LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (1): relational ontologies and the theory-ladenness of experience

I do not find in Latour’s texts any sophistication about the critique of empiricism as it has been pursued since the middle of the 20th Century in both the Continental and the Anglo-american traditions. On this issue, his citations of James’s radical empiricism function as a smokescreen, hiding the need for a more thorough critique of his own naive empiricist presuppositions, that persist alongside more sophisticated versions.

What Latour finds in James is the idea that experience is not atomised as in Lockean empiricism, but is fundamentally relational. This is no doubt an improvement over the empiricism of the early logical positivists, but the critique of naive empiricism contains other components that are not taken into account by Latour in his meta-theoretical reflections. Notably, in AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE Latour does not grapple at the methodological level with the theory-ladenness of experience.

Latour naively talks about accepting the Moderns’ experience as an ethnographical given but replacing their own descriptions of their experience with “better” ones. This amounts to denying his own contribution in constituting what counts as the experience that is to be taken into account.

The most flagrant example of Latour’s methodological “naïveté” is in his account of the religious mode, which according to Latour is virtually extinct today, but it is everywhere in the book. If our experience is pervasively and intrinsically theory-laden and value-laden one cannot simply, even in thought, detach and separate that experience from its default descriptions and proceed to redescribe it in other terms. In trying to do so one is obliged to transform that experience, to select out what one deems pertinent or paradigmatic, and to take up a partisan stance.

Thus Latour contests the validity of the fact-value distinction, but then blithely goes on to make use of it in claiming that he is only proposing neutral (because value-preserving) redescriptions of the diverse modes. But then one is entitled to ask: why is a refined type of religious enunciation, applicable to only 0.000,001% of the population, counted as a major mode, where sport is not, in a so-called “descriptive” work?

The example of sport as valid candidate for inclusion in an ontology of modes of existence is no frivolous objection. It serves to highlight the arbitrary (and autobiographical) nature not only of the proposed descriptions of the modes, but also of what is counted as a mode or not. This can be seen by referring to the similar ontology of modes contained in Dreyfus and Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING, which gives considerable attention to sport and to its modal ontological status.

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One Response to LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (1): relational ontologies and the theory-ladenness of experience

  1. The downfall of all empricism is that there is no such thing as empirical knowledge. All experience is made AFTER an initial theory is in place. Whoever gets up in the morning has a theory that there is terra firma where he/she will put their foot when getting out of bed. This theory is not really based on past experiences, there is no first day where that person “took a chance” to see if really there was a floor that would carry their weight. Rather they’d still lie there totally afraid. And hence we wouldn’t exist, because never getting out of bed is bad news in evolutionary terms. So pure empiricism is a luxury of hindsight.

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