Might and Right: Against Latour (part 2)


In the previous post, I outlined some of the background to Latour’s denial that there is a distinction in kind between force and reason. In this post, I shall say why I think he is wrong to do so. A good place to begin is Latour’s explicit comments on reason and logic. He says:

A force establishes a pathway by making other forces passive. It can then move to places that do not belong to it and treat them as if they were its own. I am willing to talk about ‘logic,’ but only if it seen as a branch of public works or civil engineering. (PF 171)

What a daring and suggestive analogy! This is the sort of stuff that makes Latour a great read. Later, he continues this thought: “We cannot distinguish between those moments when we have might and those when we are right.” (PF 183)

One obvious worry here is that no accommodation is made for distinction between persuasion by means of inveigling, deceptiveness and threat, and by means of argument and sincere discussion which tries to make itself answerable to the facts and the well-being of the participants. Perhaps academics, politicians and scientists do not operate without the consuming cynicism of the advertiser or the predatoriness of the bully; but must this be the case — could there be no principled distinction between brainwashing and being convinced in light of evidence?

In the excellent discussions of Latour in Prince of Networks, Graham Harman defends him from this line of attack by reminding us that the relevant forces extend beyond the human to nonhuman actants:

A charlatan might convince a roomful of dupes that they can walk on hot coals without being harmed, but the coals remain unconvinced–leading the charlatan into lawsuits or beatings from his angry mob of victims.

This move tries to defuse the charge of having a crude cod-Machiavellian conception of the ubiquity of power in human affairs by extending the analysis to both the human, the nonhuman and hybrid networks inclusive of each. However we manage to convince humans, we need to ‘convince’ nonhuman objects too in order to be effective. There is no slide into relativism insofar as weak theories will collapse under the pressure of their inability to command actants. Or rather, we can hold onto them, but only at a cost:

We can say anything we please, and yet we cannot. As soon as we have spoken and rallied words, other alliances become easier or more difficult. (PF 182)

Is then rationality only one type of efficacy amongst others, fighting it out on a flat battlefield?


Latour implies that rationality must either take the form of some spectral a priori process, entity or interaction, or fall under the thrall of networked objects. For example, he says:

There has never been such a thing as deduction. One sentence follows another, and then a third affirms that the second was already implicitly or potentially already in the first. Those who talk of synthetic a priori judgments deride the faithful who bathe at Lourdes. However, it is no less bizarre to claim that a conclusion lies in its premises than to believe that there is holiness in the water. (PF 176)

If we want anything like a deduction, we are supposed to earn it: we must subsidise the labour of translation which allows us to glide seamlessly from antecedent to consequent, from P to Q. Behind any such translation will be a massive apparatus of networked actants which we ‘black box’ in practice (treating them as uncontroversial) but which must ultimately be accounted for. One of Latour’s concerns with approaches which make rationality stand apart from force seems to be that they ignore the process of the genesis and reproduction of rationality and rational behaviour.

I think that something goes awry here. In short, Latour has reified the rational in an attempt to save it from platonism. But the normative dimension of rational action does not primarily consist of any kind of object. We will not find it by looking to heaven with the platonist nor to earth with Latour. Nevertheless, Latour’s approach is right insofar as it treats rationality as unintelligible apart from an understanding of how something is treated or mobilised as a reason, where this requires us to grasp features of our form of life and their inextricable embeddedness amongst nonhuman objects. But this does not mean that we should only talk about such mobilisations. The pressure to do so appears to stem from a sceptical bent: what else could we be talking about if it is neither objects in action nor mysterious rational Forms? Again, Latour is right to adhere to a flat ontology; there can be nothing above the one plane of the natural world crowded with interacting objects. But the vocabulary of rationality, as with normativity in general, can be deployed from a distinct standpoint within and upon this self-same reality.


We undertake normative talk from a practical perspective, which inflects the theoretical mode of explanation in important ways. Normative vocabularies do not seek to describe the efficacious dimension of objects alone but rather throw another kind of light upon them which illuminates their place in the space of reasons. This neither takes normatively inert events and projects human interests upon them nor domesticates normative phenomena by reconstructing them in terms of their power to exert leverage on humans and nonhumans alike. Rather, it exploits anthropocentric modes of responding to the world — informed by our history, preoccupations, social organisation, physiology, art, environment, language, and technology, inclusive of all the hybridity that involves — in order to reveal distinctive aspects of certain situations which are not themselves directly parasitic on elements of our points of view. For example, decrying an action as cruel may only make sense within certain forms of life, but that does not mean that cruelty is a second-rate property or a cruel action is so only in light of us taking to be so. Some degree of epistemological anthropocentrism does not preclude genuine objectivity.

