Why Did Bruno Latour Claim that “We Have Never Been Modern”?

In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour presented an influential (though controversial) read on the meaning and impact of the ideas underlying modernity.

Oct 5, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy
bruno latour we have never been modern


Bruno Latour is a complex thinker. He is renowned for being an ethnographer of the world of everyday technology who has meticulously studied how things that at first glance seem unimportant, like a key or a safety belt, actively influence our behavior. Others know Latour as a highly theoretical essayist who charged the postmodernist philosophers—primarily Lyotard and Baudrillard, but also Barthes, Lacan, and Derrida—that their thinking simply revolved around artificial “sign-worlds;” he challenged them with the provocative statement that “we have never been modern.“


What did Bruno Latour Mean by “We Have Never Been Modern?”

we have never been modern cover
We Have Never Been Modern cover art, Harvard University Press, 1993 via Wikimedia Commons.


The book We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour challenges the conventional division between nature and culture and makes the case that modernity has fallen short of the promises of progress and enlightenment. It is a thought-provoking and difficult read. This article will give an overview of Latour’s position and how it affects how we think about modernity.


Since its 1991 publication, We Have Never Been Modern has had a significant influence on sociology, anthropology, and science studies. It is a groundbreaking and contentious work. The book was groundbreaking in that it offered a different framework for comprehending how people interact with the outside world. In it, Latour argues that modernity is a false construct that has neglected to take into account the nuanced social and environmental connections that people have with their surroundings.


Rather than simply existing within a rigid, predetermined order of things, Latour’s argument was based on the notion that people are constantly creating their own worlds. He rejected the notion that there is a fixed, unchanging essence of “the modern,” arguing that all societies are instead hybrid, not fully “modern” or “traditionally” structured, and constantly negotiating between the natural and cultural worlds. Additionally, he rejected the idea that there is a set of values that all people must adhere to and argued that rather, our beliefs and values are contested and negotiated in the context of an evolving environment.


The Ancient and the Modern

portrait bruno latour
Portrait of Bruno Latour by Christopher Anderson, 25 October 2018 via The New York Times

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Contrasted with the ancient, reliable past, modernity is a break in time. “Modern” signifies both a break in the course of time, and a conflict between winners and losers. These prepositions are used to qualify this adjective because we are less confident in our ability to maintain the double asymmetry. Latour contends that this is the case because we are no longer able to demonstrate the irreversible arrow of time or award prizes to the winners. It is not always easy to determine who will prevail in the conflict between the contemporary and the traditional, the barbaric and the civil. Revolutions can either bring about or end oppressive systems and regimes, and this is not always clear.


To signify the end of modernity, which was characterized by steady advancement, the Enlightenment, and linear history, this new confusion is then given the label of “post-modernism.” Latour disagrees with this, and he will contend that the problem is not that we are no longer modern or that we have somehow abandoned modernity, but rather that we have never entered it in the first place.


What Is Modernity, Really?

modern society
Modern Society by Denys Nevozhai, June 9, 2016 via Unsplash.


Latour contends that a set of values and beliefs like progress, reason, and individualism are frequently linked to modernity. Latour argues that these values, though not exclusively associated with modernity, have been present throughout history in various forms. According to Latour, the division of nature and culture is the primary attribute of modernity. The idea that nature is a passive object to be studied and manipulated by humans and that humans are superior to it defines modernity, according to him. Modern societies are structured in a way that reflects this division, with people living in urban areas and nature restricted to parks and other designated areas.


Latour, however, disputes the possibility of this division between nature and culture, contending that it is a fabrication. According to him, people and nature are inextricably linked rather than existing in a separate realm. For him, nature plays an active role in the formation of our social and cultural worlds, contrary to what is commonly believed.


