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Stanford Report, April 16, 2003

French philosopher calls for new 'critical attitude' in academia


Given all the trans-Atlantic discord over war with Iraq and subsequent servings of "freedom fries," Bruno Latour probably deserves the Croix de Guerre for summoning the courage to deliver the academic year's final Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts before a roomful of some 200 Americans.

The French philosopher of science, a professor at the Centre de sociologie de l'innovation at the École nationale supérieure des mines in Paris, also received sustained, multilateral applause following his talk -- "Why Has the Critical Spirit Run Out of Steam? About Iconoclash and Beyond" -- in which he called on scholars to adopt new approaches to criticism that develop, rather than debunk, things and ideas.

"Is not critical the one who debunks, but the one who assembles," he said, in strongly accented English. "Is not critical the one who lift the rugs under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers to the participants the arenas in which to gather."

Ironically, the postmodernist impulse to show how truths and facts are really "truths" and "facts" -- ideas stemming from ideological bias rather than incontrovertible evidence -- has been hijacked by people who use it to support lunatic conspiracy theories and dismiss solid evidence, Latour said.

"Yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up; that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth; that we are always the prisoner of language; that we always speak from one standpoint; et cetera, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of 'social construction' to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our life," he said.

The weapons employed by conspiracy theorists, who, for example, may argue that Mossad and the CIA -- as opposed to terrorists -- conspired to destroy the twin towers of the World Trade Center, were indirectly supplied by the academic scholars and bear the mark "made in Critical-land," he said.

For the critical spirit to become relevant again, Latour maintains that scholars must adopt a "stubbornly realist attitude" and deal with "matters of concern, not matters of fact."

As it stands, most criticism strives to show that objects are simply fetishes -- that is, things onto which people project their desires or beliefs -- and that such behavior can be explained by unconscious forces working upon the fetishists.

"Do you see why it feels so good to be a critical mind?" Latour said. "You are always right. When naïve believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes. ... But as soon as naïve believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don't see, but that you -- yes, you -- the never-sleeping critic, only see."

The very same critics, of course, would be loath to have their own cherished objects -- whether they're stem cells, black holes, poems -- so witheringly dismantled, Latour said, adding that "objects" with factual density -- the laws of gravitation, neurotransmitters, Monte Carlo calculations -- are invulnerable to the criticism of social explanation. Hence, anti-fetishistic and causality-based criticism begins to crumble. "Once you realize that scientific objects cannot be socially explained, then you realize, too, that the so-called weak objects -- those who appear to be candidates for the accusation of anti-fetishism -- were never mere projection on an empty screen either," he said.

Latour offered the critical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as a viable recourse. Whitehead, who died in 1947, was a British mathematician, logician and philosopher who, according to Latour, did as much as possible to maintain a "respectful, realist attitude" toward the world, even while considering matters of fact to be "a very poor rendering of what is given in experience."

Using Whitehead's critical approach as a springboard, Latour suggested a new "critical attitude" -- to "replace the tired routines of most social theories" with a diverse method of inquiry using the tools of many disciplines -- of, say, anthropology, philosophy, history and sociology -- to understand what and how "ingredients" or "participants" make something exist and continue to exist.

"Archimedes spoke for a whole tradition when he exclaimed, 'Give me one fixed point and I will move the earth,'" he added. "But am I not talking for another much less prestigious but maybe as respectable a tradition if I exclaim, in turn, 'Give me one matter of concern, and I will show you the whole earth and heaven that have to be gathered to hold it firmly in place'"?

Commenting on the lecture, philosopher Richard Rorty, professor of comparative literature, noted that "Latour has been at the forefront of the movement, initiated by Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), to see natural science as an assortment of human activities and institutions rather than as the revelation of the nature of things as they are in themselves."

Rorty added: "This movement is often accused of being 'against science,' and in his lecture he was trying to make clear that one can appreciate the obvious benefits of natural science without paying it fancy metaphysical compliments."

History Professor Timothy Lenoir, chair of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, said the "infusion of ethical concerns in epistemic debates is not unheard of, but it is extremely welcome," adding that he "found the lecture as stimulating as it was entertaining."

The Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts are funded by a grant from the President's Office and organized by the Humanities Center.

Bruno Latour