Sheila Jasanoff on the Subjects of Reason

At the Seminar in Private Law on April 3, 2019, Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, discussed her paper “Subjects of Reason: Goods, Markets and Competing Imaginaries of Global Governance.”

Jasanoff explained how the analytical tools developed within Science and Technology Studies (STS) can be helpful in understanding the relationship between societal challenges, law, politics, and scientific research. Drawing from the lessons learned through STS, Jasanoff argued that knowledge cannot ever be fully separated from the politics that led to its creation. At the same time, she pointed out that various normativities (legal, political) necessarily contain epistemological commitments and ontological categories.

To test this framework, Jasanoff walked the audience through three case studies: world trade, climate change, and generic drugs. She pointed out how the politics of (seemingly objective) statements relate to assumptions about the world made by normative claims. In her view, the role of critical approaches is to give one an ability to identify these types of links.

Jasanoff further argued that similar phenomena occur at the intersection of law and new technologies. We live in the age when both politics and science challenge our understanding of what it means to be a person. Within this context, various digital techniques that “personalize” human experience of the world emerge. Any type of legal intervention, either theoretical or practical, should be mindful of the complexities present, she said. Only when proceeding with caution will we be able to better understand underlying agendas of seemingly positive researchers, and intervene politically in ways that advance societal goals.

Each spring, the Seminar in Private Law brings speakers from academia and practice to Yale Law School to present papers addressing a common theme. The 2019 Seminar is devoted to asking how technological change restructures the fundamental concepts and categories of private law. The seminar is organized by Daniel Markovits, Guido Calabresi Professor of Private Law, and the Yale Law School Center for Private Law, which promotes teaching and research in contracts, property, and torts at Yale Law School and in the broader legal community.