He examines the idea of the modern constitution, which he defines as the collection of ideas and customs that form the basis of modernity. He contends that the fundamental separation between nature and society that underlies the modern constitution has resulted in a number of social and environmental issues, arguing that a number of binary oppositions, including nature and culture, subject and object, and fact and value, form the foundation of the modern constitution. These contrasts produce a hierarchy where science is viewed as universally true, and objective knowledge is viewed as superior to other types of knowledge, which are seen as subjective and inferior. Humans are also seen as being superior to nature.


The Modern Constitution

constitution us
Image of the US Constitution by Anthony Garand, via Unsplash.


Bruno Latour claims that the modern constitution has contributed to a number of social and environmental issues, such as the exploitation of natural resources, the destruction of natural habitats, and the marginalization of indigenous peoples and other groups that do not conform to the modernist worldview. He contends that the modern constitution fails to acknowledge the interconnectedness of people and the natural world, which is the cause of these issues.


Latour suggests that in order to develop a new understanding of the interrelationship between people and the natural world, we must look beyond the modern constitution. He contends that we must acknowledge the close ties between humans and the natural world and that there are other legitimate forms of knowledge besides science. He contends that in order to better understand the complexity and interconnectedness of our world, we must cultivate new ways of thinking and behaving.


Modes of Existence: Premodern and Modern

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“The second great divide” diagram from We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour, 1991, via Semantic Scholar


Latour’s main claim is that the modern world is characterized by a fundamental contradiction between two modes of existence: the “premodern” mode of existence, in which humans and non-humans coexist in a web of relationships, and the “modern” mode of existence, in which humans are cut off from nature and placed in a realm of pure culture. Latour claims that the Enlightenment, which aimed to free people from the shackles of tradition and superstition and establish a rational, scientific, and secular society, is to blame for this dichotomy.


We have never truly been modern, and the project of modernity has failed. He argues that the myth of the separation between nature and culture is untrue and that the modern world is, in fact, characterized by a complex web of relationships between humans and non-humans.


purification translation latour
“Purification and translation” diagram from We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour, 1991, via Semantic Scholar


Latour uses numerous examples from science, politics, and culture to substantiate his claims. He explores how the complex web of connections between people and non-people is distilled down to a collection of abstract concepts through a process known as “black boxing,” which is how scientific knowledge is created. He also examines how political institutions are created through a “purification” process in which the complicated web of connections between various groups and interests is condensed into a binary opposition between the state and the individual.


Our understanding of the interaction between people and nature is significantly impacted by Latour’s critique of modernity. According to him, the traditional division between nature and culture is a byproduct of modernity and has resulted in an antagonistic and unsustainable relationship between people and the natural world. He argues that we need to get past this dichotomy and create a new perspective on how people and other animals interact, one that takes into account the intricate web of connections that exists between them.


We must move past this dichotomy and develop a new understanding of the intricate web of relationships that exist between humans and non-humans. His critique of the division between nature and culture has significant implications for our understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural world.


Bruno Latour’s Rejection of the Ideas of Modernism

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“An Odd Couple” by Roger Stonehouse, 04 January 2012, via 500px


In contrast to the idea that modernity is a steady and uniform process of linear change, Latour’s book makes the case that it has never been a homogenous phenomenon and is constantly in flux.


The fact that Latour goes beyond simply rejecting the idea of modernity and advocates for the preservation of specific regional pre-modern traditions is one of the book’s most contentious elements. This is seen as a challenge to the Western notion of progress, which holds that freedom and equality are possible for people only through the advancement of modernity. Latour’s method was criticized for being ineffective and for ignoring the fact that specific pre-modern traditions can be oppressive and harmful to certain communities.


The book had a significant impact because it sparked a contentious discussion about the nature of modernity and contributed to dismantling the prevailing discourses. When considering the alleged “progress” of modernity, it also served to emphasize the significance of comprehending various cultures and regional contexts. In addition, the book provides an alternative to conventional narratives of modernity by presenting a fresh perspective on understanding and analyzing our contemporary world. In the end, the book has changed the way we think about modernity and its implications.

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.