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Latour and the Semiotic Phenomenology of Science and Society July 26, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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No discussion of historiography and the Great Escape from the philosophy of science can long exclude Bruno Latour, though it is important to remember that Latour urges: “I cannot claim [the honor] of being a historian….  I use history as a brain scientist uses a rat, cutting through it in order to follow the mechanisms that may allow me to understand at once the content of a science and its context” (Pasteurization of France, p. 12).

In a move typical of the Great Escape, though, Latour relies on historiographical coherence to deny philosophy its place.  It is significant that Latour begins his work The Pasteurization of France (1988, a translation and revision of 1984’s Les Microbes: Guerre et Paix) by drawing a parallel with Tolstoy’s historical debunking of the Napoleonic Wars as playing out according to the design of genius military architects.  History, in all its contingency, can know no architecture, despite those who would impose one retrospectively: “Even if few people still believe in the naive view, courageously defended by epistemologists, that sets science apart from noise and disorder, others would still like to provide a rational version of scientific strategy, to offer clear-cut explanations of how it develops and why it works” (p. 6).

Latour’s main concern after Laboratory Life (1979, with Steven Woolgar) is not the production of knowledge and the practice of scientists, but the way knowledge works in society.  With other sociologists of the 1970s and 1980s, Latour would emphasize the importance of trust over epistemology: since very few people witness experiments and very few people bother to verify their conceptual presuppositions (the famous “black boxes”), and since very few people understand scientific arguments in all their detail, scientists and laypeople alike tend to take the claims of trusted authorities for granted without an epistmeologically valid reason for doing so.  Rationality is built on the foundations of ritual, therefore an important topic of investigation is the creation, maintenance, and challenging of networks of trust.

Latour’s world is fundamentally a fight for survival: alliances are forged and broken, opponents are battled, practices spread and are discontinued.  Evidence does not convince others on its own: the way must be prepared, and those intent on denying it can do so successfully if they have enough allies.  History is always the judge: there is no abstract scorecard of knowledge gained for human kind.   “E pur si muove” may be a noble sentiment, but it’s pretty weak stuff for Latour.  The planets, the Medicis, and some astronomers were not good enough allies to keep Galileo out of house arrest.

In Pasteurization, the most basic point Latour scores is to deny that Pasteur’s work was the source of its own authority and consequences, much as Kutuzov’s genius had little to do with the defeat of Napoleon’s armies.  Latour’s real target, though, is to reform the language of knowledge and society.  If few people ever even see a microbe, then public evidence for them becomes the authorities or “spokesmen” who testify to the link between microbes and their actions (such as making people ill).  Therefore, to deny, affirm, or modify the link between microbes and disease is to deny, affirm, or limit the credibility of their spokesmen.  Because nature and its spokesmen stand and fall together, there can be no practical distinction between the natural and the social.

It is here where we find that Latour squares off against more than the vile epistemologists; he is also after those who seek historical explanations for the development of science and public knowledge in the purely social—the plaything of “groups, classes, interests, and laws” (p. 35).  He also found the the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) “disappointing”.  He viewed it as concentrating too hard on the generation of knowledge in the mind of the individual: “Most of the sociology of science is internalist epistemology sandwiched between two slices of externalist sociology” (p. 257n27).  Once again, the divides in science studies are marked by who can distance themselves from philosophy the fastest.

Latour’s main strategy, as I read it, is to replace explanation with description of the co-production of knowledge and authority, turning to semiotics—the analysis of the textual content of arguments—to do so.  In Pasteurization he looks at the content of three journals to see the way French scientific hero Louis Pasteur became associated in print with the reason he became a hero: the improvement of public health.  Importantly for Latour, the history of the hygiene movement is not dependent on the history of knowledge of microbes.  Pasteur’s work lent the hygiene movement intellectual authority and focus in its advocacy, while the hygiene movement lent Pasteur a calling card of the validity of his work, and thus prestige and support.  Not many people in this story actually had contact with the microbes themselves, though.  Rather, hygiene, laboratory work, personalities, and public health all reinforced each others’ position against possible opponents.

Nevertheless, the microbes were important, and his granting any “agency” to them generated a lot of criticism, mainly because they seemed to grant historical explanatory power to “evidence” and not enough to the human factors that made that evidence credible in the first place—it was Latour who was getting too epistemological.  For his part, Latour insisted that he gave natural things agency only in a “semiotic sense” (p. 35), which I take to mean that he is merely invoking a description of when some “spokesman” starts invoking a natural object in their arguments.  If Pasteur said he was convinced by the microbes, then they convinced him; if hygiene proponents said that hygiene was responsible for killing microbes and thereby improving public health, then it was—all insofar as others were persuaded to believe the claim and continued to do so.

That non-human agents might well have been involved is a proposition needed to maintain semiotic credulity.  They preserve historical coherence: “In order to act effectively between men—that is, to go to Mecca, to survive in the Congo, to bring fine, healthy children to birth, to get manly regiments—we have to ‘make room’ for microbes” (p. 36).  But they also keep description from descending into relentless cynicism, with every claim to have seen reality being grounded in some distinctly social agenda: “To make up society with only social connections, omitting the invisibles, is to end up with general corruption, a perverse deviation of good human intentions” (ibid).

For historians, I would argue, Latour’s strait-jacketed semiotic descriptions are most useful as an assay of explanatory plausibility.  For Latour, semiotic shifts indicate shifts in alliances.  We know the text is real, and the text serves as a descriptive phenomenology of “what happened”, but—just as if we were observers (in Latour’s original, “ideal readers”) following the events in real time (remember, Latour is not a historian)—we will not be able to distinguish what was “natural” from what was “social”.

Historians, though, are in a position to at least speculate and argue about “what happened” even at the level of “cognition” and “persuasion”, using further evidence (remember, Latour is only studying journal contents), as well as epistemology to try and intuit what actors saw and what “made sense” to them.  Latour’s phenomenology of alliances and battles can only discover evidence that cognition has occurred: Pasteur links microbes to disease; hygiene advocates use Pasteur’s work to make their recommendations more specific.  It is by studying the extent of these semiotic alliances of terms and authorities that we can define constituencies of belief and practice, which helps historians sharpen their historical explanations of the persuasive means by which constituencies were constructed, which is where Latour doesn’t venture—the construction of constituencies for him is made possible when resistances are overcome, but their generation remains a fact rather than something to be explained.

I tend to think Latour paid too high a price for historical coherence of description, which I do think he achieves.  By denying epistemology, he can’t generate satisfying historical explanations, but by forsaking deeply local practice to maintain chronological coherence, he denies himself the analytical benefits (such as the sociological analysis of anomaly resolution) of a more purely sociological approach favored by scholars such as Collins.  Finally, his (idiosyncratic and off-putting) formulations are hardly necessary for the production of coherent history—they are only one method of challenging a particular breed of naive view of the historical development of science and its relationship with society.

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