Is Whitehead a key influence on the formation of Latour’s thought? The question can be posed because, despite Latour’s increasing number of references to Whitehead’s work and and to his importance as a philosopher, the essential ideas of his project seem to predate his engagement with Whitehead’s work and concepts. In a seminar (at approximately 31 mins) devoted to IRREDUCTIONS Latour tells us that he had no real knowledge of Whitehead at the time of writing this treatise, but that he became a Whiteheadian only later, through his discussions with Isabelle Stengers.
I am not at all hostile to drawing a connection 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. 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.
More generally I don’t think one should confuse the order of rational reconstruction (rhetorical order) with the order of discovery (heuristic order). Similarity (e.g. between Latour and Whitehead), or even eulogistic referencing, is not the same as influence. At the beginning of this blog, I discuss 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 that such a pluralist endeavour is best understood in Whiteheadian terms, rather than, as they themselves understand it, 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 innovations the differences between Heidegger and Whitehead on a classical reading of the two philosophers was no longer an interesting question.
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 THINGS SHINING), but I abandoned it very quickly as being too simplistic and ultimately futile. Latour is French and came to intellectual maturity without having read the great classics of of the pragmatist tradition. During the 60s many important thinkers (Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, Foucault, Edgar Morin, Kostas Axelos and many others) had abandoned the subject-object bifurcation and epistemologies of demarcation, and came to espouse various forms of semiotics and of enunciative linguistics. The origins of Latour’s ideas are best understood in the light of this milieu. Every page of Latour is redolent of Greimas and Serres and Deleuze and Foucault and Lyotard.
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 o illustrates that). The most substantial textual convergence between Latour and Whitehead is in an article where he reformulates the findings of THE PASTEURIZATION OF FRANCE post hoc in Whiteheadian terms. Latour’s philosophy of science at the time of THE PASTEURIZATION OF FRANCE and IRREDUCTIONS (1984) is a transcription of the Deleuzian and Foucauldian Nietzsche reworked by Greimasian semiotics. Even on this point the idea of applying semiotics not just to texts but to things is a Nietzschean inspired one. since for Nietzsche all things as will to power interpret and evalue the world. Latour has declared that at the time he was not acquainted with Tarde, Whitehead, or William James, and so was obliged to make do with the conceptual resources available to him.
In a paper drawing the philosophical conclusions from his study of Pasteur, and intent 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, William James, etc. are all “mediators” permitting Latour to express his ideas now from one angle now from another, first to one public and then to another.
There is a deep resemblance between the systems of Latour and Whitehead but I think that the terminological borrowings do not reflect a major debt . Latour’s more recent discussions of the need to overcome the bifurcation of Nature are a weak point in his argumentation. They critique a straw man, a naïve empiricism, while not managing to hide Latour’s own the naïve empiricist presuppositions. 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.
Latour read Deleuze long before he read Whitehead, and the critique of the bifurcation of Nature is everywhere in Deleuze, e.g. the first few pages of ANTI-OEDIPUS, which Latour read before undertaking the work leading to the writing of 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 Deleuze’s writings on Spinoza and Nietzsche. The terminological and conceptual resemblances are massive, and very prior to Latour’s encounter with Whitehead. I don’t think one should downplay the convergence with Whitehead, but I don’t think the reading of Whitehead was a more important formative influence than the study of Deleuze.