Drawing on Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence and Luhmann’s theory of distinctions, we can raise questions such as “what makes a particular form of communication recognizably that form of communication.” For example, for Latour, in science or religion– and please folks, knock it off with the use of Latour’s abbreviations such as “REP” and “REL” in these discussions! Open the discussion to readers who haven’t picked up the book yet! –there must be specific “felicity conditions” that render enunciations or speech-acts within these domains recognizable as a “scientific speech-act” or a “religious speech-act”. In this regard, Latour carries out an implicit critique of some of his earlier work. Take his writings in science studies. In those works, he had shown how the supposedly a-political work of science is actually pervaded by all sorts of politics. The Latour of the Modes, however, notes that many working scientists would reject some of the claims that he makes. That is, they wouldn’t deny that politics is involved in this or that aspect of what they do, but they would deny that some of the things Latour draws attention to are scientific utterances.
This places Latour in a difficult position. On the one hand, the core spirit of his actor-network theory lies in respect for how actants describe and understand what their doing. For example, in Irreductions he lambasts what he’ll later call “the sociology of the social” for ignoring the discourse of, say, the nun, by immediately showing how her discourse is just a veiled reflection of economic relations or Oedipal issues, etc. However, when Latour elsewhere gets to the analysis of the work of scientists, he seems to do exactly this. For example, in Science in Action he argues, among other things, that bibliographies and references are forms of rhetoric meant to intimidate the disputant, rather than straightforward support for the claim being made. Through analyses like these he seems to ignore the scientist’s self-description of what she’s doing. If Latour is to remain consistent, he needs a theoretical framework that is simultaneously able to maintain respect for the dignity of the speaker’s self-description while also showing how the speaker’s work is pervaded by these other networks. This is what Modes attempts to do. In quasi-transcendental terms, it attempts to develop a sociology of the felicity conditions that identify an enunciation as being an enunciation of this or that type, while also showing how other enunciations wouldn’t belong to that mode of existence.
Luhmann is up to something similar with his theory of operational closure and distinctions. In Luhmann, an operationally closed system– say religion –is a system that forms enunciations and responds to events in the environment or broader world through the use of particular distinctions and codes. In other words, each domain– politics, religion, science, art, the discourse of love, etc. –has certain felicity conditions that determine whether or not the enunciation is a communication of that type. The community of artists will have a set of distinctions or codes that determine whether or not an enunciation is an enunciation about art or whether a work is a work of art or not. For example, the monthly budget report at a particular art studio would probably not be an enunciation about art because it wouldn’t fit with whatever code governs that form of communication at that point in history (for Luhmann the codes and distinctions governing a communication system evolve and change throughout history). Likewise, for Luhmann there is a communication system governing love that lovers participate in and that determines whether a communication between the two pertains to love or something else that falls outside the discourse of love. Here it’s important to note that for Luhmann anything can potentially enter the domain of an operationally closed system. For example, there will be circumstances under which the studio’s monthly budget report can become an artistic act or utterance, but only when it is integrated according to the code that structures artistic communication (e.g., the budget report is framed and placed on the wall or a group of performance artists correlate the numbers with the movements of their body, costumes, certain props, etc.). In other words, operational closure does not mean that communications from one operationally closed system cannot enter another, but only means that when it does enter that other system it will be integrated according to the codes and distinctions governing the other system.
If philosophy is a mode of existence or communication system, I find myself wondering what it’s felicity conditions, codes, or distinctions might be. What is it that renders a philosophical utterance or speech act recognizable as a philosophical utterance, rather than a scientific utterance, a religious utterance, a political utterance, an artistic utterance, etc? What conditions must an utterance meet in order to be a philosophical response to a philosophical utterance? In other words, the question here is what norms allow us to identify philosophy as philosophy?
I’m not sure I have an answer to this question, nor even a hypothesis. I raise the question because of a number of discussions I’ve had lately where the issue has come up in one form or another. Thus, in response to my remarks about materialism, a friend recently asked me what it might be that distinguishes philosophy from science if materialism is true? Couldn’t we just abandon philosophy and content ourselves with science telling us what being is? I personally don’t like Harman’s route of claiming that there’s some special type of being of which science knows nothing– I worry that this brings us into the bad kind of metaphysics that’s immune to any criticism and that allows us to reject any empirical findings we happen to find unpleasant –but I am inclined to think that there’s something unique about philosophy that distinguishes it from science. That implies that there’s an operative distinction or set of felicity conditions that allows us to distinguish utterances within the two practices, or that allows us to distinguish a felicitous philosophical utterance from an infelicitous utterance.
In another discussion a friend of mine cited figures like Jesus and certain Indian thinkers as being examples of philosophers. My inclination– and I fully confess I could be wrong here –is that while there might be certain elements of their utterances that resemble philosophical utterances, these nonetheless are not philosophical utterances (though clearly they could be taken up in a way that would transform them into philosophical utterance). Again, the ability to identify these utterances as belonging to another mode of existence or system of communication entails the existence of felicity conditions or distinctions that range over these utterances. What are those felicity conditions? I don’t know.
It seems to me that a good answer to these questions has to meet certain requirements and keep certain things in mind. First, and above all, a good account of that code proper to philosophical utterances or those felicity conditions that define philosophy as a communicative system or mode of existence must be broad enough to include thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Carnap, Nagarjuna, and so on (assuming the work of these thinkers are all composed of philosophical utterances… Perhaps Nietzsche isn’t a philosopher, who knows?). Second, such an account should articulate felicity conditions that are plastic enough to allow for a wide variety of mutations in philosophical thought. The question here isn’t what the true philosophy is, but just what allows us to recognize an utterance as philosophical or not. Finally, third it seems to me that such an account must recognize that the codes or felicity conditions are subject to evolution, such that what might have been counted as a philosophical utterance at one time in history would not be counted as such now (perhaps now it would be treated as a scientific utterance, for example) and what might not have been counted as a philosophical utterance in the past might now be counted as a philosophical utterance. In addition to this, a good evolutionary perspective on felicity conditions ought also give us some explanation as to how immanent and internal transformations within the mode of existence or communicative system gave rise to these mutations in distinctions (i.e., it shouldn’t appeal to factors outside the mode of existence). Any thoughts or hypotheses here?