Isabelle Stengers: Unveiling the Cosmic Connection Between Magic and Matter

Sophi Says Philosobytes Level 3: Discover philosophical principles, some of which are tricky.Isabelle Stengers, a Belgian philosopher of science, is one of those thinkers who makes you realise the magic inherent in the world is not just in the mystical or the mythical, but also deeply embedded in the fabric of science and reality itself. Born in 1949 in Brussels, Stengers initially trained as a chemist under the Nobel Prize-winning Ilya Prigogine. This background in the hard sciences provided her with a robust scaffold to explore more speculative terrains, particularly in the philosophy of science.

Stengers’ work isn’t confined to the esoteric circles of academic philosophy; rather, it seeps into the public domain, challenging us to reconsider our interactions with the world. Her writings advocate for a ‘cosmopolitics’ — a term that suggests a political order extending beyond the human-centric to include the non-human, the planetary, and even the cosmic. With a twinkle in her prose and a firm gaze on complex ideas, Stengers invites us to rethink how knowledge, power, and responsibilities interlace in our collective decision-making processes. In essence, she serves as a bridge between the scientific community and the broader public, making her insights not only profound but also accessible.

Now, let’s delve deeper into her philosophical contributions and outline some of her key ideologies.

Isabelle StengersPhilosophies and Ideologies

Isabelle Stengers’ philosophical explorations are diverse, yet they converge on the central theme of how humans understand and interact with the world. Here’s a brief overview of some of her key philosophies:

  1. Cosmopolitics: This concept forms the cornerstone of Stengers’ philosophy. It suggests a mode of thought that transcends traditional political frameworks to include non-human entities in our political and ethical considerations. Cosmopolitics calls for an inclusive, democratic engagement with the world that respects the agency of all participants, whether human or non-human.
  2. Ecology of Practices: Stengers uses this framework to address the interactions between different practices, be they scientific, artistic, or economic. She argues for a respectful coexistence that acknowledges the potential of each practice without imposing hierarchies or universal standards.
  3. Critique of Scientific Capitalism: Stengers is critical of the way science is often harnessed by capitalistic enterprises, stripped of its ethical dimensions and reduced to a tool for profit. She advocates for a science that is responsive and responsible, not merely a means to an end.
  4. Constructivism: Influenced by her work with Prigogine, Stengers often addresses the idea that phenomena are not discovered but rather constructed through scientific practices. This stance invites a reconsideration of how knowledge is generated and valued.
  5. Ethics of Care: Inspired by feminist critiques, Stengers often incorporates the ethics of care into her philosophy, emphasising the importance of attentiveness, responsibility, and the relational dynamics in knowledge production.
Cosmopolitics Explained

Isabelle Stengers’ concept of cosmopolitics represents a profound shift in thinking about the relations between science, politics, and ethics. It challenges the traditional boundaries and hierarchies imposed by human-centric political models and urges us to consider a broader, more inclusive way of thinking about agency and democracy.

The Essence of Cosmopolitics

At its core, cosmopolitics argues for the inclusion of non-human entities in our political and ethical deliberations. This means recognising that entities such as animals, plants, rivers, and even climate systems have stakes and should have representation in decisions that affect them. Stengers posits that this is not just an ethical necessity but also a practical one, as the health of our planet and our species is inextricably linked to the health of all other entities.

Bridging the Divide Between Science and Politics

One of the most significant contributions of cosmopolitics is its challenge to the conventional separation between science and politics. Stengers argues that scientific practices are inherently political because they determine how realities are constructed and whose interests are served. In the cosmopolitical view, scientists are not just observers but participants who engage with the world and help shape it. This perspective demands a new form of scientific responsibility, where the impacts of scientific decisions are considered within a much wider ecological and ethical context.

Democratic Engagements

Cosmopolitics calls for a form of democracy that goes beyond human voters and includes a diverse array of voices. It envisions a scenario where scientists, citizens, politicians, and non-human entities all have a say in the development and application of scientific knowledge. This could involve innovative forms of representation, such as legal rights for ecosystems or the appointment of guardians to represent the interests of non-human life forms.

