Latour has famously claimed that we have never been modern, and has unsparingly criticised the postmoderns for their practice of critique, showing that he actively embraces both paradox and performative contradiction. His own name for his style of thinking is « non-modern ». Given his desire to get away from all philosophy based on the dualist principles generated by the « bifurcation of nature » and to create a new type of thinking that he calls « empirical philosophy », one may wonder if Latour is practicing, knowingly or not, a form of « non-philosophy » in the sense that François Laruelle has given that term. His declarations that he is in no way attached to a particular theoretical vocabulary or set of references, but considers his metalanguage « disposable », go in the same sense.
Latour’s theoretical formulations show a huge degree of liberty when it comes to locating the basic conceptual matrix of his work. Different versions of the same article make use of different theoretical vocabularies to do similar work. In a paper on overcoming the opposition between realism and constructivism he declares that it is the reading of Whitehead that permitted him to overcome this opposition: « Before reading Whitehead, I could not extricate myself from this dilemma » (13). Here Latour is referring to an event in his personal intellectual history, reading Whitehead, which was necessary for him to arrive at a solution.
However, the original French version does not contain this sentence, but a slightly different one: « Avant Whitehead, nous ne pouvions nous sortir de ce dilemme » (10) . « Before Whitehead, we couldn’t get out of this dilemma. » Here there is no reference to Latour’s reading but to intellectual history. Whitehead is said to have created the conditions for leaving the dichotomy behind. Latour may have found the solution directly in Whitehead or in a later thinker, the biographical question is left open.
Strangely, an earlier account of the same work does not mention Whitehead at all, but attributes the role of guide to exiting the dichotomy to the semiotician Greimas: « This freedom in selecting actors and redistributing properties among them is crucial to understanding scientific practice, and, to my knowledge, no other discipline possesses that freedom. All the others have to start from a « natural » division between human and
nonhuman properties » (3). My conclusion is not however that the « real » debt is to Greimas and that the more recent references to Whitehead are a mere pedagogical or diplomatic device. Nor do I conclude that Greimas allowed him to get close to an insight that only the decisive influence of Whitehead crystallised into a « real » solution. That would be a pre-Latourian naïveté. Latour himself provides the more appropriate conclusion:
There are mediators all the way down, and adding sources will only add more mediations, none of them being reducible to mere « document »or »information. »
Deleuze, Greimas, Derrida, Whitehead, Sloterdijk, etc. are all « mediators » permitting Latour to express his ideas now from one angle now from another, first to this public and then to the next. In a recent interview Latour seems to chalk all this theoretical nomadism down to the « normal wearing out of concepts »: « The problem – this is why we must keep changing our words – is that it is not because we have used these words that they [i.e. the objects] are there. The words have to be renewed so that the phenomenon that they designate is foregrounded anew » (128, my translation).
This lexical and conceptual liberty may be seen as opportunistic or cynical, a Machiavellian strategy to win over possible allies by speaking to them in the terms least likely to provoke rejection but rather to favorise adhesion. Yet one need not interpret Latour’s mobility in such negative terms. This practice of refreshing the vocabulary and working with a disposable metalanguage has much in common with the liberty of thought that Katerina Kolozova attributes to the influence of Laruelle’s non-philosophy:
« Laruelle provides me with conceptual or methodological possibilities of producing theoretical work without adherence to any philosophical legacy in particular, and to do so without being arbitrary or voluntaristic. His non-standard philosophy enables one to take recourse to conceptual material derived from philosophy without the endorsement of the explanatory frame a philosophical school or authority creates for the concepts produced within it » (interview with Liam Jones in Figure/Ground, here).