Why has Critique Run Out Of Steam?

Critical theorist and science philosopher/sociologist Bruno Latour· has a fascinating article in Critical Inquiry·, Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern· (alternate version from Latour’s website·).

I was quite influenced by Latour’s book, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society·. Science in Action is a powerful critique of the concept of scientific truth/consensus as such. When I read Science in Action (towards the end of my undergraduate chemistry degree), it confirmed when I had begun to suspect: the general direction of science and widespread acceptance of scientific truth is largely socially constructed. Latour articulated a persuasive narrative of science that I had felt intuitively but not yet been able to fully develop in words myself.

Now, Latour once again puts his finger on a changed problem: “critique” has become so successful that it has become a tool to destroy truth rather than elucidate it. Latour suggests, like old army generals, we (critical theorists) might still be fighting the last war while our cause goes down in flames. Latour writes about the right wing’s success in muddying the waters with respect to global warming science:

Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argumentor did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of factas we have learned to combat so efficiently in the pastbut from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

(too bad blosxom, my weblog software, doesn’t support multiple categories—this should obviously be filed in culture and politics.)


  1. Anonymous Jan 28

    Creationism and Kuhn

  1. Stephen Laniel’s Unspecified Bunker » Kitcher, The Advancement of Science

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