Challenges and Criticisms

Implementing cosmopolitics is not without its challenges. Critics argue that it might be impractical to consider the agency of non-human entities in every political decision. Moreover, the concept raises complex questions about representation and the nature of agency itself. How can non-human entities be given a voice in a meaningful way? Despite these challenges, cosmopolitics continues to inspire debates across disciplines, pushing the boundaries of how we think about democracy, science, and ethics.

Significance in Contemporary Thought

Stengers’ cosmopolitics has been particularly influential in the fields of environmental ethics, animal rights, and ecological movements. It has provided a philosophical underpinning for arguments in favour of more sustainable and ethical practices that recognize the interconnectedness of all life forms.

In conclusion, cosmopolitics challenges us to rethink our roles and responsibilities in a shared world. It is a call to acknowledge and negotiate the complexities of living on a planet where multiple forms of life coexist and are interdependent. As we face global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss, the principles of cosmopolitics offer a hopeful and radically inclusive framework for imagining and crafting a sustainable future.

Ecology of Practices

Isabelle Stengers’ concept of an “Ecology of Practices” is an elegant extension of her cosmopolitical approach, focusing on the interrelations between different fields of knowledge and action. This framework encourages a respectful, attentive, and non-reductive engagement among diverse practices, whether they be scientific, artistic, or political.

Understanding the Ecology of Practices

The idea of an “Ecology of Practices” posits that various practices—each with its own methodologies, goals, and worldviews—coexist like species in an ecological system. Stengers argues that each practice has intrinsic value and specific conditions under which it thrives. Just as in ecological systems, where diversity is crucial for health and resilience, intellectual and practical diversity enriches our collective ability to respond to challenges and opportunities.

Principles of Interaction

Stengers suggests several principles to guide the interactions within an ecology of practices:

  • Respect: Acknowledging the worth of different practices and the expertise of those who engage in them.
  • Risk: Embracing the vulnerability that comes with stepping outside one’s customary methodological boundaries to engage with other practices.
  • Responsibility: Being aware of the impact that one practice can have on another, avoiding actions that could diminish the ability of other practices to contribute effectively.

Applications and Examples

This framework can be applied to numerous areas where interdisciplinary collaboration is vital. For instance, in environmental policy, an ecology of practices approach would encourage collaboration between ecologists, economists, sociologists, and local communities to devise strategies that are scientifically sound, economically viable, and culturally acceptable.

In medical research, it would mean that the insights from biomedical research, patient care practices, and alternative medicines inform each other, leading to more holistic health solutions. This approach values the insights from each practice, fostering innovation through mutual learning rather than competition.

Challenges and Opportunities

The application of an “Ecology of Practices” is not without challenges. It requires a significant paradigm shift from traditional hierarchical models that privilege certain types of knowledge over others. Moreover, it demands a high level of dialogue and cooperation across disciplines, which can be difficult to achieve in practice. However, the potential benefits of such an approach are considerable, offering a more integrated and responsive way to deal with complex problems.

Broader Implications

Stengers’ concept encourages us to think about our own intellectual and practical engagements: How do we interact with practices outside our own? Do we see them as threats, as irrelevant, or as potential partners in dialogue? The ecology of practices invites us to a more cooperative, imaginative, and responsible engagement with the world.

By applying Stengers’ ecology of practices, we can foster environments where diverse knowledge systems coexist and enrich each other, leading to more robust, creative, and adaptable solutions to the problems facing our world today.

Critique of Scientific Capitalism

Isabelle Stengers’ critique of scientific capitalism is a critical aspect of her philosophical landscape, reflecting her deep concern over the influence of market-driven forces on scientific research and knowledge production. This critique underscores her commitment to a form of science that is ethical, responsible, and truly beneficial for society.

Understanding Scientific Capitalism

Stengers describes scientific capitalism as a system where scientific knowledge and practices are primarily driven by and for the benefit of capitalistic enterprises. This system prioritises profitability and utility over scientific curiosity and ethical considerations. The danger, according to Stengers, is that science under the sway of capitalism becomes a tool for exploitation—of natural resources, of non-human entities, and even of people—rather than a pursuit of knowledge for the common good.

