Monday, October 11, 2010

Bruno Latour and Rorty

Reading Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope word by word, page by page unlike most books where I jump around and get what I want and then leave it. I see him as doing the practical work not elaborated by Richard Rorty’s anti-essentialism. Rorty suggests we stop looking at things as entities with a nature or essence that we are groping to finally represent correctly. That essentialist mentality leads to tough “What is …?” questions like: “What is the nature of mind?” “What is money?,” etc. Rorty suggests there will be many descriptions of things depending on our needs and goals.

Latour who is describing “science studies” is taking that anti-essentialism seriously and showing how to describe and understand changes in science. Instead of the dominant picture of the world as being one particular way and as always having been that way and that we gradually describe more and more correctly, he describes the many associations and connections that occur in order for a scientific object to become what we take it to be. So the development of atomic energy was an interaction between many actors: scientists, colleagues, funding sources, the military, mineral suppliers, opponents, the public, the media. What “atomic energy” is arises through the interactions of that collective and its character is determined by that array of, what he calls, “articulations” that changes over time. Articulations that last and become well-entrenched achieve the social category of “reality” by becoming an “institution.” The “reality” of the things comes later after the struggle for dominance is won, but it can be reversed since it is an historical and social process. Latour, like Rorty, advocates moving away from the standard modern epistemological view of a reality “out there” which is veiled with a variety of appearances and which we gradually mirror better and better. This way of conceptualizing things leads to a gap between the world as it is in itself and our representations of it and to the irresolvable epistemological and other problems of Western philosophy.

Latour’s view sees all actors or participants – humans and nonhumans – as relationally engaged in creating themselves and each other through the particular way they interact through history. And as history itself moves on there is an ongoing reinterpretation of what happened in the past.

What’s nice about Latour is that he keeps coming back to the central philosophical conflict between the standard, modern, philosophical essentialism and his alternative anti-essentialism instead of leaving the questions hovering in the background.