LATOUR, FEYERABEND, DELEUZE: correcting a revisionist history of Continental Philosophy

Bruno Latour is complicit in the effacing or the downplaying of the ideas and influence of the previous generation of Continental philosophers (and I include Feyerabend in this category, alongside Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault) and their role in inspiring, or even often anticipating, his own ideas. He gives the same biased view of philosophical history as Meillassoux and OOO in which correlationism and the flight from realism continued through most of the last half of the 20th Century, and in which the “new” realists bring us what was lacking in deconstruction and poststructuralism, and so take a decisive step forward. Rather than acknowledging a very real, and in fact massive, debt to Feyerabend, Deleuze, et al., he misrepresents and denigrates their contributions, and prefers to reach even further back to Tarde, James, Whitehead, and Souriau to mystify those who are too young or too credulous to detect the Orwellian rewriting of the recent past that he often engages in.

In a recent interview (2012), discussing his own methodology, Latour affirms “this a thing that I learned from the “scientists” I studied, i.e. that: “Anything goes as long as it leads to what you want to find”. Just as in a laboratory you have instruments of all sorts, including the most archaic and the most contemporary, because that is what is necessary in production, I myself have learnt a lot from “true” scientists, hard scientists, i.e. total indifference to questions of method” (page 123, my translation). This is very exactly what Feyerabend proposes in AGAINST METHOD (already in the essay version published in 1971), and Latour seems to be guilty of a little “creative forgetting” here. He continues for two and a half pages (!) on the same theme, applying this notion it to his own work, and concludes, once again echoing Feyerabend without deigning to cite him: “So, how do you produce objects that resist what is said of them?, well, anything goes” (126).

Contrary to the repeated attempts (with which Latour himself is complicit) to associate Feyerabend with a naive espousal of chaos and anarchy, Feyerabend emphasised that we need both tenacity and proliferation, rules and their heuristic suspension, order and chaos, speculation and testability. He condemned the “naive anarchism” of no rules, he disliked chaos but claimed to have made creative use of it in certain contexts, and he rejected the dogmatism of the traditional anarchists along with their scientism. Feyerabend wanted more responsibility, not less, and proposed that all those concerned, in citizen assemblies, should decide on what ontologies, theories, methods to apply – and not just the experts.

Feyerabend’s anarchism is “epistemological” precisely because he wants to get away from the need to posit a dogmatic “anarchist” method. Feyerabend explains that he did propose such a dogmatic anarchism for science in the early 60s, but then the encounter with the needs of the practicing scientist, and later the encounter with the needs of the more diverse population of students that were enrolled after more democratic education policies were adopted in the US (at the end of the 60s), led him to reject even the most open set of rules as long as they were meant to be applied universally instead of as rules of thumb. This is similar to Latour’s evolution from the methodological anarchism that he espouses above to his later concerns with democractic assemblages.

Aside from the need to diffuse a smokescreen around certain key but disturbing influences, such as Feyerabend and Deleuze, whose explicit acknowledgement could get him into trouble in his search for a consensual surface, we cannot ignore Latour’s rhetorical, or “diplomatic”, strategy of adapting his presentation to the auditory. To the English-speaking world familiar with Feyerabend’s epistemology he makes a political critique, accusing him of “anarchism” (ignoring that Feyerabend’s later name for his position was “democratic relativism”). To a French politicist interviewer he comes out with a defence of exactly the sort of epistemological anarchism (“anything goes”) that Feyerabend defended decades before Latour. Feyerabend himself does not take credit for this idea, stating that he heard Popper defending it in the 1940s. Latour does not mention this point, preferring in the interview to affirm that Popper makes no real contribution to the study of science, but is a political thinker hiding behind an epistemological mask.

