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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The philosophy of coexistence, November 30, 2008
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This review is from: We Have Never Been Modern (Paperback)
"We Have Never Been Modern" by Bruno Latour is a brilliant interdisciplinary work that profoundly challenges our assumptions about the world we live in. Mr. Latour views the Enlightenment from an anthropological perspective to reveal how its multiple and contradictory ideals have conspired to lead humanity towards ever greater social and environmental crises. Mr. Latour's breakthrough analysis provides a philosophical road map towards a sustainable 'nonmodern' world wherein nature and society are more harmoniously joined together for the greater good.

Mr. Latour traces our modern confusion to a series of debates between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century which led to divergences in the study of nature or ideologies on the one hand and science or facts on the other; modernity became defined by the knowing of what was previously unknown. Mr. Latour contends that the 'purification' or incontestability of scientific facts and ideologies has failed to account for the 'hybrid' ways in which society and nature actually respond to change. Indeed, the interjection of science into the real world has created a multiplicity of what Mr. Latour calls 'quasi-objects', or phenomena that are located in the midpoint between science and nature; examples of quasi-objects include global warming, genetic engineering, the AIDS epidemic, and so on. Mr. Latour believes that we are ill-equipped to address these problems inasmuch as the institutions built around Enlightenment ideals have failed to account for the nonseparation of social practices from nature.

In this light, Mr. Latour rejects the idea that humanity has ever really broken away from its premodern past. To begin with, Mr. Latour suggests that the premoderns' assignment of transcendence to inanimate objects is similar in kind to the transcendent powers assigned by moderns to sciences and ideologies. Mr. Latour goes on to contend that the modern experience is simply larger in scale than the premodern, with ever-more sophisticated but conflicting explanations about the meaning of the extended networks that bind our lived experiences undergoing constant flux. Mr. Latour states that 'morphism' better explains the nonmodern world we inhabit in which humans must continuously adapt themselves to changing sociological and natural conditions.

Mr. Latour argues that once we refute the idea that we have ever been modern, we can reclaim our sense of being ordinary and thereby express our solidarity with all peoples and the planet; at that point, we will be able to focus on the collective challenge of addressing the critical problems that confront us. Crucially, this task requires that our conception of politics enlarges; the discourse must encompass the multitude of human and non-human subjects or 'things' alike if we wish to solve the problems that the quasi-objects present to us. For example, Mr. Latour suggests that in the case of ozone depletion such a debate might be enjoined by representatives speaking on behalf of chemical companies, workers, the ozone hole itself, Antarctica, and so on.

Originally written in 1991, Mr. Latour's pathbreaking thought has proven to be highly influential, with many of his arguments in essence being echoed and enlarged by more and more similarly-minded progressive writers. To cite just a few: Robyn Eckersley's The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty articulates the juridical basis for the representation of non-human life forms in our democracy; Vandana Shiva's Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace provides a moral argument for human rights and environmentally justice; and Steven Wise' Drawing the Line makes a compelling case for animal rights. Together, works such as these suggest that a new kind of Enlightenment may be forming: a philosophy that recognizes the future of humanity is dependent upon, and not estranged from, the other life forms that coexist with us on planet earth.

This challenging but deeply rewarding book is highly recommended for all philosophically-minded and hopeful readers.
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