Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pro-scientism or Anti-scientism? Yes!

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post on the "hottest new trend in continental philosophy", namely "scientism."

The question of scientism is an interesting one and it's not an easy question to resolve, despite the 'with us or against us' way that most people deal with it.  There are two things I have to say about it:

Firstly, I am a fully subscribed Latourian insofar as I see science as one kind of knowledge practice among others, albeit one that is tied into very peculiar and massively powerful networks and perhaps one that has its own modes of reference and so on.  So, I don't accept that on the one hand we have science and the other we have all other kinds of knowledge or that scientific knowledge is necessarily better in any given instance.  Science is itself a plurality and while it is quite different to other practices (politics, religion, pseudo-science etc.) these are differences within a plurality, not a duality.  So I'm rather anti-scientistic in how I specifically and explicitly cognise scientific practice -- I'm anti-scientistic, intellectually speaking.

But, then, secondly, am I not quite naively scientistic in my everyday practices?  Do I believe in evolution, global warming, atoms?  Of course I do.  When I get sick do I follow medical science or voodoo?  The former, of course.  Do I accept the claims of geocentrism just because it's just one cosmology among others?  Of course not, I accept whatever I understand of the prevailing scientific consensus is, however complex and processual I understand such consensus to be.  Insofar as science has a widely accepted answer for a question of fact I basically accept it (this probably isn't absolutely true but it's true enough).

So, I actually feel slightly dishonest when I repeat the Latourian/Foucauldian, etc. slogans about science .  I preach these lessons and I hold them to be true but don't I practice a whole different kind of truth, generally?

Of course the Latourian pluralism with respect to scientific knowledge qua practice that I describe above isn't actually *incompatible* with this kind of naive, 'grade school' scientism that I otherwise assume but nor are the two things really harmonious.  They're not irreconcilable but nor do they sit easily together.  I do experience some cognitive dissonance between the two -- why is this?  I don't know.

Science is one kind of knowledge among others, yes.  But am I prepared to give other kinds of knowledge an equal hearing on questions of fact?  Hardly.  Am I anti-scientism or pro-scientism?  Both!

Just a thought rather than an argument but hopefully people can see where I'm coming from.  For the time being I think that scientism makes for a more interesting open question than it is a debating topic with sides pre-decided, as if anyone has all the answers.  We should take its contradictions as indication that no one has adequate answers yet.


  1. Hello Philip, I try to propose a resolution of your cognitive dissonance based on a couple of fragments from Latour's new book: ENQUÊTE SUR LES MODES D4EXISTENCE. I think you may be less scientistic than you think inyour daily life, which Latour maintains is "infinitely less explored" than the quantum world, but at least as complicated. While, contrary to some of your interlocutors, I think that science and rationalism have been imposed via colonisation and exploitation on other cultures, I also think that their presence in our own culture is not as advertised, but only as Andrew Pickering says "hegemonic". That is to say, not even a statistical majority but majoritarian in Deleuze's sense. Science and rationalism count themselves twice, both as part of the practices and as their norm or ideal standard, and it is only in this way, by stacking the numbers, that they can seem to be the majority situation in our society.
    For more:

  2. Hi Philip, I was reading your comments on Levi Bryant's blog and thought you were making some good points so I clicked on your name and it directed me here. The main reason I am posting is this: I feel a little handicapped in all of these discussions because I have never read a word of Latour, and he seems to be one of the primary figures around which these discussions revolve.

    I am particularly interested in your brief summary of Latour's philosophy of science presented in this post. I was wondering if you could recommend which books would be the best to read to get an introduction to Latour's philosophy of science?

  3. @Brian:

    Glad that I've been of some use! It's difficult to pick out one work where you get a full sense of his thinking. 'Reassembling the Social' is Latour's introductory textbook to Actor-Network Theory so, in theory, that should be the best introduction to him but in practice I don't think that it is.

    Have you read much philosophy in general? If you have then I'd start off with a much older book 'The Pasteurization of France'. It has two parts: the first is a case study of the career of Louis Pasteur, the second is a metaphysical treatise (it's kind of like Leibniz's Monadology rewritten by Nietzsche, it's entertaining!). If I were you I'd read the second part *then* the first. It's not a difficult read and it's worth bearing in mind that it's nearly 30 years old and isn't necessarily representative of everything he's done since but it's still the best introductory text, I think. It contains most of the key concepts in germ form.

    Another good introduction that I've often recommended is 'Paris: Invisible City'. This is a photo essay that is actually officially unpublished in English but is available on Latour's website:

    That's just the text, the photos are on the site too. That is a great introduction to the sociological aspects of his work. I think Reassembling the Social is actually best read *after*.

    In terms of his writings on science, specifically, I'd look, first of all, at chapter 2 of Pandora's Hope - it's called 'Circulating Reference'. The rest of the book is good too but that is the best chapter.

    Probably the best known book he's written on science is 'Science in Action' - I'd only move on to that if you've read one or two of the things above and found them useful.

    Of course there's also this new book on 'modes of existence' that just came out in French (and is due in English next year). Won't be reading that 'til next year but that'll be probably the most significant thing he's published in 20 years.

    Hope that helps!

  4. Philip, thanks very much for the recommendations! They were quite helpful.

  5. Philip, thanks very much for the recommendations. They were quite helpful.