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  • Methodologies of Travel: William James and the Ambulatory Pragmatism of Bruno Latour

This article argues for the methodological resonance shared by Bruno Latour and William James in order to understand Latour’s affiliation with pragmatism. Unlike many readers of Latour, I suggest that his relation with pragmatism is primarily methodological rather than primarily ontological. To clarify this, I look to the resonances between James’s methodological pragmatism and Latour’s actor-network methodology. Latour’s pragmatism resonates with James’s as it incorporates a methodological focus on practices and objects, and as it furthers underdeveloped themes of motion in James’s pragmatism. This methodological alliance, I argue, consists in a modification of the metaphoric of method from one of Cartesian construction to one of movement and travel.


Pragmatism, actor-network theory, methodology, Bruno Latour, William James


In a 2006 interview, Bruno Latour, distancing himself from the French philosopher Alain Badiou, casually remarks, “I’m the only French pragmatist, so it winds up that I have absolutely no contact with the French” (Bova and Latour 2006, 113). [End Page 571] Latour’s remark is curious insofar as the work performed by the coupling reveals his own dissociation of French philosophy with pragmatism. If Latour is French, he cannot possibly be a pragmatist, but if he is a pragmatist, he cannot possibly be French, so better to refer to himself by this new hybrid, “French pragmatist.”

Perhaps it is not so peculiar for Latour to describe himself as a “pragmatist,” since references to classical pragmatist figures like William James and John Dewey sporadically surface in works like Pandora’s Hope (1999), Politics of Nature (2004b), and Reassembling the Social (2005). But these references are made haphazardly, often without relevant page citations and drawn from a wide variety of texts including James’s Principles of Psychology (1890), Pragmatism (1907), and The Meaning of Truth (1909), as well as Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) and The Public and Its Problems (1927).1 Though Latour’s citations of James and Dewey are sparse and unsystematic, the significance of James’s account of truth comes to the fore in the second chapter of Pandora’s Hope, where he makes use of James’s distinction between “saltatory” and “ambulatory” relations from Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth.2

In light of a recent turn to ontology within Latour’s own work (Latour 2002, 2013), contemporary scholars such as Graham Harman (2009) and Jane Bennett (2010) have offered accounts of the relation between Latour and pragmatism along ontological lines (see also Salinas 2014 and Savransky 2012). By reading Latour’s pragmatism through the lens of ontology, both Harman and Bennett argue for the ontological kinship of pragmatism and Latourian actor-network theory through accounts of “object-oriented ontology” and “vibrant materialism” respectively.3 In The Prince of Networks, Harman accounts for the antidualist pretensions of Latour by invoking a “realism of relations,” a position that places humans and nonhumans along a single ontological plane (Harman 2009, 73–75). Bennett deploys Latour’s work in order to forward a “more distributive agency” that cuts across the human/nonhuman divide in her new materialist ontology (Bennett 2010, ix). Both accounts resonate with pragmatist themes of nondualism between matter and mind, the natural and the social, and radical empiricism.4

While Harman and Bennett provide one possible way of interpreting the status of Latour’s pragmatism in terms of his ontological commitments, I explore here his pragmatism through his methodological concerns, and leave his ontology for another occasion. In distinguishing [End Page 572] metaphysics and methodology, my point is not to establish a dichotomy between them. Rather, in recognizing the difference between a distinction and a dichotomy, my only claim is that they are distinguishable but not oppositional.5

This distinction bears significant metaphilosophical consequences for how we think about philosophy today. Before turning to the details of these consequences, I would first note their relevance to recent scholarship in terms of the way that Harman’s uptake of Latour construes the philosophical import of his work primarily in terms of metaphysics at the expense of his interventions in the status and exercise of methodology for critical inquiry. As I argue, we not only miss these methodological interventions if we commit our full attention to Latour’s substantive metaphysical claims, we also neglect the fecund possibilities that pragmatism offers as a methodology—that is, as an orientation that prepares us for movement and travel by suggesting we focus on the dynamics of action and conduct. To be sure, Latour’s contributions to metaphysics also bear an affinity to James’s radical empiricism.6 But I do not pursue these affinities here in light of contemporary critiques advanced by scholars as diverse as Richard Rorty, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida concerning the metaphilosophical status of metaphysics.7 These and other philosophers worry that metaphysics entails an epistemological commitment to foundationalism. Without entering these debates, my own claim for the present article is that pragmatism is primarily, but not solely, a methodology.

To clarify Latour’s pragmatism, I look to the resonances between James’s methodological pragmatism and Latour’s actor-network methodology. Like James’s method of pragmatism, Latour’s methodology focuses on differences produced in a field of action. In addition to emphasizing practice, Latour attends to the objects encountered in the context of specific practices. This focus on nonhuman objects contributes something that is often underemphasized by James, who concentrates especially on differences made in human practice, namely, the mediating role of objects.8

Once we recognize this methodological resonance, we can then see how Latour operationalizes a crucial aspect of the pragmatist method, concerning the ambulatory quality of method itself, which remains underdeveloped in James. By attending to Latour’s methodological reflections in Reassembling the Social and Pandora’s Hope, I suggest that we redeploy the concept of ambulation that Latour inherits from James to describe the mobility of his methodology. In this respect, Latour’s methodological [End Page 573] pragmatism is significant because, by slowly and continuously rendering unstable associations traceable, the field of possible action opens beyond the scope of human actors to include nonhuman actants.

