LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (3): an incomplete dialectical critique of naive empiricism

Latour’s diplomatic metalanguage is a form of pluralised dialectics, as is post-structuralist thought in general. Deleuze, for example, is willing to look favorably on Hegel’s dialectics on the condition that movement is given primacy over negativity. Zizek’s recent ontological treatise LESS THAN NOTHING, with its valorisation of mediation and its non-negative negativity, comes close to satisfying Deleuze’s requirement, and could even serve as an ontological underpinning to Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, given that Latour needs to include his idea of « plasma » to make his system more complete.

One should not identify dialectics with negation and critique, but rather with dissolving fixed and separate categories and putting things in movement. The three dialectical phases that characterise the work of the poststructuralist philosophers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, but also Rorty, Stiegler, Feyerabend, Laruelle, and Zizek) are not the classical triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (these are only a special case, an instantiation of a much more general set of movements). I would name them deconstruct and dissolve, pluralize and set in movement, and share and democratically assemble.

For all his repeated condemnation of « critique » Latour is a master of critical rhetoric, and AIME could justly be called a treatise of ontological critique. The critique of critique is a trope from the 70s (i.e. from one of Latour’s major intellectually formative periods) which still has some steam in it, but it is still only a preliminary step towards pluralism. Michel Foucault, for example, cannot be limited to the role of the critical intellectual, which he explicitly denounced, and Deleuze does a good job in his FOUCAULT of laying out the three positive ontologies present in Foucault’s work. Retrospectively viewed in Latour’s terms Foucault’s research can be seen as passing from one mode to another, sketching out their grammars. Of course his modes do not correspond closely to Latour’s, but then Latour is giving revisionary descriptions of consensually recognisable modes.

In my mapping of intellectual influences, I do not mean to say that philosopher X (say Deleuze) said it all before Y (say Latour). My worry is that Latour is busily going about making the preceding generation unreadable by obliterating both its larger problematic and his own. Latour forces us to separate out problematic and agenda. His problematic is poststructuralist, as he begrudgingly admits and as John Law very clearly proclaims. In that, his thought is in progress compared to all the so-called « postmodern » critics that seek hegemony in the humanities.

Latour’s agenda is not clear to me, but I see it as in part conceptually regressive. If Latour borrows concepts from his poststructuralist predecessors but attributes them to William James, this could be construed as a way of saying that James is the real source of their supposed innovations, a way of redressing the historical record. It may however be a way of neutralising criticism. I do not see in Latour’s work any engagement with the analyses of empiricism that have been made over the last 60 years, clustered around the notion of theory-ladenness. In its place, I see a strawman critique of Lockean empiricism. This serves to hide the many places where Latour makes naive empiricist remarks and gives to his project an aura of sophistication that is often unmerited, as he employs all the right words, but often attaches simpler meanings to them.

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4 commentaires pour LATOUR’S “JAMESIAN” EMPIRICISM (3): an incomplete dialectical critique of naive empiricism

  1. Philip dit :

    In fairness to Latour there are a number of references to Deleuze and Guattari in the online, ‘augmented’ version of the book. There’s also this on Derrida:

    « aime inherits from Derrida the key notion of inscriptions with the idea of rematerializing formalism in order to undo the obsession of Western philosophy (Derrida, 1967). However,Derrida wanted to make of this notion a veritable war machine to fight the myth of presence and transparency, while our investigation has chosen to consider mediations and texts positively, making them the uncertain but essential vehicle of modes of existence. Instead of concluding that « inscription allows one to find presence by avoiding the formalist temptation, » Derrida concluded that one ought not succumb to the temptation of a philosophy of presence and insisted thus on the avoidance and deferral of any positive diction. This is admirably ascetic but might have turned out differently had he ceased to consider the mirage of a presence so dangerous that it could only get lost in the expressible and the textual. Not sharing this mirage of absolute presence, aime has no hesitation in using texts and inscriptions in order to positively express the direction of meaning.

    We can reformulate all of Derrida’s arguments about deferral, « différance », positively without needing to fight against a metaphysics of presence since there is no better way of being present than to pass, to « differ »: the metaphysics of presence and différance cannot be opposed since they are the same thing. As always, critical thinkers inherit the fundamentalism they purport to fight against and Derrida, rerouted difference as a means of never speaking directly – as if without these preemptive precautions we might be in danger of speaking directly. »

    Perhaps not an entirely fair reading. Latour is, as we have established, most definitely a ‘critical thinker’ and making that into phrase a ‘weapon of war’ is rather hypocritical. However, I think it’s a pretty solid interpretation on the whole. AIME certainly has a very different attitude towards ‘presence’ even though it follows similar philosophical paths. Although the final chapter is titled ‘a civilisation to come’ most of the book is concerned with establishing partial presence in the present and how the absence of full presence isn’t such a big deal after all. A subtle mutation but an important one.

