BRUNO LATOUR AND WHITEHEAD: a pragmatic alliance

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.

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4 Responses to BRUNO LATOUR AND WHITEHEAD: a pragmatic alliance

  1. Philip says:

    Not forgetting that the Whitehead that Latour encountered was Stengers’ Whitehead, which she admits is read alongside Deleuze. In her book on Whitehead she says that she read Deleuze through Whitehead and vice versa – and she was reading Whitehead since the 1970s. And then, of course, Deleuze read Whitehead! It’s a tangled knot. I’m reading Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead at the moment (it’s my second attempt, it defeated me halfway through the first time). There’s some very obvious resonances with Latour’s work throughout but it’s impossible to say whether that comes from his reading, Stengers’ reading, Deleuze’s internalisation of Whitehead …

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    • terenceblake says:

      Yes, this is why Deleuze says that alliances are more important than filiations, uses more than influences. It’s all a question of mediators, or what Deleuze called intercessors. Our “influences” are in fact conceptual personae that permit us to think, and their role is more heuristic than historic.

      I have always found Stengers’ style quite discouraging despite my sympathy for her ideas. I bought the book on Whitehead when it came out in 2002 with great enthusiasm. But I was so put off by the style that it took me several years to read it all.

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  2. Adam Robbert says:

    This was a good read, and does some work moving us forward on these issues. As Philip mentioned, tracing the arc of influence between Latour and Whitehead is difficult because the arc, like all connections, is mediated by a series of other figures, texts, epistemes etc. It’s a bit of a philosophical carousel: Deleuze is reading Whitehead, Stengers is reading Whitehead with/and/or through Deleuze; Deleuze is also reading William James, who we know in turn Whitehead was reading extensively; and then Latour, of course, is reading James, Whitehead, Stengers, and Deleuze all through each other and back into his own work.

    Given this back and forth of readership and influence, it might be difficult to say where one influence ends and the other begins. Whitehead, for example, was writing about assemblages long before Deleuze. Is that to say Deleuze chose the term because of Whitehead? I have no idea, but it complicates the lineage even more. However, despite these difficulties I would still argue, without limiting the influence of other thinkers on Latour, that there is a line that connects Latour more strongly with Whitehead than with Deleuze. The issue centers on how Whitehead and Deleuze differ on the issue of becoming. Here I follow Keith Robinson’s argument, forwarded by Steven Shaviro, that for Deleuze there is a continuity of becoming whereas for Whitehead there is a becoming of continuity. Here’s a bit of Shaviro drawing Robinson out on this very issue:

    “Robinson (2007) argues that one major difference between Whitehead and Deleuze is precisely
    that “Deleuze is committed to a continuity of becoming but Whitehead is committed to
    the idea of a becoming of continuity.” The problem for both thinkers is how to resolve the conflicting
    claims of unity and multiplicity, or how to achieve what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) call
    “the magic formula we all seek – PLURALISM = MONISM” (20). Deleuze, following Spinoza
    and Bergson, opts for radical continuity, and hence leans towards monism more than Whitehead,
    whose quantum theory of events puts more of an emphasis on irreducible plurality.”

    (full article here: http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/DeleuzeWhitehead.pdf)

    I affirm this basic difference between Whitehead and Deleuze, and take it one step further. Just as there is a noticeable Bergson-Deleuze axis that is peppered with other influences (while still remaining particularly important), there is, I argue, also a Whitehead-Latour axis predicated on a strong disagreement with other process philosophers over the nature of becoming and individual entities that deserves more of an excavation than has been given so far in the literature (and hence my insistence here).

    Along this axis we can see also that there is a difference between the Nietzschean argument Latour adopts in Irredductions — all things as will to power interpret and evaluate the world around them — and the one that Whitehead gives for actual entities and Creativity (with Nietzsche coming closer to the Bergson-Deleuze tradition). William Connolly has an interesting discussion of the differences between Nietzsche and Whitehead on this issue in his new book, and I think these differences also affirm that, at the level of metaphysics, there is more agreement between Whitehead and Latour than between Latour and his other influences — e.g., Deleuze or Nietzsche — and that there is a benefit to foregrounding and carrying forward this minor tradition. It seems that if Latour started with Nietzsche and the other influences you cite above, he ended up opting for Whitehead in the long run.

    Thanks for this discussion. It has been very helpful for the Whitehead-Latour chapter I am writing for Bhaskar’s critical realism series. I appreciate the opportunity to flesh this out in dialogue.

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    • terenceblake says:

      Hello Adam, I’m glad that things are getting clearer as the dialogue progresses, bumps and all. I think that we can agree on a few points, namely his semiotic beginnings in religious exegesis, the Deleuzo-Nietzschean background to his incursion into science studies and the decisive reorientation that rethinking his ideas through Whiteheadian spectacles produced. I try to write this up in my next post.

      I am also glad that the inter-blog dialogue has helped inspire us all to write more, and I look forward to your piece on Whitehead and Latour.

      On the more specific argument about the differences between Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s concepts of becoming I must suspend judgement as I have no access to the Robinson paper you cite. As to the quote you give from this paper, I disagree on the characterisation of Deleuze as continuist. The cinema books make it clear that Deleuze’s image of time is based on relinking over a constant sequence of irrational cuts, the definition of becoming as the double-becoming of two beings that have nothing to do with each other goes in the same sense, and Deleuze’s treatment of Bergson as a philosopher of difference confirms this constellation of ideas.

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