I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.
Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.
Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.
The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.
Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.
Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.
Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.
It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.
There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.
Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.
The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.
I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”
In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.