Over at Deontologistics Pete has another terrific post up responding to my posts about normativity and politics (here and here). Unfortunately I’m unable to respond in detail right now as I’m busily preparing for the RMMLA in Salt Lake City later this week. However, I did want to briefly clarify a few points.

First, on the issue of whether or not Latour reduces right to might, Pete writes:

The major objection Levi has to my account of Latour is my characterisation of the first of the two moves I identified in his position (although Levi has yet to say much about the second, and I think he’ll find it equally problematic). I described this in two ways:-

1) The collapsing of the distinction between might and right.

2) The reduction of normative force to causal force.

Now, I repeatedly qualified the second way of spelling out the Latourian move because I expected that it would produce problems for Levi. I talked about a ‘loose’ causal force, or a generalised causal force, but was not really clear enough. Luckily, Levi’s objection to this second characterisation lets me make this issue clearer. Levi thinks that although the first of these characterisations is right, they are not equivalent, and Latour does not endorse the second.

If Pete goes back and reads my original post, he will find that I explicitly argued that might does not make right in Latour’s thought. Let us recall that in addition to being a philosopher, Latour is also a sociologist. As a sociologist one of his jobs is to explain why the social field is organized in the way that it is, why humans and nonhumans are grouped in the way they are, why change takes place at this time and in this way rather than in another time and in another way, etc. When Latour speaks of trials of strength (or weakness), he is getting at these sorts of issues. The question is one of what is resistant to change when being acted upon by other actors and what produces differences in other actors when it acts upon them.

read on!

Now note, nothing in this way of talking about social relations undermines something like normative force. Normative force is one kind of force among many other forces. Nor is this force being treated in a causal fashion. Let us take two inductive arguments to illustrate this point:

Most Texans are Evangelical Christians.
Levi lives in Texas.
Therefore Levi is likely to be an Evangelical Christian.


Dieter wears red shoes.
Dieter is from Germany.
Most Germans probably where red shoes.

Nothing from a Latourian perspective prevents us from making the claim that the first argument has more normative force than the second argument. Moreover, the relationship between the premises and the conclusions in these two arguments is not a causal relationship, but a semantic and a syntactic relationship. If the force of the first argument is greater than the force of the second argument, then this is because, even though the conclusion turns out not to be true, nonetheless there is a tighter relationship between the premises and the conclusions in the first argument than in the second argument. In this particular context, force has to do with the relations among propositions which produce a particular gradient of resistance with respect to other lines of reasoning. That’s all. There is no reduction here of the relationship between the premises and conclusions to might, nor is the argument being transformed into “mere rhetoric”.

Now, in another context, the question of relations between forces and gradients of resistance becomes different. Recalling that insofar as Latour is a sociologist and that therefore his job is to explain why the social is organized in the way that it is, we can, just as we treat individual propositions in an argument as actors in relation to one another, also treat entire arguments as actors in relation to other actors. Thus, for example, we can compare forms of communication driven by rhetoric to forms of communication driven by genuine arguments and we can ask which of these actors (rhetoric or argument), does a better job of enlisting other actors (human beings). When we’ve shifted perspective here, we quickly discover that a good deal of this is audience dependent. Thus, for example, in a university math department we find that rhetoric has comparatively less “force” than argument where disputes about mathematical equations are concerned. When we look at presidential campaigns or debates over health care, we discover that rhetoric often has far more force than argument.

There are a couple of points worth noting in this context. First, in pointing out that rhetoric, under certain conditions has more force in enlisting other actors in particular contexts, it has been in no way that somehow rhetoric somehow makes things true or right. The true and the right is an internal structure of a particular type of actor, arguments, and is independent of the issue of whether or not a particular type of actor is effective in enlisting other actors.

Second, when we talk about force in the context of rhetoric or argument, there is nothing causal about this talk. There is nothing analogous in the phenomenon of persuasion to two billiard balls hitting one another. If, for a particular person, a rhetorical analogy such as “Obama is like a lion” is particularly effective in generating support in this person for Obama, one would be speaking in a highly metaphorical or strained sense in suggesting that this relation is causal. Rather, the force of this resonance has to do with intensities, resonances, and echoes within language that produce a certain force within expression. It is an associative relation, not a causal relation.

