Guest Contributor: Ben Epstein on Bruno Latour’s ‘Factish Gods’ – Part 1

French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour

‘Science doesn’t directly grasp anything accurately, but slowly gains its accuracy, its validity, its condition of truth by the long, painful detour through mediations: of experiments, experience; laboratories, not common sense; theories not visibility.’

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods; Bruno Latour, (2009)


To say that something is ‘constructed’ is not to doubt reality – reality is there, it always has been, but we still have to deal with it somehow. What authors like Anne-Marie Mol, Andrew Pickering, Ian Hacking and Bruno Latour have in common is their interest in the possibility that rather than living simply in a world of ideas and objects we live in a world of enmeshed ‘performances’ and ‘practices’. In one of Mol’s case studies, for example, the medical reality of atherosclerosis is shown to be bound up with a range of other interconnected realities – surgeons, gender, pavements, nurses, and so on. This recognition of complexity has serious implications for how we acquire our knowledge about the world: the old idea of disembodied contemplation, ‘a gaze that tries to see objects,’ no longer serves.

Laboratory Life (1979)

Where philosophy had previously treated science as pure knowledge, Bruno Latour’s famous/infamous Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts showed that facts are not simply ‘found’ – they emerge. The world isn’t just passively and directly known by us: a fact about the climate, for example, depends on technical apparatus, the good faith of the researcher, science practices, and so on.

To think about science in this way has been considered a threat by some to the ‘thingness’ and thus the reality of the world, and Latour himself has observed that the social sciences have a kind of reverse Midas Touch: instead of gold we turn our objects into dust. But Latour doesn’t want to let us off the hook – we need to be careful about a double standard in our thinking, between ‘fetishes’ and ‘facts':

‘We explain the objects we don’t approve of by treating them as fetishes [man-made, and invested with human meaning]… and we concentrate our passionate interest on only those things that are for us worthwhile matters of concern [according them the status of facts]’.

In other words, we like to separate out what is man-made, what is fabricated, from what we imagine to be out there in the world independently of our observation and involvement with it. A mixed picture, the idea of a ‘factish’, is something we prefer not to think about.

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (1998)

A related problem is the general idea out there that certain branches of science studies and the philosophy of science amount to little more than ‘fashionable nonsense’ – a book of that name was co-authored by Alan Sokal, who famously tricked an academic journal into publishing a hoax article satirising its style and intellectual presumptions.

According to this critique, to claim that the world is made up of anything other than appearances and reality is nonsense; smoke and mirrors – even where there is apparently sound empirical and ethnographic evidence to the contrary. And as Chris Harding has put it: ‘the radically pluralistic, subjectivist approach to epistemology … is likely to be objectionable to many people whose understandings of the world are based on assumed forms of philosophically realist, correspondence-theory-type truth claims’ – and it seems that such radical approaches are, almost on these very grounds, rejected.

The question of what we choose to make a ‘matter of concern’ is key here. The exchange rate is certainly a matter of fact, as is the existence of the sun or the moon, but these things only really matter when – and in the particular way that – they come to be of real concern to some of us. To return to Mol, writing about hypoglycaemia and hypertension she’s not suggesting that there is no actual reality here, separate from the observer; she just wants us to appreciate that, in the act of knowing, ‘the world is as active as the one who aspires to know it.’ For that reason, hypertension or hypoglycaemia are rather different beasts in controlled laboratory contexts versus the world of patients and sufferers in the clinic. The differences are both social and technical, and entirely worthy of study.

The world of psychiatry affords more obvious and more difficult examples, perhaps, because of the difficulties of quantification in mental illness – unlike with diabetes or high blood pressure there isn’t really anything for psychiatrists in the clinic or in the lab to ‘count’. Yes, we have statistical indexes, and these shouldn’t be dismissed, but can we really ‘count’ how much depression someone has? How much anxiety? Here we count – we find our quantitative bearings – only really by comparing one case with another and establishing a vague ‘norm’. But isn’t this also what goes on when we’re looking at blood sugar levels or blood pressure? Units of measurement are necessary inventions to facilitate this work of comparison, and yet it’s hard to get away from the impression that there is something ‘real’ and independent about these units.

Perhaps there’s a fear that comes with all this: that we might lose our mastery over the world, and that the world might somehow gain mastery over us. Perhaps in our response to this fear we end up desperately clinging either to a world of social constructivism or on the other hand strict realism, a world of straight ‘facts’.

Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2010)

What about a third way? Can we acknowledge the indivisibility of our actions from a world that is both acted upon and acts on us? Can we appreciate ‘multiple realities’ – the reality of the psychiatric patient and that of his or her psychiatrist, for example?  Take a topic as complex as the impact of migration on a person’s mental health: surely we need a full understanding that takes the perspectives of all the players into account, while at the same time retaining ‘standard’ pathologies that can be generally recognised across the psychiatric profession.

In sticking solely neither to ‘fetishes’ nor to ‘facts’ perhaps we arrive at the usefulness of Latour’s ‘factishes’. And where do we find some of the clearest examples of these factishes? In religion, says Latour…

[next week: Part 2: Factishes in Science and Religion]


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