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The Rabinowian Program

Science, Reason and Modernity is, according to its editors’ introduction, a reader for students beginning science studies, allowing them to consider modern sciences as forms of life, connected to lived realities. Without a doubt, this pedagogical aim is brilliantly reached, especially when it comes to equipping students with a genealogical attention on scientific practices, which is generally missing in STS readers today. Beyond this first target, the book also seems to present an anthropological research program about modern sciences, largely inspired by the work of Paul Rabinow to whom the reader is dedicated. This investigation deals with the very broad scale of the “philosophical and social scientific thinking about sciences and their integral role in shaping modernities”, aiming to problematize scientific discourse and practices from a larger, anthropological point of view. Rather than discuss the relevance of the choice of readings, I will try to underline two points which seem to be problematic in this Rabinowian program of “anthropologizing the West”, at least as it is presented by Stavrinakis, Bennett and Fearnley in their introduction. These two points concern the Rabinowian inversion of the critical character of Canguilhemian history of science as well as the Foucauldian genealogy, and the limits of a non-comparative anthropology of the West. My critique is friendly (I am not a crypto-Latourian or Badiousian attacking Canguilhem or Foucault; on the contrary I think we have still much work to do following this line), I just wonder if this very broad target (anthropologizing the West) could be reached today exclusively by such theoretical equipment.

The editors’ introduction follows Rabinow’s idea of a massive discursive proliferation about the human, posing that “there is no longer any settled means for reconciling discordant claims about anthropos in its modernity”. And, according to the editors, this is not for lack of trying. Twentieth-century anthropologists worked to overcome this plurality by connecting, opposing, and eliding humanity’s hetero-logoi through of a series of seemingly comprehensive and stable terms, such as Man, Culture, Nature and Society. And though these terms are in disrepair today, it is worth keeping in mind that they have been replaced by other equally comprehensive terms, such as globalization, the environment, networks, and neoliberalism. This new conceptual repertoire, like the old, is mobilized as a means of producing the sense that all of the discursive and practical cacophony in the world today somehow adds up.

The Rabinowian program finds such efforts of theoretical unification misplaced, and urges anthropologists to take seriously the reality of “humanity’s plurality of reasoned discourses”. Although I agree with the editors on the idea that contemporary conceptual repertoire, composed of what Balibar calls master words such as globalization, environment or neoliberalism, calls an effort of research in order to catch multiple sets of realities lying under them, such claim of recognizing “humanity’s hetero-logoi” seems problematical for two reasons.

First, I wonder to what extent the critical nature of the Canguilhemian history of science or Foucauldian genealogy is pursued by the Rabinowian program. Let me be very specific: the reader includes — very fortunately — Canguilhem’s text on the living and its milieu. The French concept of milieu has a singular place in history of science, because it indicates a non-Darwinian tradition of environmental knowledge and even politics, as Canguilhem and later Foucault (1978) give us some indications. Compared to our notion of environment, rightly mentioned in the editors’ introduction as one of the comprehensive terms adding up to the discursive cacophony today, this concept of milieu allows both a critical genealogy of the political program to which it led the modern social sciences and political thinking, and an alternative way to conceive living beings’ relationships to their surroundings. Perhaps this tension between milieu and environment could have been better underlined in the introduction, guiding the reader towards specific objects (and concepts) of history of science, to allow for an alternative understanding of our master words, especially in our age of perpetual environmental crisis. However, Paul Rabinow had already encountered the concept of milieu in his French Modern (1989, see especially ‘Milieu, pathos and pacification’), reading neo-Lamarckism as a very positive means for the construction of social welfare state in France (“transforming the socio-natural milieu in a healthy and peaceful environment”). Rabinow considers what he calls the “techno-cosmopolitism” of the French Third Republic as a “tempered modernism”, allying joyfully science, technique and social welfare — even the French colonialism is interpreted as a tenable form of social progress. Such optimism towards French modernism — surely inspired by a form of cultural fascination — seems to be the very antipode of the critical enquiry Canguilhem develops in his article on the mechanical applications of milieu, leading to political interventions aiming to transform the human to a “carrefour of influences”. When Foucault, in his 1978 College de France lecture, studies late 18th century urban planning techniques in France, he considers also that “the notion of milieu appear here as the target of intervention for power” (Foucault 2009:37), as a form of liberal governmentality aiming to govern populations through their environment. Thus, whereas Canguilhem and Foucault mobilise a critical genealogy of what we could call an “environmental interventionism”, Rabinow seems to consider the very same interventionism as a form of tempered modernism, a techno-cosmopolitism allowing social progress. Such inversion of the critical perspective, together with the general claim on the recognition of the hetero-logoi of modernity draws a quite imprecise frame for the anthropological study of modern sciences, precisely because the multiplicity of discourse is posed as a value in itself.

Second — but I will be even more allusive on this general topic about the very nature of anthropologic enterprise itself — a classical question remains concerning the non-comparative character of such attempt to “anthropologize the West”. Of course, as the editors’ introduction puts it, “rather than a classical anthropological attempt to ‘make the exotic Other familiar’, anthropologists undertook efforts to ‘make the familiar strange’” (p.4). No doubt that anthropology of science has a major role to play in a “broader movement toward investigating the rationalities of the moderns”. Yet, it would be delusional to think that the alternative is situated between the exotic Other and the familiar West, especially when one takes into account comparative anthropology as it is now exemplified by the masterpiece of Ph. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (2005; 2013 for the English translation). Descola’s work is an essential contribution to a decentred anthropology today, putting Western cosmology (i.e. its naturalism) to a singular and exotic place, compared to other cosmologies of the ways in which we relate ourselves to the “nature”. Hetero-logoi of modernity was perhaps always a very Western one, whereas the comparative anthropology lead by Descola or Viveiros de Castro underlines a heteronomy of interactions with non-humans in a much larger scale. In short, could we “anthropologize the West” without comparing its cosmology to the others? If we presuppose that the only possible relation to natural beings is their objectification, we not only miss out on other forms of relations (analogism, animism or totemism, considered as equally systematic cosmologies as naturalism rather than being exotic “beliefs”), but we also lose the opportunity to understand the very specificity of our relational cosmology which could only become graspable in comparison to others. Thus, the anthropological claim of plurality (or hetero-logoi) seems to be stuck in a closed Western circuit without the comparative perspective.

To put it in an other way, it is perhaps not enough to conclude on the disrepair of modern categories of Nature, Culture, Society (or Environment, Globalization, Neoliberalism), because an anthropology of the contemporary is also expected to explain why, and at what cost, modern natural and social sciences in the West have come to invent such categories — as opposed to other collectives who have elaborated other concepts or relations -, and why, and at what cost, we should abandon or re-elaborate them today, in light of our pressing issues as living beings.


Works Cited

Descola, P. 2013 [2015]. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. 2009. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78. London: Palgrave.

Rabinow, P. 1989. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Ferhat Taylan is a postdoctoral researcher at FNRS / University of Liege and a director of program at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. He is preparing two books to be published this year: Mesopolitique. Connaissance et gouvernement des milieux de vie (1750-1900); Concepts et Rationalités. L’héritage de l’épistémologie historique.

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