We ought to act in certain ways in virtue of how the world stands, but without supposing our characterisation of the world must only encompass those features identifiable from within an explanatory matrix focused exclusively upon ”wide cosmological role’ (i.e. those things which have effects upon things other than human attitudes). Seeing a badly injured friend, deciding whether to go to a protest, or it striking us that we have failed to balance an equation, can authoritatively demand things of us that overspill how we actually respond in these situations. Here we can use normative concepts, absent from the natural scientist’s official toolkit, to capture what is going on — being obliged to help, having reasons to go, being inaccurate in our calculations, and so on. But there should be no pressure to evacuate incipient normativity here from either our characterisation of the original situation (e.g. ‘injured’, ‘failed’) or its implications (e.g. ‘obligation’, ‘having a reason’). The absolute standpoint of the scientist, engineer or anthropologist, which sees only objects in action and their epiphenomena, although essential, has no claim to exhaust any legitimate account of reality.

Latour suspects hocus-pocus when we say that the premises are present in the conclusion. But this will only be the case on a crude reading of this claim which is shored up by the prejudice that if something cannot be slotted alongside all the other properties of objects in the same respect then it must be bogus or in need of reclamation in more causally respectable terms. Yes, rational agents will have to perform the translation from premises to conclusion themselves. Logical practice must be undertaken by someone (or something) somewhere, and such behaviour can be described. But to suppose that the only legitimate framework for such description is one of battling actants is false and will lead to a distorted picture of reasoning and its significance. No good basis for a revisionary account can be found. There is nothing spectral about the force of the better reason, what we ought to do, what virtue demands: distinctions of this kind pervade our language. All we need is the philosophically won confidence to take our own practices seriously.


Might and Right: Against Latour (part 1)


The founding gesture of Latour’s philosophical thought is his suspension of any distinction in kind between might and right. One of the things that he claims puzzled him were objections to science studies which claimed that its social explanations would always miss an important dimension of science. On the first page of Irreductions, Latour takes this objection to rest on a fateful assumption:

This is the assumption that force is different in kind to reason; right can never be reduced to might. All theories of knowledge are based on this postulate. So long as it is maintained, all social studies of science are thought to be reductionist and are held to ignore the most important features of science. (PF 153)

But Latour seeks to suspend this assumption:

Although, like the postulates about parrallel lines in Euclidean geometry, it seemed absurd to deny this position, I decided to seee how knoweldge and power would look if no distinction were made between force and reason. Would the sky fall on our heads? Would we find ourselves unable to do justice to science? Would we be condoning immorality? Or would we be led towards an irreductionist picture of science and society. (PF 153-4)

For the most part, I have no objections to the methodology of science studies as pursued by Latour, Shapin and Schaffer, even when it comes to the idea that they have overlooked some rational kernel to science that overspills careful description of scientists and the social instutions which undergird their work. But I think Latour is wrong to abandon the idea that there is no distinction in kind between force and reason. These posts will explain why, beginning with this one detailing the background to Latour’s claims.

The larger frame within which Latour advances these claims about force and reason is his rejection of the category of modernity. In this way he opposes himself to moderns, antimoderns and postmoderns. Moderns celebrate modernity; antimoderns take it to be catastrophic; and postmoderns see it as a catastrophe that nevertheless ought to be celebrated. But Latour rejects all these stances: he is a nonmodern. In his view, modernity has not even taken place — ‘We Have Never Been Modern,’ as his book announces. But what does he mean by this?


