Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Naturphilosophie Redivivus: On Bruno Latour's 'Political Ecology'

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Naturphilosophie Redivivus: On Bruno Latour's 'Political Ecology'

Article excerpt

HEGEL IN KYOTO

In the Preface to his Philosophy of Right Hegel famously urges against those who see philosophy's task as giving instruction as to how the world ought to be that, on the contrary, philosophy 'always comes on the scene too late to give it'. (1) Hegel's equally famous image of the owl of Minerva which takes flight only at dusk was to capture the idea of a wisdom which is belated, but perhaps no less valuable for all that. As symbol it would describe well the predicament of environmental philosophy today, in an age in which, if the increasing number of scientific reports are true, humans may have effected their natural habitat in ways that have now run destructively out of human control. In such a situation philosophy would be both necessary--perhaps a Pascalian wager on its own remedial influence--but also necessarily modest in its aim to change what Hegel termed, with some irony, 'the world's course'. Such a view of philosophy is worth bearing in mind when reading Bruno Latour's 2001 work Politiques de la Nature, a book which can with some justification be seen as the most radical contribution yet to that growing genre of philosophy which tries to comprehend and respond critically to the present ecological crisis. What is significant in Latour's book, beyond the challenge it throws down to undertake a 'destruction of the idea of nature' (2) to rival the great attempts at philosophical 'destruction' of the twentieth century, is how far it embodies, despite its explicit rejection of the dialectical tradition Hegel launched, something of the Hegelian picture of philosophy as the retrospective grasping of historical actuality in thought. This is visible not least in the philosophical weight Latour gives to events which are seen--not in so many words--as world-historical, in particular the event which took place in Kyoto in 1997 when scientists, politicians and political activists came together to discuss the state of the planet in ways which, if Latour is right, unwittingly invalidated a millennia-old opposition between society and nature. This 'event', which looms large at many points in Latour's writing, forces on us, so he argues, a radical rethinking of previous assumptions about the separateness of nature from society, of the distinction between scientific truth and public doxa, and lends credence to the idea that matters of fact should be replaced by 'matters of concern, that nonhuman nature be recognized just like humans as actor and agent, and that a new 'collective' be 'convoked' to replace an age-old dualistic metaphysics. If the world-spirit was not quite marching through the Kyoto conference halls, the event was for Latour no less momentous.

Latour, of course, would reject any explicit association with the Hegelian ideas just set out. His writing sits consciously within a post-war French philosophical tradition which has long abandoned a dialectical approach and sought instead a different vocabulary in which to express its concerns. Yet Latour also breaks stylistically with much post-war French thought, borrowing the rigour of analytic philosophy to treat familiar themes, particularly the questioning of Western conceptual dualisms, with unfamiliar clarity. Politics of Nature, continuing the work of his earlier We Have Never Been Modern, is also admirably interdisciplinary, informed not only by philosophy but by Latour's own research in the social study of natural science and by his personal involvement in the ecology movement. Yet Latour is also a virulent critic of existing ecological politics, a politics he feels has been waylaid by erroneous philosophical assumptions about society and nature, and it is against these assumptions that the book is primarily directed. It is true that as a work of philosophy, noticeably few philosophers or their texts are dealt with by name, but one should not overlook the clear philosophical ramifications of a work whose groundbreaking character a growing number of readers of Latour--notably adherents of so-called 'object-oriented philosophy', (3) even when they take his work in a direction other than his intentions--have recognized. …

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