Nature as Dogma
Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into
Democracy. Bruno Latour. Translated by Catherine Porter. xii +
307 pp. Harvard University Press, 2004. $55 cloth, $24.95 paper.
As a thought experiment on the connections between nature, science
and politics in contemporary democracy, Bruno Latour's Politics
of Nature is exceptionally brilliant and thought-provoking.
As a critique of modern conceptions of and practices pertaining to
those relations, it is nearly always compelling. But as a
recommendation to the public to adopt a radically alternative model
of thinking about, and relating to, nature, science and politics, I
found it neither persuasive nor feasible.
Latour, one of the most original contemporary thinkers in this
field, invites us to abandon what he regards as the metaphysical
universe of modernity and to deliberately adopt a new metaphysics to
guide our lives and to relate the world to our concerns. In the new
world he conceives, Latour banishes both the concept of nature as an
objective entity that obeys its own laws and scientists who claim a
privileged authority to represent the facts of this external realm
and to interpret their implications for our lives. He advises us
instead to imagine ourselves as living in a world in which facts and
values, reality and morality, science and politics, and causal
necessity and freedom are seen not as dichotomous but as inseparable
aspects of the same things, processes, choices and actions.
Latour believes that his new metaphysics will liberate us from the
fiction that nature is nonnegotiable. He maintains that both as a
category of thought and as an idea that regulates practice, nature
has been functioning in the universe of secular modernity as a
dogma. By presenting external reality as an objective limit on human
freedom, he insists, nature and its representatives, the scientists,
have actually limited rather than expanded human options. If the
right to represent nature is expanded to include not just scientists
but also ethicists, poets, farmers, architects and laypeople, then
things that have in the modern system been regarded as inanimate
external objects imposed on us as incontestable givens will become
"humanized" as more integral, elastic and
"articulate" components of our world.
Latour expects that such a development will result from the adoption
of his new metaphysics and will be "the simple consequence of
the disappearance of the notion of external nature." He adds
that "There is no longer any space set aside where we can
unload simple means in view of ends that have been defined once and
for all without proper procedure."
Latour gives asbestos as an example of a "modernist"
object. It was used extensively for years in construction and for
other purposes without its multidimensional character and effects
being adequately assessed. In the beginning it was welcomed as an
"inert, effective and profitable" entity that could be
usefully integrated into human environments. But over the course of
many years, the status of asbestos shifted radically, and now it is
categorized as a major health hazard associated with serious lung
problems, including cancer. Latour suggests that in the modernist
framework, the procedure that allowed asbestos (and many other now
unwelcomed substances, technologies and nonhuman entities) to enter
our world was too narrow in scope and failed to take in
consideration the many perspectives and concerns that eventually led
to their exclusion.
In the postmodernist conception, the notions that nature is an
object and that the scientific priesthood has a privileged authority
to represent it are banished, and we move to a scheme in which both
human and nonhuman agents can be more inclusively, equally and
harmoniously woven together. This is a universe in which the
scientific, technological, ethical, political, aesthetic and
economic aspects of any entity, agent or action that is a candidate
for passing through the entrance gates to our common experience are
considered simultaneously and continually. This new world is, Latour
says, a better one than the one we are used to living in: It is more
respectful of the multitude of diverse viewpoints, more egalitarian
and more deliberative, and its denizens are ready to resolve
conflicts through compromise rather than by appealing to
unchallengeable knowledge or final truths.
Since Latour's preferred world is one in which both nature and
science are politicized, where Science is replaced by many sciences,
Nature by many natures and the Public by many publics, it is no
wonder that some scientists, academics and other surviving
modernists have regarded Latour's vision as a casus
belli.They view his breaking up of the conventional dichotomies
(facts and values, science and politics, the discourse on causality
and the discourse on responsibility) as an assault on the greatest
achievements of progressive modernization. Those achievements
include having replaced mythological, magical or religious notions
of agency and causality with secular, mechanistic or organic ones;
having made knowledge and instrumental rationality the new basis of
public affairs; having guaranteed the autonomy of science and
academic institutions vis-à-vis church and state; and having
checked arbitrary political authority by speaking truth to power.
