Bruno Latour has upset received ideas about the nature of scientific truth. His proposition that scientific facts are constructed through networks of human and non-human actors initially outraged many. Rather than seeking objective facts, scientists were, he argued, “for the purpose of being convinced and convincing others”. Applying his thinking to climate change, he argued that nature could not be observed from a distance, because humanity was part of it. Yet he considered himself a champion of science and its methods; his ideas became widely accepted. The philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist died at the age of 75.
Latour received the social science equivalents of the Nobel Prize: the Holberg Prize (in 2013) and the Kyoto Prize (in 2021). For a long time he was relatively unknown, and even the target of some academic hostility, in his native France. This partly reflected disciplinary rivalries. It was also consistent with Bruno’s identity as an individualist and outsider.
He was the youngest son of a large family of winegrowers (the Burgundian Louis Latour, and not the Bordelais Château Latour). He was proud of the story of his great-grandfather’s triumph over the vine-ravaging insect phylloxera, and of the dismay of his siblings when he chose to become a philosopher rather than “inherit Vine”. The imagery of winemaking informed his arguments. He claimed that, like good wine, good ideas suffer when exported across the Channel.
In 1976 he invited me to join him at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he was a visitor. He introduced me to the lab and its inhabitants with a seductive sense of analytical distance. Respectfully taking a pipette, he said, “This, they believe, measures the quantity of a liquid. This anthropological perspective on everyday scientific practice was absent from contemporary accounts of the sociology of science. Our collaboration has resulted in life in the laboratory (1979), the first ethnographic study of the construction of scientific facts, and Bruno’s first work in English.
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After degrees in philosophy and doctorate, Bruno spent most of his early career at the École des Mines de Paris (1982-2006). While teaching social sciences to science and engineering students, he was part of an outstanding research group, the Center for Sociology of Innovation (CSI). With others, he devised actor-network theory (ANT), which postulated that the production of scientific knowledge and technological artifacts could be understood as interconnected alliances.
The network includes actors as diverse as laboratory equipment, records, paper trails, material samples, citations and research grants, as well as individual scientists. An important consequence is that the force of a scientific fact is neither more (nor less) than the work necessary to undo the alliances and dismantle the network. ANT transformed social analysis and offered a new way of doing social science.
In 2006, Bruno joined the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and developed a critique of modernity – the set of ideas and practices, stemming from the Enlightenment, according to which the world is open to change through human intervention. If, as ANT argues, the composition of the world depends on the interconnection of heterogeneous elements, this has consequences for certain cherished dualisms: between spirit and matter, material and immaterial, human and the non-human, nature and society. In particular, it challenges the assumption that the proper focus of social science is human activity, as opposed to inert non-human matter.
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Bruno has worked on a dizzying array of topics: science, law, transportation systems, religion, the Brazilian rainforest, politics and the limits of growth, as well as everyday anecdotes and experiences. He pursued a form of “empirical philosophy” to solve these and many other pressing real-world problems, earning a reputation as a public intellectual. Later, he became interested in the problems of the environment and climate change, on which he collaborated with artists and scientists, notably in a series of remarkable exhibitions and lecture-performances.
Bruno largely avoided the absurd “science wars” – the intellectual exchanges of the 1990s in which a few scientific realists misinterpreted him as a postmodernist. But his radical recasting of accepted positions, his seemingly anti-humanist leveling of the distinction between people and things, and his skepticism of the very concept of society make him a controversial figure. While being considered for a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey, several prominent scientists threatened to resign.
He wrote about deep issues with disarming lightness. His lectures and presentations were also full of wit, imagination and charm. During a lecture at Oxford University in 2003, a young researcher dared to interrupt Bruno to point out a logical inconsistency. Bruno stopped and exclaimed: “But I’m French!”, to enthusiastic applause. He was warm and generous in all his dealings, making it a point to sit with doctoral students at conference dinners. Yet he was a man of patrician aspiration. In 2006, he pulled out of talks about a possible job at Oxford, saying he “wanted to do things for France”.
Bruno would repeatedly confuse his detractors by altering his arguments, changing direction and finding new targets. In 2015, he claimed life in the laboratory: “This little book, which began as a critique of science, is now used by scientists to help them in their research.”
The author declares no competing interests.