A Parliament of Beings, A History Boy, 26/02/2014

The work of Bruno Latour fascinates me in many ways. I wouldn’t write about him here if he didn’t. The ideas of his book, The Politics of Nature, were originally going to play a minor role in the dissertation version of my Ecophilosophy manuscript, but my advisor told me that my brief account passed over the complexity of his ideas too quickly, and I cut that small section.

He was right, but I’m still skeptical of Latour’s development of his ideas in that 2004 book about a parliament of nonhuman, and even non-organic, creatures. Here’s my problem in a cursory format. The Politics of Nature is an attempt at a solution of the modern ecological crisis, which in that book, Latour interprets as a problem of inclusion in the political process. In other words, our politics today focus on the concerns of humans alone, but this anthropocentric focus has blinded us to the destructive aspects of actions for the benefit of humanity (industrial technological development, the physically violent extraction of resources from the land) because nonhuman bodies, those we relegate to the sphere of nature, bear the brunt of such destruction.

Latour strikes me as a philosopher who
develops very complex ideas that have very
simple problems.
His proposal in The Politics of Nature was to open human politics to creatures and bodies normally considered natural, and my initial problem with his account was that he anthropomorphized nonhumans too much. He analyzed the possible dynamics of political problems that would arise when animals, plants, fungi, and ecosystems were given a place in a parliament that would let their voices be heard. Quite literally, this is impossible, because only humans have language, and it is difficult to discern whether nonhumans of various kinds can even be said to have interests. Animals have desires, plants have circumstances of flourishing, ecosystems have tendencies and conditions for their stable development, but only humans can be said to have self-conscious interests in the sense that they can be politically activated. We’re self-conscious social creatures who regulate ourselves on macroscopic scales by creating systems of morality and political institutions about and through which we communicate linguistically. Articulating political interests require self-consciousness and language. Humans seem to be the only creatures on Earth who have these abilities. 

The suggestion in The Politics of Nature was that scientific instruments can be developed that can translate the actions of nonhumans into specific statements of interests.* From one perspective, my Ecophilosophical perspective agrees with this idea: if we take the health and flourishing of nonhuman creatures and systems seriously, we will learn more about them, and so be better able to deal with them, and ensure that our environmental negotiations no longer work by destruction and pure exploitation, but through compromise. My real problem is that I hate the way Latour anthropomorphizes his language about nonhumans so much.

* My second, less serious, problem with Latour’s vision in that book is that he relies so heavily on the institution of science to develop magical ways to translate the activity of nonhumans into the language of interests, so that we can conceive of them as actors. His early books on the sociology of scientific communities, institutions, and practice showed how difficult it is to get any coherent, unified model from the complicated fumbling of the contemporary scientific establishment. The politics and economics of laboratories, universities, corporations, and research institutions prevent the practical unity of science at all, let alone the development of their communities along the virtuous paths of emancipating our environmental politics through including all creatures in a parliament. 

But his basic idea of reintroducing science to its political dimensions results in these anthropomorphic conceptual frameworks. The first major chapter of his 1991 We Have Never Been Modern describes the historical conflict that resulted in our current separation of the political for the realm of humans alone and nature for the realm of nonhumans. Thomas Hobbes developed a political philosophy that was immensely influential in conceiving, for the first time in the West, politics as the exclusive domain of humans. 

Progenitor of modern experimental science
Robert Boyle, who, despite the hair, is not
to be confused with Robert Plant.
Robert Boyle simultaneously developed experimental science as a means of using special instruments, controlled by an elite group of experts, to reveal and create new truths about nature. After all, laboratories do technically create new truths. Experimental science creates situations that can never happen in nature precisely because its practitioners control more variables than ever stay constant in natural events. So we create scenarios that can never occur naturally to discover facts about bodies that have indirect and pivotal affects on their ordinary behaviour, which are never directly visible in that behaviour.

Latour’s analysis is basically that Boyle had to develop a new concept for the experimental science practitioner so that they could practice without political interference, so that a king and his army could never interpret the activities of scientists and philosophers as a threat to royal authority. Even though such people are, at their best, threats to established authority, we have an interest in keeping this secret from those authorities so that we can remain alive to make our threats. So Boyle developed the notion that matters of politics were separate from matters of natural science. In the modern era, this is biting us in the ass, as the industrial technology scientific research has developed has resulted in our current ecological crisis.

This is the first of several points on Latour’s ideas that will come in the next week or so as I dive back through We Have Never Been Modern with an eye to adapting some of its ideas to Ecophilosophy manuscript revisions and Utopias project concepts. The relevant aspects of environmental philosophy are obvious. For the Utopias project, the book touches on ideas of how inclusion and political boundaries can shape political ideals. More to come.


  1. Bruno Latour was the first person I read who introduced me to what would become my primary field of interest, STS/SSK, with Laboratory Life, the ethnography of a neuroscience lab he did with Steve Woolgar.

    The book was, simply put, a life-changer for me. It was exactly what I needed at the time to give me a framework to talk about ideas that had been gnawing at me for a very long time. However, his later work is, as you say, a bit changeable on some fronts (imagine how surprised I was when I actually got into an STS department and heard how derisively they spoke of Latour).

    From this period of his writings I'm still somewhat drawn to his concepts of knowledge networks and the role representative spokespeople play in speaking for different actors (this is, I believe, what he's trying to get at with the giving nonhuman actors a voice thing, not literally advocating Doctor Dolittle as a political philosophy, but it's been awhile since I've read The Politics of Nature) but I do agree with my former colleagues now that his work is a bit too apolitical and acritical to serve as a concrete way forward.

    And nowadays I'd be far quicker to recommend Donna Haraway and Ludwig Fleck as an introduction to the kind of STS/SSK I do than Bruno Latour, though, Aramis, or For The Love of technology is still a delightfully fun read.

    1. I knew Latour was too smart to think that we could make something for a sequoia-dominated forest like Dug's collar in Up. But I always thought that The Politics of Nature didn't explore in enough detail the kind of radical shifts in political institutions that would be required to institute a system like the one he described. The basic structure of parliamentary representation (aside from the necessity of elections across species) remained essentially the same. And after his seminal works in STS/SSK/SST/SOS (I'll always find the proliferation of acronymic doctrinal divisions in sociology of science fields inherently hilarious and worthy of parody), I found his treatment of science in PofN rather naive.

      As well, I've found various comments of Latour through the 21st century, especially in regard to climate change denial, which suggest he genuinely regrets writing his works that helped bust the myths of scientific infallibility. Because he gave people the tools to describe science as a human practice, he thinks he gave climate change denialists the rhetorical weapons to discredit any scientific investigation at all. My collaborations with the SERRC, who I link on the side of the page, exposed me to some of these latter developments.