LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (2): the case of prepositions

I seem to be alone in thinking that Latour’s repeated references to William James are not to be taken as indicative of any major intellectual debt to Jamesian pragmatism. This is not to deny that Latour’s pluralist ontology can usefully be understood in terms of a vague horizon of pragmatism. No doubt reading, or re-reading, William James’ A PLURALISTIC UNIVERSE or ESSAYS IN RADICAL EMPIRICISM will shed some light on Latour’s views, but this does not establish close kinship nor major influence. More likely candidates for such “pragmatist” influence would be Latour’s immediate predecessors, for example Foucault and Deleuze, who arguably made use of pragmatist thinking to break out of what they saw as the Hegelian and Heideggerian hegemonies.

For example, let us take Latour’s use of the terminology of “prepositions” to designate the different interpretative keys determining how an utterance is to be understood in terms of the appropriate mode:

“To designate these different trajectories, I have chosen the term preposition, using it in
its most literal, grammatical sense, to mark a position-taking that comes before a proposition is stated, determining how the proposition is to be grasped and thus constituting its interpretive key” (57).

It is worth remarking that the interpretative keys that Latour enumerates in the book (REL, REP, MET, etc.) in no way correspond to prepositions in the “literal, grammatical sense”

In fact, this reference to “prepositions” is not at all grammatical, even in the sense of logical grammar, and serves another purpose entirely. It is a telling instance of Latour’s effort to produce an impression of (Jamesian) empiricism envelopping his work. Introducing a term that has nothing to do with his own procedure (that of specifying incommensurable modes of existence) allows him nevertheless to link his ideas to those of William James, if not conceptually, then at least verbally. James does talk about prepositions, but in a totally different context than that of modes, namely: to affirm the equal reality of relations compared with that of their terms:

William James, from whom I am borrowing this expression, asserts that there exists in the world no domain of “with,” “after,” or “between” as there exists a domain of chairs, heat, microbes, doormats, or cats. And yet each of these prepositions plays a decisive role in the understanding of what is to follow, by offering the type of relation needed to grasp the experience of the world in question”.

The examples cited here (with, after, between) are prepositions. However, they are used by James not to carve experience out into modes, but to emphasis that relation and conjunction are just as real and as important as distinction and disjunction:

“The conjunctions are as primordial elements of ‘fact’ as are the distinctions and disjunctions…Prepositions, copulas, and conjunctions, ‘is,’ ‘isn’t,’ ‘then,’ ‘before,’ ‘in,’ ‘on,’ ‘beside,’ ‘between,’ ‘next,’ ‘like,’ ‘unlike,’ ‘as,’ ‘but,’ flower out of the stream of pure experience, the stream of concretes or the sensational stream, as naturally as nouns and adjectives do, and they melt into it again as fluidly” (ESSAYS IN RADICAL EMPIRICISM).

James talks about conjunctions far more than prepositions, and seems to class preposition as a special case of the more general term of conjunction. They modulate experience without modalising it. They are part of James’ explanation of how experience “hangs together”, and not of how it breaks apart into incommensurable modes.

In conclusion, Latour’s use of “prepositions” is neither grammatical, nor Jamesian, nor even particularly experiential.

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22 Responses to LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (2): the case of prepositions

  1. dmfant says:

    I wasn’t saying that it was a strong mis-reading of James, but as James was haunted by christian theology and other spooky phenomena I think Latour is also.

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  2. Adam Robbert says:

    I’ve been appreciating your many thorough posts on AIME here, Terrence. My thought on the Latour-James connection is that Latour actually picks up on James through Whitehead first, rather than through James in the “original.” We have good scholarship detailing how Whitehead systematized Jamesian radical empiricism, transforming it along the way. You frequently cite other continentals as Latour’s predecessors — Deleuze in particular — but I think you will find the real debt is to Whitehead, whom you almost never mention here.