So here’s the point: There is nothing inconsistent in recognizing both that 1) there are a variety of different forces that produce alliances among actors, many of which are false and wrong, and 2) grounding one’s own claims in a set of normative commitments. Moreover, in grounding one’s claims in a set of normative commitments, there is nothing to suggest that this is somehow a matter of subjectivity, the private, or personal whim. Again, the relationship between the propositions is an relationship among those propositions and how strongly they hold together, not a matter of personal whim. Latour is not making the claim that the proposition “2 + 2 = 4” is a matter of rhetoric. If he hasn’t already, I suggest Pete read The Pasteurization of France or Science in Action to see just how mistaken this characterization of Latour is. Here I think that Pete’s notion of “causality” is, to adopt a Deleuzianism, far too “baggy” and imprecise. The production of effects is not equivalent to causality. For example, there are all sorts of rhetorical effects that language produces, that we find everywhere in poetry, but these effects are not being “caused” by language in any way analogous to natural causation. When I protested Reid’s thesis that “object-oriented ontology is ‘consistent’ with neo-liberalism” I was talking about one such rhetorical effect– a linguistic exchange of properties between on thing and another thing by producing an association between the two. That effect is the result of an associative relation, not a causal relation.

Responding to my charge that the normophiliacs are calling for a transcendent set of norms, Pete writes:

I must now deal with the idea that I am in someway appealing to ‘transcendent’ norms. Levi positions this in terms of an opposition between transcendent ahistorical Platonic style norms (precisely what Latour rejects) and immanent norms that are generated by historical processes. His concern is that in denying the Latourian approaches situation of norms as effective entities that have real power within historical development, I can only then appeal to transcendent norms that are entirely isolated from history, and moreover, that such an appeal betrays a dangerous lack of concern with the real concrete forces that shape our lives.

Now, I want to defend myself in two ways. Firstly, by showing that although I do appeal to some ahistorical norms, these are not thereby transcendent, but rather transcendental. Secondly, by showing that I neither take all norms of action to be transcendental, nor am unconcerned with the kind of detailed analysis of the real structure of the social sphere (and the genesis of normativity that includes) provided by thinkers such as Foucault, Deleuze, Spinoza and Nietzsche. The proviso to all this is that I do not yet have an entirely fully formed political philosophy, I have some initial ideas based on my other philosophical considerations, but I hope that I can be forgiven a lack of completeness in my ideas here.

I really don’t see how this gets Pete off the hook, because the difference between the transcendent and the transcendental (in the sense that Pete is using it) is a difference that makes no difference. Pete will recall that in my second post, I cited three ways in which normativity can be grounded as ahistorical and eternal: The Platonic, the Theistic, and the Kantian. In evoking the transcendental in contrast to the transcendent, all Pete is doing is choosing the third of these alternatives. Kantianism is simply a variant of Platonism that places the forms or the intelligible in the mind of a transcendental subject, rather than in a Platonic heaven or in the mind of God.

As Deleuze’s argues in both Difference and Repetition and more clearly in “Plato and the Simulacrum” (in The Logic of Sense), the drive or inspiration animating Platonism is that of selecting good copies from simulacra. On the one hand, we have the unparticipated or the form itself. On the other hand, you have the participated or the copy. And finally you have the false pretender. Plato’s metaphysics, always based on a myth to ground its foundation, mobilizes the unparticipated as a means of excluding the simulacrum and selecting the good copy. Kant (or Habermas), is simply a variant of this logic of selection where the category now serves the function of the unparticipated and experience becomes the participated. This can be aptly seen in Kant’s metaphors of the tribunal of reason and reason as a legislator (with metaphors and an aim like this, it comes as no surprise that these forms of thought tend to generate a particular form of subjectivity).

The problem here is that in all three cases (the Platonic, the Theistic, and the Transcendental/Kantian), we erect a myth of some entity that is somehow immune from the laws of genesis or becoming that can then function to regulate the world. In my view, there’s no possible way a transcendental approach such as that advocated by Pete can be consistent with naturalism because it exempts one particular type of entity from the core thesis of naturalism as a philosophy of phusis or becoming. What is required, instead, is a genetic account of normativity that demonstrates how it is brought into existence or produced, not an appeal to some idealist ahistorical and unchanging form of intelligibility that overcodes the world of immanence. Again, however, I really have a very difficult time understanding what all this ruckus about normativity is about. Not being particularly obsessed with issues about normativity myself, I can only speculate that those who are so worked up about the normative are so because they believe that the normative has a particular force or a set of practical consequences in the world. While I certainly want a world where people reason well and for the sake of truth and the good, I can’t see that reasoning in this way has ever had much practical force in the world. Thus, while we want a well grounded politics, I nonetheless cannot help but feel that from the standpoint of practice the focus on normativity is a rather negative distraction that detracts from actually changing the world through an understanding of the concrete organization of social situations.