Key Concerns

Stengers raises several concerns regarding scientific capitalism:

  • Reduction of Diversity: Scientific capitalism often leads to a homogenisation of scientific inquiry, where only projects with clear, profitable outcomes are pursued. This can stifle innovative research that doesn’t have immediate economic benefits but could be crucial for addressing long-term challenges.
  • Ethical Compromises: The pursuit of profit can lead to ethical compromises in scientific practices, such as insufficient testing of pharmaceuticals or ignoring the environmental impacts of technological innovations.
  • Accessibility of Knowledge: When scientific knowledge is commodified, it becomes less accessible to the public, restricted by patents and high costs. This limits the potential of science to contribute to public education and societal well-being.

Alternative Visions

Stengers advocates for an alternative vision of science—one that is integrated within a cosmopolitical framework and respects the principles of an ecology of practices. She envisions a science that:

  • Serves the Public Good: Science should prioritise projects that promise broad societal benefits, such as sustainability, public health, and education.
  • Is Democratically Engaged: The direction and application of scientific research should involve input from various stakeholders, including the public, ensuring that it serves diverse societal needs rather than just corporate interests.
  • Respects Non-Human Agencies: Scientific practice should consider the impact of its interventions on all forms of life and the environment, aiming to minimise harm and promote ecological balance.

Significance and Influence

Stengers’ critique of scientific capitalism resonates widely across various fields, influencing debates about the role of science in society. Her ideas have encouraged scientists, policymakers, and citizens alike to rethink how science is conducted and funded. Moreover, her thoughts have provided philosophical support to movements advocating for open science, environmental justice, and equitable access to technological advancements.

In today’s global landscape, where the intersection of science and capitalism continues to shape our lives in profound ways, Stengers’ call for a more ethical and responsible approach to science remains as relevant as ever. It invites us to reconsider our own roles within this system and to imagine a future where science truly acts as a force for good.


Isabelle Stengers’ engagement with constructivism provides a refreshing lens through which to view the creation and validation of scientific knowledge. Her constructivist views challenge the notion of science as a purely objective endeavour, suggesting instead that scientific facts are constructed through specific practices, instruments, and community agreements.

Foundations of Constructivism

Constructivism in philosophy of science asserts that scientific knowledge is not simply discovered but is constructed by communities of scientists. This does not mean that scientific facts are arbitrary or merely subjective, but rather that they emerge from a complex interplay of observations, theoretical frameworks, experimental practices, and cultural influences.

Stengers’ constructivism is influenced by her background in chemistry and her collaboration with Ilya Prigogine, from whom she adopted a nuanced understanding of how scientific phenomena are not pre-determined but can exhibit novel, unpredictable behaviours. This perspective is crucial for understanding how she approaches the idea of knowledge construction.

Key Aspects of Stengers’ Constructivism

Stengers’ constructivist philosophy highlights several critical aspects:

  • Agency of Practices: Stengers posits that scientific practices themselves have agency; they shape what scientists can see, understand, and ultimately know. This includes the tools scientists use, the methods they employ, and the language and concepts they utilise.
  • Role of the Scientist: In Stengers’ view, scientists are not mere observers but active participants in the creation of knowledge. Their choices, assumptions, and even their personal and cultural biases can influence the outcomes of their scientific inquiries.
  • Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Consistent with her ecology of practices, Stengers’ constructivism encourages dialogue across different scientific disciplines and beyond, to include social sciences and humanities. Such dialogues can help illuminate the constructed aspects of scientific knowledge, revealing the underlying assumptions and values.

Implications for Science and Society

The constructivist approach has significant implications for how science is conducted and perceived:

  • Ethical Responsibility: Recognising the constructed nature of scientific facts imposes a greater ethical responsibility on scientists to be aware of and transparent about the choices and assumptions that underlie their work.
  • Democratization of Science: Constructivism supports the democratization of science by advocating for the involvement of a broader range of stakeholders in scientific debates and decision-making processes.
  • Flexibility and Openness: Embracing constructivism encourages scientific communities to remain open and flexible, willing to reconsider and adapt their methods and theories in response to new discoveries and societal needs.

