LATOUR’S THIRD TABLE: the multiple world of common sense

Bruno Latour writes about the “popularizer…dumbfounded by the multiplicity of quantum worlds” (AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, 119) believing that the common sense world has the simplicity of Euclidean space filled with familiar solid objects. If we accept this opposition between quantum physics and common sense, we are faced with Eddington’s “two tables”, and with the impression of the complexity and strangeness of the scientific table compared to the simplicity and familiarity of the common sense table. A strange sense of “incommensurability” and of conflict sets in. We live in the familiar world where everything seems simple, though the actual simplicities vary from culture to culture, and also we believe in one unique, though complex, scientific framework and have adapted much of our behaviour (and increasingly the behaviour of people belonging to other traditions) to its products and precepts.

Latour’s resolution of this conflict is not to invent some ghostly withdrawing third table that would be the only real one, and relegate the two other tables to the status of “utter shams”. He does not allow himself the facility of such a traditional metaphysical move, which costs nothing to advance, a labour-saving philosophy for the intellectually indigent. No, he claims that the “popularizer” of quantum complexity believed in the simplicity of our common-sense world because “it cost him nothing to believe that the microphone into which he was speaking,  the rostrum from which he was pontificating, his own body, his genes, the walls of the room, the assembly that he was carrying along in his frenzy, all that too was bathed in a Euclidean space”. It costs him nothing to believe this simple fable because he does not do the work necessary to explore the contours of the common sense world, to investigate its multiple dimensions.

All the “popularizer” has to do, remarks Latour, is to begin a little seriously to “take the measure of  what he was saying…to take  a woodworker’s tape measure, a square, a piece of paper and a pencil out of his pocket…to draw the piece of furniture in perspective or as a projection…[to get hold of a colour chart] to choose the tint and put together another set of samples so he could decide on the quality of the wood” (119). The “popularizer”, and we are all now to some extent scientistic popularizers or credulous victims thereof, will soon begin to realise the multitude of dimensions that are necessary for the description of even such a simple object as a table. Latour “hopes, for him, that, after interrupting his talk for several minutes to take some measures, he will have modified his conclusion and admitted that the quantum world is childs’ play in comparison with the multiplicity and complexity of the dimensions that are simultaneously accessible to the most minimal experience of common sense” (119-120). This world, the world of commonsense is unknown to us. The “familiar” world is unfamiliar to our thought and to our descriptions.

The message of Latour, and here I agree with him, is that we are practicing different kinds of truths all the time.It’s not just a binary opposition between “science” and “common sense”. Latour not only begins by provoking the same sort of dilemma as Eddington’s, but also gives us the means to resolve it. Feeling taken up in such a dilemma is often caused by a preliminary perception of pluralities straining at their dualistic cognitive containers.

On the question of the increasing scientism of our society and the supposed eventual disappearance of the world of common sense, I think we may be less scientistic in our daily life than it is usually claimed. Latour maintains that the common sense world is “infinitely less explored” than the quantum world, but at least as complicated. It is true that science and rationalism have been imposed via colonisation and exploitation on other cultures, but it is also the case that their presence in our own culture is not, as advertised, total, but only, as Andrew Pickering says, “hegemonic”: i.e. not even a numerical or statistical majority but majoritarian in Deleuze’s sense of a yardstick for measuring the validity of other minorities. Science and rationalism count themselves twice, both as part of the practices and as their norm or ideal standard, and it is only in this way, by stacking the numbers, that they can seem to be the majority situation in our society.

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