Coming to terms with the way we live today

Coming to terms with the way we live today Philosopher Bruno Latour being interviewed at home
Frank Litton

We learn two things from history. Assumptions quite different from those that frame our world shaped the actions of our predecessors. The second follows from this. World views do change. They are human constructions that endure for long periods.

We might think of them as buildings, but if we do, they are buildings in constant need of repair, extension, refurbishment as weaknesses are uncovered, new demands are made, challenges faced.


Most of the time the work proceeds on the basis that the foundations are sound. It can happen that they give away under the pressure of accumulating difficulties. So attention turns to them, new foundations are fashioned, and laboriously, a new ‘building’ emerges.

This is the story of our own world view whose origins can be traced to the 16th Century and the intricate concatenation of circumstances that unfurled – wars of religion, a scientific revolution, new modes of production, voyages of discovery that revealed new modes of human existence, new problems for philosophy.

The question arises: have we reached a point when the foundations of this world come into question? Is the ‘house’ in which we have made ourselves at home in the world, a commodious home with many benefits let it be said, tottering, its foundations shaking?

If this were the case what should we expect to see? I suggest at least three indicators: serious problems, a lack of vitality in the intellectual efforts to deal with them and an increasing interest in foundations. All three are evident. Consider the problems.

A new geological epoch has been named: the Anthropocene. We humans who up to now supposed that we played no role in the dynamics that drive the history of our planet are now revealed as significant players. And our actions are deleterious, damaging the intricate balance that sustains life on earth.

Economic forces that nation-states, more or less successfully constrained in the common interest have escaped the leash, inequalities deepen and power flows to large corporations.


We move towards democracies without the politics that allowed citizens to believe that their interests were recognised, educating them in the ‘big picture’ while managing deeply rooted conflicts of interest. No doubt the list could be extended.

The worrying thing is that the ‘maintenance crews’ – the economists, the sociologists, the historians, the philosophers, that populate our universities and ‘feed’ the commentariat contribute so little.

When they do address the problems, they are incapable of motivating us towards solutions. Of course, I paint with a broad brush. There are exceptions.

Prominent among them, Pope Francis whose encyclical Laudato Si draws on Catholic teaching to encourage the reorientation required to meet the climate crisis.

Future historians will, no doubt, mark it as an important contribution to our efforts to rebuild a home on earth that respects the interdependencies that bind us together and to our God-given earth.

No one thinker has contributed more to the understanding of our plight than Bruno Latour who died, aged 75 last October. A practicing Catholic and a philosopher, his publications range across disciplines. Their worth was recognised in two prizes, the Holberg and the Kyoto, both seen as the equivalent of Nobel Prizes in the humanities and social sciences.


In recent years his attention focused on the ecological crisis resulting in scholarly works and popular treatments. He dealt with the political dimension in Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences Into Democracy (2004) and the cosmological in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017). Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018) aimed at the general reader, argues for a new view of politics.

He presented his philosophical framework in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013). His analysis of the foundations of the modern world view can be read in We Have Never Been Modern (1993).

These and other volumes illuminate all the important aspects of the world we moderns have constructed for ourselves, offered not in a spirit of demolition but reconstruction. These defy easy summary. Happily I do not have to attempt this, thanks to this new book, Bruno Latour: How to Inhabit the Earth.

This records a series of interviews with Latour broadcast on French television in 2022. They give an accessible introduction to his work, and indeed to the man. He presents the challenges of our time, indicates a response and inspires us to pursue it. His views are there: how will the world at large respond.