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  3. terenceblake says:

    My thought is that Latour picks up on James and Whitehead through Stengers, he says as much, and that Stengers picked up on them through Deleuze, who picked up on them through Jean Wahl.

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      That’s a nice thought, but given that we know Latour is reading quite a bit of Whitehead in the original I don’t think it takes us very far. There is a much stronger ontological sympathy between Latour and Whitehead than one can find through Deleuze. It’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    That’s the second time that you make such an unsupported assertion. You established no such connection in your post on the AIME group site, so I am waiting for your textual arguments.

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      A good place to start would be Latour’s 1996 essay “Do Scientific Objects Have a History: Pasteur and Whitehead in a Bath of Lactic Acid.” Among the concepts Latour draws from Whitehead (there are several in the paper), I believe the most important for Latour’s later work is the realization that there is no conflict between realism and constructionism. Latour writes, “Before reading Whitehead, I could not extricate myself from this dilemma” (p. 87). See here:

      http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/62-LACTIC-ACID-WHITEHEAD-GB.pdf

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      • Adam Robbert says:

        I’m not sure what you are looking for here. We’ve established some textual references — references that deal in real concepts and not just rhetorical shout-outs — and we have some remarks from Latour himself indicating the connection. We could go a step further and argue that many of Latour’s key concepts are also Whitehead’s: Latour’s substances-as-subsistences is also Whitehead’s account of societies; Latour’s translation is also Whitehead’s prehension; Latour’s sedimentary history is also Whitehead’s objective immortality; Latour’s constructionism is also Whitehead’s concrescence; Latour’s critique of the modern constitution is also Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature, etc. I didn’t think establishing these connections, given what is already known, was a long shot by any means, but you are making me think a whole paper might need to be written about this!

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      In more recent contexts, we could also look at the actual references in AIME. We find only two references to Deleuze and Guattari on p. 242 and 250 (there may be references to Deleuze alone, but I’m not aware of them currently). Compare that to Whitehead who is cited by name on pp. 59, 99, 101, 115, 148, 174, 242, and 455. We could also draw upon Latour’s own admission in the Gifford Lectures that Whitehead is “my [Latour’s] philosopher.” That’s not to say that Whitehead is right about everything, that Latour reads Whitehead in a conventional way, that we need to agree with Whitehead or Latour on anything, or that Delueze plays no role here; but it does send us down a path of establishing Whitehead, rather than Deleuze, as the philosopher of importance for Latour.

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      • terenceblake says:

        I have no idea of the substantial basis for his assertions of affiliation, nor do you it seems. For the moment they remain rhetorical flourishes, until he (or you) establishes both real conceptual connection and biographical influence.

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  5. terenceblake says:

    Reply to Adam Robbert: The idea you mention, that “there is no conflict between realism and constructionism”, is banal. It’s a big thing in Latour’s mock battle with the bungling bifurcationist’s, but this was already well-established when he wrote LABORATORY LIFE with Woolgar. The Whitehead reference is part of his outflanking the Science Warriors. So I don’t think he actually “draws” the idea from Whitehead, who is not referenced in LABORATORY LIFE. The article, however, is very interesting; More generally I don’t think one should confuse the order of rational reconstruction (rhetorical order) with the order of discovery (heuristic order).

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  6. terenceblake says:

    Adam, to be very clear, I am not at all hostile to the sort of connection you seek to draw between Latour and Whitehead. When I was very young (15-17) I read Whitehead with much pleasure, although I probably didn’t understand very much. Later I read Feyerabend, who became for a while my favorite philosopher. Now I am convinced that there are important similarities between Feyerabend’s ideas and Whitehead’s, but I don’t think that there was any influence, more’s the pity. So while i am willing to acknowledge a resemblance between Latour and Whitehead, I am dubious about the post hoc stories of influence that he recounts. I am willing to go so far as to admit that Latour is best understood against a Whiteheadian backdrop, but I find that he is rewriting his past on the basis of his present, and thus falsifying a little. Convince me otherwise and I will be very happy.