In developing lines of resonance between James and Latour, this article aims to contribute to scholarship in metaphilosophical pluralism. Such pluralistic work can be witnessed in the growth of recent literature exploring connections between pragmatism and Continental philosophy. While this literature has focused more on links with French philosophical figures such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, less work has been done connecting Latour with pragmatism.9 I respond to this gap in the literature by offering one of the first sustained treatments that clarifies the affinities between Latour’s actor-network theory and Jamesian pragmatism.10

In what follows, I first discuss what is at stake in the distinction between methodology and metaphysics in James’s and Latour’s work. I then turn to James’s account of a “method-only” pragmatism before tracking the ambulatory methodology of Latour. I conclude by specifying the significance of each of their pragmatisms for reworking the metaphor of method from one of construction to one of movement and travel.

James and Latour on Methodology and Metaphysics

In his 1906–7 Pragmatism lectures, James develops a useful analytic for differentiating methodology and metaphysics. He distinguishes the activity of his pragmatic method from the torpor of metaphysical doctrines. This distinction cashes in on a difference central to his philosophical and psychological work between motion and rest, mobility, and stasis.11 The association of pragmatism with activity and movement is perhaps not very remarkable given pragmatism’s philosophical prioritization of action and practice. Yet, James’s distinction modifies his assertion of how pragmatism should be understood—as “a method only,” not as a metaphysical position (James 1967, 379). Metaphysics, according to James, tends to supply “so many solving names,” thereby terminating movement rather than spurring it onward.

Without specifying quite how metaphysics paralyzes action, James invokes the need for the pragmatic method’s test of action in order to put metaphysics to work. On this view, metaphysics needs the pragmatic method, but the pragmatic method has no essential need for metaphysics. [End Page 574] James applies this distinction to account for the separability of his methodological pragmatism and his metaphysics of radical empiricism. He writes in his 1907 preface to Pragmatism, “To avoid one misunderstanding at least, let me say that there is no logical connection between pragmatism, as I understand it, and a doctrine which I have recently set forth as ‘radical empiricism.’ The latter stands on its own feet. One may entirely reject it and still be a pragmatist” (James 1978, 6).12

While the ontological alliance shared by Latour and James may be significant from the point of view of James’s radical empiricism, we should heed James’s own cautionary remarks concerning the distinction between his pragmatism and his radical empiricism.13 These constitute separable projects for James such that one can “entirely reject” his radical empiricism and “still be a pragmatist” (James 1978, 6). If pragmatism serves a methodological function for settling metaphysical debates, then it is important that pragmatism have no ontological doctrines or dogmas itself. Pragmatism, understood methodologically, cannot rest like metaphysics can; it must be put to work.

Like James, Latour deploys the language of movement, travel, and work in the descriptions of his actor-network theory (ANT). In his 2008 exchange with Graham Harman at the London School of Economics, Latour asserts that metaphysics is interesting “as a method: as travel, as a way of getting at new insights” (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 59). The methodological question for Latour is how to follow, trace, and reassemble associations and which procedures, tools, attitudes, and habits of inquiry contribute to this task (Latour 2004a, 232). To this end, he experimentally devises a set of methods or equipment for inquiry that he deploys and reworks in his ethnographic studies.

Though there are a number of ontological concerns present in works like The Pasteurization of France (1984) and The Making of Law (2002), Latour nonetheless describes these concerns in terms of methodology.14 This marks a significant difference from the ontological uptake of his work by figures like Harman and Bennett. In their 2008 exchange, it becomes clear that Harman and Latour have distinct understandings of metaphysics. Latour persistently distances himself from the claims of having a metaphysics or being a metaphysician.15 Indeed, he expresses some discomfort with Harman’s “metaphysical voiceover” of the empirical matters that he finds most interesting (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 41). Latour detaches himself from an interpretation of metaphysics as “describing the furniture [End Page 575] of the world” (45). Harman affirms this interpretation, but seeks to detach it from foundationalism so that it might become a realist project (57). This view posits that “there is a reality that escapes any of its manifestations. You can never be sure quite what it is, but you can offer some description of what the structures of that reality are” (73). In contrast, Latour invokes a methodological understanding of metaphysics (59).

By “method,” Latour means a way of moving or traveling—like a travel guide, a method can direct you with where to go and what to see, and it can give you some indication of how to move, but it cannot move you on its own, nor can it alone pay the price of travel. Unlike the foundationalist approach to methodology embodied in René Descartes’s famous Discourse on Method, Latour’s travel guide approach has the advantage of not being easily confused with the territory that it covers (Latour 2005, 17). This mobile interpretation of method also extends to Latour’s understanding of philosophy as “the calisthenics necessary to be as subtle as the case at hand” (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 46). Philosophy, interpreted through this reworking of method, is an exercise preparing you for travel. He continues, “[A] lot of the things I call philosophical are actually about how to go places” (59, italics added). We can thus conceptualize the difference between Harman’s realist version of metaphysics and Latour’s methodological version as that between an account of what is really real and a description of how to go somewhere.

