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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Bruno Latour, 75, Philosopher on the Social Basis of Scientific Facts, Dies

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Bruno left home at 17 to attend an elite high school in Paris. He was a remarkable student and later received the top score in the French national exam, but he was put off by the intellectual and material snobbery he encountered.

He felt similarly about the environment at the University of Dijon, which he entered in 1966. He looked skeptically upon the heroic positivism he encountered in his science and philosophy classes there but found solace in the books of Friedrich Nietzsche.

As an alternative to military service, he worked in Ivory Coast in a program similar to the Peace Corps. One of his tasks was to study why French companies hired so few Ivorian workers as executives. The companies said that the applicants weren’t smart enough, but Mr. Latour found that they had been taught the wrong things — abstract theories, rather than the practical applications of those theories.

It was his first exposure to the way hidden mechanisms and prejudices undergird seemingly self-evident factual claims, a finding that soon led him to the Salk Institute at the invitation of Roger Guillemin, a French biologist and future Nobel laureate.

Dr. Latour earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Tours in 1975. After a series of short-term appointments at various academic institutions, in 1982 he joined the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines, an elite engineering and science university in Paris, where he remained until 2006. He then taught at Sciences Po, another leading Paris institution, until his retirement in 2017.

Rare among left-wing French intellectuals, he remained a practicing Roman Catholic. While he was often critical of the church’s hierarchy, he greatly admired Pope Francis and his 2015 book “Laudato Sí,” in which the pope, like Dr. Latour, espoused a new relationship with nature.

His later lectures often incorporated elements of theater. In one, he stood in front of a projected screen so that his body seemed to disappear into the images and the text appearing on the wall behind him. He curated several art exhibits, including “Reset Modernity,” a 2016 show at a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, and wrote a number of theatrical pieces, including “Gaia Global Circus,” which was co-directed by his daughter and performed at the Kitchen, a performance space in Manhattan, in 2014.

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