Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Latour presents a new philosophical epistemology and ontology consistent with a realist position

Latour: Hybrids from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

Over the next few weeks I will, as time permits, be writing a commentary on Bruno Latour’s wonderful We Have Never Been Modern. In part, this is in preparation for the final release of Graham Harman’s long awaited Prince of Networks. If Graham’s study of Latour is so unique and exciting, then this is because he approaches Latour not as a sociologist, but as a philosopher.

In form of reading not unlike Deleuze’s approach to Foucault or to great artists, novelists, and cinema, Harman reveals a highly original– and relevant –philosopher in his own right. Thus, extending the comparison of Graham’s Prince of Networks to Deleuze’s Foucault, Deleuze in his great Foucault book, approaches Foucault’s thought not as a series of historical or sociological analyses of various things such as madness, discipline, the human sciences, etc., but rather as the work of a great philosopher proposing a very new and highly original account of the nature of knowledge.

While Deleuze certainly touches on all of Foucault’s great archeological and genealogical studies, it is this question of the nature of knowledge that is at the heart of his book. Likewise, while Graham certainly delves into Latour’s various sociological investigations, his approach to Latour is so unique insofar as he reads Latour primarily as a philosopher proposing a new ontology. In part, I am also writing on Latour as I will be teaching We Have Never Been Modern for the first time and this will help me to prepare for that course.

However, finally, I am undertaking this close reading of We Have Never Been Modern because, with Graham, I think Latour presents a new philosophical epistemology and ontology consistent with a realist position, but which also allows us to retain the best of a critical tradition arising from sociology and Continental linguistic philosophy from the last century.

Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries
from Grundlegung by Tom

Over at Larval Subjects, Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a fractious debate regarding realism which has gone on for some time. This is in the wake of ’speculative realism’ coming to increased prominence, under the influence of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. This realism has been contrasted with a correlationist position, which is taken to infect much contemporary philosophy.

Meillassoux introduced the term ‘correlationism’ to describe a non-realist position which claims that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (AF: 5) As Meillassoux also puts it, the correlationist denies that it is possible to ‘consider’ the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Of course, this could mean any number of things. Whether correlationism proves to be a useful philosophical category depends upon how this claim is spelled out.

Kant is supposed to be the paradigm correlationist. This is because Kant was meant to disallow us knowledge of any object subsisting ‘in itself’. Instead, knowledge was to be restricted to objects as they are ‘for us’. Thus, Kant is said to have eroded the pre-critical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, since even central candidates for the status of primary qualities (such as its mathematisable ones) must be “conceived as dependent upon the subject’s relation to the given — as a form of representation.” (AF: 4)

Does Kant’s position get fairly characterised by the new realists? A lot of acrimony has resulted from the attempt to answer this question in discussions between Levi, Alexei and Mikhail. Both sides are now pretty entrenched, and that is when they are on speaking terms. I don’t want to reignite these ‘Kant wars’ but I will offer some comments on this issue in the next few posts.

Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument
from Grundlegung by Tom

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.

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