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We Have Never Been Modern [Paperback]

Bruno Latour , Catherine Porter
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 14 1993
With the rise of science, we moderns believe, the world changed irrevocably, separating us forever from our primitive, premodern ancestors. But if we were to let go of this fond conviction, Bruno Latour asks, what would the world look like? His book, an anthropology of science, shows us how much of modernity is actually a matter of faith. What does it mean to be modern? What difference does the scientific method make? The difference, Latour explains, is in our careful distinctions between nature and society, between human and thing, distinctions that our benighted ancestors, in their world of alchemy, astrology, and phrenology, never made. But alongside this purifying practice that defines modernity, there exists another seemingly contrary one: the construction of systems that mix politics, science, technology, and nature. The ozone debate is such a hybrid, in Latour’s analysis, as are global warming, deforestation, even the idea of black holes. As these hybrids proliferate, the prospect of keeping nature and culture in their separate mental chambers becomes overwhelming—and rather than try, Latour suggests, we should rethink our distinctions, rethink the definition and constitution of modernity itself. His book offers a new explanation of science that finally recognizes the connections between nature and culture—and so, between our culture and others, past and present. Nothing short of a reworking of our mental landscape. We Have Never Been Modern blurs the boundaries among science, the humanities, and the social sciences to enhance understanding on all sides. A summation of the work of one of the most influential and provocative interpreters of science, it aims at saving what is good and valuable in modernity and replacing the rest with a broader, fairer, and finer sense of possibility.

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We Have Never Been Modern + Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory + Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy
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Review

If you like the kind of antidualist philosophizing that keeps trying to break down the distinctions between subject and object, mind and body, language and fact, and so on, you'll love Latour… He does the best job so far of breaking down the distinctions between making and finding, between nature and history, and between the 'premodern,' 'the modern' and 'the postmodern.' (Richard Rorty Common Knowledge)

[Latour] stakes out an original and important position in current debates about modernity, antimodernity, postmodernity, and so on. These debates can only be enriched by Latour's attention to the practical coupling of the human and the nonhuman, and they can only be enlivened by the thumbnail critiques offered along the way of thinkers as diverse as Kant, Hegel, Bachelard, Habermas, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Heidegger. (Andrew Pickering Modernism)

An interesting and deeply thought-out presentation of the large scale problems of our world seen in relation to the idea of 'modernism.' The book focuses on the interrelationships between three large-scale domains: science and technology, politics and government, language and semiotic studies… Latour examines the premodernists, postmodernists, antimodernists, and so-called modernists and concludes that we really never were modern and now need to pursue a form of modernism (which he describes) purged of its counterproductive features. (Choice)

The present book is essentially a work of metaphysics, a kind of political ontology. Latour's goal is to break down traditional philosophical categories of nature, power and language… Latour's insights are abundant, from his advocacy of multinaturalism (versus multiculturalism) to his call for social theorists to recognize the historicity of objects… This is a wonderful book to disagree with—a refreshing break from the straight-jacketed sycophancy that defines so much of the history and philosophy of science. It is not an easy book, but the reward for the philosophically minded is well worth the wrestle. (Robert N. Proctor American Scientist)

About the Author

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po, Paris and the 2013 winner of the Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
For this reader, Bruno Latour's book is one of the most ambitious, original, and important reformulations of social theory since 1989. It is getting lots of attention among scholars, and deserves a wider public. The press reviews here don't do this book justice.
Latour, for those of you who don't know him, has been at the forefront of the emerging field of "science studies", the history and sociology of science, for the past 15 years. He's also a rather bizarre fellow. His "Aramis" is a book of real sociology that is told in the form of a novel, in which the metro car of a failed Parisian public transportation project becomes one of a series of narrators. In "We Have Never Been Modern," he conscisely summarizes the theoretical basis of his work, and stakes out ground that is genuinely new. The book should excite humanisitic academics, scientists, and intellectually adventurous people from all walks of life with a taste for theory.
The thesis -- the basis for the "we have never been modern" part -- is that the "great divide" between nature and human, subject and object, science and society, was never real. Instead, he says, this subject/object divide was the great dirty fiction of the "modern" world.
To give you the gist of the argument as briefly as possible: the separation of nature and human, that has marked Western intellectual life since the 17th century, allowed both science and the humanities to make their own claims for absolute truth. This divide was the basis for our image of "modern western man."
But these claims hid the fact that "hybrids" were springing up all the while.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars of course some people wouldn't like this book July 18 2003
Format:Paperback
i loved this book: it questions the idea of repeatability, which means that it questions the religion of science (as practiced by amateurs)and it shows you how language has served the impulse towards duplicity. the book also has a certain tongue-in-cheek wit about it, and that makes the ideas more interesting to read.
i can see where latour would make people nervous if they were fully invested in a point of view not fully understood. but, until the government takes down the bill of rights, diversity in thinking is still allowed and maybe even encouraged.
enjoy this book. it is fun.
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2 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but hard to read Oct. 29 2000
Format:Paperback
I'd like to think I'm not a dummy, but this was hard to read. It looks to me like the book was translated to English by someone who might know more about Anthropology than written communication. There were times when I felt that maybe it had been run through Babblefish.
Dissing of the translator aside, the author assumes the reader is completely knowlegable of all the apparently pretty divisions and differences in opinions between one group of scientists and another. Man I could care less, unless it leads to an advancement of a science, and I wasn't convinced. But maybe because I didn't care.
There were times where I felt that a greater service would have been done if the soap opera would have been skipped.
That said, the book contains some insightful and thought provoking ideas on how societies view each other and themselves. I found some concepts a powerful catalyst in my design efforts.
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3 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It only takes a French accent... March 1 2000
Format:Paperback
Anglophone readers probably don't realise that Latour meant this book as a tongue-in-cheek exercise to capture the postmodern social theory market in his own country by using a postmodern style to show what an illusion postmodernism has always been. But, as fate would have it, when someone sneezes in Paris, an Anglophone is felled with pneumonia. It's hard to believe that anyone with a firm grasp of the history of the last 250 years of Western culture would find this book anything more than a diversion worthy of maybe a couple of arguments in the pub. It's telling that historians of science, who are really the people who are in a position to hold Latour accountable to anything he says here, have given the book a chilly reception. Classify this one under 'Pseud's Corner'.
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2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Falls short of the goals set by the author July 4 2006
Format:Paperback
As a professional research scientist who has read extensively on broader issues concerning science and society, and who has developed courses in this area for graduate science students, I was looking forward to reading a book by Bruno Latour. As one other reviewer has stated, Latour is a prominent name in the area of science studies. Prior to obtaining this book I had only read short summaries of his ideas or short sections of his writing contained in other authors books.

In the "Acknowledgements" section, which introduces the book, Latour states "I am trying here to bring the emerging field of science studies to the attention of the literate public through the philosophy associated with this domain.” Unfortunately he does not even come close to his stated goal. If Latour considers this book to be written in a style that the “literate public” will be able to understand, then his definition of a literate public is quite unusual, in my opinion. Another reviewer was kind enough to lay some of the blame on the translator, but clearly the author has to take full responsibility for the final content.

Richard Feynaman, one of the most famous physicists of the 20th century, was well know for his skill in expressing the physicist’s complex ideas of matter and energy in terms that ordinary people could understand. Feynaman felt that it was important to express one’s knowledge in terms that the literate public could understand. If an expert’s goal is to produce a document that the literate public can understand, but fails to do this, then one has a right to question whether the author really understands his own field. Our Western noun-based languages can easily fool us into believing that our abstract concepts have some definite reality.
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