On the whole question of methodological anarchism versus epistemological anarchism Feyerabend is quite clear that Popper was advocating methodological anarchism, the idea that there was no fixed method for science other than what worked or was appropriate in a specific case, in the 40s. Already Feyerabend agreed, but thought it was a banality, as his friends in the Kraft Circle took this methodological anarchism for granted. The problem, as Feyerabend later came to realise, was that this methodological anarchism is basically incompatible with taking science as a preconstituted object, and so he argued that Popper’s more specific methodological suggestions were a case of circular reasoning. Popper, he claimed, presupposes the very instances of good science (eg Newton, Maxwell, Einstein) that his criteria are supposed to neutrally select out. In fact the criteria are generalisations made from a partisan set of pre-decided instances, and not the other way around. This is the difference, at least in Feyerabend’s work, between methodological anarchism applied inside the pre-constituted and pre-demarcated sciences, and Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism (circa 1966) which puts that demarcation totally up for grabs and argues for all sorts of transversal composites as necessary for what we commonly think of as scientific progress.

Contrary to Latour’s attempts to depict Feyerabend, and the whole of the post-’68 generation, as caught in negativity and critique, it must be emphasised that Latour’s starting point was in religious exegesis, and it is he who has expressed sadness at the disappearance of this mode of existence. Feyerabend’s starting point was aesthetic (opera and theatre) and scientific, and at the end of his life he expressed the satisfaction that he “was never hindered in anything”, and that he had finally come to the maturity of being capable of loving another person (Grazia). In his autobiography Feyerabend describes in a concrete and personal way his progressive steps towards such love, whereas Latour talks about an abstract phenomenon of “conversion” as an all-or-none point-like experience in his book on religion, REJOICING. So I think that Latour is the more abstract thinker, and the true disappointed nostalgic. He is caught in the contradiction of pretending to be a descriptive anthropologist of the modern and yet including in his empirical description, out of nostalgia, a mode of existence that he claims has disappeared.

On the technical side of his epistemology, Latour is often guilty of making naïve empiricist statements and moves despite his seeming sophistication in other passages. His attempted universalising of so-called “empirical” observations, are far more theory-laden and value-laden than he is often willing to take into account. This is one of my major criticisms of AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE: the whole project is formulated in naïve empiricist terms, despite his meta-theoretical reflections on a “second empiricism”. This gets him caught in a set of pragmatic contradictions that Feyerabend never fell into.

Another disturbing feature of Latour’s proclamations is his emphasis of the key advance his system makes in overcoming the subject/object dichotomy. This claim to radical progress over the recent past is ludicrous to anyone who knows the even slightest bit about the philosophies of Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. However, it may be of use to consider the absurdity of this claim in relation to the development of post-positivist epistemology. Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism does not presuppose subjects facing objects. From the very beginning in the early 50s Feyerabend was influenced by Wittgenstein, and considered scientific statements as part of non-subjective language-games. He was also influenced by Popper, who later summarised his position in 1967 in a paper called “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject”. The whole Popperian tradition elaborated such an epistemology outside the subject-object face-off, as did the Quinean and the Wittgensteinian traditions in their own ways.

The subject-object face-off just has nothing to do with this whole decades long evolution of Anglophone epistemology, and Latour shows either his ignorance or his incomprehension of the treatment of these questions in the English-speaking world. Whatever his other faults, Popper broke decisively with this epistemology of the knowing subject and Latour cannot wish it away to create a void between himself and Whitehead. Feyerabend in the essay version of AGAINST METHOD (1971) was already presenting the subject as a collective assemblage entangled with other assemblages, a relay station for the passage of various forces, influences, processes and events. This analysis is blindingly obvious in his treatment of the Homeric cosmology in the book AGAINST METHOD of 1975, where he declares that a more contemporary version of this type of cosmology, that he endorses, can be traced back to Ernst Mach.

Wittgenstein was a reader of William James and was influenced by him for his philosophy of psychology and his philosophy of religion, and there are strong pragmatic aspects to his general perspective. One of his big ideas was the folly of trying to think “outside language games”. Another was a deepening of the notion of philosophical grammar. (Feyerabend mentions how he derived his idea of incommensurability and theory change from the reading of the PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS and he first expounded it in 1952 to a group of Wittgensteinians, who were unmoved, finding it rather obvious). I think that Latour is indebted to this positive legacy of Wittgenstein’s, and that talking about Ryle and Austin is yet another piece of misdirection Also Wittgenstein is a key reference for David Bloor and the strong programme of the sociology of knowledge, and so Latour is playing down his debt to the guiding figure of a programme that he learnt from and then rivalised with.

