Author: Sam Mickey
Let’s look at chapter two of AIME. As in the introduction and first chapter, Latour touches on a lot of issues in the second chapter, and a lot of questions and possible criticisms still remain. We should bear in mind that we’re still early in the book, and Latour is imagining a reader who is patient and kind, demanding a final reckoning only at the end of the inquiry, not “after only a few pages” (p. 67).
Collecting Documents, Collecting Category Mistakes—
In chapter 2, we’re “Collecting Documents for the Inquiry,” documents that will allow us to distinguish between different “experiences” and the “accounts” usually given of them, while also distinguishing between those usual accounts and the new accounts (or new constitution) that we are composing together (p. 48, cf. 11). Our documents are going to include a “vast chart” of category mistakes, which Latour defines by distinguishing them from mistakes of the senses. A sense mistake can be corrected by accruing more information (e.g., correcting one’s perception of a snake by looking closer and seeing that it’s only a rope), but it doesn’t require a change in one’s “interpretive key.” In contrast, a category mistake can only be corrected by changing one’s very interpretive key (e.g., recognizing that you were wrong to interpret a legal ‘cased closed’ as if its closure is in the same category as your psychological desire for closure). Translation note: a category mistake is a mistake “of direction” (de sens), in contrast to a mistake “of the senses” (des sens) (p. 51). (Is his choice of words drawing attention to an inherent ambiguity between these two kinds of mistakes?)
Category, Interpretive Key—
Latour’s definition of category mistakes is unique. Category mistake is not meant to conjure Gilbert Ryle, and furthermore, the term category is not meant to refer to predication or to ideal essences. Latour attempts to recover a pre-Aristotelian meaning of the word category as kata-agorein: “How to talk about or against something or someone in public” (p. 59). A category is a certain tonality, an interpretive key (resonating with the musical meaning of key). Worse than a sense mistake or category mistake is the “mistake squared”: the very Modern mistake that assumes that there is only one way to judge truth conditions, one Reason or objective knowledge, which excludes any other possible key (pp. 58, 66). For Latour, the concept of a category mistake is supposed to help follow “a plurality of reasons” (p. 66). There are many keys and tonalities in the symphony of existence, although I’m not sure if Latour accounts for atonality at all. What about ways of speaking that don’t center or settle on a particular key (like a book that can be read as a novel or as a metaphysical treatise)?
Many Obstacles and Many Paths—
A mistake of sense is like an obstacle on a path, whereas a category mistake (of direction) means you picked the wrong path or don’t know which path to take (p. 53). A sense mistake is like picking up the wrong novel in the bookstore, a category mistake is like looking for a novel in the cookbook section. Collecting documents for our inquiry means collecting category mistakes—mistakes of direction, “hesitations” between different paths (different interpretive keys, genres). Understanding these hesitations will help us understand the abundance and diversity of categories: “the plurality of interpretive keys” (p. 56). Latour introduces two expressions to distinguish between the obstacles found along a path (sense mistakes) and the decision to take one interpretive path instead of another. The obstacles are matters of felicity or infelicity conditions (the truth/falsity conditions found along a particular path), and the path that constitutes an interpretive key is called a preposition. With the latter term, we have another three-letter code: preposition as [PRE].
Prepositions cause trouble for Actor-Network Theory, since ANT focuses primarily on [NET] and not sufficiently on [PRE] (63f). Accounting for prepositions, Latour also wants us to account for the “Crossings” where networks and prepositions meet, a crossing he designates as [NET · PRE] (p. 63). In other words, along with collecting all of our trials and errors regarding categories (prepositions), we also have to map out the different ways those prepositions intersect with networks. Crossings are crucial for AIME: “the crossings of all the modes will have to form the heart of our inquiry” (p. 56).
Law and Religion—
Latour uses examples of law and religion to distinguish between different kinds of prepositions, in this case they are almost opposite prepositions, at least insofar as law has survived the tests of modernism better than religion. Law has a unique form of reason, a unique interpretive key, which has endured in institutional form from antiquity through modernity. Its path has moved alongside the sciences, with its own rational approach to truth and falsity distinct from scientific approaches, yet still respected. Religion, on the other hand, supposedly has been marginalized by modern society as irrational, not only because moderns adopted an interpretive key that excluded other keys, but also because religions “too have lost the interpretive key that would allow them to speak well about what matters to them” (p. 61). I’m not sure where religious law would fit into all of this (e.g., Sharia in Islam or Halakha in Judaism, both of which, incidentally, can be translated fairly literally as “path”).
Now that we’ve got NET and PRE types and their crossing, we’re catching a glimpse of how complex and intricate this is going to get. I’m excited to see where it goes. I’ve hinted at a few questions and possible criticisms, but nothing major. I’ll try to be the patient and kind reader of Latour’s imagination (the reader of his dreams).