Under the Relativist Pavings the Pluralist Beach

Does pluralism leave all forms of knowledge undifferentiated from each other? Not at all, this is rather the problem of naive forms of relativism. In the terminology that I have been using, taken from Feyerabend’s later writings, we must distinguish a relativism of worldviews (or of networks) that treats them all as of equal validity, and a pluralism of modes of existence underlying different world views, and confirming some while infirming others. The crucial difference, according to both Feyerabend and Latour, is that relativism is still moving in the theoreticist realm of structuralism, whereas pluralism has drawn the consequences of a more pragmatic vision where “worldviews” are macroscopic stabilisations of more fluid and transversal exchanges underlying them.

This spectre of relativism 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 himself in his new book. He says that the actor-network analysis always reduced everything to the same sort of explanation in terms of networks, where every event needs to be understood in terms of the actual networks that constitute its domain of occurence. This account needs to be supplemented and pluralised by a recognition of the different types of networks, whatever the domain they may be embedded in or traverse. This typological multiplicity is what Latour tries to describe in his new theory of a plurality 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. He admits himself that this came close to a sort of structuralist pluralism that could only hinder the individual scientist in the process of scientific research. However, Feyerabend managed to break with that structuralist temptation at the end of the 60s, thanks to his Machian and Wittgensteinian inheritance. One key insight that he retained from them is that principles and structures are not stable frames governing the correct worldview, fixed for all time, but metastable heuristic guides to the interpretation of any particular state of science as a temporary resting place, and to the various ways of de-stabilising such states and moving on to something else.

Feyerabend and Latour (and they have this in common with both Wittgenstein and Deleuze) emphasise the folly of concentrating obsessively on abstract examples, that have been simplified for the sake of turning the discussion into a an agonistic forum where cheap debaters’ tricks are used to silence the defenders of adverse positions. I have seen some pretty ridiculous examples of this procedure, the rhetorical question-to-trounce-a -pluralist: What would you say to a Mormon on your porch? To someone who wanted to cure epilepsy by exorcism?

These are irrelevant questions because they set up an abstract pluralism that noone in the discussion defends, and confront it with an equally abstract refuting instance. Bruno Latour would have lots to say to a Mormon on his porch, and he wrote a whole book REJOICING that contains some of what he could say. And why talk of “a” Mormon, in the abstract? The question is too vague. If the Mormon in question was Adam S. Miller or one of a large number of quite sophisticated faithful, the anti-pluralist question may well find himself flummoxed, as Simon Critchley did. One of the things that they could say to each other or discover together is suggested in this anecdote by Kris Forkasiewicz:

“a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the street asked me what turned out to be a trick question: “Can the dead come back to life?” At first I was taken aback, then thought it funny how the whole tied in with the recent zombie fad. But its deeper meaning eluded both the Witnesses and myself at the time: It is we who are the dead, the living dead, going through the motions, having our days reduced to an enactment of a script for a bad movie (a zombie flick, if you will)”.

Latour to my knowledge does not talk about epilepsy, but he does talk about emotions. This is something we all have, unless we have been reduced to the state of zombies by our speculative objectivism. This will be the topic of the next post.

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