Constructivism in Contemporary Thought

Stengers’ constructivist ideas continue to influence contemporary thought in science policy, philosophy of science, and the broader social understanding of science. By emphasising the constructed nature of scientific knowledge, Stengers invites us to reconsider the power dynamics that shape this knowledge and to strive for a more inclusive, responsive, and responsible scientific practice.

In conclusion, Isabelle Stengers’ constructivism not only enriches our understanding of the sciences but also invites a more critical and ethical engagement with the world around us. It’s a call to recognize the human elements in our pursuits of knowledge and to ensure that these pursuits contribute positively to society.

Importance and Wider Significance

Isabelle Stengers’ work has profound implications across various domains, intertwining philosophical inquiry with tangible impacts on science, ethics, and public policy. Her contributions go beyond academic discourse, influencing environmental movements, scientific methodology, and our collective ethical responsibilities.

Influence on Environmental Movements

Stengers’ concept of cosmopolitics has been particularly influential in shaping contemporary environmental movements. Her advocacy for a political order that includes non-human entities has resonated with ecological activists who seek to address the anthropocentric biases in environmental policy. This perspective has supported arguments for the legal rights of nature, such as rivers and forests, which have been adopted in several countries to protect ecosystems from industrial exploitation.

Reshaping Scientific Practices

Her critique of scientific capitalism and her constructivist views have encouraged a reevaluation of how scientific activities are funded and conducted. Stengers argues for a science that is engaged with the community and oriented towards the public good rather than corporate profits. This has spurred discussions within scientific communities about the ethics of funding, the goals of research, and the importance of transparency and accountability in scientific endeavors.

Contributions to Philosophy of Science

In the academic realm, Stengers has enriched the philosophy of science by challenging traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality. Her work underscores the idea that scientific knowledge is always situated, influenced by the specific contexts in which it is produced. This has led to a more nuanced understanding of science as a dynamic and evolving practice, subject to social and cultural influences.

Educational Reforms

Stengers’ ideas have also permeated educational theories, particularly in how science is taught. By advocating for an ecology of practices, she promotes an interdisciplinary approach to education that values diverse ways of knowing. This has influenced curriculum developments that seek to integrate science with ethics, politics, and the arts, providing a more holistic education to students.

Impact on Policy Making

At the level of policy making, Stengers’ philosophies encourage a more inclusive approach to decision-making processes. Her emphasis on the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders, including those traditionally marginalized in scientific and political discussions, has influenced public policy debates, particularly in areas like climate change, technology regulation, and public health.

Wider Academic and Social Impact

Beyond these specific areas, Stengers’ work has contributed to a broader cultural shift towards recognizing the interconnectedness of human and non-human lives and the ethical implications of this interdependence. Her philosophies offer a framework for understanding the complexities of the modern world, where technology, ecology, and human values are increasingly intertwined.

In summary, Isabelle Stengers’ philosophies not only challenge us to think differently about the sciences and politics but also compel us to act with greater responsibility and creativity in addressing the complex issues facing our world today.

Reading List

To delve deeper into the rich philosophical world of Isabelle Stengers, here’s a curated reading list that spans her major works and gives insights into her critical thoughts:

  1. “Cosmopolitics I & II” – This series is perhaps the most comprehensive exposition of Stengers’ concept of cosmopolitics. It provides a detailed exploration of her thoughts on how scientific and political practices can be reimagined to include non-human entities.
  2. “Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts” – In this book, Stengers examines the work of Alfred North Whitehead, which has been a significant influence on her own philosophical outlook. It’s essential for understanding the theoretical underpinnings of her thought.
  3. “Power and Invention: Situating Science” – This work explores the role of sciences in the invention of our realities, discussing how scientific practices are embedded in societal contexts and the implications this has for knowledge production.
  4. “In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism” – Here, Stengers addresses the ecological and societal crises of our times, proposing ways to resist the destructive trends of modernity through an ethical and political awakening.
  5. “The Invention of Modern Science” – A critical examination of the narratives surrounding the ‘invention’ of modern science, challenging the notion of science as a purely objective pursuit and highlighting the constructive and situated nature of scientific knowledge.

These books provide a thorough introduction to Stengers’ philosophies and offer a deep dive into her critique of contemporary scientific and political practices.

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