Why did Deleuze famously condemn Wittgenstein’s “legacy”? We must remember that in LOGIC OF SENSE Deleuze is quite eulogious of Wittgenstein for the idea of meaning as use, that he cited Wittgenstein’s critique of Freud’s mythology as a precursor of the ideas developped in ANTI-OEDIPUS, and that in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS the important idea of “incorporeal transformations” is discussed in relation to the tradition of “linguistic” philosophy initiated by Wittgenstein. So Deleuze, as usual when evaluating a movement of thought, approved of the creation of concepts in this tradition but disapproved of the conservatism of meaning and the policing of language. Feyerabend, who admits to having been decisively influenced by Wittgenstein, has exactly the same attitude to the conformism of some of his successors. Latour, despite his conceptual innovations, is in danger of elaborating a new police of meaning in his will to establish the “felicity conditions” of the various modes of existence and to forbid illegitimate crossings.

Latour cannot claim to be establishing empirically what previous philosophers such as Feyerabend were only able to advance as speculation. He cannot affirm that Feyerabend does not examine the specific ways in which science produces knowledge. This is false, the whole point of the historical case study of Galileo and of his detailed studies of Bohr, are to indicate what procedures did in fact work to advance physics. True Feyerabend does not do laboratory studies, but noone ever said that laboratory studies are all there is to studying science; Latour’s philosophy of science is woefully derivative: his historico-semiotic study of Pasteur contributes no new epistemological ideas, and confirms Feyerabend’s ideas derived from the study of Galileo. And it is woefully incomplete: he is doing intra-paradigmatic analyses of networks in LABORATORY LIFE, and is unable to deal with the actual content of scientific theories except by taking a Feyerabendian turn (see preceding remark on the Pasteur studies). So the looking-at-specific-ways-science-produces-knowledge criterion does not distinguish Feyerabend from Latour either. The only criterion that does is the “laboratory studies” criterion, but it is of limited value, and is not rich enough to deal with paradigm change; Latour does talk about paradigm-change in relation to Pasteur, but this is precisely NOT a laboratory study, but a historical case study of the same type that Feyerabend conducted on Galileo.

It would be erroneous to maintain that Feyerabend’s case study of Galileo just leads him to conclude that “anything goes”. This is not at all true, and he proposes specific methods that Galileo used. His conclusions are by no means purely negative. Latour does not engage with Feyerabend’s actual views and arguments but with an empty cliché far removed from his actual texts.

The criticism of Feyerabend as an amusing Dadaist is a case in point. It is no acute remark of Latour’s, but is a crucial point advanced by Feyerabend himself. He describes himself as closer to the Dadaists. This is part of Feyerabend’s critique of political anarchism as being scientistic, dogmatic, indifferent to concrete human lives, based on resentment, and it is Feyerabend who accuses anarchism of dogmatic flattening. He declares that the problem with naive anarchism is that it leaves the hegemonic reality in place (including the  subject-object bifurcation) and so is part of the same problem rather than the solution. Latour is merely parasiting Feyerabend’s own ideas here, relabeling them, and turning them against a fictitious Feyerabend who never existed.

Does Feyerabend leave all forms of knowledge undifferentiated from each other? No, this is Latour’s problem in his actor-network phase, which many have recognised to be one of the most reductionist ontologies of science, and Latour says as much in his new book. He says that the actor-network analysis always reduced everything to the same sort of explanation in terms of networks, and needs to be supplemented and pluralised by his new theory of modes of existence. Feyerabend too fell into that sort of undifferentiated theorising in the early 60s, expounding a sort of radicalised Popperian universal pluralist methodology covering art, science, religion, myth etc. But he broke with that at the end of the 60s, thanks to his Machian and Wittgensteinian inheritance.

Feyerabend spent much time analysing the typological distinctions between different sorts of cosmologies. He distinguished between cosmology A type traditions (e.g. Homer and Mach) and cosmology B type (Xenophanes and Popper). In CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE he distinguishes between Homeric, Judaic, and Rationalist traditions and inside science itself Einsteinian and Bohrian traditions. His typology is different from Latour’s but he is emphatic that we do need a typology. Latour does not differentiate inside science, as he assigns it all to the one mode, that of reference. But reference for Feyerabend is too abstract and globalising a category, and he considers it a retrospective product of science in the making. Latour talks about studying science in the making, but this notion of reference does not distinguish between intraparadigmatic science where reference makes sense, and inter-paradigmatic science where reference is constructed post hoc.

