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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

#2 Latour's Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?

In the Winter 2004 issue of Critical Inquiry Bruno Latour published “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” It was soon to become a one of his most notable papers. This is because in the paper he confined his worry and his regret that his methodology was being co-opted by bad faith politics. The main aim of his research project was to show that there is a “lack of scientific certainty inherent in the construction of facts.” Stripped bad faith actors have pervasively deployed uncertainly even where certainty exists. Latour laments the project “intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” (emphasis added) has had the opposite effect to the point where there is a “distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases.” His cases range from climate change and political debate to war and justice.

In his mature thinking, Latour has attempted to distance himself from a position of pure constructivism. Instead, he had argued that technologies and devices are value-inherent actors. That they have their own set of attributes and characteristics independent of what values might happen to be subsequently attached to that actor. This position at times stands adjacent to a set of interrelated attitudes and beliefs that have been influenced by recent developments and debates in philosophy that concern the status of truth and certainty.

These developments in their various forms have often adopted a skeptical approach to the understanding of truth. And it would be a mistake to think that such skepticism is confined to those who would fall under the banner of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Even analytical philosophers such as Davidson and pragmatists such as Putman and Rorty have reservations, although Davidson and Putnam maintain their realist attitudes.

Within the last half century and across the philosophical spectrum one can see that what has propelled philosophy is a general re-evaluation of its foundations and a discussion over what are the most appropriate ways of understanding the world. And as such this skepticism has found expression in the anti-foundationalism of contemporary sociology, socio-linguistics, literary theory, and communication theory as well as everyday politics more generally. Moreover, this anti-foundationalism has become conventional wisdom.

This is not to say, as Rorty points out in Truth and Progress that there is no truth, or that truth is relative. Clearly, it makes no sense to say that “it is true for me but not for you” or it is “true here but not there.” For Rorty, such exercises are ‘pointless locutions.’ A more useful way to discuss the above statements would be to replace true with justification or application: “it is justified to me but not to you”, “It applies here but not there.” While some critics claim that in doing just this Rorty diminishes the value of truth, he argues that conventional analytic philosophy provides the grounds upon which ‘the very absoluteness of truth is a good reason for thinking “true” indefinable and for thinking that no theory of nature of truth is possible.’ In other words, there is not much that can be said about truth. And in general usage, true is a description of something that is considered to have been adequately justified, with standards for adequacy varying according to circumstances.

For those that are interested in truth, or think that it is a pragmatically useful way of thinking and comprehending the world, four major components are required for an outline of a theory of truth. These are theories of sensation, perception, correspondence, and judgement. But postmodernists and poststructuralists, particularly those significantly influenced by certain debates in the philosophy of language, suggest problems in each one of these theories. Their basic line of argumentation suggests that knowledge, value, and meaning of the world is created through social encounters mediated by language and texts: i.e. that 1) language is constitutive agent of human consciousness and the social production of meaning and 2) that one cannot exit this realm. Here the apprehension of the world, both past and present, arrives only through the lens of language’s pre-coded perceptions. Given this, it follows that all theories of truth are corrupted or inadequate.

Postmodernists press further by acknowledging that humans do invoke many belief and truths when acting or justifying manners and behaviors. Hence postmodernists have looked to devices or predispositions within people and the world to account for why these beliefs persist. The reasons they provide are many, complex, and sometimes at odds with one another, yet even so the collective trust of their argumentation views belief and knowledge emerge out of mixing of convention, power, and language. This position in its most radical form sees knowledge as a purely constructed activity with possibilities for modification possible at almost every level, from language itself to national identity for example.

While Latour has never fully subscribed to this line of argument, what has happened in the last four decades had led one of the leading contemporary proponents of knowledge as a constructed activity to become uneasy with the implications and consequences of an intellectual position in which almost everything is malleable from the vantage of a subject. Hence the position that he current occupies, one where critique can best be found in the ‘cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude.’