ON THE COGNITIVE SCOPE OF RELIGION: Paul Feyerabend vs Bruno Latour

In the discussion of the cognitive status of religion I find I have a difficult position to maintain. I am, I suppose, an atheist; I am in matters of knowledge an anti-positivist and a pluralist; I am fascinated by religious language and feel that sometimes it is the best way to express what I think or feel. This underlies , for example, my favorable reaction to Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s Heideggerian treatment of both polytheism and monotheism as useful contemporary ways of understanding the world and ourselves ( in ALL THINGS SHINING, which revitalises the polytheistic understanding, and in their promised sequel, which will talk more about the monotheistic understanding, via discussions of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsky). Their account is « existential » and so situates religion as having a cognitive function but as incommensurable with the type of referential cognitive function which characterises natural science, as incarnating a type of understanding of the world radically incommensurate with, and so unable to contradict or be contradicted by or even enter into conflict with the natural sciences. It is at this price of the referential neutralisation of religion that they can employ it to fulfil their program: lure back the shining things, lure back the gods, « to find meaning in a secular age ».

i think that both Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend give accounts of religion that, in related but different ways, remove it from its customary opposition with secularism. For Latour religion is one “régime of enunciation” or “mode of existence” among others, with its own “conditions of felicity”, aimed at transformation rather than information. Feyerabend is perhaps closer to Adam Kotsko’s wish “for religious traditions to represent a mass of raw materials … that have no more tendency to “poison everything” and no more guarantee of an unconditionally redemptive element than any other tradition”. Feyerabend extends Latour’s view of religious traditions as different in kind from secular traditions, by nevertheless insisting that as “raw materials” they can be of use in secular traditions such as the sciences or even to correct (or at least relativise positively) these traditions.

I think that this is where Feyerabend goes further than Latour. Latour “protects” religion from the accusation of , for example, scientific insufficiency (or Kotsko’s example of the accusation of « intrinsic violence »). These sorts of accusations amount to criteria of the demarcation of religion from and its subordination to some other instance (very often science). Latour makes this impossible by claiming that religion is so different that it is “not even incommensurable” with referential régimes such as science:
Feyerabend recognises a possible qualitative difference between religion and straight referential traditions in that it includes a performative aspect, but not, he argues to the detriment of a referential cognitive aspect. So the difference in kind is that religious traditions are more complete than (most) secular traditions. He is willing to add that in fact, but unbeknownst to them and so in truncated form, secular traditions have this performative aspect too.
So Feyerabend is classically deconstructive here, accepting initially a binary demarcation (science/religion) to go on to re-valorise the weaker term (in rationalist discussions this is often religion), to then efface the demarcation and leave a more complex and more ambiguous situation (complexity and ambiguity being terms that Feyerabend uses to describe his own “deconstructive” strategy – Feyerabend explicitly compares his arguments to deconstruction, though he declares that he prefers “Nestroy, who was a great, popular and funny deconstructeur, while Derrida, for all his good intentions, can’t even tell a good story”).

(PS: Gary Williams at MINDS AND BRAINS gives a summary of a new book by Herman Philipse called GOD IN THE AGE OF SCIENCE?, which presents a new refutation of theistic religious belief. The argument looks quite interesting but seems to be based on a positivistic view of religion, which makes it good as a critique of creationist and intelligent design types of belief. It also seems to take a positivist view of the contemporary world, calling it « the age of science », and so runs afoul of the pluralist idea that this is not a desirable state of affairs, nor even an accurate description of the situation today. It seems to me incapable of taking on more performative views of religion).

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5 commentaires pour ON THE COGNITIVE SCOPE OF RELIGION: Paul Feyerabend vs Bruno Latour

  1. ght dit :

    Je manque terriblement de connaissances et de pratique philosophiques. mais je me risque à un commentaire . Latour semble être très influencé par le problème de l’existence de la religion voire de Dieu et leur justification dans le contexte d’une modernité qui les questionnés. A se demander si cela n’explique pas son célèbre « nous n’avons jamais été modernes ». Terry Winograd et Fernando Flores en référence à Hubert Dreyfus parlent plus de rationalisme que de Modernisme. Pierre-Damien Huyghe aussi.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    Feyerabend aussi parle de rationalisme. Lyotard, qui a lancé le destin philosophique du « post-moderne », semble avoir regretté son choix de vocabulaire, se sentant obligé d’expliquer qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une périodisation historique. Selon lui c’est un moment d’incrédulité face aux grands récits, forcément rationalistes, de légitimation de n’importe quelle époque. C’est ainsi qu’il a pu appeler post-moderne Diderot, Montaigne, et même Pyrrhon et Sextus Empiricus.


  3. A. Vogd dit :

    Currently working on my BA-thesis about Feyerabend, and am very interested in Latour too.

    If I remember correctly, Feyerabend explicitly stated he wouldn’t want to be titled a deconstructivist, but admits to show a similar (altough nuanced) style of arguing.

    Interesting read, thank you.

    PS: discussion in English would be fruitful for non-French speaking readers.


    • David Zanetti dit :

      I recall reading an interview with Feyerabend (and if anyone can point me to it, I would appreciate, since I cannot now find it) in which he said that his original statement of the « science is a religion » position was simply an attempt to be provocative, and to enliven what he expected to be an otherwise dull speaking engagement. The response so delighted him that he kept repeating the same line, finding more and more similarities between religion and science, so that what started out as a joke, he ended up believing. In other words, the distance between pretense and belief is a matter of weeks, at least in his case.

      It’s deconstruction 101. All you do is ignore differences, no matter how fundamental, and highlight similarities, no matter how trivial or incidental. He was a charming charlatan. Latour is also, IMO, HIs outburst of revulsion at the effects of post-modernist thinking in the real world was not accompanied by an abandonment of that bankrupt philosophy, as it should have, because he did not want to be thought of as a « reactionary », ie someone who accepts the enlightenment principles of evidence, reason, etc. see (http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~clc/Latour.pdf),



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