Having just finished writing my preface for Adam Miller’s Speculative Grace, I find that this book presents the most startling theology, theory of religion, and account of grace I have ever encountered– I’ll be recovering from this book for some time –but that, apart from Harman’s Prince of Networks, it also contains some of the finest pages ever written about Latour’s ontology. In particular, I find myself especially fascinated by the account of truth Miller develops through Latour’s onto-epistemology. I myself have, in the past, written quite often about Latour’s epistemology and theory of truth— especially in the context of discussions with Pete Wolfendale –yet never before have I encountered a discussion as clear and profound as that developed in the pages of Miller’s Speculative Grace.
My remarks here will be brief as I’m falling over with exhaustion, yet the core of Miller-Latour’s thesis is that truth must be assembled or constructed. For reasons that I hope to clarify in a moment, it’s necessary to forestall confusion. The claim that truth is constructed or assembled is not the claim that truth is fabricated wholesale from the fabric of mind, language, or society. It is not the claim that truths just erupt from our imagination however we might like them. In a number of respects, Miller-Latour’s thesis calls us to a standard far more rigorous and challenging than that that dominates modernist epistemology, and that is far closer to Plato than Tarski. Where Tarski understands truth as a property of propositions about the world, Plato understands truth as a property of the things themselves. For Tarski propositions (and “propositional attitudes” or “mental contents”) are true or false such that truth is a relation between a proposition and a state-of-affairs, while for Plato things themselves are true or false regardless of whether or not anyone says anything about them or thinks about them.
In the case of Plato, there is indeed correspondence or a relation of adequation, but that relation is not a relation between a “saying” about the world and the thing in the world, but a relation between an entity and a form or universal. Truth is a function of how closely the thing approximates its form, and thus resembles the way in which a tangent approaches a point on a curve. While a tangent never perfectly hits a particular point on a curve because a true curve is characterized by a constant rate of change that can never completely be pinned down, nonetheless there is some maximum where the tangent most closely converges with the point on the curve. That is, there’s a point of maximal convergence between curve and tangent that is “most true” for their “intersection”.
This is how it is with entities in Plato. The closer an individual entity approximates its eternal form, the more true that entity is. The truth of the entity is here a property of the entity itself, not a proposition or assertion we make about the entity. Initially this sounds like a very strange way of thinking about the world– what could it possibly mean to say that entities are true or false? –but upon reflection we can see that we talk about the world in this way all the time. Thus, for example, upon drinking a German ale someone exclaims “now that’s a beer!” Taken at face value, this exclamation is saying that this beer is true. And in claiming that the beer is true, one also presupposes that there is some sort of ideal standard or form against which the beer is measured. The truth of German beer resides not in the relationship between the proposition and the beer, but in the relationship between the beer and the perfect ideal of beer.
The truth of German beer resides in the fact that it approximates or approaches the eternally existing, universal form of what beer ought to be. Needless to say, that form is not a property of our minds or culture, but rather is an independently existing entity in its own right. By contrast, if we can say that Busch Light is false, then this is not because we have asserted a claim about Busch Light that fails to correspond with Busch Light existing out there in the world, but because Busch Light itself is untrue such that it fails to correspond with its form. Regardless of whether anyone was around to drink Busch Light (Life After People), regardless of whether anyone says anything about Busch Light, regardless of whether anyone thinks about Busch Light, in a Platonic universe Busch Light would be a false beer not because it doesn’t exist, but because it fails to approach or approximate the form that defines what a beer should be. Busch Light is a poor copy of Beer, and if this is so then it’s because it’s made of the recycled, drunken urine of college fraternity boys (at least that’s what we surmised when I was at Ohio State).
But I digress. For our purposes, the important point to retain from Plato is not the relation between forms and individual entities, but rather the thesis that truth is a property of things themselves. For Plato truth is not a property of thoughts about things, nor is truth a property of propositions about things. Rather, truth is a property of things, such that truth would be there regardless of whether or not any sentient beings were about to think about those things. And, as Latour remarks, “…you missed the galloping freedom of the zebras in the savannah this morning, then so much the worse for you; the zebras will not be sorry that you were not there…” (The Pasteurization of France, 193). The truth of the galloping zebras resides not in the gaze that beholds them and makes assertions about them, but in the galloping zebras themselves.
