Bernard Stiegler mentions Bruno Latour critically in an interview cited on the blog THE SEMAPHORE LINE:

« Latour is a high-ranking philosophy professor [agrégé de philosophie], a philosopher, but he is in a state of philosophical denial [une dénégation philosophique]. For example, he will not put up with phenomenology, he will not bear transcendental questions, etcetera. He asserts an empiricism, an associationism, which is certainly something very efficient and very fruitful. But at the same time, I always have the impression, because of this denial, that there is a certain blindness, a certain naïveté even, in Latour’s reasoning process, a certain cynicism ». (« Bernard Stiegler’s Pharmacy: A Conversation » p463-464, unfortunately behind a pay-wall here).

I think that Stiegler’s comment on Latour may be more complex than any translation into a differend over « the human subject’s access to the thing » allows. I think that such talk of « access » is misleading: knowledge is not access, neither for Latour nor for Stiegler, nor for any significant philosopher of the last 100 years (unless one is credulous enough to believe Harmanian historical fairytales). If one had to theorize the debate in those terms it is clear that Stiegler thinks that Latour is still stuck in access because he is stuck in « empiricism ».

At first sight this is a somewhat surprising accusation to make against Latour, but I think it can be substantiated. Latour has a double empiricism: an empiricism of networks, that one has just to trace and follow, and an empiricism of modes of existence, that one has simply to describe and prevent from imposing their felicity conditions on another mode.

The accusation of « denial » of philosophy is double-pronged. In many ways Latour’s ideas are just ordinary extensions and applications of Deleuze and Guattari’s or of Michel Serres’ ideas. Let us not forget that the notion of quasi-object derives from Serres.

Stiegler himself is quite up front about the influences on his ideas and the need to re-read such philosophical sources with new eyes, i.e. in relation to contemporary events. Stiegler has his own theoretical ressources (Deleuze, Husserl, Simondon) for thinking through the notion of networks and assemblages in what he calls « long circuits of transindividuation ».

Latour acknowledges that there may be philosophical ancestors to certain of his ideas, but distinguishes his contribution as based on his scientific research. Here once again his empiricism enters, with a covert scientism, as if this empirical research gave superior credence to his ideas.

So basically Latour is sophisticated and ironic about other people’s ideas, and naive about his own. So the denial of philosophy exists at this level of not taking into account his own enunciative position.

An interesting example of this denegation is in Latour’s referencing and resurrection of Etienne Souriau’s work on modes of existence. This is pure misdirection in order to avoid the anamnesis of his debt to Deleuze’s work on modes of existence. The co-author of the long preface that Latour wrote to Souriau’s work is Isabelle Stengers, who is not herself in phiosophical denial and who has always made clear her intellectual indebtedness to Deleuze’s philosophy.

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  1. dmfant dit :

    I posted a link to this over @ ANTHEM


  2. Adam Robbert dit :

    Interesting commentary. Though I notice here, like in many conversations about both Latour and Harman, that Alfred North Whitehead is conspicuously absent. Whitehead’s influence on Latour (and Stengers, for that matter) is well document, and yet we rarely see accounts that draw the links between Whitehead’s speculative philosophy and Latour’s (radical) empiricism–especially amongst the continentals. In my reading Latour’s work cannot be adequately understood (and so critiqued) without taking on board the concepts Latour grabs from Whitehead (e.g., the critique of the bifurcation of nature into primary/secondary qualities). For me this leads to another irony (which I am only just now considering): Much like Latour describes environmentalists as people who do important work–but do a horrible job at self-describing what they’re actually doing–Latour himself might do a poor job at self-describing his own position by emphasizing the empirical side of his work (at the expensive of what is clearly also a more speculative-rationalist position), which is what I take to be the insight you are getting at above.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    I half agree with you. I am favorable to much of Latour’s thinking and I would like to say his ideas are basically sound and it is only his self-description that is problematic. But I think his pluralism does not go far enough. I have discussed where I am in agreement with his pluralism here: and where I disagree here:
    I am with you on the importance of the critique of the bifurcation of nature, which draws him towards the Whitehead-Deleuze (and I would add the Wittgenstein-Feyerabend) line of thought and away from the Meillassoux-Harman line.


