What distinguishes Bruno Latour from other thinkers of our time is that he doesn’t really seem to belong anywhere. He isn’t interested in studying anything in its totality, but rather the connections, the networks which different things form in the world. This peculiar way of thinking develops into a full metaphysical account in Latour’s Irreductions, which we will explore here.
The Basic Idea Behind Bruno Latour’s Metaphysics in the Irreductions
Bruno Latour is one of those controversial figures in academia who doesn’t seem to have a designated place within it. He isn’t fully a philosopher, a scientist, or a sociologist. Latour is all over the place, but, nonetheless, he has made major contributions to metaphysics in his book Irreductions.
Latour’s aim in this book is to create a decentred metaphysics of what he calls “actors.” In Latour, everything is on the same ontological level, be they ideas, people, or lifeless objects. Nothing is more real than something else on the basis of essences or substances; there is nothing occupying a special place in reality. Everything exists on the same ontological plane. There are no layers of existence that inform the reality or non-reality of something.
What this means is that for Latour, there is no essence, no unchanging kernel at the bottom of being which gives something its identity. The world is constituted by actors playing on the same stage with no privileged ontological existence. Therefore, things aren’t separated into beings of primary or secondary ontological importance. Beings aren’t even considered to be fundamental or derivative, nor, as Plato thought, are there perfect ideas in a different realm that imperfect objects are trying to mimic. This is Latour’s Principle of Irreduction.
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“Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.”
This has important implications. Everything for Latour exists in utter concreteness. The features of something can’t be swept away without changing its identity because there’s no core to anchor identity in. The only available “core” of things is a bundle of characteristics lumped together into a structure that resembles a core, a structure that persists enough to be separated from the rest of being.
Actors or actants can connect with one another and gain strength. What is meant by strength here is resistance towards assimilation into non-being. The existence of a cup of tea is held together by millions of atom actants that give it structural persistence and resist annihilation.
The Dynamic Metaphysics of Actants
Actants for Latour are also events that are characterized by their utter specificity:
“In other words, everything happens only once, and at one place.”
An actant is completely transparent and fully deployed in the world. It doesn’t hide behind an essence protected from a shell of the unessential. This split between essential and unessential doesn’t exist in Latour. An actant is an event of relations at a given moment between other actants.
You probably think you’re the same person you were a second ago or an hour ago. If nothing traumatic or interesting has happened, you might even think you’re the same person you were last month. When we start talking about years, there’s a feeling that we’ve changed so much that we can no longer call ourselves the same person.
Identity and the persistence of what appears to be an essence, for Latour, is an abstraction. In reality, in each moment, we’re a closely related version of what we were before, but not a unified unit that resists.
The principle of Irreduction holds that the event must be grasped in its dynamism and not by being broken down to some essential core or a more fundamental layer of reality which explains the surface. On the other hand, nothing is irreducible either, meaning there’s no prior, privileged substance from which all else derives.
Latour holds that the relations between actants can be understood but not reduced to each other or to some platonic realm of ideas. This understanding requires what he calls “Translation,” the necessary labor needed to comprehend the movement of events from one to the next.
“We cannot say that an actant follows rules, laws, or structures, but neither can we say that it acts without these.”
Actants inform each other through their interactions which gradually give rise to elaborate laws and structures. By interacting, Actants can form what Latour calls “alliances.” The more alliances, the more real an actant becomes. As the actant becomes cut off from its relations, it starts fading into non-being. It no longer weighs in on the world, it doesn’t leave a mark or curve the space of relations around itself. If an actant stops being related to others, it stops existing since, in a sense, for Latour, existence is relation.
Necessity and Contingency
Often, when studying history, one is faced with an epiphany of contingency. It can become apparent that certain structures or practices which persist today do not have a necessary reason for their continued existence, and that their genesis was contingent upon certain conditions that might have easily been different. Things that feel essential turn out to be accidental.
For Latour, necessity and contingency are meaningless notions. They simply refer to the gradients of resistance of different actants. His framework even extends to truth and epistemological claims. He says that:
“A sentence does not hold together because it is true, but because it holds together, we say that it is true.”
Truth isn’t some floating value that we manage to capture through speech, but an impression that the connection of actants leaves upon us, an impression which nonetheless requires a lot of labor to be interpreted or “translated.” Truth is a constant struggle of actants fighting together for relations that will grant them persistence.
Time itself doesn’t pass, Latour says. Time is what is at stake between the forces fighting for relations. Time is a product, not an empty container that allows things to occur within its frame.
An important contribution in Latour’s work is that the human subject is decentred. The subject doesn’t hold a special or privileged place in reality. Neither does language have some inherent importance: it does not deserve to be treated as a starting point for analyzing truth.
Latour expresses a lot of dissatisfaction with the linguistic turn in philosophy. All reality involves negotiation and trials of strength, of relations that define and shape the structures which earn a continuous existence. Latour also throws away the very notion of potency as fictional. Potency would imply that Actants have some inner inactivated force which will be switched on at some later point and be the cause of a particular event. For Latour, there’s no inner potency. Potency attributes something to the event which lies beyond itself. Power isn’t stored in an actant. Everything is always actual, and nothing exists beyond its own particularity. Everything else is a projection of movement into the future.
“Talk of possibilities is the illusion of actors that move while forgetting the cost of transport.”
To have potential would be to go beyond the event, beyond what is actual, and for Latour, all that exists has to be actual.
The Role of Reason and Language in Bruno Latour’s Metaphysics
Latour also puts forward the controversial idea that there’s no such thing as deduction, which is a conclusion that necessarily flows from his denial of potency. Thought doesn’t flow from one statement to the next, deducting information. He explicitly goes against Kant’s famous “synthetic apriori” judgment. There’s no foundation or basic principle to be discovered which contains everything else.
The tendency to look for a fundamental principle has always been strong. From time immemorial, mathematicians, physicists, and even philosophers have sought to find a formula, a principle, or a theory of everything from which all else flows. Latour states that the world gives us no such foundation we can use to derive everything else.
Here, Latour is also going against what is known as Foundationalism in philosophy, a theory that proposes that beliefs are split into basic beliefs and derived beliefs, with basic beliefs serving as core beliefs that are not justified on the basis of other beliefs. Latour’s metaphysical system destroys this distinction entirely.
One alternative to Foundationalism is Coherentism, where the distinction between basic and derived beliefs isn’t made. However, Coherentism is said to suffer from a problem of self-reference, where beliefs form a closed circuit that allows no reference to experience or anything outside the circuit. In short, all beliefs justify each other; no contact with anything external needs to be made.
Latour’s theory doesn’t suffer from this self-referential trap. Since deduction isn’t reliable, beliefs don’t flow from one another in any way. Rather, because actants are all the same ontologically, whether they are ideas or objects, the system which is produced feeds into each piece without becoming either self-referential or linear.
From these ideas about reason and deduction, Latour concludes that words do not follow each other either. He also disputes the notion of a metalanguage, so dear to many linguistic theories and analytical currents in philosophy. No language can be reduced to another language. There’s mediation, translation, and resistance, but never pure equivalency. Every word is its own. Its meaning can be translated, but not mirrored in another word from a different language.