Nanotechnology Challenges is an expansive collection of papers originally published in successive special issues of Hyle: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry and Techne?: Research in Philosophy and Technology, which were themselves the product of a number of stimulating and energetic conferences held at University of South Carolina. It is a welcome development to have the papers collated and published in a single volume. Edited by Joachim Schummer and Davis Baird Nanotechnology Challenges includes a number of notable contributions — particularly by authors such as Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Alfred Nordmann, Cyrus Mody, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Alexei Grinbaum — which have already become key references in the academic consideration of the societal and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. As such the volume stands to make a valuable contribution to this young field, and to the development of nanotechnology itself. At the heart of the book Bruce Lewenstein asks a tantalising question: ‘What counts as a ‘‘Social and Ethical Issue’’ in nanotechnology?’. He goes on to suggest that: To say that there are social and ethical issues is to say that science and technology exist only in a social context, and that we cannot understand how science and technology develop without understanding both the social conditions that produce them and the simultaneous scientific and technological conditions that produce society. (p. 202)
Lewenstein therefore argues that science and technology do not simply have ‘implications’ to which society mutely responds. Rather science and technology are enacted in thoroughly social, moral, ethical and political contexts such that it is impossible to speak of asocial or ‘pure’ science.
This is particularly the case given the fact that, as noted by a number of authors in the volume, nanotechnology is a relatively young field and therefore presents an unstable object for social science and philosophical analysis. Indeed, nanotechnology is characterised as much by competing claims as to its societal ‘impacts’ than its technical promise. As Schummer notes in the final chapter of the volume, notions of societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology have been articulated, over the last few years, by a diverse set of actors and interest groups with a stake in the future development of nanotechnology.
That is that notions of the ‘implications’ of nanotechnology are embroiled in strategic arguments about what nanotechnology itself constitutes. Ideas of the implications of nanoscience and technology — both opportunities and risks — are articulated in order to legitimate particular versions of nanoscience the particular social futures that nanotechnology is cast as enabling. What counts as a social and ethical issue in nanotechnology is also therefore intimately tied to political and strategic questions of what counts as nanoscience.
Lewenstein’s question recalls Latour’s distinction between matters of concern and matters of fact. In a challenge to critical inquiry Latour suggests that: The critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude — to speak like William James — but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact. The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible. But this meant accepting much too uncritically what matters of fact were (2004, p. 231).
Latour’s suggestion is that we move from critical appraisals of what are issues to an enlarged and affirmative assessment of what counts as issues. That is to effect a reorientation of social, political and philosophical scholarship in which the question of what counts as an issue is not taken to be simply a product of ‘the science’. Rather social, political and philosophical scholarship is, in Latour’s view, to be more proactive in widening the scope of what counts as an issue of concern. That is to add vocabularies and repertoires to current articulations of the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology that widen the frames of reference and legitimate socially robust forms of nanotechnology development. Given the breadth and imagination of its scholarship, Nanotechnology Challenges stands to make an important contribution to this ambitious project.