Schelling’s Philosophy of Freedom

The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.  It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.


The Nature of Human Freedom

By Matthew T. Segall

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.

The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:

it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21

From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31

 

Footnotes

1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.

6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

23 Matthew 5:39.

24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

26 John 3:5.

27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse: Plato, William James, & W.E.B. Du Bois

I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.

Here’s a PDF transcript of the lecture

Bruno Latour’s Gaian Political Aesthetics

Excerpted from Waiting for Gaia.
“…it became possible for scholars to follow with the same instruments that allow us to trace the production of science (search engines, scientometrics and bibliometric tools, maps of the blogospheres), the people, lobbies, credentials, and money flows of those who insisted on making it a controversy. I am thinking here of the work of Naomi Oreskes or of James Hoggan. How interesting to see the connections made between big oil, cigarette manufacturing, antiabortionists, creationists, Republicans and a worldview made of very few humans and very few natural entities. If it is cosmograms against cosmograms, then let’s compare cosmograms with one another. That’s what politics has become. Let’s pit the worlds against one another since it is a war of worlds. I tried to introduce in philosophy the word composition and ‘compositionism’ just for that reason. Not only because it has a nice connection with compost, but also because it describes exactly what sort of politics could follow the path of climate science. The task might not be to “liberate climatology” from the undue weight of political influence (this is what Texas governor Rick Perry claims: scientists are in it for grant money and the opportunity to advance a socialist agenda that even Lenin failed to impose on the courageous Yankees). On the contrary, the task is to follow the threads with which climatologists have built the models needed to bring the whole Earth on stage. With this lesson in hand we begin to imagine how to do the same in our efforts to assemble a political body able to claim its part of responsibility for the Earth’s changing state. After all, this mix up of science and politics is exactly what is embodied in the very notion of anthropocene: why would we go on trying to separate what geologists, earnest people if any, have themselves intermingled? Actually, the spirit of our tongue has said that all along, having already connected humus, humane and humanity. We the Earthlings are born from the soil and from the dust to which we will return, and this is why what we used to call ‘the humanities’ are also, from now on, our sciences.”

“What if we talked politics a little?” By Bruno Latour

“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”

Responding to the Alt-Right

After replying to an alt-right tweet this morning, I somehow fell through an interdimensional hyperlink and found myself reading Atlantic Centurion’s blog. Here’s his post explaining the 7 pillars of the alt-right. He elaborates on each of the seven here.

I felt like offering a few reactions to each of them, which I’ll write in blue below (I’ll paste AC’s pillars in red).