  4. Latour is very clear about his own accounts in several papers and chapters (which we can disagree with of course but are in any case denials). And recently, he made a ‘coming out’ that was very clear about his position as a philosopher :
    But Stiegler has a problem with him, for long (so have a lot of scholars in France).


  5. terenceblake dit :

    My own view is that we need both Stiegler and Latour. I think that Stiegler is right to point out an ambivalence and even an ambiguity in Latour’s relation to philosophy: « I am wary when I come across someone who in one stroke is naïve and in the next, cynical » (p464). I would prefer to say that despite his apparent clarity Latour shifts between a naive position and a more sophisticated one. So there is an implicit empiricism despite his dismantling of such views. On the other hand, while praising Latour’s contribution to bringing about a « reconsideration of the thing » Stiegler declares that the question of the thing must pass through psychoanalysis and regrets that Latour is « allergic to psychoanalysis ». Here I side with Latour, as I find psychoanalysis as ordinarily used in Continental philosophy to be a source of monist blockages and conceptual conservatism. So I don’t think that Stiegler’s problem with Latour is the same as that of the other French scholars you refer to, considering that he considers that in some respects Latour goes further than Derrida: « I therefore regret that in Derrida’s work, the critique of logocentrism does not lead in the end to a reconsideration of things. Here, Latour is very interesting; at the same time, I am
    not entirely convinced by Latour, in spite of everything I have said, because for me the question of the thing passes through Winnicot, through psychoanalysis, through das Ding, and through Freud » (464).


  6. Philip dit :

    These psychoanalysis-types can be so narcissistic! I think psychoanalysis has some profound insights and useful concepts but taken as a complete methodology or worldview it’s basically useless. It usually seems as though it can prove anything, which, of course, means that it proves nothing. The fewer detours through its territory the better.


  7. Bill Benzon dit :

    « Latour has a double empiricism: that of networks, that one has just to trace and follow, and that of modes of existence that one has to describe and prevent from imposing their felicity conditions on another mode. »

    Yes, what’s the connection between the two? I’m not aware that Latour has made one explicitly. The modes of existence business is implicit in the question of relativism, which he takes up at the end of We Have Never Been Human and which is at the center of Politics of Nature. But there’s little in the way of explicit construction that links networks of actants (objects) to the various felicity conditions of the different modes of being. Thus his philosophy « hangs » between these two poles, as it were, with little support.

    As for psychoanalysis, it’s not only that Latour has no use for it–that I can live with–but he has little or no use for any account of the mind. Those multi-actant networks aren’t held together only by physicality. Where they include animals and people, they’re held together by minds as well. And it’s not enough to observe that the difference between the networks of the moderns and of those before is merely one of length and variety of objects. There’s also different thinking about the world. That too must be taken into account.

    As far as I can tell, the OOOers are allergic to mind as well. For that matter, while I’m at it, whatever happened to Piaget? I bring him up because 1) he considered himself a structuralist and wrote a little book about it, 2) he quite explicitly argued that the mind constructs reality, and 3) detailed many of the mechanisms by which the mind did it. That is, for Piaget, the mind was not either a black box whose interior was mysterious nor a psychoanalytic box containing things of psychoanalytic construal. It was a thing with operations, etc. and he was quite explicit about them. He even addressed himself to the history of the mind, under the heading of genetic epistemology.



