There is a common misunderstanding of my theoretical interventions that is based on a misapprehension of the context of my remarks. Many people perceive me as expressing a sort of personal obsession in my writing, for example in my critical analysis of Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project, rather than seeing that is strongly philosophically motivated.
Evidently, Latour is free to write about who and what he likes, and no doubt sees many thinkers in a different light than I do. I have no objection to that. A problem arises when one begins to see a pattern at work, where Latour consistently leapfrogs over the thinkers of the immediate past (Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault) to valorise the contributions of Souriau and James. The problem is not with his reliance on these thinkers: Souriau, Tarde, James and Whitehead are all quite valuable. My objection is that this practice participates in the more general movement of the re-writing of philosophical history that is promulgated by those influenced by the new schools of realists. The preceding generation of Continental philosophers are being declared inadequate for reasons that take them to say the very opposite of their main ideas.
The immediate argumentative context for my remarks in the last post is established in Kidd’s article, where he describes the various reductive stereotypes that hinder proper understanding and reception of Feyerabend’s work. I cite Bruno Latour in this context as providing a good example of the perpetuation of such stereotypes. However, my argument does not stop there as Latour’s “pluralism” should enable him to understand, illuminate, and engage with other pluralists. This is one of the basic ideas of pluralism: comparison, mutual criticism, and exchange are necessary not only for intellectual progress but also to give content to our ideas, which risk degenerating into empty dogmas if they are not continually enriched and tested.
This further argument is part of my ongoing cartography of pluralism, which has been the principle research project of my blog for five years now. A monistic pluralism, one that refuses constructive dialogue with other pluralists, and that insists falsely on its own uniqueness, is a failed or faulty pluralism.
True, I “like” Feyerabend, so my defence of his philosophical priority over Latour’s claims can be seen reductively, as mere personal score-keeping. But I also defend the pluralism of Alain Badiou, whose ideas I have up to now found much less satisfying, because there are important resemblances between his project and Latour’s. Their projects can enrich each other, while helping to correct each other’s defects.
For example, I use Latour to expand Badiou’s set of truth procedures. Badiou maintains that there are only four, where Latour develops fifteen modes of veridiction. And I use Badiou to get at the very confused notion and role of religion in Latour’s system. Latour uses religion as a mode of existence, whereas Badiou denies it this role, at least in the modern world. It is interesting and fruitful to compare their arguments.
Further, there is a movement of reaction that is premised on the rewriting of philosophical history. This can be seen in the conceptually and factually inadequate histories purveyed by object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and the new realism. Latour’s narrative of the hegemony of bifurcationism participates in this general movement, and leads to the depreciation of those of his immediate predecessors who already articulated a thought that is outside bifurcationism.
Since his bad start where he was labeled as an irrationalist and a relativist during the Science Wars, Latour has consistently put the emphasis on constructing a pluralism that is consensual rather than challenging. Feyerabend’s style, on the other hand, is in general much more provocative.
There are many “patterns” at work here, far beyond mere personal loyalty and animosity. In my writing on these subjects I have done much to defend Latour from the charges of irrationalism and relativism (for example here), but that does not oblige me to close my eyes to the defects of his thought.
Beyond the particular example of Feyerabend, we can also examine Latour’s intellectual relation to Lyotard’s philosophy. Lyotard’s work is part of the general semiotic turn that affected many French philosophers in thesecond half of the Twentieth Century. When I first read Latour’s WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN in 1997, I found it to be not very interesting, nothing more than a reformulation of Lyotard’s ideas, despite its explicit criticism of Lyotard, which was purely verbal in my eyes.
More importantly, Latour’s AIME with its plurality of enunciative modes is directly determined by Lyotard’s LE DIFFEREND, but you would never guess it from Latour’s own pronouncements. Latour seeks to construct a vocabulary free of the limiting connotations of earlier vocabularies, but this has the unfortunate result that it masks many of his intellectual debts. I am always disappointed not only by Latour’s lack of acknowledgement of his precursors, but by his active depreciation of pluralists like Lyotard and Feyerabend, as I feel that an occasion for intellectual dialogue has been lost.
I mention Lyotard and Feyerabend in relation to Latour, because they are very relevant to his modes of existence project, which should have given him the means to break free of the stereotypes and to understand them better. This sort of misunderstanding constitutes a wider pattern that encompasses more than just Latour. This pattern is that of “monistic pluralism”, of a pluralist refusing, or unable, to see the contributions to pluralism made by his potential rivals. Feyerabend is guilty of this too. This is a failing that can be found everywhere in the intellectual world. It is however crueler and more frustrating to see this pattern at work in pluralist thinkers, as pluralism in its very conception is aimed at free exchange, and at eliminating such barriers to dialogue.