I am trying to read Bruno Latour's paper "A cautious Prometheus? A few steps towards philosophy of design" but have no background in philosophy and so would be happy if someone could help me out understanding some basics, beginning with the question in the title:

What does Latour mean when he claims that we've never been modern? (what is "modern" in philosophical context?)

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    Yes I see this lady covers Habermas in week two supplemental. I am not familiar with Bruno LATour nor have I listened to these lectures. Maybe you have already seen this. m.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq_nmxxDSQs – Gordon Dec 8 '19 at 3:11
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    The lady on YouTube also has a lecture on LaTour but I think you will find that Habermas is important for your question too. – Gordon Dec 8 '19 at 6:09

Welcome, Luna.

Interesting topic - how to take Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: 1993.

An extract from an article by Daniel Clarke Waugh (2001) might be of help. Page references are to Waugh's translation :

Scholarship reassessing the "Scientific Revolution" can provide some inspiration in this task [GLT: the task of fixing Peter the Great's - and Russia's - relationship to the so-called scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries]. "Modern science" as the embodiment of new and "rational" modes of inquiry is assumed to be perhaps the foremost characteristic of the "modern world." In the "sagas of modernity and Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution is the unmoved mover that sets the irreversible processes of secularization, industrialization, and rationalization in motion." With good reason, the most widely accepted histories of science have identified the critical turning point in the seventeenth century, as exemplified in the development of the experimental method by Robert Boyle, and culminating in the mathematical formulations of Isaac Newton.46 Yet the historiography of this Scientific Revolution seems to parallel the historiography of "modern- ization," in that no sooner had the positivist framework been established than it came under attack. Even those who still argue for the validity of the concept of the Scientific Revolution now agree that the relationship between science and religion or rationality and superstition is demonstrably complex. Arguably the Scientific Revolution, in which some of the leading lights "were even more pious than their predecessors" in the seventeenth century, involved in part "an active struggle to reclaim knowledge for the pious." In part, the re-examination of the Scientific Revolution has occurred in studies of experimental practice and the social context of science. One of the most influential studies in what is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), has suggested that the supposedly rational demonstration of the superiority of Boyle's experimental method was less than objective and "scientific."50 Although at one time he was identified with SSK and he uses this study as an important point d'appui, Bruno Latour has now moved radically beyond what defenders of this school can accept.

Latour, who seems to relish controversy, states boldly: "No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world." (p. 47). The modern world as commonly understood is really an "invention" of Boyle and Hobbes, "in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract" (p. 27). "[...] The moderns can mobilize Nature, objectify the social, and feel the spiritual presence of God, even while firmly maintaining that Nature escapes us, that Society is our own work, and that God no longer intervenes." (p. 34). Moreover, and this is a critical point for historians, "the moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it were really abolishing the past behind it. [...] They do not feel that they are removed from the Middle Ages by a certain number of centuries, but that they are separated by Copernican revolutions, epistemological breaks, epistemic ruptures so radical that nothing of that past survives in them. [...] The moderns indeed sense time as an irreversible arrow, as capitalization, as progress." (pp. 68-69). And nature/scientific truth is not distinctly separated from human society and culture. In between those two poles is an array of "hybrids" or "quasi-objects," which may be "seen as mixing up different periods, ontologies or genres," and which, according to Latour, the moderns attempt to deny. "We are not emerging from an obscure past that confused natures and cultures in order to arrive at a future in which the two poles will finally separate cleanly owing to the continual revolution of the present." (p. 76). He argues then that since the dichotomies asserted by the moderns do not really exist, we can best accept being "non-modern," retaining at least some of the beliefs of the "premoderns," importantly among them "their capacity for conceiving of past and future in many ways other than progress and decadence" (p. 132).

(Daniel Clarke Waugh, 'We Have Never Been Modern: Approaches to the Study of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great', Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 49, H. 3 (2001), pp. 321-345: 330-1.)


Modernism in the philosophical context is... a complex idea. Generally speaking, when philosophers talk about modernism, they are talking a particular mindset that imposes Western, industrialized, commercial capitalism as the peak of human culture, and that derides all other viewpoints as backward, primitive, or misguided. The idea (I believe) originated in architectural theory, where designers discussed 'modern' buildings — cold, sterile, functional edifices constructed more for the appearance of prestige than for any aesthetic values — but then spread out among the philosophical world as a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with the world. The umbrella term 'post-modernist' covered a whole range of philosophical approaches that critiqued this 'modernist' worldview.

I haven't read Latour — at least not recently enough to pick him out of all the crap stuffed into my head — but the most obvious philosophical point to be made is that 'modernity' is (and always has been) a kind of neo-Colonial pipe-dream. References to the modern world are actually references to a particular (and demonstrably false) narrative about the intrinsic superiority of European classical-Liberal capitalist society: a moral assertion along the lines of "we won so we're the greatest," not an effective or realistic analytic claim. We were never 'modern' in the same sense that (say) the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) has never been 'democratic' or a 'republic.' The term 'modern' has a certain vacuous cachet, adding a veneer of respectability and pragmatic authority without any substantive grounding.

Of course, Latour may be going somewhere else entirely, but hopefully this gives you enough of a framework to appreciate his work.

  • This answer contains a loaded, even bigoted definition of modernism. It comes off like a polemic. – Just Some Old Man Sep 13 '20 at 21:52
  • @JustSomeOldMan: shrug... If it's a polemic, it's not my polemic. – Ted Wrigley Sep 13 '20 at 22:34

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