For a long time, I largely ignored Bruno Latour because the principal people who were talking about his work seemed to be speculative realists – specifically the object oriented ontologists – and I took their work to be interesting but tangential to my own. Speculative realism – partly by virtue of their ‘realist’ epithet – always seemed much more concerned with epistemology (knowledge plumbing) than ethics, and was thus distanced from my interests. Indeed, it took a long, long time for perpetually-verbose speculative philosopher Levi Bryant to come close to laying out any kind of moral position, and others in the ‘movement’ haven't even done this as far as I can tell, although I am at best an interloper in that community.
But by judging Latour solely by those he influenced I was being even more unfair than I have been to the speculative realists (as I discovered, in the latter case, by tweeting a few idle thoughts about them and bringing the wrath of Bogost down upon me!). Latour’s work may be focussed in ontology (the sorting of things), but his motives are far, far deeper and connect immediately with moral philosophy, even though he never seems to venture there directly. He is, sadly, coming at this primarily from the political – a strategy that is often necessary but frequently jumps the gun – but his goal is nothing less than the reconstruction of the unstated Constitution of the contemporary republic, a venerable system of thought built by Plato and the Greeks and then later ‘debugged’ by Kant and the Enlightenment.
Latour is the first French philosopher since Maurice Merleau-Ponty that I have taken a shine to – indeed, I would go so far to say “j'adore Latour”! Reading him on the encounter between different cultures in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods rang my philosophy of religion and science bells so soundly that I went on almost immediately to read We Have Never Been Modern, after which I felt incredibly in tune with Latour’s goals (if not his methods). For the first time since discovering Mary Midgley, I had a powerful sense of finding an ally, someone who shared similar concerns and attempts to tackle them philosophically (although, alas, Latour is quite impenetrable when compared to Midgley’s slickly accessible prose). I’m currently reading Latour’s Politics of Nature and chuckling at the almost Robert Anton Wilson-like way he talks about ‘epistemology police’.
What’s more – and especially unusual for a French philosopher – Latour is a practicing Catholic, another gem of a philosopher like Charles Taylor who demonstrates how profoundly unjust it would be to take the pronouncements of the Vatican as in any way defining what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Latour’s general scepticism of the concept of ‘belief’ as it is usually applied to religion (both by Christians and their opponents) refreshingly recasts the issues in a way that highlights the sheer extent to which Western secularity is not an escape from Christian thought but merely a reshuffling of the deck. Latour is justifiably unimpressed, and demands instead a whole new deck of cards – perhaps even a new game played with something other than cards. If he reaches too high in this regard, it would still feel wrong to chastise him for his ambition.
The trouble with Latour, alas, is the curse of many French philosophers: he prefers to imply rather than state, goes around the houses showing you the front door and generally fails at clarity. He is in desperate need of something more than mere translation: he needs exporting into a less cumbersome, more accessible form. Perhaps this is true of many great philosophers – one could hardly commend Kant for his clarity, after all – but still it creates a barrier around work that bears pressingly on a number of salient issues. A great deal more could be done, and would need to be for even a fraction of Latour’s ‘political ecology’ to be practically implementable, or indeed widely comprehensible.
Discovering him has slowed down my next philosophy book project, Chaos Ethics, in quite considerable ways, but I believe this Latour detour will ultimately prove fruitful. At the very least, citing Latour updates my arguments in a few key places so that I can point to work that is only a few years old, instead of decades or centuries (even millennia in the case of Aristotle!). I do not yet know if Latour’s work is going to influence the thrust of my polemic in new ways, or if it will simply complement it, but either way the time I am spending on Latour de France is an investment I expect to pay handsome dividends.