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:
“. 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.