Bruno Latour

Who's that?

Latour is, ostensibly, a 'sociologist' of science, and as such is little known to the larger philosophical community (other than, perhaps, philsophers of science...). However, I think that his ideas have important consequences outside the disciplinary boundaries that he is sometimes forced into; Latour is fundamentally adisciplinary, he is no more philosopher than he is sociologist, he is no more anthropologist than he is historian.

Latour discusses the reasons behind his adisciplinarity as well as its origins in an online interview with T. Hugh Crawford that can be found at:

In said interview Crawford states/asks...

THC: Having read your recent work, it is increasingly clear that your approaches and methods do not easily line up with the concerns of most contemporary thinkers--that you are proposing a radical shift in philosophical practice--but positioning your work in relation to other philosopher's concerns can help sharpen our understanding, so in the beginning, I would like to proceed primarily through a series of comparisons. But first can we start with some biographical background? Your life occasionally appears in small pieces in your books. What led you to this intersection of disciplines, or to this particular node in a long and complicated network?

And Latour replies (lengthily)...

BL: Actually, I do not like radical departures. It is a French disease to imagine that no intellectual is worth the title if he or she does not start from a tabula rasa. No, I am firmly rooted in local traditions, and I want to be connected to my colleagues as a scientist or a scholar, not as an intellectual. But it is true that many of the French thinkers who are known in this country have an idiosyncratic upbringing because of the disastrous state of our university system and the lack of any evaluation of research in the humanities and social sciences. Hence every French intellectual is an island unto himself, forced to remake the world! The Americans always imagine a rich and tightly woven intellectual life in Paris cafés, but this is a complete mythology. Everyone is scattered. No one reads anyone else. There are no organized disciplines--that is, literally, no discipline. Of course, this state of affairs has enormous advantages for a few individuals, but the price is high.

For example, it is very difficult to pigeonhole someone like Michel Serres. He was a naval officer and a mathematician; he is good in Greek, and he is also doing philosophy of science. It is very much the same with many of the French people. One of the key features is that there is no intellectual organized life in France at all, which explains all these bursting intellectuals. So the intellectual regime is completely different from America's. But the good thing about it is that you can define yourself without having to consider disciplinary boundaries. That explains some of the originality of French production, but of course it is at a great expense. The quality control of the work is terrible, so you get one outstanding piece of work and much trash. You in America, by contrast, produce reliable average work which is rarely as refreshing as what we do, but which is rarely as bad! So you see, it has its advantages and its disadvantages. Being in one of the few French research groups organized like a laboratory, I mainly see the drawbacks of this system, and you cannot realize how grateful I am to the American academic system for having accepted me into its ranks.

... I have been brought up in the same French tradition-the tradition of being idiosyncratic. I was trained in philosophy and Biblical exegesis, and then I went to Africa for my military service--a sort of French Peace Corps--and there I discovered the social sciences and was trained in anthropology the proper way (by doing it). And then, because I wanted to go to the States to see the opposite part of the world, I decided to do an anthropology of science. From the beginning I felt my interest in philosophy, theology, and anthropology was the same thing--that is, I was trying to account for the various ways in which truth is built, so in that sense my current work on the theory of enunciation is an old interest, grounded in theology and philosophy.

The differences Latour points out here are noticeable in the work of (as he mentions) Michel Serres, but many, many other notable French thinkers of the last half century. For example:

The list goes on and on, but you get the picture: being a multi- or non-disciplinary thinker in France is certainly not as rare as it is in North America, or England. Whether this is a result of the analytic, and hence ultra-detailed sort of philosophy (that requires devotion to very minute, specific and nuanced problems) done in North America/England I'm not sure.

But, I digress. If there are a large number of such thinkers in France, why is it that Latour's work has been largely ignored outside certain sociology and history/philosophy of science departments?

Honestly, I plain don't understand it. Like Ian Hacking, I think that Latour "delights some of us and infuriates others, but, either way he has, for the past decade, been one of the most brilliant and original writers about science." (Hacking, 510). Though, in my case, subtract the 'about science' and simply state that for the past decade, and even the past 15-20 years, Latour has been one of the most innovative thinkers on either side of the Atlantic, and one of the most widely ignored.

In what follows I will attempt to (briefly) illustrate just one of Latour's non-science specific (yet radical, interesting and important) ideas. In the future I hope to provide a number of Latour-based writeups that get down to the nitty gritty of his thought, but until then, lets take a look at Latour....

On Modernity

In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour, shockingly, attempts to show that.... we have never been modern!

He uses as a starting point/example the debate between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle over the status of the air-pump. Given the wealth of literature available in the wake of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's book Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life, as well as an earlier paper by Shapin dealing with similar themes, Latour is comfortable and able to propose some rather radical ideas about science, politics, society and philosophy since the inception of modernity. Latour challenges the idea that modern has ever 'taken place' because he does not believe we have ever managed to pull it off. He thinks we have never quite been able to separate 'object' and 'subject' (or, nature and culture) as modernity so firmly believes it has. Rather, he thinks that the 'thinking of modernity' always-already requires its own denial. That is, that the separation of object and subject is made possible by processes of hybridization that create subject-objects or object-subjects (both misleading terms...). It all sounds very confusing, and it is, but I'll attempt to make it a little clearer.

