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  • Locke's Pineapple and the History of Taste
  • Sean R. Silver (bio)

The problem with empiricism, the argument goes, is that it doesn't know that it is an ideology. Its mistake is to assume that the objects of sensation can be isolated from the cultural background of experience, that the matters of fact produced by the methods of empirical inquiry can be isolated from the ideological positions that those methods imply. On the contrary, one might object, matters are more than simply matters of fact; the empirical view of the object is far from being objective. As Bruno Latour puts it, "reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial . . . very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs."1 The contours of the fact, one might say, and even the qualities of the objectivity which it implies, are shaped by the demands and pressures of its historical context. Nor is this claim very surprising for one who is familiar either with the major themes of Latour's career, or, indeed, with the key claims of postmodernism in the humanities. Empirical science, we know by now, declines its own cultural investments; what we need, according to this line of philosophical inquiry, is an empiricism sensitive to its own assumptions as ideological choices embedded in particularized historical conditions. Latour is often summoned up as a champion of exactly this position.

So it may surprise the student of Latour to hear that he has recently claimed that he is a champion of empiricism, of a renewed form of scientific inquiry which he calls a "second empiricism." While we are right to insist that matters of fact reflect the ideological states of affairs in which they are embedded, it is nevertheless wrong, Latour continues, to think these states of affairs describe the entire content of the fact. It is not right to think that "matters" are only "matters of concern." For the real world, so this argument goes, has a reality which is not reducible to the discourse about that reality. Facts attend to the failures, energies, and contingencies of a material world which [End Page 43] has its own potentials and limitations just as much as they are embedded in particular ideological fields. As such, the "next task for the critically minded" is "not fighting empiricism"—indeed, this seems to be the problem"—but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism." Latour's call is for an empiricism that can be savvy about cultural matters—that can be smart about its constructedness—but also for a humanism which is smart about the real conditions of the world it helps to structure. This is what the "second empiricism" is meant to accomplish.2

I'd like to suggest, however, that Latour's "second empiricism" may look very much like empiricism's first empiricism. I propose, in developing this claim, a return to one of the foundational moments in the empirical tradition, John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I propose this return partly to clarify what I take to be one easy misreading of Locke's claims about the status of sensory experience; Locke, I will suggest, doesn't provide a very good model of what "empiricism" has come to mean, or even what Latour characterizes as the ontological status of the empirical fact as such. But I also hope a return to a specific and famous moment in Locke's Essay will help illuminate a point of intersection between two fields—aesthetic criticism and empirical science—which exist partly because they constitutively refuse to recognize their own moments of overlap. This famous moment, Locke's turn to the pineapple as an example of the object of sense, is a single historical gesture which might be thought to inaugurate both taste understood as an aesthetic faculty (indeed, an implicitly ideological aesthetic faculty) and taste understood as the effect of a chemical process. Inasmuch as empirical science and aesthetic criticism partly depend for their rhetorical force on disavowing the mutuality of their vocabularies, they are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0201
Print ISSN
0193-5380
Pages
pp. 43-65
Launched on MUSE
2008-04-26
Open Access
No
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