EMPIRICISM vs HERMENEUTICS (2): Bruno Latour and the « two philosophies » thesis

Bruno Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE purports to be the sequel to WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN, published 20 years earlier. Where that book’s emphasis was mainly negative, as the title shows, deconstructing the false identity that was mistakenly supposed to characterise us, this new book is positive in its aim to present what we have been and still are. In the last post we saw that the book is a hermeneutic treatise, both exemplifying a reinterpretation of the Moderns, purporting to replace the erroneous interpretation that has been coextensive with the modern epoch, and calling for interpretation in its turn. This hermeneutic dimension  is confirmed by the « origin story » that Latour recounts about the beginnings of his project in his Roman Catholic youth and in his apprenticeship in Biblical exegesis:

« the systematic destruction by exegesis of all dogmatic certitudes, far from weakening the truth value that the successive glosses played out over and over, made it possible at last to
raise the question of religious truth. But only on condition of acknowledging that there was an itinerary of veridiction with its own felicity conditions » (BIOGRAPHY OF AN INVESTIGATION, 3).

So in Latour’s intellectual biography religion and hermeneutics come first, and the study of science comes later to confirm this idea of a non-empirical itinerary of veridiction, incommensurable with the ideal of pure unmediated contact with the real:

« Imagine my amazement when I discovered, in Guillemin’s laboratory in 1975, located in a splendid Louis Kahn building overlooking the Pacific Ocean, that scientific work bore a strange resemblance to the exegesis I had left behind in Burgundy » (BIOGRAPHY OF AN INVESTIGATION, 5).

Yet the book whose genesis is thus related proceeds in a different order, no longer biographical but pedagogical. Strangely it foregrounds a claim to be a treatise of « empirical philosophy », purporting to give a more adequate account of our experience:

« Only experience will tell us whether this hybrid apparatus using new techniques of reading, writing, and collective inquiry facilitates or complicates the work of empirical
philosophy that it seeks to launch » (AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, xx-xxi).

In the first two chapters Latour begins with science and the discovery of its dependance on equipment and networks, proceeds to Law as an example of another type of veridiction and then introduces religion as a confirming instance, comporting yet another itinerary of veridiction. This sequence of science-law-religion occurs twice, first in Chapter One and then again in Chapter Two. Far from being a simple empirical account of Latour’s intellectual evolution, it is a rational reconstruction designed to establish the idea that Latour’s work has passed from one philosophy (actor-network theory) to another (modes of existence project), and that the reasons for the passage are empirical.

The book itself abounds in « empirical » vocabulary, distinguishing the experience and values of the Moderns from the accounts given of their experience. Latour proposes to remain « faithful » to the experience but to give more adequate accounts. He enshrines this empirical commitment as a methodological principle giving rise to a set of « specific tests » of the adequacy of his account: « The first is factual and empirical: have we been faithful to the
field by supplying proofs of our claims? » (65). The passage from Chapter One with its networks to Chapter Two with its prepositions corresponding to different modes seems to correspond to this passage from one philosophy to another.

This discrepancy between biography and rational reconstruction is reinforced if we take into account the Deleuzian background and resonances of Latour’s vocabulary. In his analyses of Spinoza and the construction of a plane of immanence Deleuze associates inextricably a quantitative pluralism of heterogeneous elements with a qualitative pluralism of their composition in modes of existence. For example here in a seminar from December 9th 1980: « Les deux critères de l’éthique, en d’autres termes, la distinction quantitative des existants, et l’opposition qualitative des modes d’existence, la polarisation qualitative des modes d’existence, vont être les deux manières dont les existants sont dans l’être. Ca va être les liens de l’Éthique avec l’Ontologie ». (« The two criteria of ethics, in other words, the quantitative distinction of existents, and the qualitative opposition of modes of existence, the qualitative polarisation of modes of existence, are going to be the two manners in which existents are in being. That will be the relation between the Ethics and Ontology », my translation).

So from the point of view of the philosophical background to Latour’s thought there seems to be no reason to conceive of his evolution as containing two distinct philosophies. The heterogeneous networks and the differing modes of existence are inseparable for Deleuze, and Latour traces his involvement with Deleuze’s thought back to his doctoral thesis:

« In a thesis defended in 1985 … I had developed that argument in an analysis of
Mark’s gospel and of “Saint” Péguy…. A bit of Derrida and Lévi-Strauss plus a large dose of Deleuze helped give the argument the contemporary sheen that neither Péguy nor Bultmann, of course, could have provided » (BIOGRAPHY, 3).

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