    I don’t have time to go through what I see of James in AIME right now but suffice to say on this we disagree, although I certainly agree that when he says ’empiricism’ he’s drawing together a lot more than James’ version of it alone. Although this quotation (also taken from the AIME website) is a nice illustration of James’ writing that sits very well with AIME:

    « [James’ Hat:] If at this moment I think of my hat which a while ago I left in the cloak-room, where is the dualism, the discontinuity between the hat of my thoughts and the real hat? My mind is thinking of a truly absent hat. I reckon with it practically as with a reality. If it were present on this table, the hat would occasion a movement of my hand: I would pick it up. In the same way, this hat as a concept, this idea-hat, will presently determine the direction of my steps. I will retrieve it. The idea I have of it will last up to the sensible presence of the hat, and then will blend harmoniously with it. I conclude then, that—although there will be a practical dualism—inasmuch as representations are distinguished from objects, stand in their stead and and lead us to them, there is no reason to attribute them an essential difference of nature. Thought and actuality are made of one and the same stuff, the stuff of experience in general. »

    That’s the philosophical ‘experience’ that Latour gets from James – that’s the ‘radical empiricism.’ Not empiricism qua evidentialism per se but the embracing of *flows* of experience that are relational in and of themselves. I do not dispute that he mixes this philosophical ’empiricism’ up with other meanings of the term via his ‘anthropology’ ruse. Although, in the concluding chapter (I really wish I’d read the last chapter first!) he concedes that these judgements of value are his value judgements – partial, fragile, eccentric. In fact, if he maintained the same honesty, modesty and conviviality that he demonstrates in the conclusion throughout the whole book we’d have a lot less to criticise.


  2. Felix M. dit :

    Reading through your posts over the last months it is amazing to me how much this seems all about (in my eyes pathetic and pitiful) bickering about originality and intellectual ownership. This is not a critique of you who is only showing up things but rather it confirms only my viewpoints of those seemingly progressive thinkers as slaves to their intellectual identities.

    I have a vision of a philosophical grassroots movement, actual pluralism happening in the real world, the ‘collective awakening’ in (non)buddhist terms, and a small part of this vision would be imagining philosophers not giving the slightest fuck about ownership and originality at all. To just freely copy and paste, reformulate, steal and borrow, something quoting the original author, sometimes not. maybe more guided by artistic taste than some kind of academic morality.

    Free rhizomatic blending and unblending of ideas, always evolving to fit their localized purpose without any (or maybe just the slightest) respect to some *original* author.

    But of course the barrier to this is clear as long as we don’t see the deep corruption in our own subject, the obvious narcisstic fantasy of being the next « great thinker », or the avoidance of calling out the existing *great thinkers » as the obvious master-archetypes that they are, and their followers as obvious slaves, all bathing in the small amounts of ‘shine’ that it gives them refering all their writing back to those great and glamorous names instead of writing down clearly and freely their own ideas, in the process excluding everybody with insufficient reading of those *great thinkers* with their blown-up brains that they got from trying to think for everybody instead of just for themselves or their own locale, betraying in their very modus operandi all the ideals that they pretend to stand for.

    I think it does not make sense to further try to envision pluralism, the vision is clear (at least to me), it is at this point something simply (ha!) to be done. Further pedantically trying to find out who has the « best » pluralism, Laruelle or Deleuze or whatever makes it all a farce. In my eyes it is actually me. Or my friend Brian. Or you, Terence. the difference that none of us is so narcisstic to want to be the next great thinker that finally brings the change we so desperately long for. The philosophical revolution will happen when people give up that desire for philosophical greatness, something that the great masters obviously never could, their very status and their content with it being proof of it. It will happen by a thousand small-time philosophers, a thousand bloggers, street activists, a thousand manifestos. None of them even trying to compete anymore with the great (anti-)narratives of the past.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    • terenceblake dit :

      This is well said.


    • terenceblake dit :

      Perhaps I have been over-concentrating on these divisive factors rather than on the commonality of pluralism shared by these thinkers. Yet I do not see how one can advocate a pluralism based on ignoring or condemning the ideas of like-minded thinkers. As if one were afraid of avowing that one has been influenced by other thinkers, and that the influence runs deep. Many others do not see a problem here. They blithely subscribe to the views of one particular thinker, they become a Laruellean or Zizekian or Latourian and repeat the master’s narcissistic condemnation of all rivals. They seem to settle down and find comfort in what I see as a predicament. As to the philosophical revolution, I was quite optimistic that the internet would permit people to express themselves openly and dialogue freely, but I am beginning to despair over that. We shall see. One of the things that keeps me going is that all these thinkers have much to say that is inspiring and liberating, so I hope I manage to convey that sentiment too.


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