It is difficult to describe Irreductions as anything other than a metaphysical treatise. What Latour presents here is an entire ontology that heroically affirms that nothing can be reduced to anything else, nor that anything is irreducible to anything else. Rather, the universe becomes populated by trials of strength where actors, human and inhuman, vie with one another, striving to enlist allies to advance their own aims. Written in a style that simultaneously recalls Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Leibniz’s Monadology, and Epictetus and Epicurus, it unfolds as a series of gnomic propositions ambiguous in their sense, but also ripe with all sorts of realist implications.
As Graham observes in his marvelous Prince of Networks, Latour claims that this short treatise is a sort of master-key or ground of all his subsequent thought. It is also a work that resonates deeply with Whitehead, Stengers, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari. I have had others tell me that they find “no there there” with Latour and actor-network theory– no doubt grumbling about the descriptivism of actor-network studies –but I simply don’t see how understanding of objects and the social cannot come away transformed after reading these works. I suppose I am doing my part here for Latour’s trial of strength, trying to enlist others to read these amazing works so that I might have someone else to discuss them with.
Owen’s valuable book offers a sustained, clear, crisply argued reconstruction of Nietzsche’s central arguments in On the Genealogy of Morality as well as some thoughtful explanatory ideas on Nietzsche’s incendiary style in this text, situating both in the context of the development of his thought on morality following his break with his early ethics of heroic love and self-sacrifice (inspired partly by Schopenhauer and Wagner) in Human, All-Too-Human.
In Owen’s account of this development, Nietzsche’s point of departure since Daybreak is the “death of God”, the loss of belief in the Christian God among the cultured classes dramatized as the urbane atheism of the people in the marketplace in §125 of The Gay Science. The people in the marketplace consider the loss of authority of the metaphysical beliefs associated with Christianity to be a process that need have no implications for their practical orientation in life, an orientation that remains structured by a certain conception of morality continuous with “Christian” morality.
For Nietzsche, by contrast, morality thus understood is rationally dependent on the truth of those now widely abandoned metaphysical beliefs: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (TI, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man”, §5). Nietzsche’s task, as he conceives of it from The Gay Science onwards, is therefore threefold:
- he needs to provide a broadly naturalistic explanation of the hold that “morality” continues to have — irrationally, by his lights — even on unbelievers;
- he needs to come up with an adequate evaluative framework permitting him to determine the “value of morality” as a self-standing practice deprived of its metaphysical trappings; and
- he needs to tell us something about the criteria for assessing evaluative commitments.
The last requirement is particularly challenging for him as he is committed to “perspectivism”, a view which Owen interprets as the epistemological claim that justification is necessarily relative to practical perspectives constituted by specific, contingent interests and purposes — and that the idea of a practical justification valid for all rational beings merely qua rational beings is incoherent.