While Shapin and Schaffer show us that Hobbes was a scientist (studying the natural world) as much as Boyle was a political thinker (studying the social world), Latour wants to explode those categories and melt them back down into something considerably different. He shows that we can't even differentiate studies of the natural world and studies of the social (because, surprise, we can't differentiate that natural and the social to begin with, though we "moderns" try REALLY, REALLY hard...). Rather, he thinks that hybrids (an important term for Latour) like the air pump are neither purely objective nor purely subjective. Very simplistically: we believe the air pump is interacting with some solid Nature, but Latour thinks that it is necessarily 'social' as well: the air pump occupies a position in the traditionally socio-political realm (that is, Boyle uses the air pump to legitimate his political theories about scientific knowledge, and who should be given power, etc. while Hobbes denies the validity of the air pump to do justice to his own political claims...). Given this one example, we need not give up our distinction between social and natural. But, Latour thinks, the proliferation of such hybrids has always been ahead of the purification (pure subject, pure object) work of modernity. Which is to say: though we would like to think we have been, we have never 'really' been modern. We have only succeeded in fooling ourselves, or hiding our own behaviour, since the days of Boyle and Hobbes. It's centuries of double think.


Moderns talk about a separation that they have created between subject and object. But, this separation (created through purification of either the subject or the object) is inseparable from other processes of hybridization that already blur the distinction they have created. Double think.

And, now, some nice big quotes from Latour himself...

His discussion of the social sciences is interesting, and illustrates the sort of double-think discusses above. Latour:

Social scientists have for long allowed themselves to denounce the belief system of ordinary people. They call this belief system 'natuarlization' (Bourdieau and Wacquaint 1992). Ordinary people imagine that the power of gods, the objectivity of money, the attraction of fashion, the beauty of art, come from some objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things. Fortunately, social scientists know better and they show that the arrow goes in fact in the other direction, from society to the objects. Gods, money, fashion and art offer only a surface for the protection of our social needs and interests. At least since Emile Durkheim, such has been the price of entry into the sociology profession (Durkheim 1915/1965). To become a social scientist is to realize that the inner properties of objects do not count, that they are mere receptacles for human categories (We Have Never Been Modern 51-52).

So, social scientists think that that there is nothing intrinisic about any 'object' but that properties of objects are inherently social phenomena. Thus, the social scientists attempt to purify the world of the subject, and the social, while denying the objective and the natural.


Ordinary people, mere social actors, average citiznes, believe that they are free and that they can modify their desires, their motives and their rational strategies at will. The arrow of their beliefs now goes from the Subject/Society pole to the Nature pole (We Have Never Been Modern, 52).

Which is to say: the thinking-subject (the regular citizen) thinks that it acts upon Nature ('object'), a radically separate Nature. More Latour:

But fortunately, social scientists are standing guard, and they denounce, and debunk, and ridicule this naive belief in the freedom of the human subject and society. This time they use the nature of things -- that is the indisputable results of the sciences-- to show how it determines, informs and moulds the soft and pliable wills of the poor humans. 'Naturalization' is no longer a bad word but the shibboleth that allows the social scientist to ally themselves with the natural sciences. All the sciences (natural and social) are now mobilized to turn the humans into so many puppets manipulated by objective forces -- which only the natural or social scientists happen to know (We Have Never Been Modern, 52-53).

So we can see the double think in action here. Social scientists hold both that all that counts are social rules, but then when push comes to shove, they side with the natural, and say that all that counts is the objective! They are always straddling a divide between the object and the subject. But, for Latour, this 'straddling' lets us see what might actually be going on: a process of hybridization, where quasi-objects/quasi-subjects proliferate and are, ostensibly, ignored in favour of processes of purification.

Ok, that is the end of my discussion of Latour on modernity. It may have been a bit repetitive and a bit oversimplified, but if you find any of it interesting, I highly recommend picking up We Have Never Been Modern (or any of his other books/articles) and working through it yourself. I've really just glazed a tiny aspect of this one book, and I don't pretend to have 'gotten it right' at all. If you want to point out my errors I would be very pleased, and I will update this node accordingly! (REALLY). The end.

Well...hold on a minute. Just so you think ol' Bruno isn't just tearing down philosophical/sociological edifices, he DOES have a positive project, one that is neither post, anti, or just plain old modern. It's remarkably non-modern. As soon as I brush up on it, I'll write something about actor-network theory (created by Latour)


  • Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986).
  • Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988).
  • Bruno Latour, Science in Action, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1987).
  • Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000).
  • Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985).
  • Steven Shapin, Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle's Literary Technology, pp. 481-520 in Social Studies of Science 14, 1984.
  • Ian Hacking, "Review of Science in Action and The Pasteurization of France," Philosophy of Science 59.3, September 1992.
  • T. Hugh Crawford, "An Interview with Bruno Latour: Configurations 1.2, found at:
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (New York, Free Press, 1915 (1965)). (referred to by Latour, can be argued that Durkheim shaped the course of sociology/sociological theory for a good while, 50 years or more).
  • Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, Reponses: Pour une Anthropologie Reflexive, (Paris, Le Seuil, 1992). (referred to by Latour)