Philosophy and General Reading

Latour’s Revision: Objects and “Truth”

One may have noticed something distinct about the title of this essay, namely that I have enclosed the word “truth” in quotations.  The purpose is to bring focus to the question of its status, not because the concept itself is in doubt, but because after what seems like much neglect, whatever truth content may have existed for human beings appears to have increasingly eroded. I am not just speaking of climate denialism, or of observations regarding the status and role of “fact” in popular discourse. I am speaking also to what one might describe as the crisis of metaphysics in postmodernism.

So why comment? The short answer is that, on the side of my physics, I am interested in the study and history of mathematics, including the history of scientific and mathematical knowledge. With that, I have also developed a study of epistemology more generally (i.e., human knowledge). The opening statement of this post draws on these studies. It was also inspired by an article I recently read on Bruno Latour’s revision of his postmodern challenge against “scientific certainty”. The article cites that recent reconsiderations by Latour have formed in the context of growing unease with the development of things like climate denialism and post-truth culture. It was intriguing, nonetheless, to read these words in relation to such a staunch postmodernist thinker. For me, as I detailed in my study in social pathology, the question of rational discourse – its lacking – is a concern.

The trouble I have with Latour’s position – and this probably goes for the whole of postmodernism – is that, from what I can see, it lays the foundation not just for the irrational but for a reject of reason as a whole. Why? I think it begins with what I see as the misguided rejection of the object. Indeed, there is even a frequent conflation between the scientific study of objects – consider, for example, mathematical objects or the study of things like neutrinos or stress tensors – and the social epistemology of object reductionism (argued to be a site of ethical violation). For Latour and the broader postmodern view, natural epistemology and social epistemology seem to be awkwardly collected into one. Indeed, this seems to be the case for much of what is called contemporary critical theory. In epistemological terms, the objective side of the subject-object dialectic is rejected outright without sufficiently working through the role the object plays in the progress of human thought. While the ethical philosophy of social object reductionism is applied in contexts of violence and prejudice (see concepts of epistemic violence and economic reductionism, for example), and while the arguments can be compelling, something is missing when a wider assertion is made linking this reductionism with scientific methodology.

That science – and scientific epistemology -might be exploited on behalf of economic ideology is a problem that I think we ought to take seriously. There is a lot of bad science out there – not science as such, but science as an abstraction of itself on behalf of economic or political biases. This leads to a comment that the argument in the context of social philosophy – namely, the concern of socially mediated facts in the context of a highly irrational social world seems, to me, to scratch some kernel of philosophical and empirical truth. In especially convoluted circumstances in which rational discourse appears significantly lacking, the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as “natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth” takes on a certain meaning. But to argue toward a metaphysics of post-truth seems absurd to me.

For Latour, “the opposite of relativism is totalitarianism”. I take this to be the general postmodern view. Uncomfortably absolutist and overly simplistic, I’m not sure the assumption is a necessary or even sufficient condition for the conclusion, particularly or especially when extended beyond the realm of social and political truth. That is because the postmodern case seems more of a social projection on metaphysics than an actual genuine statement about metaphysics. It takes a pathological and thus irrational social world and projects it on the plane of metaphysics, as though human society is an example of natural truth and natural scientific epistemology. Moreover, or to put it another way, I struggle to see how it is logically or rationally sufficient to extend social critique to a metaphysics of reality. That the social world produces patterns of dogma, which may or may not then be a sufficient condition for tyranny, does not necessitate that the idea of objective reality and truth is fundamentally despotic. To conflate the former with the latter seems very much misguided.

Social truth contexts, I would say, are very different than scientific truth contexts – they do not share the same epistemological grounding – although in social science the two may overlap. But the idea that in the human social world, the concepts of fact and truth might be easily manipulated or epistemologically convoluted, and that one might then extrapolate from this experience that “truth” as a whole is subject to Foucault’s notion of power seems to me to be grossly simplistic.

But this is exactly what seems to happen in postmodernism. For postmodernism, the object, severed from the subject, becomes epistemologically and methodologically inaccessible. In other words, postmodern philosophy, rejecting any claims of objective reality, seeks to establish a response to modernity by suggesting human beings are prisoners of language, facts are thus entirely constructed. Through the lens of such cultural theory, objects do not exist in the world insofar that facts do not exist “out there” waiting to be discovered. This is the epitome of the postmodern trope – the essence of postmodern philosophy.

For me, it is hard to read such opinions in the context of natural scientific study. To posit such beliefs or arguments in the context of the success of things like quantum field theory or general relativity, two of the most successful scientific theories in human history, offers immediate disproof of the epistemological biases of the postmodern narrative.


