Pluralist’s Progress (1): Feyerabend and Latour

Bruno Latour poses the question: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” and replies with a typology of stages on the way of pluralism.  It is clear that many questions and objections of the type “How can the pluralist disagree with the monist because for him everything is true?” or “For the pluralist evil spirits are just as good an explanation for epileptic seizures as a neuro-physiological one”, far from representing decisive objections, belong to a low level of integration of pluralism, to a beginner’s understanding.

It is interesting to look at the long-term evolution of two pluralists, Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour, to see what a greater integration of pluralism can comport of fluidity and multiplicity of thought. First, I will distinguish several phases in Feyerabend’s intellectual development, and then briefly compare the sequence with Latour’s. Feyerabend ttraversed five phases that are relevant:

1) process ontology – Feyerabend has always made heuristic use of process ontology since at least the 1950s, basing himself on Hegel, Mach, and Bohm.

2) epistemological pluralism – this is a radicalisation of Popper’s methodology for the sciences, elaborating a methodological pluralism not only for the sciences but also for the arts, and for the conduct of life.

3) epistemological anarchism – in the 60s, in a series of conversations with von Weizsäcker concerning the history of quantum mechanics, Feyerabend came to see that even this pluralist methodology was both descriptively inadequate and too constraining when compared to the concerete practice of science. This is Feyerabend’s phase of deconstruction of Popper.

4) tradition (or ethnographic) pluralism – in the late 1960s, as a result of new educational policies the University of Berkeley, where Feyerabend taught, received an influx of students of all sorts, who had been excluded from the educational process before. Feyerabend declined to teach them a new doctrine of pluralist anarchist principles, deciding that this would be simply perpetuating the same domestication or murder of minds and souls that rationalists had always perpetrated on the non-rationalist traditions.

5) ontological pluralism – Feyerabend argued that this relativist pluralism needed to be reinforced with an ontological pluralism derived in part from pseudo-Dionysos. He emphasised the realist aspect of pluralism, that many traditions and hypotheses receive support and confirmation from Being but not all.

Latour from his own accounts of intellectual autobiography seems to have followed the sequence 4-3-2-5-1, finishing with the addition of process ontology (Whitehead) where Feyerabend begins from that position.

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4 Responses to Pluralist’s Progress (1): Feyerabend and Latour

  1. Why is ontological pluralism the/a good direction to go in? Rather than for example epistemic honesty.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    The short answer is that ontological pluralism is imposed by epistemic honesty. Feyerabend gives a testimony to this pursuit of epistemic honesty in the various editions of his AGAINST METHOD, culminating in the 4th edition, which bears traces of all the previous stages. Epistemic honesty led Feyerabend to espouse pluralism for Popperian reasons, i.e. for increased testability of our theories. That same epistemic honesty led him to see from his conversations with von Weizsacker that such pluralism elevated to a universal principle would disqualify much of science, so he made it a rule of thumb instead and called himself an “epistemological anarchist”. Epistemic honesty does not just apply inside science, so when confronted with people belonging to other knowledge traditions Feyerabend realised that even this flexible “anarchitic” approach needed to be supplemented by “relativism”. This led to so many problems that to save what is good in the idea (more than one hypothesis or tradition can be viable) and to exclude the erroneous interpretations (nothing is true, every belief is just as valid as any other) he moved on to ontological pluralism. So I see epistemic honesty as guiding every step of his intellectual evolution.

    As to why one would ever make the first step of epistemological pluralism, I think that AGAINST METHOD gives good arguments for the use of counter-induction, both in general and in the analysis of Galileo’s method. The discussion of Einstein’s study of Brownian motion is a good instance of the necessity of a second theory to show up the refuting instances of a given theory.

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  3. Please tell me if I’m correct in understanding you here (and I’m sure it will take a lot of back-and-forth, please tolerate my ignorance as just a curious beginner), because this sounds very promising:

    It is clear that many questions and objections of the type “How can the pluralist disagree with the monist because for him everything is true?” or “For the pluralist evil spirits are just as good an explanation for epileptic seizures as a neuro-physiological one”, far from representing decisive objections, belong to a low level of integration of pluralism, to a beginner’s understanding.

    Your understanding of ontological pluralism, if I get it, would put the above sorts of objections on the same level of sophistication as saying that moral relativism implies that it’s merely someone’s opinion that murder is wrong, and murder is no more wrong than is spilling salt on a table.

    A mature person, by contrast, recognises at once that women wearing dresses is not really necessary, whilst not-murdering [[modulo some blah blah about killing Hitler at age 18 or whatever]] is indeed still necessary.

    Articulating precisely what’s going on in that philosophy is beyond me. But I believe what I just stated is a position educated, mature people will more-or-less agree to.
    [[I refuse to use the word "between" because that implies a binary--very distasteful]]

    Is that an appropriate analogy to your view of ontological pluralism?

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  4. terenceblake says:

    I realised that I hadn’t put in the link for the Latour video, and I have corrected it now. Here it is again: I think it is necessary to listen to it to get an idea of how pluralism can go deeper than the rather naive formulations that its opponents force on it. Feyerabend went through many stages and understandings of pluralism, in each new step he realised that he had been maintaining some abstract assumption that needed to be jettisoned. He held in horror the sort of structuralist relativism that maintains that we are each walled up inside our own tradition and incapable of communicating with those in other traditions, or even of understanding them. He thought that this was an unrealistic vision of the diversity of opinions and ideas, and that it presupposed more structure and more inflexibility than real life contained. For him our “structures” are porous, being constructed out of fluid and ambiguous terms. So yes your example is appropriate, and Feyerabend says explicitly that there is no “culturally authentic”murder. One way of combining pluralism with the openness and porosity of conceptual structures was his affirmation that “one culture is potentially all cultures”.. His big enemy was anti-human abstractions that authorise us to lie, kill, enslave in the name of some principle dogmatically held. He liked pluralism as a protective mechanism, not as a principle that would allow us to tolerate inhuman treatment of others as long as it was justified by some narrow “worldview”. He was against the merely semantic interpretation of theories that produce seemingly insuperable obstacles to comprehension and to interaction between them. He pointed out that in practice such obstacles were not decisive, and that the boundaries that they traced were crossed constantly without causing trouble, and often without even being noticed.

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