Firstly, Latour’s rejection of the category of modernity marks his scepticism about the idea that the rise of science, technology and liberal institutions in the West has had effects of an epoch-making significance upon either social organisation or the processes of the natural world. For Latour, these effects are overplayed and neither go unparalleled in human history nor constitute a radical break with what came previously. The modern period has not witnessed humanity’s despotic domination of nature and there has been no hollowing out of the human spirit wherein it has been supplanted by rationalised agents and social relations. At most, what has taken place is a “network-lengthening process”:

To take the precise measure of our differences without reducing them as relativism used to do, and without exaggerating them as modernisers tend to do, let us say that the moderns have simply invented longer networks by enlisting a certain type of nonhumans. (WHNBM 117)

So, Latour thinks that we have not wrenched ourselves free from nature, as modernist rhetoric can seem to imply. Rather, humans have always deployed and been deployed by nonhumans, and there has simply been a widening of these human-nonhuman networks.

This brings us to the second important aspect of Latour’s take on the very idea of modernity. In the self-conception of moderns, the human and nonhuman must be treated as “two entirely distinct ontological zones.” (WHNBM 10) Yet, as we have just said, Latour thinks the modern period sees an extension of ‘hybrids’ or ‘quasi-objects’ which straddle this ‘Great Divide.’


These reflections upon nature and culture are put to work in an analysis of approaches to science. For Latour, the modern ‘Great Divide’ breeds problematic asymmetrical explanations. For example, we find explanations of the production of truth in scientific endeavours as something attributed to nature. Left to its own devices science secures correspondence with nature — its revelation to us. But error in these endeavours is to be explained not by nature but culture. It is ideology, power interests, myth, and so on (so the story goes) which are to account for error. By contrast, Latour thinks we must pursue symmetrical explanations: “If you analyze Pasteur’s successes, do the same terms allow you to account for his failures?” (WHNBM 93) This entails a shift of explanatory strategy, and one which must ultimately go beyond explaining success and failure in the self-same terms (e.g. it is even insufficient to explain both in terms of social factors rather than just failure). Instead, explanation must encompass hybrids: phenomena with dual composition of human and nonhuman. In other words, the ‘Great Divide’ must be dismantled in the imaginations of the moderns, antimoderns and postmoderns alike, just as it has always had to be in much of their actual practical activity.

Latour’s rejection of a distinction in kind between force and reason is part of this larger story. For him, reason cannot be quarantined from the unified field of hybrid networks. In other words, it cannot stand in nature alone, or in culture alone, and still less outside of both (as if a benefactor of platonism). This claim has a kind of axiomatic status, much like Kant’s attempts to see where we get if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge or like nineteenth century organic chemists who began to dispense with the notion of a ‘vital force’. If the world comes crashing down around us on this hypothesis, so be it, but we may just find ourselves in strange but alluring new lands where we can settle with the new hypothesis intact. Any such venture will require some charity whilst we see whether any kinks in the new worldview can be straightened out, but I think Latour’s hypothesis is not ultimately one we should accept. In explaining why, the next post will begin by considering some of his more explicit comments on reason and logic.

Norms, Rationality and Communication


Over at his new blog Deontologistics, Pete has an interesting post called ‘Normativity and Ontology’ which (amongst other things) picks up some of the issues concerning normativity arising from recent discussions of speculative realism. He addresses these ideas from a distinctive position which combines metaphysical themes from Deleuze and Heidegger alongside contemporary pragmatist approaches to language in the vein of Brandom and Habermas. I’ll be interested to see how this project pans out.

Since my reply is a little long for a blog comment, I am going to respond to some of Pete’s claims here. On the whole, I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach, though occupying some shared ground also helps to emphasise our points of contrast more sharply too. In what follows, I’ll take each point — whether critical or appreciative — as they appear. Finally, I have avoided discussing some of the more metaphysical issues raised here, since these will, I hope, feature in an upcoming post on Latour.

(i) Firstly, one relatively minor misgiving concerns the terminology of ‘deontology.’ Pete talks about “the philosophy of normativity (or deontology),” and this suggests that they amount to the same thing. But I think we have good reason for keping these terms distinct. Deontology is often understood to address duties, which its etymology suggests, with ‘deont’ being the Greek for that which binds. Some approaches to normativity, such as the one underlying the Brandomian incompatibility semantics, take obligation and permission as its key normative concepts. (In fact, these concepts appear to be interdefinable: what is permitted is what is not obligated not to do, and what is obligated is what is not permitted not to do.) These are manifestly deontological notions: they concern what one rationally must do. But normativity is a richer vista than deontology alone, even for Kant, whose moral philosophy provides the classic analysis of deontological concepts. Normativity can extend to notions like recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value, none of which are most fruitfully thought in terms of a sphere of rightful action understood in a distinctly deontological way. In other words, the vocabulary of obligation and permission is too restrictive to capture many features of the normative domain. So, I am wary of talking of normativity and deontology as if they amounted to the same thing, especially as people like Brandom tend to elide the distinction.