Nevertheless, this intense science war and particularly the
predictable attacks on Latour and other philosophers, historians and
sociologists of science appear to me to be misguided and
intellectually shallow on a number of counts. Although Latour's
"experimental metaphysics" is an exceptionally incisive
critique of modern conceptions of nature, science and politics, many
similar critiques of heg-emonic "modernist" practices and
of the science-based "solution approach" to social
problems have been made since the early decades of the 20th century
by such influential figures as John Dewey, Charles Lindblom, Don K.
Price, Daniel Moynihan, Aaron Wildavsky and Edward C. Banfield.
Moreover, such procedures as "Technology Assessment" and
"Evaluation Research," as well as the very tendency to
replace the word "nature" with the word
"environment," have long pointed to shifts in
sensibilities and practices that have echoes in Latour's politics of nature.
Instead of attacking Latour, his critics should respond to his
challenge and try answering the question of whether his new
metaphysics offers a feasible and a desirable alternative to the
modern metaphysics whose weaknesses and anachronisms he so
On the issue of the feasibility of convincing the public to shift
its allegiance from modern to "postmodern" metaphysics,
Latour seems to be vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that he
ignores the characteristics of common sense as a cultural system
that cannot be engineered by philosophers and other intellectuals.
Also, the modern popular metaphysics that he criticizes did not
become the hegemonic common-sense metaphysics in the West by
fiat—it took several hundred years for the premodern notions
of causality and agency to be replaced—although, as Latour
himself notes, even this process of conversion has never been
complete, and in some sense (as the title of one of his earlier
books puts it) "we have never been modern." The public is
unlikely to leap from a tested system of beliefs that have survived
the trials of experience to a largely untested radical alternative.
But suppose it were feasible for the public to make such a clear-cut
public choice between alternative metaphysical systems. Is the
option offered by Latour preferable to the existing one? Because he
admits that the choice is between two systems that are equally
metaphysical—each consisting of fictions and beliefs, not
facts—it is clear that we need not decide on the grounds of
which of the two is true and which is false. Rather, we must
consider which is more advantageous or beneficial in making sense of
our experience and guiding our conduct. We need to perform a sort of
a cost-benefit analysis of alternative metaphysical systems,
examining their relative responsiveness to our concerns.
Here Latour is least persuasive. Using very belligerent language
against modern metaphysics and especially against the imagining of
nature as a lawful, objective realm of necessary facts, Latour
neglects to consider that historically, precisely this conception of
nature has served as a powerful resource of modern democratic
political culture. As I have indicated elsewhere, nature as
represented by science has been used as a powerful means for
inducing consensus, coordinating behavior in nonhierarchical social
systems, empowering the rights of individuals against arbitrary
power and authority, grounding criticism of institutions and
practices that violate "nature" conceived as a universal
norm (Thomas Paine), creating an imaginary space outside society as
a cultural-psychological resource for the development of the modern
individual (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and facilitating the rise of the
modern press based on the useful fiction that facts can be separated
from opinions. Surely nature has also been used to defend "bad
things," such as monarchy, ruthless market practices and war.
But a serious consideration of a world without "nature"
and external factual "reality" requires a comprehensive
examination of these factors and of many others that Latour
neglects, such as the impact of the mass media and globalization.
Still, Politics of Nature
constitutes a major contribution to contemporary thought and discourse.
Although I question some of the book's key premises and recommendations,
I anticipate that it will increase recognition that we can make our
institutions and policies more responsive to our concerns by taking a
deliberative, critical approach to the metaphysical foundations of our
attitudes toward nature, science and politics.—Yaron Ezrahi,
Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem