Latour and Meillassoux: What Latour Told Me

Okay, so I have falsely advertised: I can’t actually say what Bruno Latour said in his e-mail to me, because he asked that it stay private.  I am incredibly grateful for his response, and I respect his request and his reasons for the request; so I will comply.  However, I assume the meta-information, such as what my initial email asked, is okay to discuss, as are those things that I thought before the email.  I will say —again, this is meta-information— that what he said surprised and even shocked me, so let me get right to what I asked him. 

My email to Latour was exactly as follows:

Dear Dr. Latour,

I write to you with the hope that you might be able to clarify a point of concern and interest for me and a few of my colleagues.  You have explicitly stated that you entirely disagree with Quentin Meillassoux’s solutions proposed in After Finitude, which is in print on the back cover of that very book.  What I (and a few others) cannot figure out is why.  I don’t know that you have given any explicit lines of reasoning for this rejection, and, as best as I can tell, Meillassoux’s proposals are largely in line with quite a bit of your own thought.  May I bother you for a word or two about what your disagreement is?

Sincerely,

David Milliern

The similarities in the work of Meillassoux had been brought to my attention by friend, philosopher, and mentor, Dr. Steven Gans.  Being that I am so sympathetic to Kant’s project, Gans challenged me to get outside of my Kantian way of thinking, just to see what the possibilities were with Meillassoux’s anti-Kantianism (anti-correlationism). Having had little background in late twentieth century philosophy, I was intrigued, and saw it as a way to “get up” on my contemporary philosophy.  What I found was that I agree with Gans’ assessment of how Meillassoux’s philosophy seems to correspond and overlap with Latour’s in many ways.  In fact, I have gone so far as to explore and draw lines between the frameworks in a way that suggests that Meillassoux’s philosophy isn’t too far off from being able to serve as a foundation for Latour.  In saying this, it should be noted that Latour is a voluminous scholar, and I have hardly tasted his corpus; but, as of right now, this is my assessment, that Meillassoux and Latour fit together reasonably well.  One thing can be said, I think, for sure —and I would eat my shoe if I find this not to be the case, after further study— Latour is not a correlationist, to echo a wise man.

Some of the basic relationships I have seen in their work is, first and foremost, the fact that Meillassoux wants to bring back the notion of secondary qualities (and primary qualities), which takes one’s mind to Latour’s “empirical.”  Latour’s “empirical” stands in strict contradistinction to “empiricist,” where the former means, very simply, “of or relating to the senses”; the latter refers to the general method of scientific enterprise.  Both philosophies rest on the phenomenological, which, in an era when many philosophers have an eye toward realism, fundamentalism, or some unity of science project, is not quite the norm.  I especially mean this in the sense of the way that they privilege the senses.  There are quite a few of these approaches that correspond to one another, between the two thinkers’ works.  To move over a second very quickly, they both seem to have a Heidegger in mind in all cases; and this is a topic that I am looking into at the moment.

Part of what surprised me in Latour’s response was what he didn’t pinpoint as an issue.  (I presume I can talk about what he didn’t say in the email.)  I thought Latour would say that Meillassoux disagrees with his ANT (Actor-Network Theory), or that he didn’t see how ANT could fit into Meillassoux’s framework.  I know next to nothing about this part of Latour’s work, as I have studied works like Science in Action and Laboratory Life, and a few similar papers; but I had imagined that the relation-relata stance, or anything like it, which I presume is involved with ANT, would be problematic in fitting it into a system that consciously rids itself of signifier-signified, subject-object, and couplings of the like.  Perhaps, I simply have some false impressions about ANT?  Anyway, this all provides a starting place for a deeper exploration of Latour’s work, and how it might relate to Meillassoux.  In the immediate future, I am writing a chapter, in a larger project (one devoted to Meillassoux and science/philosophy of science), that is to feature preliminaries in associating these two thinkers with one another by way of how they stand in relation to science.

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4 responses to “Latour and Meillassoux: What Latour Told Me

  1. Interesting post… Actually the philosopher behind Meillassoux is his mentor Alain Badiou, and it is the return to Plato and the mathematization of reality that is the key. Bruno Latour is connected in this through his epigone, Graham Harman. Back in 2007 four philosophers came together at the instigation of Ray Brassier: Iain Hamilton Grant(Idealism), Harman(Object-Oriented Philosophy), Meillassoux(New Materialism), and Brassier(Transcendental Realism) to form the Speculative Realism conference. SR is a heated concept and most of the original members of this group have since parted ways. For Meillassoux considers himself a in the anti-empiricist or more specific anti-Humean traditions. His neo-materialism is shown in his recent Berlin Lecture. I have a link and a little break down on my site:

    http://darkecologies.com/2012/10/07/meillassoux-and-neo-materialism/

    Anyway, great thoughts, thanks for post…

    • Hi noir-realism,

      Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with Goldsmith workshop and the big players associated with it; and that Badiou was Meillassoux’s thesis advisor. I haven’t read Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, but I have been going through Harman’s blog and some of his articles, and (obviously) Meillassoux’s stuff. I am pretty sure Hamilton hasn’t written a book, so I am least familiar with his contribution to the speculative turn, which is a shame, because, among other things, I have a peripheral interest in the apparent relationship the movement has brands of idealism.

      I feel like there is a great deal that is not being said in the speculative turn, though I haven’t been able to decide for sure how it draws Latour into the speculative movement; but I have the impression Latour’s work somehow fits, despite the glaring resistance of the tenets of his project and, say, Meillassoux’s. I am reading The Speculative Turn (edited by Bryant, Srnicek, and Harman) and a book that Latour wrote an interesting review of, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A History in Cognitive History by Reviel Netz —the hope being that maybe I can better figure out and evaluate what it is that I am beginning to see in the philosophical frameworks that looks so similar. Latour’s email was helpful on this point, so I am going to see where it goes. A friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Steven Gans, believes there may be deeper connections, but has not published his thoughts on the matter; which is to say, if I am seeing specters, I am not the only one. I am sure Latour would say that the key is, as you note, the mathematization, but I wonder whether there isn’t a way to get around this —I am just not clear on Latour’s thoughts are on mathematics, and whether he maintains, as he does of scientific theories, that they are ontological “flying saucers” when not in action. Any suggestion on this point (blog, article, book, etc.) would be helpful. History seems like it is going to be a much bigger issue, but I say that with a rather limited perspective regarding what is going on, at this point.

      I just got the transcript to the Berlin lecture, so I will probably get around to reading your breakdown and the transcript in the next day or two, so thanks.

      –David

  2. Actually Iain Hamilton Grant has two excellent works out, one on Schelling and the other with Dunham and Watson on the History of Idealism both worth the time and effort:

    http://www.amazon.com/Philosophies-Nature-after-Schelling-Transversals/dp/1847064329

    http://www.amazon.com/Idealism-Philosophical-Introduction-Hamilton-Jeremy/dp/1844652408

    Ah, yes, looks like your doing a little catch up then. No problem, there is a lot of activity in the blogging scene to keep up with, not to mention all the great works being published these days. Anyway good luck… I’ll drop by more often…

    • Ah, great. I hadn’t realized that both of those works pertained to the speculative turn. For some reason, I was under the impression they were published a while back. Yeah, I am playing a bit of catch up. I was challenged (which was welcome) to hold in abeyance my love for Kant to see what other kind of world we might be living. (I have a couple posts on Kant, and much of my study in philosophy has been centered on that…and my training is in the sciences, originally, so there is quite a bit of catching up, all around.) Mostly, Meillassoux is the philosopher I have acquainted myself with, in this debate. That includes Harman’s “Philosophy in the Making.” Aside from that, I am also more familiar with Badiou’s and Zizek’s works than Harman and Brassier.

      Thanks a bunch.

      –David

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