Bruno Latour approaching an Object-Oriented Ontology

The following is another exchange with friend and colleague Adam Robbert in response to an essay by Bruno Latour. First, a short excerpt from the article “On Interobjectivity“:

Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the “micro” to the “macro.” For example the traffic control room for Paris busses does indeed dominate the multiplicity of busses, but it would not know how to constitute a structure “above” the interactions of the bus drivers. It is added on to those interactions. The old difference of levels comes merely from overlooking the material connections that permit one place to be linked to others…

My initial response:

Latour is refreshingly worldly and specific, especially in comparison to all the abstract metaphysics I’ve been reading lately. But the metaphysical issues stuck out at me nonetheless. What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual? I think an object-orientation levels out this dichotomy in a helpful way. There are social interactions all the way down, with social norms being contested at every opportunity by the things performing them. Formative causes (wholes/souls) are not the result of a pre-existing morphogenic field floating atop the merely bodily interactions at a lower level, but are entangled in these interactions, responsible to them, subject to their revolutionary transformations. I think there is still a certain mystery to how cells become animals, or how the Führer can bring a nation of individuals together against a common enemy. But this mystery is present at every level of ontology, rather than just the social or the animal (or the human). How do parts become wholes? How do wholes become parts? Is there any authentic/artificial boundary to be drawn between those wholes found in nature (like elements, organisms, solar systems, galaxies) and those fabricated by humans (nation-states, artifacts, identities)? I suppose it is helpful to make distinctions here, but not ontological dichotomies.

Latour’s call to let objects back into sociology is related to what I was struggling to express earlier today in my blog about the mutually untranslatable (or at least folded and obscured) layers constituting reality. Latour writes on p. 240: “Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro.'” The relation to my thought was that certain objects exist only for other objects at the same level, and the narratives and social life they compose are only locally relevant. Sometimes these local layers come into contact with objects on other layers, whether more directly or more peripherally, and are able to narratively co-exist.

For instance, through the techniques developed by Claude Shannon, the language of human beings was translated into the informational terms of electronic beings to be amplified and mobilized at the speed of light across the world. These worlds, the human and the electronic, now co-exist narratively (though it is an asymmetrical co-existence, since humans seem to know more about what electrons mean than electrons know about what we mean).

But without a material link or trace of translation, one layer of beings cannot step outside its network of relations to grasp some ontologically more foundational macro-level ruling over all the local relations within it. This is the limit to knowledge placed on an object oriented knowledge. It is not an ultimate limit, though, since it leaves open the possibility that translational links to higher levels as yet undreamt of could be found.

Adam’s reply:

It seems to me that an appropriate compliment to any speculative practice or ontological schematizing (I think both words are still better than metaphysics) is almost always anthropology or political science. Metaphysics does baffling things to the brain (at least to this brain) and it is definitely helpful (essential?) to engage with sociological issues as Latour does, not just for the mental balancing this provides but more centrally because the whole point of studying ontology is in fact to be of service to the world by thinking through its basic structures carefully. Without a socio-political dimension ontology is for me bankrupt (though this doesn’t mean we have to reduce our ontological speculation to what we consider to be social or political). Latour is one of those few individuals who can handle both socio-historical issues and ontological ones with skill and competence.

Thinking through Latour’s paper on interobjectivity is difficult precisely because of the points you are raising (“What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual?”) If we, as Latour suggests, are able to extend the notion of society to nonhuman actors, then the question becomes whether or not we should think of human societies as different only in kind than in nature from other types of nonhuman societies. Historically this question seems to be a reductionist black hole (“its all nature,” “its all culture”). In this context appealing to naturalism or relativism is beside the point.

A flat ontology, which describes all objects/actors as equally “real” also leaves much to be desired in this regard. Even breaking up the flatness by distinguishing between “real” and “sensual” qualities does not push the notion of an ontology of politics far enough- though perhaps the inevitable negotiations between the real and the sensual does constitute a basis for considering social negotiations to be present on a cosmological level. OOO [object-oriented ontology], I think, is hard at work filling in the gaps, and there is definitely much more work to be done here.

Then there is the more mainstream view of someone like E.O. Wilson who writes:

“But what is Nature? The simplest possible answer is also the best: Nature is that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone.”

It becomes clear that the human/nature dichotomy is not a particularly helpful framework at this stage in the game, but none the less it goes to show how much more specific and accurate we could be in producing a realist (not just materialist) account of ecological relationships between the human and nonhuman world, and perhaps more crucially in this context, in accounting for ecological relationships on internal and external levels between nonhuman actors themselves. Wilson’s above statement would only make sense if ecology asserted itself as the study of the relationship between humans and their environment, but of course ecology is the study of organisms and their environments. Wilson’s odd claim in the above paragraph can be read as the consequence of hundreds of years of correlationist thinking- even a renowned scientist who studies the objective relationships between nonhuman organisms and their environments manages to lump the whole planet into two distinct categories- “nature” and “humans!” This strikes me as an ideological fallacy given that the biologist is the one for whom a real nonhuman world is the most central cornerstone of their worldview! That one can suggest that “Nature” can only be defined in the negative, as anything not human, implies that humans are the only ones capable of having an experience of a real world, a strange moment of cognitive dissonance indeed. I also find it quite plausible to consider the notion that the biologist and the ecologist do not necessarily have to engage in ecological thinking in order to perform their functions as scientists.