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      Well, In the Pasteur article, when Latour speaks directly to occasions, inheritance, trajectories (p. 82), and concrescence (p. 85), he his making explicit use of Whitehead’s terminology to flesh out a cosmological account of constructionism that is broader in scope, though consistent with, the earlier arguments he makes in Laboratory Life and Science in Action. I would mark this as a real turning point in his thinking that can be directly attributed to Whitehead, and drives much of the later work. To me none of these insights are “banal”—either in regards to the issue of Whitehead’s influence on Latour, or to the validity of the concepts in general. In this sense I believe I have provided at least the opening statement to support my case, and these points are supported by more than what I can drag into this conversation right now. By positioning me as the one who has to convince you, you’re playing a sleight of hand trick when in reality the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that there is in fact no substantial connection between Whitehead and Latour. I say this in good faith as I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues.

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  7. terenceblake says:

    Similarity (e.g. between Latour and Whitehead) is not the same as influence. If you look at the beginning of this blog, I began with ALL THINGS SHINING, which i maintain is a pluralist treatise on modes of existence. Under the influence of Shaviro’s book on Whitehead, which contrasts very sharply the problematic of Heidegger and that of Whitehead, I undertook to rewrite the ontological basis of ATS. I did so because I thought, as I still do, that such an endeavour is best understood in Whiteheadian terms, rather than, as they themselves do, in Heideggerian terms. I wrote several posts in this line, but I eventually abandoned it because I realised that Dreyfus and Kelly had managed to “bend” Heidegger in a pluralist pragmatist direction, compatible with Whitehead. I realised that thanks to their real innovaions I no longer wanted to act like a football supporter crying “Whitehead team yes, Heidegger team no!”

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      We agree on this point, Terrence. However, I think we can also separate the kind of either/or thinking you mention above — “Whitehead, yes! Deleuze, no!” — from the question of robust conceptual influence between thinkers. In my view the relationship between Whitehead and Latour is one of influence and not similarity, but that’s not to say that I think we should all be Whiteheadians — there’s plenty going wrong in Whitehead, and people like Deleuze (and Latour for that matter) have made significant contributions to metaphysics since the 1920s when Whitehead was writing much of this down. To be sure, I am, to a certain extent, allied to Whitehead and I would like to see him read more — especially among continentals who often treat him as a footnote to Deleuze. That said, I also think pluralism, diplomacy, and dialogue are more important qualities to cultivate than allegiance to any particular thinker or school of thought, so on that note we are on the same page.

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  8. terenceblake says:

    You criticise “either/or” thinking, yet you precipitate the difference between us into the either/or issue of whether either Deleuze or Whitehead is the BIG influence on Latour. I have just explained that I bought into this sort of dichotomy over 3 years ago (in my case the dichotomy between Heidegger and Whitehead as ontological precursors to ALL THINS SHINING) and that I abandoned it very quickly as being too simplistic and ultimately futile.

    Latour is French and you are American, yet you cling to the idea that his decisive influence was the adoptively American Whitehead, when every page of Latour reeks of Serres and Deleuze and Foucault and Lyotard. I understand that you very much want him to be a Whiteheadian, and I have explained that I would be happy if he was, but I must conclude “not proven”. I am like you in that I think that “pluralism, diplomacy, and dialogue” are far more important than “allegiance to any particular thinker or school of thought”, So I think that only a hairsbreadth separates us.

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  9. terenceblake says:

    You say “I can see the influence of Serres, Foucault, Deleuze, et al. in Latour”. Can you? It’s hard to see evidence of that in your remarks on this blog. In your response on the modesofexistence blog you mention only Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY. I find you a little partisan in your treatment of my very extensive ongoing analysis of Latour, but not very forthcoming in real textual analysis of your claim not just to a vague similarity between Latour and Whitehead but to a real derivation.