  9. Philip dit :

    It’s true that the OOOians and Latour alike are, on the whole, fairly disinterested in questions of mind and especially in psychoanalysis, phenomenology and so on. As far as I can tell, this is not at all because these questions are thought unimportant or even uninteresting. It is because continental philosophy has been so utterly obsessed and captivated — captured, even — by these questions for so very long that these questions might need to be ignored for a while. Not out of ignorance in a bad sense, but out of eagerness to see what else there is to think about. It is not that there is no such thing as mind or that mind is transparent to the world or that, whatever mind is, it doesn’t matter. It’s that there’s a whole lot more to the world than mind alone. And those who say ‘yes, yes, yes, we’ll get to the rest of the world when we’ve dealt with this mind, consciousness, brain thing’ — they’re just kicking the can down the road. They’re not serious about it. For this reason Stiegler is really just enforcing his own prejudices and desires on others. For him it is simply inexcusable that anyone could be bored by the things he is captivated by — or that anyone could dare move on to other questions while his still hang there, solemn and persistent. For him this constitutes an ignorance in a very negative sense. I don’t see it that way. Latour certainly lacks a concept of mind. Insofar as he even mentions it he treats it as one kind of thing amongst others and as far as this goes, as an abstraction, that’s fine. But of course if everything’s like everything else we still need to tell things apart and so we still need to know what mind is. And he doesn’t do that. But no matter, it’s not like he’s not busy. No philosophy covers everything and no philosopher even aspires to that any more. Who cares if a philosopher has blind spots? It only matters that what they see they see well and that they tell us what they’ve seen. And that they tell us well. I think Latour ticks those boxes. I don’t expect answers from my philosophers any more than I expect the greengrocer to cook my dinner for me. I just expect them to do a little more than present me with a bag of dust and tell me that it’s all I am permitted. Increasingly, that’s all I get from those figures that Stiegler venerates. Perhaps his questions still hang there, both daunting and undaunted — not to mention dusty –, because they’re the wrong questions.


    • Bill Benzon dit :

      « …questions of mind and especially in psychoanalysis, phenomenology and so on. As far as I can tell, this is not at all because these questions are thought unimportant or even uninteresting. It is because continental philosophy has been so utterly obsessed and captivated — captured, even — by these questions for so very long that these questions might need to be ignored for a while. »

      Meanwhile a whole new range of psychologies has come forward and the OOOists know nothing of them and, as far as I can tell, don’t want to know. You have Harman proposing a counter-factual OOOist literary criticism in a top journal, New Literary History, and what does he actually propose? A process that, as far as I can tell collapses onto the actual processes of literary culture. (See my discussion here: For example, he asks an imaginary critic to produce a truncated version of Moby Dick, as though one cannot already get abridged versions of that and many other texts. Maybe if he had a « thicker » sense of the mind, he’d have something useful to say. As it is, nothing.

      The conception of language driving the so-called linguistic turn was always rather thin–ambiguous signs playing hide-and-go-seek. It’s possible to do much better these days, but not without a bit of study in the newer psychologies. Instead, we have Levi Bryant talking about « incorporeal machines » as though that were a great new conception and he apparently doesn’t even know that there’s a well-developed discipline of automata theory that is about abstract machines.

      It seems to me that what OOO is doing is taking the rhetoric of subjectivity and deploying it in discussing the non-human world. Latour, he’s doing something else. He’s actually looked at the world and gotten his hands dirty mucking around in it.


      • terenceblake dit :

        Yes, I do not like these « return swing of the pendulum » arguments that maintain that because we were so obsessed with X and got things wrong we must now go in the opposite direction for a while and forget X. I think that we should continue to think about the mind and psychology, but think better, and as you say, be better informed.


  10. Ping : BADIOU, LATOUR, STIEGLER: Figures of Submission or Conceptual Personae? | AGENT SWARM

  11. M Girel dit :

    « Agrégé » does not exactly mean « high-ranking professor », it means that you have passed the competitive exam to become a (high school) teacher of philosophy (what we call in France l’Agrégation Then you can apply for university positions, but that’s another matter, even though being an agrégé certainly helps!


  12. terenceblake dit :

    Yes, thank you for the explanation. I myself am a professeur agrégé (d’anglais, option linguistique). I was initially surprised by the translation, but then I thought it was a short and useful way of trying to express the difference between « certifié » and « agrégé ». So I quoted the translated text unmodified.


  13. Ping : BADIOU, LATOUR, STIEGLER: Figures of Submission or Conceptual Personae? | AGENT SWARM

  14. Ping : LATOUR’S STYLE: blindness and cynicism? | AGENT SWARM

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