Bruno Latour’s Foreword to Thinking with Whitehead

Latour is one of our most prolific philosophers of science & and obvious choice to write a foreword to Stengers' book. Stengers is, after all, trying to clear a space for thinking that falls outside the heavily guarded walls of science. Latour has been criticized by working scientists for attempting a similar undertaking in his many books. Latour begins by placing Whitehead ahead of Wittgenstein among 20th century philosophers, an assertion that will certainly get a rise out of the vast army of Anglo-American intellectuals who have made Wittgenstein a touchstone, if not a cornerstone, of their thinking. Here at the beginning of this adventure, I remain unconvinced. Latour notes that Whitehead has been relegated to a kind of back corner of the classroom because he has "indulged in metaphysics" and pursued a speculative mode of thinking, practices supposedly ruled out by the analytical philosophy that has so dominated 20th century thinking--at least among the small number of people who pay attention to such things. Latour focuses on the way in which science, in order to assure its objectivity has ruled out values as illusions, as part of something "secondary" to the primary work science has set for itself. Stengers is not trying, so far as I can see, to diminish the work scientists actually do, but to clear space for "illusions." Stengers go to some pains in her introduction to not reignite the science wars & to not diminish the work of science, which she values as simply another kind of adventure, while at the same time insisting on the reality of things that science rules out. Noted later: Doesn't my talk in the first paragraphs above of inside & outside, of ahead & behind, immediately plunge us into the kind of dualism(s) Stengers is trying so very hard to avoid--dualism(s) very deeply embedded in our language & thought? Noted yet later: This strikes me as not a very profound insight on my part. Certainly, the way we have been conditioned to talk about science limits our ability to think completely about it. This is true of any subject, whether science or dentistry, say, because science has relegated unto itself the sole power to judge truth claims. That's where the whole thing goes belly up. Along came a spider and sat down beside her . . .

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “Bruno Latour’s Foreword to Thinking with Whitehead”

  1. Thanks Joe. I could use more convincing myself. I don’t really care for the whole set up that somehow pits Whitehead against Wittgenstein over who is the more significant philosopher. If anything, both are difficult and important thinkers who can be categorized best as “religious.”

    What I find intriguing is the issue of Whitehead’s God, as it is described by Latour. I studied process theology in seminary, and I know of the centrality of Whitehead to that enterprise. But I have not confronted Whitehead’s metaphysics directly. Immediately, I wonder if “metaphysics” is a felicitous term for describing what Whitehead is doing. When I think metaphysics, I think of a bifurcated universe — perhaps a duo-verse — where there is a transcendent realm beyond the physical or phenomenal or visible. If I am understanding Latour’s take on Stenger’s engagement with Whitehead, then the concept of God is entwined in this world, rather like how Aristotle’s forms have been removed from that other world conceived by Plato and reconceived in immanent terms.

    This introduction feels a bit thin, but Latour does succeed in getting me excited about taking on this 500 page book on a philosopher that I do not know well at all, by a philosopher who I admire enormously for work in the philosophy of science and on the nature of capitalism.

    Let’s plow ahead!

  2. Chris, perhaps with less reason than you, who have authored a big book on Wittgenstein, I too was bothered by the opposition between Whitehead and Wittgenstein. To some extent, they come out of the same intellectual context (Russell, et al) and address some of the same problems. I don’t yet understand Whitehead’s God, but I think I have a feel for Wittgenstein’s view of the sacred–“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

    And now that you point out the dualism implicit in Latour’s Foreword, I understand better what was bothering me when I read it, though I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly. Warning: I’ve just finished Stengers’ Introduction and it is some very dense prose! Not that she doesn’t write well or that the translation is awkward, but there is a lot of conceptual heavy lifting, at least for me.

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