(ii) I think there is something right about Pete’s idea that we cannot escape “fundamental norms of rationality” and that — in a great phrase — we must accept this as a “primary bind.” But there is scope for disagreement between us here, though I am not sure how deep it goes. I agree that there is something self-defeating about explicitly rejecting norms constitutive of discourse and argumentation whilst one is engaged in that very practice. The thought is that we meet a kind of self-contradiction here: I implicitly endorse these norms (by entering into discursive practice), but then I explicitly deny them (once engaged in discursive activity). If you have to accept the authority of rational and discursive norms to qualify as denying their authority, there is a problem. We hit a kind of transcendental wall: it is a necessary condition of the possibility of explicitly rejecting the authority of these norms that we first accept or presuppose that self-same authority. Someone who tries to do so — who says, “Rationality has no claim on me!” — would best be described as confused, and not really understanding the concepts they are using, rather than making a substantive mistake.

This all assumes that we must at least implicitly presuppose some norms in order to qualify as sapient communicators (which I agree is a plasuible claim). In other words, my communicative activity must be guided by assumptions about what counts as a legitimate speech act. It will also be a further matter describing what such norms are — whether the principle of non-contradiction, modus ponens, substantive decision procedures, and so on.


(iii) I think these issues go somewhat deeper though. So, whilst I am partial to some versions of the kind of linguistified transcendental argument outlined above, my more fundamental commitments differ from many of its advocates. One way to frame this difference is in a question: Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?

Pete gestures in an anti-realist direction on these matters, but then says something a little more ambiguous, which could be read in two ways. So, he begins with a rather Davidsonian claim:

One could potentially abandon such norms [of rationality], but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

Here, I agree. Our actual behaviour can come loose from fundamental norms of rationality, and when it does so substantially or consistently it becomes more and more difficult to frame it as the actions of an agent with a view upon the world. He continues:

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition).

I find this a little more problematic — there is more to subjectivity than processing incompatible normative commitments, at least I hope so, for all our sakes! But this is a minor point insofar as I agree that this is an integral part of the picture. Next comes the more contentious idea:

The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them.

This, with its language of ‘binding oneself’ to norms, has an anti-realist tenor to it. In the background appears to be a nominally Kantian conception of the self-legislative activity of the subject, who institutes norms through its use of concepts in forming judgements and practical maxims. Normative authority, so understood, becomes attitude-dependent: we become responsible because (and only because) we make ourselves responsible. This is an approach to normativity which I think veers into incoherence.


Problems with the self-legislative conception of normativity, where agents bind themselves to norms, arise when we ask whether the legislative process is itself subject to the authority of norms. It seems that there both must be and cannot be such norms. If there were no such norms, then the legislative process will be arbitrary: legislating in one way rather than another will be no more than caprice (and this would not seem to be enough to really put ourselves under obligations). But if there are norms for legislating one way rather than another, we will want to know their status. If they are self-legislated, we simply push the problem back because the question then becomes, on what basis were they legislated? If they are not self-legislated then we do not have self-legislation ‘all the way down.’ But in this case, if we end up embracing some form of realism about these norms, then it is natural to ask, why not be realists about other sorts of reasons? The advocate of self-legislation is not without reply here (indeed, they might appeal to something like the linguistified transcendental argument above to set basic criteria for legislation) but I think this dialectic ultimately forces them down the path to ruin.

Is this Pete’s approach though? Perhaps not, since he goes on to say:

However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality.

If these fundamental norms of rationality are vindicated, then some sort of self-binding model might be rescued. But this, I think, would only at the price of redundancy, since it would not be us but the fundamental norms which determined how we ought to legislate which would be doing all the heavy-lifting. I think it is better to drop talk of self-binding or self-legislation and zero in on whatever underlies it. Obviously, there is more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here for now.