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Science, Empiricism, and Marxism: Latour and Woolgar vs. E. P. Thompson Author(s): Richard D.

Wolff Reviewed work(s): Source: Social Text, No. 4 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 110-113 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 22/09/2012 21:07
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and Marxism: Science, Empiricism, Latourand Woolgar* vs. E. P. Thompson

The mystiqueand mysticism theprocedures and products of the natural surrounding sciences in our era are beginning, and to The nearly finally fortunately, disintegrate. natural scientific discourses and the characterizing descriptotallypervasiveempiricism own practices is underincreasing tionsnaturalscientists attack.The fawning giveof their forwhatthey, and imitative adulationof social scientists too, tookto be thevastly greater of natural realism science it and is to be soon too. Perhapsit will, rigor hoped,disintegrate whoexpressed their to natural respects may notbe too muchto expectthatsocial scientists science byarguing itsfundamental difference from social sciencewillalso recognize at last from thattheiremperorhas clothesno different their own. in thisdisintegrative The Latour and Woolgar volume is a piece of heavyweaponry socialstatus and privileged ofthenatural scienceestablishment assault upon theself-image attention ofthewidest world-wide.It deservesthecareful possibleaudience.The authors than an clear ofthewayinwhichnatural less exposition accomplishnothing astonishingly all and to manner of social processes,proceed scientists, shaped by responsive complexly to create statements via consensus then transform into"reality." which, declaration, they The authors' thesis is that "reality" is to be understoodas so many "facts" literally constructed socially throughthe medium of the social subset of the remarkably ofnatural scientists. bothon a critical Basingthemselves disorganizedcommunity reading of the sociologyof naturalscienceand upon a two-year of the literature anthropological inCalifornia, theSalk Institute theauthors showhow,where, and studyofone laboratory, whensome ofthemyriad statements to natural scientists come be endowed produced by by withthe statusof a them with a status above and beyond thatof statement--namely, of thatstatement, indeeda status which transforms simultaneously "reality"independent into the the the statement of that "reality" creating "discovery" "reality." whileLatouris also trained as a laboratory Latour and Woolgarare bothsociologists, scientist familiar withall thetechnical detailsoftheresearch and hence directly practiced in the laboratory thatthe authorsstudied.Treating thelaboratory muchas conventional treattribal chosenforinsitustudy, Latourand Woolgarseek to anthropologists groupings determine just exactly what "typical" natural scientists do in theirparticularsocial too, is their exemplary practice. This book is a reporton whattheyfound.Noteworthy, of what self-consciousness. that their remind readers repeatedly investigation They do is itself an exampleofwhatscientists do. Theyapplytheir conclusions about scientists sciences to theirown workas well. Latour and Woolgar understand the scientific processas the creationof orderout of ofobservations, of theprocessare a disorder disorder.The raw materials measurements, At any time,thereare manyalternative claims, and counterclaims. readings, findings, the fieldof disordered thatcan be "constructed" (theirword) within possible orderings
Facts.Introduction ofScientific Life: TheSocial Construction Woolgar,Laboratory by Jonas Salk. (Beverly Hills and London: Sage Publications,1979), 272 pp. $9.45. *Bruno Latour and Steve




