Friday, September 28, 2007

In praise of modernity

I had very little good to say yesterday about philosophy. I am particularly befuddled by so-called postmodern philosophy. This may be a failing of my own. I am a concrete thinker. I like terms that are not far removed from sense impressions. I like taut simplicity. I like to be able to pluck the strings of an argument and see the whole thing quiver.

Speaking of befuddlement, I have just read Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, translated from the French and published by Harvard University Press. It is a blessedly brief book, but no more transparent for it. I don't suppose we can call Latour a postmodernist since he thinks we have never been modern. Latour calls his game "science studies," but, lordy, I detect nothing in his mare's-nest prose with the clarity of science.

As near as I can make out, Latour says that the modern dream of disentangling science from human nature and human society is a fraud. The science of global warming, for example, is inextricably mixed up with politics, technology, economics, and the like.

Well, yes, of course. No one claims that science transcends personal and social constraints. But the manifest success of science as a way of knowing derives precisely from the fact that it strives mightily to minimize entanglement. Quantitative reasoning and observation. Double blind experiments. Reproducibility. Consensus building. Peer reviewed communication that makes no reference to the personal or social. Materialist presuppositions. Disenchantment from the divine. It has all evolved to disentangle knowledge from desire.

Latour and other practitioners of so-called "science studies" would, in fact, undo modernity. Pretending to praise the scientific enterprise, they muddy the very disentanglement that makes science work. Fortunately, they have so far had zero influence on the practice of science.