Collecting Documents for the Inquiry: Summary of Chapter 2

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).


9 responses to “Collecting Documents for the Inquiry: Summary of Chapter 2

  1. Pingback: AIME Research Group Moves Forward | Knowledge Ecology

  2. Thanks Sam for the solid intro. I agree it is important not to get ahead of ourselves.
    I’d just like to add a few comments on two levels to your discussion of NET and PRE, with the second level posing a problem I’ll have in mind as I read forward to see whether Latour addresses it and, if so, how.

    As you say, PRE needs to be added to NET. Evidently the combination “authorizes” the whole inquiry (63); it even seems to be the condition of “existence” (62).

    My first level charts the steps that seem to me to lead Latour to decide PRE needs to be added. Step one: On 62, he notes how NET liberates one from “some supposedly uncrossable borders–which the Moderns constantly cross, however–between nature and culture . . . the human and the nonhuman,” etc. This is a development from We Have Never Been Modern, where p. 12 suggests the “premoderns” conceptualized hybrids, then didn’t create many, while “moderns” didn’t conceptualize them, which seemed to facilitate creating them recklessly. NET fills this conceptual gap. Step two: But resistance to NET inhibits moving forward. Latour’s investigator senses that NET fails “to capture something that seems essential in the eyes of her informants” (63); NET is “too limited to distinguish the values to which the informants cling to doggedly” (64). Step three: Add PRE so that the anthropologist can talk to her informants in terms of their “interpretive keys.” This enables “speaking well” to her “interlocutors” (64; see also 58). In the context of the steps listed at 64-65, one can see the reason for the earlier revision of the notion of “category.” Step four: NET and PRE together allow one “TO EXPLORE” the crucial “gap” (65), which is the aim of the chapter (48).

    Level two: The problem is that NET is also a PRE, as Latour indicates when he adds NET to three other PRE’s: law, science, religion (62). See also 63: “in an exploration of the [PRE] type, networks [NET] are now only one type of trajectory among others.” It seems, then, that NET is a PRE that is privileged in some way. This is the problem that needs addressing. Reading forward, I’ll be on the lookout for what Latour does about it. I’ll be particularly on the lookout for places where he fulfills his promise to address Metaphysical matters (19).

    One suspects the “everything is mediated” argument is involved. This was a revolutionary argument in the US in the 1970s, but it is now a commonplace, although it still seems to be “news” to some. Latour helped to make it a commonplace. One difficulty that became clear over the decades is that the argument works better when you’re attacking than when you’re advocating.

    Latour’s ecological concerns are a sign of his interest in advocacy. 64-65 is a kind of program for advocacy.

    I’m looking forward to see what develops in later chapters.

  3. I haven’t received any posts recently–curious to know what, if anything, is happening.

    Please advise. Thanks.

    • Hi Bob, new posts arrive every two weeks or sooner. The next scheduled post will come up between now and September 28. A full schedule of upcoming posts for Section 1 of the book is available here:

      You’re also free to submit your own posts in addition to the ones listed on the schedule.

      • Thank you for the quick reply. I did respond to Sam Mickey’s summary of ch 2. But there were a lot of responses to the ch 1 summary. The same thing doesn’t seem to be happening for ch 2. That’s what made me curious.
        Again, thanks.

  4. Thanks for your response(s), Bob. Regarding the lack of responses to this post (in contrast to the numerous responses to the chapter 1 criticisms), I want to give a few hypotheses. First, the opening paragraph in my summary almost explicitly discourages responses, enjoining readers to be patient and stay with the text before questioning or criticizing the whole project.

    Second, I think Latour’s addition of “prepositions” probably doesn’t resonate with a lot of people that read Latour. His emphasis on interpretation is basically a problem of hermeneutics, but the folks that study Dilthey, Gadamer, and Ricoeur aren’t often in dialogue with the folks studying ANT and Latour. This is Latour’s point that PRE troubles ANT. For all Latour’s use of the term “translation” throughout his writings, it is always translation within a particular interpretive key. Circulating references about soil between a few scientists is just NET. It has nothing to do with translation in the hermeneutic sense (Gadamer’s fusion of horizons, Horizontverschmelzung). Everything is mediated, but that’s different than recognizing the different prepositions that provide directions of mediation.

    One of Latour’s implications here is something that I think is very hard for many of Latour’s readers to take seriously: we need to do religious studies (which is not just anthropology). Science studies is extremely narrow-minded (an epistemological straight-jacket) compared to what Latour is proposing here. “Modes of existence” is all fun and games until somebody says that we need to learn how to speak about God. Remember the epigraph of AIME: Si scires donum Dei — If you knew the gift of God!