scientific raw materials.These orderings consistof sets of statements constructed and linked togetherin particularways. Among the scientists thereis a complex struggle, forand and social relations theorists, shaped by diversepersonal,professional, involving mayeventuatein something possible orderedsets. These struggles against the different fora time.When thisis the case, a marvelous approachingnearlyuniversalagreement but one of severalpossibleorderedsets, "splitting"process occurs. From beinginitially entities.This splitting a the one gaining agreementis split into two distinct signifies scientists. upon thechosenorderedsetbyand fortheagreeing privilegedstatusconferred into two things at once: an independent The agreed ordered set has been transformed Latour and Woolgar thisreality. "discovering" realitybeyonddiscourseand a statement how the "reality" in thiswaycan theirargument constructed bydemonstrating strengthen if retransform statementsalso be "deconstructed" (theirword) and whenlaterscientists not agreed upon, subject to doubt, statements become-realitiesback into statements with are alternative orderedsetswhoseproponents reconverted back to a status ofstruggle term status "reality." bytheaugust designated seekingto confer upon themtheprivileged an excellent oftheepistemological punchmounted by summary Pages 174 to 183 comprise the authors'findings on theactual naturalscientific process. as theyreadilyacknowledge,can also be foundin the Now some of theirfindings, ofnatural ofthecurrent literature on thesociology scienceand the worksof major writers work thattheir moregenerally. However,they argueconvincingly sociologyofknowledge to from that their contribution is certain carry insights (Chapter6). That is, goes further is that do What claim certain "social factors" onto a different basis. literature further, they of the or "condition" the scientific or "effect" notonly"influence" process; development more, or ratherdifferently, they argue that the proceduresand productsof science, but theproducts of the designatedas "realities,"are nothing includingthe constructions to of work as not the thrust their factors." The "social is, they repeat, question importance or significance of the scientific spuriousclaimsto a process,but ratherto sever it from the theories between championand "reality." In theyvariously mysticalconvergence seek to and develop J.F. Lyotard's Latour and apply,illustrate, Woolgar positiveterms, of setsofstatements as alternative ordered the field" of struggle among "agonistic concept further the actual terrainof the sciences. The authors' work is also an important to the line of inquiry contribution opened up in theUnitedStatesbyThomas S. Kuhn: "I of nature, as statements about 'whatis as representations refuse. . . to comparetheories out really there.'"'1 In and forthe Marxiantheoretical tradition, LaboratoryLife's critiqueof scientists' claims that their theories "discover" a "reality" independentof their theoryhas a adds yetanother formulation Theircritique againsttheempiricism importance. particular is typically This empiricism thatpervades the Marxiantradition. expressedin claimsby thatit "is truer to" or "validatedby" a "reality,"which one or anotherMarxisttendency sideofthesametendency. butthe"split"other Latour and Woolgarwouldshowis nothing to Marxism their workagainst the their contribution I can perhapsbestillustrate bysetting 2 of or An of Errors." "The P. recent of E. Poverty Theory Orrery essay, Thompson's logic of the because it is a self-defense The essay is particularly instructive against charge
on My Critics,"in ImreLakatos and Alan Musgrave(eds.), Criticism and the 'Thomas Kuhn, "Reflections Growthof Knowledge(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1970), p. 265. Review and OtherEssays (New York and London: Monthly 2See E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory Press, 1978), p. 1-210.


Unequal Developments

a brusquerejection as "obviously" ofempiricism empiricism, inadequate,and nonetheless also a thoroughly discourse. The its and essay reception empiricist bymanyof itsreaders the of the within the empiricist epistemological strength standpoint exemplify continuing Marxisttradition. statesthatitis "obvious" thatconceptsare neveridentical with Thompson repeatedly "the real" (pp. 211, 223, and passim). Nonetheless, he writes after paragraph paragraph he discourses at length about the negatingjust this"obvious" point.In theseparagraphs and "its relationbetween "historical This is relation understood as knowledge" object." as ifthesewere independent thatbetween conceptand reality Thus Thompson entities. writesa discourseabout "reality,"apparently unawarethathe mustof coursebe dealing witha, or rather, WhatThompson is doingisdiscoursing hisconceptofthatreality. upona relationbetweentwo concepts:thatof "historical and that of "the knowledge" object of which thatknowledge." To impute"reality"to thelatter concept, Thompsonrepeatedly to collapse conceptand reality intoone another, theself-same "obvious does, is precisely he is of elsewhere the "marvelous rejects. Thompson guilty exactly impossibility" criticize. splitting" processwhichLatour and Woolgarso effectively To admit that different theoriesor knowledgesare basicallydistinguished, among otherways, by how theydifferently conceiveof theirdifferent too objects is apparently much for Thompson. For him, the Latour-and-Woolgar-type notion of theoryas a possible orderings particular terrainof ceaseless contest and struggleof alternative or knowledge from itsconnection amountsto cutting to "thereal." His reaction, so theory within and without the Marxist others to is the save tradition, widely produced by withthe real. connectionby collapsingat least one of his conceptsintoidentity For Latour and Woolgarreality is thefluxand struggle amongalternative conceptual must for there be a of all theories which frameworks; Thompson "reality"independent acts as finalarbiterdetermining "truth"amongcontesting theories.For Thompson,the theobjectofMarxist is "history," thisreality itis but theories. Fromthisposition historian, a veryshortstep to the epistemological of as standpoint "history" measure,test,of the of the different theories. lies in his assertionthathis Thompson's empiricism validity of his notion of a "reality" independentof theorywhich validates history, concept is not his itself. theories, contesting only conceptbutis simultaneously reality Thompson a rather needs and claims absolute sort of truth. evidently That Thompson makes his conceptual framework the standpoint fromwhich to evaluate all othersis, for Latourand Woolgar,whatall thedifferent is frameworks do; that What the struggle them. Latour and is claim to rank among Woolgarreject Thompson's other theoriesnot merelyin termsof theirlikenessto his but in termsof his posited "reality." WithintheMarxiantheoretical there has been and continues tobe an intense tradition, debate over itsepistemological whoviewtheory as Those, suchas Thompson, standpoint. therepresentation ofthe"reality" havecontested aimingat and moreor lessaccomplishing thatMarx formulated a verydifferent againstthose claiming epistemological standpoint. The latter, mostnotably have developedMarx'snotions of Lenin,Lukics, and Althusser, dialectical materialism as the core of Marxisttheory's One epistemological standpoint.3
Vol. 38 Lenin, "ConspectusofHegel's Book, TheScienceof Logic," inhis Collected Works, 3See particularly of Lukics can be foundin thefollowing (Moscow: ProgressPublishers,1972), pp. 85-326. The contributions three works particularly:"Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,"in Historyand Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone(London: MerlinPress, 1971), especiallypp. 178-222; "Art and