Curiously, Deleuze and Guattari, who elaborate their own typology of modes of existence in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, share with Latour this characterisation of science as reducible to the mode of reference. In this they seem to gloss over the difference that they made in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS between royal science and nomad science. The later forgetting of this distinction and the sharp demarcation that they make between science and philosophy, on the basis of the criterion of belonging to the mode of existence of reference, is excessive. If reference is constituted post hoc then it cannot serve to identify science in the making (i.e. pro hoc) but only science made.

On this point it is Latour who makes a better move in an article in French on Pasteur ( He refers to the actors in the history of fermentation (Pasteur, yeasts, lactic acid etc.) as “conceptual personas”. He is clearly making use of the Deleuzoguattarianian concept without respecting the demarcation that they set up between philosophy and science. Curiously this reference is omitted in the English translation, thus rendering it once again more difficult to locate the Deleuzian influences on Latour’s ideas.

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6 Responses to LATOUR, FEYERABEND, DELEUZE: correcting a revisionist history of Continental Philosophy

  1. llull says:

    thoughy it was a banality = typo
    Fascinating discussion – I am new to your blog, and look forward to reading more.


  2. Jake Riley says:

    Here’s a great response from Bernard Stiegler in an interview with Marcel O’Gorman concerning his ambivalence toward Latour. While this may be a different problem with Latour (the side-stepping of phenomenology and psychoanalysis), I think that the idea of “philosophical denial” resonates with your post. Apologies if you’ve already pointed to this interview on the blog before. .I know you have pointed me toward Stiegler’s lectures (and translated at least one of them) several times.

    “Yes, that’s a good question. In fact, I don’t do anything with Latour [laughs]. I know him a little. I don’t know his work very well, in truth. It interests me more and more. Right now I have a stylistic difficulty with Latour. If you will, for me, Latour—who I think is a very interesting person—is in a bad relation with philosophy. Latour is a high-ranking philosophy professor [agrégé de philosophie], a philosopher, but he is in a state of philosophical denial [une dénégation philosophique]. For example, he will not put up with phenomenology, he will not bear transcendental questions, etcetera. He asserts an empiricism, an associationism, which is certainly something very efficient and very fruitful. But at the same time, I always have the [End Page 463] impression, because of this denial, that there is a certain blindness, a certain naïveté even, in Latour’s reasoning process, a certain cynicism.

    There you have it. I am wary when I come across someone who in one stroke is naïve and in the next, cynical. I never find him to be truly convincing. At the same time, he interests me more and more. I find that he is extremely intelligent and he often raises pertinent questions, but, moreover, he is interested in objects and things and this interests me. Honestly, I’ve always opposed the “thing” to the “verb,” because when I speak of technology, I speak of a verb that is already a thing. And so I think that the thing, the banal “thingness” of the thing, is something extremely important that philosophy has a tendency to reject. I therefore regret that in Derrida’s work, the critique of logocentrism does not lead in the end to a reconsideration of things. Here, Latour is very interesting; at the same time, I am not entirely convinced by Latour, in spite of everything I have said, because for me the question of the thing passes through Winnicot, through psychoanalysis, through das Ding, and through Freud. And I think that Latour, just as he is allergic to phenomenology, is also allergic to psychoanalysis.


  3. terenceblake says:

    Yes, I too have mixed feelings about Latour. Thanks for contributing the quote here. I discuss it elsewhere ( but it is relevant here too. I am not so enthusiastic as you about psychoanalysis, for Deleuzian reasons, but Stiegler manages to do some interesting things with Freud, Winnicot, and Bowlby. I think “object” is a term that if unanalysed paralyses thought rather than liberating it.


  4. Pingback: Moving around “Radicalising Non-Philosophy” 2 | Into the Line

  5. Pingback: Moving around “Radicalising Non-Philosophy” 2 | mouth of the thread

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