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  • Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics?Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck
  • Bruno Latour (bio)

Blessed are the peacemakers. It is always nicer to read a peace proposal (like Ulrich Beck's) than a call for jihad (like Samuel Huntington's). Beck's robust and realist form of cosmopolitanism, expressed in the lead article of this symposium, is to be welcomed. On the other hand, peace proposals make sense only if the real extent of the conflicts they are supposed to settle is understood. A detached and, let us say, inexpensive way of understanding enmity, a Wilsonian indifference to its complexity, may further infuriate the parties to a violent dispute. The problem with Beck's solution is that, if world wars were about issues of universality and particularity, as he makes them out to be, then world peace would have ensued long ago. The limitation of Beck's approach is that his "cosmopolitics" entails no cosmos and hence no politics either. I am a great admirer of Beck's sociology—the only far-reaching one Europe has to offer—and have said so in print on several occasions. What we have here is an argument among friends working together on a puzzle that has defeated, so far, everyone everywhere.

Let me make clear from the beginning that I am not debating the usefulness of a cosmopolitan social science that, beyond the boundaries of nation-states, would try to look at global phenomena using new types of statistics and inquiries. I accept this point all the more readily since for me, society has never been the equivalent of nation-state. For two reasons: the first is that the scientific networks [End Page 450] that I have spent some time describing have never been limited to national boundaries anyway: global is largely, like the globe itself, an invention of science. The second reason is that, as disciples of Gabriel Tarde know very well, society has always meant association and has never been limited to humans. So I have always been perfectly happy to speak, like Alphonse de Candolle, of "plant sociology" or, like Alfred North Whitehead, of "stellar societies."1 It should also be clear that I don't take the expression "peace proposal" ironically. On the contrary, it's for me crucial to imagine another role for social science than that of a distant observer watching disinterestedly. Beck is struggling for a mixture of research and normative intervention, and this is exactly what I mean by the new diplomatic role of the social scientist. What is in question between us is the extent to which we are ready to absorb dissents not only about the identity of humans but also about the cosmos they live in.

A historical anecdote, retold in a major paper by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, may illustrate why Beck's suggested approach to peacemaking is not completely up to the task.2 The main example that Beck gives is the "Valladolid controversy," the famous disputatio that Spaniards held to decide whether or not Indians had souls susceptible of being saved. But while that debate was under way, the Indians were engaged in a no less important one, though conducted with very different theories in mind and very different experimental tools.3 Their task, as Viveiros de Castro describes it, was not to decide if Spaniards had souls—that much seemed obvious—but rather if the conquistadors had bodies. The theory under which Amerindians were operating was that all entities share by default the same fundamental organization, which is basically that of humans. A licuri [End Page 451] palm, a peccary, a piranha, a macaw: each has a soul, a language, and a family life modeled on the pattern of a human (Amerindian) village. Entities all have souls and their souls are all the same. What makes them differ is that their bodies differ, and it is bodies that give souls their contradictory perspectives: the perspective of the licuri palm, the peccary, the piranha, the macaw. Entities all have the same culture but do not acknowledge, do not perceive, do not live in, the same nature. For the controversialists at Valladolid, the opposite was the case but they...