What, then, of objects? It seems to me that the idea that the natural scientist reduces everything in the world to objects is an overstated myth. The “objects” of science may be plants in botany, a fundamental particle in physics or a distant phenomenon in cosmology. An object can also be a system. But, in general, we could just as well replace the word “object” with “model” and we can also replace the notion of pure reduction to contextual isolation. If “object” and “model” are synonymous, as they often appear to be, this concept of modelling is based on the scientific activity in which a particular part or feature of the world is made easier to understand, define, quantify, visualise, or simulate by referencing it to existing and usually commonly accepted knowledge.

Think, for instance, of weather patterns as a dynamical system. This object of study may be further visualised, at least in terms of human intuition, by creating a plot. Or, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, think of a more classical picture of study in which something, say a cow, is being acted on by a number of forces. For whatever reason, we want to know or understand the forces acting this cow! A number of simplifying assumptions could be made, such as modelling a cow as a circle. In this case, let’s model it as a particle. In doing so, we could then accomplish a number things, such as calculating the net force acting on the cow. Indeed, though the cow is an object of study in this example, this does not necessitate that there is some lasting epistemological skew. The cow is also a subject, and this can indeed be recognised. Most of the reports I’ve read by scientists study fruit flies are never short of expressive their appreciating and wonder for the subject of the fruit fly. In other words, the notion of the object seems to mean different things to the natural scientist and to the postmodern philosopher. Firstly, there are two different definitions of objects at work here. Secondly, in the scientific frame, there are also different types of objects. Thirdly, the status of objects in biology – a very young science – and the status of objects in physics are not necessarily one and the same. In biology, the objects of study are also subjects.  Philosophically, I understand this is very sensitive ground for many who partake in contemporary ethical debate, particularly, as I have read, around the meaning of the study of animals. Simply put, one is no longer studying mathematical objects of the traditional sort, or systems and phenomena in the physical sense, but things other creatures.

But it is striking that the one of the most vocal sources of appreciation for the natural world is the scientific voice. In biology, to say that a forest is an object of study is different than the economic reductionism of that same forest, even though there seems to be conflation here amongst certain philosophers. That the global economy might equip scientific tools for the economic harvesting of the natural world is not an issues of science but, in my opinion, an issue of the misuse of scientific methodologies and epistemology. Biology sees the forest in its diversity of biological life – all the wonderful particularities of the forest to be studied, explored and appreciated with a great sense of discovery for each subtle hint that may be disclosed at a broader truth. The epistemology of the global economy only feigns a scientific appearance in this regard, using scientific tools to reduce that forest to the status of economic objects to then be exploited for profit. This is not science, and I think a survey of the biological scientific community would reveal quite the opposite appreciation for the sensitivity of the life of that forest that exists as much more than some economic resource.

On my readings, it seems like if there is any rationality to the concern of object reductionism it exists primarily within social and ethical philosophy with respect to the reduction of phenomena as social and economic objects as a site of violation. As I mentioned early, the arguments can be compelling. At the same time, to confuse scientific objects of study with economic objects of control makes no sense in absolute and definitive terms. Indeed, and putting aside the recognition that many of the most staunch defenders of environmental health are scientists, and that within the scientific community the ethical view of celebrating the diversity of life and the complexity of the subject is one that fills so many popular science books, I would challenge the idea that to analysise the world “out there”  necessitates a lack of investment with the reality of subjects. To construct this argument, there needs to be clear epistemological connection and I personally do not see it.

The problem, rather, is that in seeking to construct the argument that it is a fundamental error to separate the world into subjects and objects, Latour, and many other postmodernists, seem to sidestep questions of epistemology in effort to avoid serious engagement with the role of the concept of the scientific object plays in the positive development of human knowledge. But even more broadly, the role of the  object in thought cannot simply be discarded. Indeed, rather than working through the subject-object relation in effort to establish some sort of logical reconciliation in what is likely to be their epistemological mediation. Even in theoretical physics, the great Albert Einstein pondered absence of humans in the measurement. In any case, if we assum such reconciliation is necessary in the first place – Latour seems to dismiss the idea altogether and instead substitute a different implicit dualism: human disinvestment-investment with natural reality. What is interesting in drawing this distinction, from what I can tell, is that any substantive discussion on the objects of myth is avoided. In the context of post-modernism, relativism, exceptionalism and mysticism are allowed to flourish and not only is truth deconstructed completely on a metaphysical level – instead of social truth in particular – so too is the notion of reason eroded. Such, it would also seem, is the nature of the conflict postmodernism has generated with the enlightenment. And while postmodernism seeks to work in the area of critical theory, unlike the foundations of critical theory which sought to defend the enlightenment, reason and the principle of human rationality in the face of the irrational and pathological, I fail to see how postmodernism is equipped with the right conceptual tools to tackle the problems of knowledge it seeks to evoke.