  1. Understanding human difference, e.g. race, sex, ethnicity, intelligence, abilities, genetics, moral foundations, etc. As someone who often finds himself defending both ontological and political pluralism, I can’t help but agree here that human difference, like all difference, is real and must be acknowledged as such. This acknowledgement has social, cultural, and political consequences.  The point is that we must attend to one another’s differences in a just and responsible way. But our difference doesn’t mean we aren’t all still human, and even more foundationally, that we aren’t all still earthlings. The evolutionary history of this planet is a geostory of relationship and symbiogenesis, not a war of each against all. Difference is inescapable, but individual and clade differences always arise in concert with one another as part of a single earthbound (earthbound but not impermeable to astronomical intrusion) evolutionary process. In other words, organisms always evolve ecologically. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or, as Whitehead puts it, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”  So while I agree even a free and just society cannot promise equal outcomes to everyone, I must add that, to qualify as a freedom and justice loving society, it must at least strive to provide equal opportunity to all. Otherwise it is a tyranny or a state of war, not a society.
  2. Recognizing the reality of tribe, that there is no universal man but a world of rooted identities.
    That humans have tribal tendencies cannot be denied. But I for one am not willing to artificially delimit the possible breadth and depth of a human being’s cosmic and moral identity. We are not simply selfishly driven skin-encapsulated egos. Yes, we are born to parents in particular locations and enculturated in unique ways. We are rooted, but behind our merely human identities, we are also rooted in the Earth, an expression of its multibillion year symbiogenetic geostorical adventure. Unless humans begin to take our earthbound nature seriously very soon, we will drive ourselves into extinction. The task of forming a planetary identity so that we can act to address our collective ecological problems has never been more urgent. This needn’t mean annihilating our personal, familial, and more local identities. It’s a both/and thing.Human history itself at least appears to display something like an evolutionary trajectory, even if it is not a simple progression. Spiral Dynamics captures this well enough (though things get knotted up once you reach the “integral” stage, imo).  sprialdynamics-aqal-large7
    Tribalism is a simpler, primal form of human organization, a form long since advanced upon. When the civil order decays, there is always a chance humans will slide back into tribalism. But thankfully, tribalism is not the only social reality humans are capable of constructing. 
  3. Rejecting anti-Whiteness, the belief that Whites are exceptionally wrong and should not be allowed to have collective interests as a people.
    If we are to compose a society together based on the values of freedom and justice (and this willingness to compose a common world together cannot be assumed in advance, though the only alternative I know of on this crowded planet is war), then we must do so on the basis of a shared identity deeper than the shade of our skin. This doesn’t mean we pretend our differences don’t exist, or that we ignore racism by pretending we are colorblind; it means that for the purposes of democratic politics, we play our proper part as citizens of the cosmos, not as parochial bigots. White identity politics leads nowhere. Human evolution is convergent. 
  4. Gender roles matter, men and women are similar in many ways but complementary rather than “equal.”
    Sure they matter. But who says gender—and sex, for that matter—haven’t always been transforming over the course of natural and cultural evolution? Nature is composed of relational processes, not static essences. Nature is way queerer than the alt-right imagines. Gender, in our and most species, is a fluid spectrum. Sexual desire can never be fully domesticated by cultural norms. Get over it. 
  5. Responsibility over freedom, unchecked freedom and individualism lead to social harms.
    This is why the role of childcare and education is so important in democratic societies. The values of freedom and justice have to be cultivated collectively via rituals of mutual recognition. We are not simply born free individuals. Individuality is in large part a gift from the communities that raise us. Only if we are cared for in this way by our society will we grow up to express and realize our freedom responsibly, passing these values on to the next generation through social reproduction.
  6. Limited franchise, not everyone is qualified to decide the fate of nations by pulling a lever, sorry.
    Oh, I see AC is not interested in a democratic society. Perhaps this is a waste of time…
  7. The Jewish Question, recognizing that elite overseas Israelis promote policies which are in the net harmful to their White hosts.
    Yep, hopeless. 

Thinking Law, Politics, and other Modes of Existence with Bruno Latour

Below I’ve pasted a couple of excerpts from Latour’s work on politics and law.

“Why do we regret that politicians ‘don’t tell the truth’? Why do we demand that they be ‘more transparent’? Why do we want ‘less distance between representatives and those whom they represent’? Even more absurd, why do we wish that ‘politicians wouldn’t change their minds all the time’, ‘wouldn’t turn their coats for the slightest reason’? These demands, repeated throughout the press like a complaint, a rumbling, a shout or, rather, like a mort, are good sense in appearance only, for they all amount to judging the conditions of felicity of one regime of talk in relation to those of another. The denigration of political talk would never be possible without this ignorance of its key, of its own peculiar tone, of its spin as English-language newspapers so accurately (albeit, mockingly) put it.

First, let us put an end to an ambiguity, an imposture: under no circumstances can double-click information don the white coat of scientific method to defend its right to represent the rectilinear way of faithful talk. If politicians are to be hated for their lies, what can be said about scientists? Demanding that scientists tell the truth directly, with no laboratory, no instruments, no equipment, no processing of data, no writing of articles, no conferences or debates, at once, extemporaneously, naked, for all to see, without stammering nor babbling, would be senseless. If the demand for transparent and direct truth makes understanding of the political curve impossible, remember that it would make the establishment of ‘referential chains’ by scientists even more impracticable. The direct, the transparent and the immediate suit neither complex scientific assemblages nor tricky constructions of political talk, as Gaston Bachelard has so amply shown. If we start making direct and transparent processes the supreme law of any progress, then all scientists are liars and manipulators, and all politicians corrupt bastards. The ‘crisis of representation’ has nothing to do with a sudden loss of quality by politicians or scientists; it emerges as soon as we impose the impossible yoke of transferring double-click information to practices with very different goals. A stupid question deserves a stupid answer. One could just as well complain about the poor quality of a modem that was incapable of percolating coffee ordered on the Internet!