In Miller-Latour the thesis that truth is a property of the things themselves receives a thoroughly original interpretation. For them the thesis that truth is a property of the things themselves translates into the thesis that truth must be assembled. Here truth is not an adequation or approximation between ideal form and existing entity, but rather a product of an activity of assembly that manages to stand. True beings are those that conquer entropy, that manage to stand and maintain their order, while false beings are those that are poorly assembled, that fall apart, that return to entropy. The true entity is an entity (and no, that’s not a type-o). It is that assembly that manages to stand on its own as a unit. In this respect, the Sears Tower is a true being. And so long as it resists entropy or equaprobability, it remains a true being. It stands. And in standing its truth resides in itself, not in any gaze, thought, or proposition about it. It’s truth consists in its ability to continue standing, enduring, or holding itself together against all of those forces of entropy that beset it from within and without.
Yet already we must proceed with care, for in suggesting that truth is a product of assembly we suggest an assembler behind the activity of assembly and what is assembled. We suggest that, like a homunculus, there is some agent that assembles this other agent. Yet in assembling, fabricating, or constructing a truth, there is no assembler that presides over the assembly; rather, the assembly of the assembly is distributed among all those agents involved in the assembly. It is here that we encounter Miller-Latour’s most original “epistemological” hypothesis: assembly is a product of all the entities involved in the assemblage in the process of being produced and for truth to take place, all of the entities involved in the assembly must be persuaded. In other words, it is not simply other people that must be persuaded that something is true, but the nonhumans— animal, botanical, mineral, etc. –that must be persuaded as well.
Contra Plato and with the Sophists (the rhetoricians), Miller-Latour will thus declare that truth and persuasion are inextricably mixed. The persuasive dimension of truth can never be separated from the veridical dimension of truth. To be true is to persuade. Yet contra the Sopists, persuasion is not simply addressed to persons, but is addressed to nonhuman things as well. The nonhumans must also be persuaded and the nonhumans also play an essential role in the assembly. As a consequence, experiment becomes the mark of every potential truth. We can imagine the following scenario:
So, based on the Biblical story of Genesis you wish to claim that the creation narrative there depicted is true, that all of the beings (their forms) were created by a divine being in a single stroke, that Earth is only 6,000 years old, and so on.
Fine, try it! Conduct the experiment!
But understand that in conducting your experiment, in attempting your assembly, your challenge is not simply to persuade your flock or parishioners, your fellow humans, but also the world itself. For your truth to stand, you will have to persuade the soil, fossils, the chemical elements and so on. All of these entities will have a say in the process of assembly you’ve initiated and will be participants of assembly. It will not simply be a matter of whether your fellow humans come to share your “propositional attitudes”, but also whether the things you share the world with share your thesis. And if your thesis comes to be true, it will be because you have, against all odds, managed to rope this herd of cats together in something that is able to stand. But of course, in roping this herd of cats together in an assembly, it will not simply be you that accomplished this feat, but all these other agencies– human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic –together. Each of them will be an actant and participant in this truth and the truth– should it happen –will be a product of the work and collaboration of this crowd.
Miller-Latour’s hypothesis invites a revolution in how we think about the nature of truth and being. What, for example, would it mean to think of a novel as true? Here it would not mean that the novel is an adequation or correspondence between what is depicted in the novel and the world, nor would the truth of the novel be the reader’s response to the novel. No, the truth of the novel would be the ability of the novel to stand. Readers, of course, offer interpretations of novels, yet it’s a mistake to think that it is other people that they must persuade. Rather, in hazarding an interpretation the entity that a reader must persuade is the novel. The question is “does my response/reading persuade Kafka’s Trial?”, not “does my response/reading persuade my professor, the editors of a journal, or my daughter?” It is the reader that must persuade the novel, not the novel that manages to persuade or not persuade the reader. And so too would the same principles hold for every scientific hypothesis, every religious rapture, every activist political group, and so on. In each case it is a question of a distributed process or activity of assembling and of persuading all entities involved so as to generate something that manages to stand for a moment or eons.