    Third, like a candle that burns brightest immediately after it is lit, the amount and intensity of responses to chapter one are indicative of the enthusiasm of new beginnings. At this point, a lot of us got our general reactions to the project as a whole out of our systems. We’re sinking in, feeling the rhythm of the long haul…ebbs and flows.

  5. Hi Fellow Latoriacs
    Perhaps we could all post a pulse check on our progress?
    I for one am finding it hard to keep my (PRE’s) straight. I’m not sure about what crossings I am seeing. For example, is this latest email from a colleague a [POL-ORG] or [POL-DC] or [NET-FIC] or [HAB-MOR] or [REF-REP] or all the above +. Perhaps we can do an experiment and take a sample email and annotate it with PRE’s and share, in order presumably, to get better at avoiding category mistakes? I suppose Latour just scans his emails and all the PRE’s just appear to him in his mind’s eye?

  6. On the three hypotheses:

    1) Nothing is gained by telling people not to read in terms of their preferred modes of existence, but rather according to one’s own favoured mode. It shows no respect for the work they have done, and it is bad method as well. Reading is interpretation, and such reading is plurimodal. It cannot be contained within the borders of one domain. Reading is tied to pluralism and intensity, it “takes into account the fact that a border indicates less a dividing line between two homogeneous sets than an intensification of crossborder traffic between foreign elements” (AIME, 30).

    2) Hermeneutics is thus essential to Latour’s thought, and to reading his books. I like the idea of a list of authors as hermeneutic horizon, but I would include none of those cited on a short list of biographical influences or interpretative context. Rather precedence should be given to Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and Deleuze.

    3) Some good work of exegesis has been done in view of the intensification of our reading experience. I do not see Philip’s commentaries as “getting general reactions to the project as a whole out of his system”. It was a good hermeneutic reading, and that certainly involves not just linear rote summary, but global framing, wandering trajectories, and plurimodal intensities, including critical intensity (something that Latour is full of, despite his inveighing against “critique”).

    I agree with the necessity of “religious studies”, but there is nothing in this book, or any other of Latour’s, to show that he has done any field work on this subject, as he has done for Science and Law and Technology. That is a very serious defect of AIME. Religious studies is not the same thing as speaking religiously, nor is speaking religiously necessarily speaking about God. The religious is a mode of veridiction, not a content or a special name. It directs our attention (to the nearest and the neighbour). If I read Latour’s book with attention, as neighbour, with all I’ve got, then I am reading it religiously whether I speak of God or not.

  7. With regard to my commentary on ch.1, I wrote that critique for a few reasons.

    First, that was just something that jumped out at me as obviously problematic. My academic background is in international relations and the trope that I highlighted has appeared in Latour’s work several times before. It’s something that’s frustrated me before because I think that it’s a lazy and unnecessary rhetorical device that effectively abuses something that should be taken very seriously (how dare he not share my interests?!?!).

    Secondly, it was something specific that I could write about in detail. The first post I wrote was very general and summative (no one really picked up on anything in that post either). Sometimes it’s difficult to find somewhere to start. This is particularly true in the opening chapters which are really just setting the scene for the rest of the book. That place seemed as good as any.

    Third, I think it was a good illustration of the fact that we need to read Latour carefully, not just with respect to his argument, which is getting quite complex, but also with regard to his self-presentation and rhetorical strategies, which aren’t always straightforward or innocent. He’s a tricky rhetorician (not a bad thing at all but that’s how it is) and I think that we need to be sure to read between the lines as well as reading the lines themselves.

    Fourth, I wanted to set a critical tone from the outset. I like Latour’s work a lot but I think a reading group should be about more than just helping each other through the text, we should be prepared to criticise what we’re reading as we’re reading it, even if that means that we might have to revise our views later on (that’s my approach, anyway).

    Lastly, my concluding comments about Latour’s political project being ‘hamstrung from the beginning’ (or something like that) did indulge in a little bit of devil’s advocate. I fully stand by the substance of my argument but in the conclusion I tried to push my analysis as far as I could in order to be provocative.

    With regard to ‘not getting ahead of ourselves,’ yes of course we’ve only just started reading this book – that’s fair enough. However, large parts of the argument are quite predictable on the basis of Latour’s previous work so there’s no need to arbitrarily postpone judgement either. If that makes me the impatient reader of Latour’s nightmares, so be it! I shall adapt my views to the fluctuations of evidence if and when I am perturbed to do so.

    Anyway, where the book starts to get really new and interesting (I think) is in the next chapter on REF. I’m enjoying this part a lot. I think we’re going to have much more to talk about in the next few weeks. Given the preponderance of religious scholars (of one kind or another) here the REL chapters should be interesting too. I may play the role of belligerent atheist.

    (I suppose my basic point here is that our reading practices need to be not just analytical and collegial but also dialectical and agonistic – things that are abundantly evident in Latour’s own writing practices.)

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