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      I also didn’t mention Bergson, Stengers, Haraway, or Descola either. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve never made a case that I was highlighting any of these thinkers in these discussions. You’re really pulling at straws here.

      My point is explicitly to raise the influence of Whitehead to the foreground because it’s not done enough, especially in continental circles. I will continue on with this effort because it’s a worth while project; And I’m sorry that your favorite generation of thinkers doesn’t get enough screen time, but they get plenty of it elsewhere so I don’t feel too worried.

      BTW: My response on the modesofexistence blog was excerpted from a private email exchange, which they had permission to edit and reprint from me. Your mention of it is actually the first news I’m getting it’s online, so thanks for directing my attention to that.

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  10. terenceblake says:

    Still condescending, still no arguments. My favorite generation of thinkers is Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville, but I don’t claim that Latour was influenced by them (except for Nietzsche);. I do think that he is usefully illuminated against their background. I encourage you to pursue your project but to pitch it in the right “key”, of philosophy and not intellectual biography.

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    • Adam Robbert says:

      Terence, I certainly don’t mean to come off that way, and I believe I have done my best to answer your questions in good faith. To me, the situation looks a little different: I am supplying arguments — in terms of textual references, conceptual inheritances, and public statements from the figures in question — and you neither agree, nor are you persuaded, by my evidence. That’s fine; this is what debate is all about. However, this is different from saying that I am simply being condescending, or have provided no arguments. We had a productive exchange going, but I’m going to have to cut it short here. Until next time.

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  11. terenceblake says:

    Sorry if I heard you in the wrong key, I am far from having absolute pitch. If ever you wish to take up the discussion again I wish merely to indicate that I do not think that Latour’s “public statements” of influence are to be taken at face value, but are more to be seen in the perspective of provisional alliance than in terms of filiation. Conceptual resemblance does not constitute proof of filiation (my example of Feyerabend was meant to illustrate that). The only substantial textual convergence between Latour and Whitehead that you have to show is the article where he reformulates his findings in LABORATORY LIFE post hoc in Whiteheadian terms. Maybe we are not understanding “influence” in the same way. I agree that there is a deep resemblance between the systems of Latour and Whitehead but I think that the terminological resemblances are superficial. The stuff on the bifurcation of Nature I find incredibly weak because it is employed to critique a straw man naïve empiricism while hiding the naïve empiricist presuppositions of Latour himself. If this is a major influence of Whitehead on Latour it’s a bad one, but I think it’s mainly window dressing and anxiety of influence. He read Deleuze long before he read Whitehead, and the critique of the bifurcation is everywhere in Deleuze, e.g. the first few pages of ANTI-OEDIPUS, which he read before LABORATORY LIFE. IRREDUCTIONS is a direct transposition of Deleuze’s NIETZSCHE, “network” is the “rhizome”, everything is “assemblages”, “constructivism” is from A THOUSAND PLATEAUX, “modes of existence” from his writings on Spinoza and Nietzsche. The critique of iconoclasm is lifted from Klossowski, one of Deleuze’s major influences in the concept of the simulacrum and thus of constructionism. The terminological and conceptual resemblances are just massive, and very prior to the encounter with Whitehead. But I have no wish to downplay the convergence with Whitehead, I just don’t think it was a more important influence than the study of Deleuze.

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  12. W says:

    When we talk about explicit influence:

    80s:
    In general: Deleuze, Serres
    Orality/Literacy: Eisenstein
    Science: Feyerabend, Kuhn, Fleck. Lakatos, Barnes, Bloor, Hacking, Haraway, Galison, Knorr-Cetina, MacKenzie, Pickering, Rheinberger, Schaffer, Shapin etc.
    Ethnomethodology: Garfinkel
    Semiotics: Greimas, Courtes

    90s:
    James, Whitehead, Discours of Postmodernity

    00s:
    Heidegger, Tarde

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