notionof two centraltheme forthemis thatMarxisttheory rejectsthe epistemological theformer aimsat thetruth ofthelatter. and being,inwhich realms,thinking independent thatthinking is one constituent aspectof,or processwithin, They preferthe formulation is both determined the social totality.As such, thinking by all the otherconstituent each of them. in of and Moreover,likeall other determining participates society processes is characterized social processes,thinking constituent resulting bycomplexcontradictions fromthe complex mannerof its determination by all the othersocial processes. The and indeedas within thethinking contradictions processappear,then,as opposed theories and among and changewithin within theories.The struggle existing opposed statements of thethinking theoriesemergesfromthecontradictions process. this with Latour and Woolgarhave produceda volumeinmany general waysconsonant its conceptof the relation of Marxisttheory'sepistemological formulation standpoint, above all forthatreason; and being.Theirworkis, I believe,important between thinking to the centralMarxistdebate over Marxistsshould read it because of its contributions and of episteinology epistemology.Especially in the Anglo-Saxonworld,wherematters need to contendwiththe natureand Marxists methodologyusuallyreceiveshortshrift, within thisdebate. and politicalconsequencesof all thepositions crucialtheoretical RichardD. Wolff
Kahn (London: MerlinPress,1970),pp. 25-60; and Marx's trans. Arthur and Critic, Objective Truth,"in Writer trans.David Fernbach(London: MerlinPress, 1978), especially Basic OntologicalPrinciples, parts1 and 2 and in and Contradiction," on thesepointsare foundin "Overdetermination pp. 106-109. Althusser'sarguments For Marx, trans.Ben Brewster(New York: VintageBooks, 1970), pp. 87-128; ReadingCapital,trans.Ben Grahame trans. Brewster(London: New LeftBooks, 1970),especially pp. 91-164; and EssaysinSelf-Criticism, Lock (London: New LeftBooks, 1976), especiallypages 105-50 and 163-207.

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Contentsof #5:"Artand Ideology,"Pt. I (now available)

Materialist Literary Theoryin France,1965-1975by Claude Bouche H. "Marksof Weakness":Ideology,Science and Textual Criticism by James Kazvanagh Literature as an IdeologicalForm:Some MarxistPropositions by Pierre Machereyand EtienneBalibar Practiceby EnriqueGonzalez Rojo Artistic and Aesthetic The School of Althusser Thought(commentary) by Stefan Morawski Criticism Text: PierreMacherey's Materialist by Francis Ideology,Production, Barker


as Non-Criticism Self-Criticism Althusser: by Mark Poster a CriticalIdeologyby JamesH. Kavanagh Constructing in Literary Formand Deformation Class Struggle by Bill Langen On LanguageRequirements by Tom Conley and Ideology by RobertDAmico Linguistics A Sociology of Texts by RobertSayre

(2 issues): U.S. $7.00 Singlecopy: $4.50 Subscription in theU.K., Europe and the Commonwealth Distributed by Pluto Press Praxis,P.O. Box 1280, Santa Monica, California90406 USA