To construct the postmodern view, one must firstly reject the subject-object distinction outright. The rejection, in this case, comes on the side of the subject at the cost of the object. As the question of genuine reconciliation, or mediation, is not even of a concern – inasmuch that this rejection is synonymous with disposing of any idea that certain methodologies have more of a corner on the truth than others – the result is subjectivism and the manufacturing of the subjectivity of relative worldviews. The irony, I think, is the manner in which the foundations of postmodernism imply a sort of false reconciliation between subject and object without admitting that such reconciliation was even on the agenda. But the postmodern response to epistemology is just as regressive as the dogmatist who cuts the relation purely on the side of the object or the religious mystic who fantasises about the object through the lens of a subjectivism. But then again, in the postmodern case, it would seem to this reader that as a substitute for objective reality what we have is a purely socially constructed notion of reality – that is, instead of objects, we are left with a different doctrine of knowledge in which there are no facts external to the subject’s enterprise. So it is kind of like the reemergence of myth through an abstract reason, in the sense of how the rational and scientific description of the world is replaced with an epistemology in which natural or social phenomenon are given subjective explanations.

The mediated nature of the relation between subject-object is corroded, along with the differentiation between two very different forms of truth: natural and social.

Epistemologically speaking, it is in no way surprising that the effects of such misguided efforts have culminated in the development of the post-truth, post-empirical worldview with its inclination toward conspiracy and the falsely reconciled idea of the “truer truth” that we observe in conspiracy and anti-science cultures. What is surprising is that now even Latour is beginning to backtrack from making “scientific certainty” a “primary issue”, as the social, political and cultural foundations of climate denialism demand focus.

None of this is to say that postmodern philosophy has offered nothing positive. To my mind, its emphasis on the particular is a good thing. Post-modernism forced through the important social ethical concept of appreciating and celebrating the particularity, and sought to defend such particularity from reckless social and political attempts at hypostatisation. But I think it is also time to recognise that, analogously, emphasis on the particular cannot come at the epistemological cost of the universal. Indeed, there are philosophical problems that currently face us when it comes to a coherent theory or model of objective knowledge which satisfies, on the one hand, the limits of non-scientific and scientific knowledge in process and, on the other hand, the substance of our current best theories and the nature of identity. The discerning reader will acknowledge yet another connection by analogy: more broadly, debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Inasmuch that with each historical moment there is a limit to our knowledge it can also be said that science teaches us that with each historical moment, that knowledge also sharpens, deepens, and expands in the course of the next future moment. If, in my opinion, philosophy remains especially vulnerable to absolutist theories of concepts – that the antiquated law of identity predicates the conflation of concept, phenomenon and the non-identity of identity – I would argue that science generally fosters the opposite in the sense that its epistemology is a priori principled on the understanding of the revealing nature of phenomena: that identity, process, and substance can and do exist simultaneously. Where the trouble arises, I think, is when science and scientific knowledge enters the social world with it biased inclinations toward hypostatisation.

To the last paragraph, I think this also speaks to my own lack of comfort when it comes to the relation between science and industry, or any other obviously biased and social site of practice. Indeed, as scientific knowledge enters into a biased and less-than-rational social world, it becomes a political object or, in other ways, it seems to become an abstraction of itself in much the same way rationality might maintain its form but lose all of its content. As scientific knowledge is politicised, its truth content gets emptied. Of course this is not always the case, but examples are plenty!

I suppose the concern lends to the view that how science is realised, socially, and how science is used can be vulnerable to the biases of governing political, cultural and economic systems. For me, this is a much more pressing and nuanced issue than the postmodern case would allow.

In closing, if much of what I have read suggests the postmodern view is one that wants to respect history, then surely one ought to also recognise that the frontier of human knowledge has advanced to truly astounding boundaries of investigation, owed entirely to the modern scientific enterprise and its unique epistemological domain of enquiry. If human social history is largely one of prejudice, the development of an objective knowledge of the natural world over time points to the manner in which human enquiry ought to be accountable to scientific verification. Or, at least, this is the demand from the perspective of the history of scientific knowledge.

I suppose what I am saying is that I think it is important realise that the domain of social study is very different than the domain of natural scientific study; and that questions of social truth and of the operation of social truth are very different than concepts of objective truth and natural reality in the context of the scientific study of the natural world. But what is perhaps most obvious to me, it is the natural sciences by and large that remain a site for the mediation of subject-object and a truer view of reality.