The Circularity of Symmetrical Anthropology

Just this weekend I heard someone say: ‘the most famous book of Bruno Latour is We have never been Modern.’ It was the presenter of an interesting paper at the conference of the European Ethics Society, Societas Ethica, who made this remark. It surprised me, as I tended to understand ‘most famous’ as ‘most influential’, and when focusing on the influence, I’d rather think Science in Action to be his most famous book. Yes, perhaps We have never been Modern has sold more copies, or has been more widely read. But I doubt whether it is understood very well, and I have even more doubts in this respect towards his later books Politics of Nature and The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. What is it about these books? Why are they attractive, and why they seem to fall short of their promise?

Latours books are all driven by some interconnected set of questions – dealing with the epistemological, political and cultural presuppositions at work in modernity. Questions which are inspired by a critical attitude. Having been trained as a philosopher and as an anthropologist Latour decided at some point to turn the gaze of Western anthropological researchers, which is normally directed at the religions and cultures of ‘the others’ (the non-Westerners, if one may use this already ideological expression), around, and direct it at modern Western culture and religion itself. This endeavour he has called ‘symmetrical anthropology’: looking at one’s own world as if it were an exotic world – with the same tools of research. Thus he started out studying the heart of modern culture and religion: science, from which resulted two books (Science in Action and Laboratory Life).

The first one has had quite some influence in philosophy and sociology of science for its surprising epistemological revolution. Latour said: forget the idea of science as a set of methods for discovering truths about reality and the idea of philosophy of science as a means to decide on the validity conditions of these methods. Seeing science as a process of discovering truths only makes sense, according to Latour, after the fact: when the members of the scientific community have reached consensus about a certain description or explanation of reality, this ‘truth’ seems to have always been true, which makes them say ‘we have discovered a truth’. In fact things do not work that way, says Latour: when one looks at scientists at work tackling a certain problem, that is, when one turns the clock back to the time before they reached agreement, the truth might yet turn out in very different ways. There are, then, different possible truths. The difference between the view which looks back after reached consensus and the one which looks forward from the point in time when nothing was decided yet, is called by Latour the difference  between ‘ready made science’ and ‘science in the making’. In making this difference Latour has historicized the epistemology in philosophy of science. A move which I think has been very influential – many philosophers and sociologists and historians of science have since been studying science ‘in the making’.

Science in Action however was only a starting point for Latour to go further and further in his endeavor to criticize supposed timeless truths of modernity. The modern view of nature showed to be informed by interests, the modern reference to facts reflects the modern’s magical attitudes. In short: he shows that ‘we’ have never been really modern, in the sense that we have not discovered ahistoric and universal truths about reality, but that we tried to shape and influence the effects of our surroundings on us in ways comparable to the ones ‘we’ ascribed in former days to so-called ‘primitive peoples’. The later works however are no easy meal. Partly this goes back to Latour’s habit of crafting neologisms or giving new meanings to existing words (think: ‘factish’, ‘hybrid’. ‘constellation’). More fundamental, however, is the circularity of the project of ‘symmetrical anthropology’. For studying an era (modernity) by a method (anthropology) which was part of what that era did (determinate ‘others’ which it then could try to ‘civilize’ and in the meantime dominate) can not shed fresh light on it. Therefore only one thing would work: listening to what those who have been named ‘others’ have to say on modernity.

Bruno Latour was born in 1947.

Mentioned works are: Science in Action, How to follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, (1987), We have never been Modern (1993), Politics of Nature – How to bring the Sciences into Democracy (2004) and The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2009). I have given the years of publication of the English editions only.

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