I suppose the question becomes which ecological schema one uses to understand concepts like evolution, culture or nature. For the niche-construction theorist for example the organism is constantly transforming its environment both mechanically by burrowing or building nests and so forth, and chemically by breathing out/secreting transformed chemical compounds that feed back into larger ecocyles. In this respect it is not just humans who are posed the question “what did Nature look like before I got here?” but it is in fact a question, perhaps not posed, but at least present, as a component of any organism’s relation to its environment. Strictly speaking, “environments” do not exist without organisms to surround, just as there can be no organism without an environment. Evolution is a historically contingent process for all organisms. For humans and for any other creature that would record its own history, this contingency is simply doubled by the fact that not only is our own developmental and evolutionary biology a historically contingent process, but the methods we use to interpret and structure our knowledge of those processes are also historically contingent- perhaps greatly more so. Thus I think it reasonable that, in their own species-specific way, all creatures experience a “Nature for me” versus a “Nature in itself” interpretive dilemma. I suppose any claim that humans and other organisms are in some way alike in their interpretive processes requires some disclaimer or permit which states “I have not partaken in the deadly sin of anthropomorphism” but I mean my comments more as thought excercises than as literal truisms (though I do find the possibility of amoeba debating the merits of an enlightenment view of nature over a romantic one rather entertaining- someone call Pixar!).

I think it’s a sad state of affairs when a scientist like Wilson has to resort to an almost dogmatic naturalism in order to refute an equally dogmatic anti-realist position. I understand Wilson’s assertion of “Nature” to be a call to recognize the world’s own objectivity – surely a worthy cause – in the context of the continued onslaught of postmodern philosophies that claim no such objective world can exist. But these two poles must be abandoned for both do damage to a genuine ecology of the real (perhaps an ecological realism?), which in my opinion is what Latour is aiming for. Latour paves a way out of naturalism and relativism, his notion of interobjectivity alongside of various new approaches to evolution such as Niche-Construction Theory (NCT) are promising endeavors in articulating a more comprehensive view of ecology- one that would take multiple perspectives seriously as ontological positions and not just as epistemological variations on an incomprehensible reality. I also agree that ontological distinctions need to be made, whilst avoiding ontological dichotomies. I am compelled by the thought that the notion of ecology can produce the kind of ontological stratification that these issues require. I think a three-fold model of ecology (what I’ve been calling Nature, Media and Knowledge), coupled with a four-fold approach to actors (objective, subjective, participatory and object-oriented) could clear some of this up. I’m excited to see how all of this develops.

My subsequent response:

I would want to preserve the more general category “metaphysics,” because there are at least three modes of ontological schematizing that are different enough to deserve their own sub-categories: there is ontology, the study of the Being of beings; there is onticology, the study of beings; and there is cosmology, the study of the relation between Being and beings.

I think ontology touches politics most closely through cosmology, and so a cosmopolitics is definitely the right route to take in thinking the relation between Being and beings (mysticla or revelatory relations?), and that between and among beings themselves (political relations). A cosmopolitics would require that the human/universe divide be demoted from a unique ontological chasm to just another ontic example of a tension that exists between sensuality and reality for all finite beings. But this still leaves the other mode of ontological schematizing, that concerned with Being itself. The concept of infinity broke open the medieval conception of Being as a static perfection. The modern and postmodern conception of Being, if such a concept can still be said to effectively exist, is uncertain, alienated, and skeptical: ontology has been associated with mere dogmatism or naïveté. But for a cosmopolitics to be possible, not only must a society’s conception of beings be democratic, its approach to the study Being must be constructive (not merely transcendental or critical). Dogmatic theism is here no more helpful than atheism, since without some positive conception of Being, beings will always lack the full individual reality that prevents each one from being exhausted by its relations to others. Democracy requires that there be a relation between creator and each individual creature; otherwise what is the sameness that each being participates in allowing us to call our ontology “flat”? What is the common though subterranean topology that all things share if not Being? Infinity demands a conception of Being as non-All, as incomplete but always in the process of completion (like Whitehead’s God). This leaves each being room to transform, to surprise itself and others by undoing and overcoming the restrictions leveled upon it by its qualities and relations. Being holds all beings in ontic co-existence while also infinitely distinguishing each being from its relations. Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic of particular–>universal–>individual is relevant here: beings would be lost in their own solipsistic particularity without any universal relation to Being; only through this relation do beings become true individuals.

Society still seems to pose a problem in the above scheme, since somehow many beings on one level exist in enduring relationships that produce a single being on another level (as in multicellular animals). Cells provide the matter that receives the form of the animal, while on an adjacent level, molecules provide the matter that receives the form of each cell. Which is the true society, the molecules or the cells? Is an animal-being more real, or more complete, than a molecule-being? Is it more “complex,” in Latour’s sense of being composed of more simultaneous interactions? If these part/whole and matter/form relations continue indefinitely into the micro- and macrocosm, measures of complexity seem arbitrary. Is everything really form, or really matter? Is society a superorganism obeying a necessity higher than any of its replaceable subjects, or is it the accidental cumulative effect of the activity of individuals? Perhaps society can no longer refer to a relation among the same, but must include relations between beings on varying levels of emergence. This would entail the ecologization of the concept of society, which I think may be more to the point than Latour’s “naturalization” of society/”socialization” of nature.

The Spirit of Intrahuman Dialogue: A Meditation

The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.


“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.

Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?

Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?

Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.

The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).

But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being[1]), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.

The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.

This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).

Works Cited

1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

2. Panikkar, Raimon.

—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist    Press.

—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.

[1] I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.

Teilhard de Chardin and the Christ-Cosmos Correlation

Speculative realism has emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human existence against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).

In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all.

Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon (1999)  to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos.

“With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things–the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge” (AoE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.

“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution–which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation grows. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation. Anthropogenesis is now culminating in Christogenesis.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire” (AoE, p. 280).


Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…