If we turn from the demand for transparent information and focus a little more directly on the conditions of felicity peculiar to political discourse, we discover an entirely different demand for truthfulness. Political discourse appears to be untruthful only in contrast with other forms of truth. In and for itself it discriminates truth from falsehood with stupefying precision. It is not indifferent to truth, as it is so unjustly accused of being; it simply differs from all the other regimes in its judgement of truth. What then is its touchstone, its litmus test? It aims to allow to exist that which would not exist without it: the public as a temporarily defined totality. Either some means has been provided to trace a group into existence, and the talk has been truthful; or no group has been traced, and it is in vain that people have talked.

-Latour, “What if we Talked Politics a Little?”


“…you might object that I observed not ‘legal reasoning’ but the ways French administrative law judges (and they are not even judges but political appointees, former ministers, heads of public companies, journalists, etc.) think legally. That’s where I somewhat disagree. Anthropology of law has this interesting feature in that – contrary to, let’s say, anthropology of science, my original field – there was never any question that all cultures have law. It might differ in content; the conclusion might horrify the ethnographer – or the plaintiff; the circuitous route of reasoning might look incredibly farfetched; there might be blood all along; but it is always recognizable as tracing the path of something – quite elusive I agree – that we all call ‘legal’. So, yes, a case study will always be just a case study, and it should not be generalized too much, but the whole book that you, hopefully, are going to accept to read is based on the assumption that the English-speaker does not need to learn about ‘French administrative law’ (unless they wish to) but about the passage or the transit of law, a question that, naturally, can be highlighted only thanks to a detailed case study but that may become, in the end, rather independent from it. The true reason why I invested so much energy in this field work (I found, on the whole, law much more technical and difficult to follow than science or technology) is that it was precisely to compare the passage of law with the other types of enunciation regimes I had studied up till then (or have studied since). I belong to a small group of social theorists who believe that we have been pretty wrong in providing a ‘social’ explanation of anything—science, religion, politics, technology, economics, law and so on. Far from being what should provide the source of explanation of those phenomena, what we loosely call ‘the social’ is rather the result of what has been produced by types of connection (‘associations’ in my terminology) that are established by scientific, religious, political, technological, economical or legal connectors. If this theory (now called ‘Actor Network Theory’ or ‘ANT’) is even vaguely right, there is a paramount interest in defining, as precisely as possible, what it means to connect some association, let’s say, religiously, or scientifically, or politically, etc. The use of the adverbial form is crucial to the argument, since there may be a great gap between speaking about politics or religion and speaking politically or religiously. It’s much easier to understand, and it will become even clearer in what follows, that there is similarly an immense difference, very easy to grasp, between speaking about law and speaking legally. In the last thirty years, I have done much field work to define the scientific way of establishing connections: what I called ‘reference’. The book you are about to read is the Laboratory Life, not for the construction of facts, but for the construction of legal arguments (‘moyens de droit’). In the same way that I had been able to extract, from one admittedly limited set of case studies, a plausible definition of what it was to speak scientifically of some state of affairs, I have tried here, through another carefully devised set of ethnographic devices, to extract, to educe, to highlight a plausible definition of what it is to speak legally of a tort. My overall point, my general contention, is that we can’t possibly provide a positive anthropology of the Moderns (who, I remind you, have never been modern, but that is only a negative definition: what have they been, then?) as long as we don’t have a clear comparative study of the various ways in which the central institutions of our cultures produce truth. And clearly there are several types of felicity conditions for the various kinds of truth production (scientific, legal, religious, etc.) that define the former Moderns. There exists an inner pluralism in the way truth production is defined among the Moderns – which does not mean that they are indifferent to truth, quite the opposite. It is actually what makes law so interesting.”

Preface to Latour’s The Making of Law

inside_the_united_states_supreme_court