, rightly, that a key element of our purported “modernity” is the distinction we draw (and have drawn explicitly at least since Descartes) between subject and object. We have, on the one hand, the celebrated and denigrated “brain in a vat” (BIV for short) sort of mind, disconnected from reality but attempting to piece it back together to utter true statements on the one hand; and on the other, we have naked, stark, utterly hit-you-over-the-head reality or nature. The brutality of this distinction, Latour argues, is such that there is no overcoming it: once the terms have been posited this way (posited polemically, as enemies, Latour says), no reconciliation, no aufhebung (little or big, Hegelian or not) is possible.

However, he says, in fact most people do not operate on these terms. Moreover, most scientists–the subject matter for Latour’s field, science studies–do not even operate this way (Weinberg notwithstanding?). In one of the earlier chapters, Latour devotes a fair bit of analysis and exposition to looking at Pasteur’s discovery of lactic acid fermentation, focusing on how Pasteur transitions seamlessly between two apparently contradictory idioms: one in which the facts speak for themselves, and anyone could see the truth of Pasteur’s conclusions; and another in which there is a great deal of interpretation and “going beyond the facts” in order to reach the terminus of the experimental process.

Such idiom switching is completely natural to Pasteur, says Latour, and is indeed an essential part of the scientific process: facts are fabricated in order to be autonomous. Through the experimental “event” (drawing on Whitehead), both a new nonhuman actor (viz. the lactic acid ferment–what we would usually call the substance) and a new set of human actors (Pasteur, the members of his institution, etc.) are articulated in a new way. A short amount of time in any scientific laboratory, says Pasteur, will conclusive demonstrate the uselessness of trying to maintain the typical modernist distinctions between Science (with a capital S) and mere subjective belief, between fact (mind-independent truth) and fetish (human-projected myth/belief).

But despite this example (and another drawn from contemporary Indian literature), Latour’s overall argument falls short of being convincing. In aiming to steer a course away from realism/constructivism, I find Latour ends up at a position that is simultaneously too “realist” and too “constructivist.” We end up in a sort of “night in which all cows are black” situation, with an entirely unpersuasive and underdeveloped account of how one “articulation” might be better than any other. At the same time, the idea that (e.g.) through Pasteur’s interaction with the lactic acid fermt, the thing itself is changed is equally unpersuasive. It simply does not do justice to our deep-rooted realist intuitions (and here I speak, I think, for most people) to argue that there is a social “history of things” in this way. Ways of dealing with lactic acid, ways of conceptualizing it and interacting with it, ways of approaching–all this may change, but there is no good argument made in this book for thinking that the thing itself changes. To argue that case is precisely to fall into an idealist trap that is characteristic of the over-eager constructivist stance, something that Latour wants desperately to avoid.

Ultimately, all the talk of articulation, the “factish” and so on leaves me longing for some good old Richard Rorty and his simple reliance on the Darwinian idea of “coping”. Nature is there whether we are or not, and there are better and worse ways of coping with it, based on different criteria of success.

Speaking of Rorty, one of the things I have come to appreciate about philosophy through reading Rorty is the ability to tell a good and persuasive story. This is what good, convincing philosophy often does. In that respect, Latour’s book has much to offer, in that it tells a unique and fairly persuasive story of the iconoclastic stance. Not wanting to go into it too much here, suffice to say that Latour fairly successfully paints the modern defenders of Science and Truth as the heirs of iconoclasm, as the rancorous rebels, and paints himself and his fellow science studies travelers as the defenders of a more humane, saner version of truth. That’s good reading.

Another one of the really worthwhile parts of this book is in Latour’s discussion for the motives behind maintaining the philosophical juggling acts involved in shouting “out of both sides of our mouthes these contradictory orders: ‘Be absolutely disconnected [from reality–be a brain in a vat]!’ ‘Find absolute proof that you are connected [to reality–find Descartes’ God, Kant’s categories of the understanding]”

In response to these demands, Latour writes

Who could untangle such an impossible double bind? No wonder so many philosophers wound up in asylums. In order to justify such a self-inflicted, maniacal torture, we would have to be pursuing a loftier goal, and such indeed has been the case. This is the place where the two threads connect: it is in order to avoid the inhuman crowd that we need to rely on another inhuman resource, the objective object untouched by human hands. (12-13)

If you talk about objectivity or truth long enough with anyone who believes that there is a singular, universal Truth out there with which humans strive to make contact, this very position–anxiety over the social forces that would be unleashed should we stop believing in objective Truth as a form of contact with naked reality–will emerge eventually.

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