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Latour's Empirical Metaphysics

21 April 2016
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In this article we examine the mode in which Bruno Latour engages in metaphysics in his social scientific and philosophical project. In contrast to Graham Harman's recent reading of his work, we take seriously how adamant Latour is about not creating a metaphysical system, and how he is thus essentially sharing the anti-metaphysical tenor of much of the twentieth-century philosophy. Nonetheless, he does not shun making bold claims concerning the way in which the world is. Therefore, we need to ask: what are, then, the purposes for which Latour evokes metaphysics? We recognize two main answers to the question. The first purpose is the creation of a makeshift, pragmatic, methodological ontology. His concepts such as trial, event, proposition, collective, and mode are not meant to describe ‘the furniture of the world’ in the style of classical metaphysics. Rather, they form a kind of ‘minimum-wage metaphysics’, an ‘experimental’ or ‘empirical’ metaphysics that serves the purpose of opening the world anew, in conjunction with empirical research. The second purpose is Latour's elucidation of the metaphysics of modernity, in order to make our own preconceptions visible for ourselves. According to him, metaphysical assumptions are an unavoidable part of our relationship to our world, but we, the moderns, tend to give a distorted description of these assumptions. The ‘modes of existence’ of Latour's recent book are aimed at elucidating the complexity of moderns’ real metaphysics. Yet they do not constitute a list of what there essentially is, but provide a toolkit for understanding our ways of being and our practices.

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