EMPIRICISM vs HERMENEUTICS (3): Latour and Wittgenstein on the primacy of the religious spirit

Bruno Latour’s religious outlook is central to AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, and his discovery of different modes of enunciation (and thus of existence) goes back to his apprenticeship in Biblical exegesis. Indeed religious enunciation appears as a model for the rest: “there are few institutions more obsessed with the distinction between truth and falsity than the religious institution. And yet we also understand that it would be erroneous to claim to judge religious veridiction according to the entirely distinct modes of law or science” (45). Religion needs to be judged by its own specific interpretative key.

In religion we see most clearly and most intensely the concern with being “faithful” to  a message that requires constant “innovation” in order to be preserved and transmitted anew:

“It is entirely possible, our anthropologist tells herself, that the relation found here between value and institution is a unique case. Only in the religious domain—and perhaps only in the history of the Christian churches—would we find such a series of betrayals, inventions, reforms, new starts, elaborations, all concentrated and judged on the basis of the principal question of whether one is remaining faithful or not to the initial message. But her own idea (the origin of her eureka moment) is that the situation is perhaps the same for all the Moderns’ institutions” (55).

There is a substantial overlap here with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views on different “forms of life” in relation to the question of the status of the religious as mode of enunciation and of existence. Wittgenstein began his PHILOSOPHICAL REMARKS with an appeal to the “spirit” in which he wished it to be read: “This book is written for such men as are in sympathy with its spirit. This spirit is different from the one which informs the vast stream of European and American civilization in which all of us stand. That spirit expresses itself in an onwards movement, in building ever larger and more complicated structures; the other in striving after clarity and perspicuity in no matter what structure” (Foreword, 1930). This spirit is not at all “Modern”, in that it is not exclusively devoted to following the “onwards movement” of modernization, yet it is not against that movement either: it is not anti-modern, but rather what Bruno Latour calls “amodern”:

“How will we call this retrospective discovery that we have never been modern? Post-modern? No since this would imply a belief that we have been what we have never been. I propose to call it amodern” (Postmodern? No Simply Amodern. Steps Towards an Anthropology of Science. An essay Review).

Wittgenstein then proceeds to an invocation of God (“I would like to say ‘This book is written to the glory of God’, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood. It means the book is written in good will, and in so far as it is not so written, but out of vanity, etc., the author would wish to see it condemned. He cannot free it of these impurities further than he himself is free of them”). Wittgenstein’s views on religion are complex, but he did not see religion as a matter of fact, or a question of belief. He saw it as dealing with matters of concern, a deepened attitude to life involving the whole person, embodying the conversion from the bad will of vanity or egoism to the good will of “doing the will of God”.

Bruno Latour begins his book AN ENQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE with an epigraph: “Si scires donum dei” (“If thou didst know the gift of God”). This is from The Gospel according to John, Chapter 4, verse 10, where Jesus asks for water from a Samaritan woman and promises the water of everlasting life. The whole incident is relevant to Latour’s system of modes existence. Jesus asks for literal water (mode of existence DC, double click) and declares that he can give “living water” (mode of existence REL, religious). He convinces her he is a prophet by showing that he knows intimate details of her life (DC), but he proposes a different sort of knowledge, adoration of the Father “in spirit and in truth”. In Latourian terms Jesus’s words must be understood in a different “interpretative key”, what Wittgenstein calls a different “spirit”, than the dead letter of double-click’s mode of veridiction.

Indeed, Latour does not hesitate to conceive his whole ontological project, his pluralism of modes of existence, in religious terms, as a Pentecostal pluralism, a form of speaking in tongues. His conceptual persona, an anthropological investigatress studying the modes of existence of the Moderns

“purports to be speaking while obeying all the felicity conditions of each mode, while expressing herself in as many languages as there are modes. In other words, she is hoping for another Pentecost miracle: everyone would understand in his or her own tongue and would judge truth and falsity according to his or her own felicity conditions. Fidelity to the field comes at this price” (58).

The repeated references to the idea of an “empirical philosophy” must themselves be understood in the right interpretative key. Latour seems to be appealing to the same sort of authority as that of the empirical sciences, but this is just a convenient rhetorical mask. He defines such reference to uninterpreted facts as “first wave empiricism” and makes clear that such a philosophy is not even adequate to the sciences that it takes as the model to impose on all enunciation. In the expression “empirical philosophy” he can only mean “second wave empiricism” keyed to the plurality of modes of existence and respectful of  the multiple interpretative keys. There is something strangely circular about this idea of “fidelity to the field”, and so it is not surprising that Latour makes no real discoveries of unsuspected régimes of enunciation, but lifts each readily recognizable domain to the régime of enunciation that characterises it most essentially. The régimes of enunciation  (and their corresponding modes of existence) that are “found” by this method  are the empirical correlates of Latour’s prior prior hermeneutic decisions.

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