It is curious that Harman explicitly distances himself from a consideration of the methodological specificities of Latour’s empirical inquiries, as though a philosophical audience should not be distracted by the technicalities and messiness of Latour’s method and should rather be presented with his substantive metaphysical claims and contributions to metaphysical disputes (see, for instance, Harman 2009, 5, 33). This attention to Latour’s substantive metaphysics at the expense of his method and empirical studies replicates a problematic disciplinary division between the labor of “pure theory,” with metaphysics as its proper object, and that of “practical theory,” which applies research methods to certain fields of study. In the preface to Prince of Networks, Harman writes, “Latour has long been prominent in the fields of sociology and anthropology, yet the philosophical basis of his work remains little known. While his many admirers are seldom concerned with metaphysical questions, those hermits and outcasts who still pursue ‘first philosophy’ are generally unfamiliar with Latour. My aim is to bring these two groups into contact by expressing [End Page 576] Latourian insights in terms bearing on the basic structure of reality itself” (Harman 2009, 5). To bring these two groups together, Harman presents Latour’s basic metaphysical principles as guiding his “vast empirical labours” (14). This, however, makes it seem as though Latour’s ethnographies of scientific practices are merely the outputs of the application of his “metaphysical principles” on particular empirical field sites. This not only neglects Latour’s chief contributions to the field of science studies but it also blackboxes his methods of inquiry, which are irreducible to ontological principles.

Latour’s own metaphor of scientific blackboxes offers a compelling frame for seeing what goes missing in Harman’s account. According to Latour, blackboxing refers to the way in which scientific and technical work is rendered invisible, opaque, or obscure by its own success: “When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity” (Latour 1999, 304). We understand a successfully working computer, for instance, solely in terms of its inputs and outputs rather than through its complex internal composition. The logical and electrical flows can be hidden away, as if the computer is a black box into whose workings we need not look. By blackboxing Latour’s methods of inquiry, Harman renders opaque the complex mechanics of his methodological equipment. To reverse this procedure—to destabilize the blackboxing of Latour’s methods—we must attend to the subtle movements of his travel as he inquires into specific sites of action.

Following James’s analytic for distinguishing between the activity and movement of a method and the stability and paralysis of a metaphysics, we can begin to see what is at stake in the difference between a methodological and a metaphysical uptake of Latour’s work. My claim is that the metaphysical uptake shortcuts the activity and even obfuscates the work of Latour’s methodology.16 If a method is only good for taking us to the conclusions of inquiry, and if the conclusions only reflect the metaphysical presuppositions we bring at the start, why proceed through the travails of inquiry at all? Why move or travel when we can arrive at our preferred destination by simply standing still? This shortcutting not only over-determines the function and deployment of the method by putting it in the primary service of metaphysics, it also stabilizes methodological movement by taking us to the metaphysical conclusions that really matter—in Harman’s case, to the “reality of objects” (Harman 2009, 204). But following Latour, one must [End Page 577] not substitute the conclusions, stoppages, or resting places for the activity of travel: “It’s the work, and the movement, and the flow, and the changes that should be stressed” (Latour 2005, 143).

James’s Methodological Pragmatism

In 1904, James published a paper in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods under the title “The Pragmatic Method.” The paper was a slightly revised version of an (in)famous lecture on “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” which he gave in 1898 to the Philosophical Union of the University of California. This was the first lecture in which James publicly laid out the philosophical significance of Charles S. Peirce’s “principle of pragmatism.” The title of his 1904 article is significant for highlighting James’s later description of pragmatism as “a method only” in his celebrated Pragmatism lectures (James 1967, 379). In his second lecture from this series, “What Pragmatism Means,” James characterizes the pragmatic method as having the function of “settling metaphysical disputes” by tracing the concrete, practical consequences that follow from holding either view true (377). As a method only, pragmatism “stands for no particular metaphysical results” because, as he notes, metaphysical results are “so many solving names,” marking places of rest rather than places of activity and work (379–80).

Tracing the etymology of pragmatism to its Greek root πραγμα, James follows Peirce in specifying action, conduct, or practice as the constraining methodological foci of pragmatism. He writes, shadowing Peirce, shadowing Alexander Bain, “our beliefs are really rules for action . . . to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance” (James 1967, 377). Difference in action or practice thus serves as the pragmatic test by which pragmatism settles metaphysical disputes and determines the meaning of beliefs. By focusing methodologically upon action, pragmatism orients itself away from “first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities,” and instead looks toward “last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (379–80).

In describing pragmatism as a method only, James likens it to a corridor in a hotel that opens out into “innumerable chambers,” wherein different inquirers pursue diverse areas of study such as aesthetics, religion, chemistry, and metaphysics.17 While these inquirers engage in different [End Page 578] kinds of work, they all must nevertheless pass through the corridor if they want “a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms” (James 1967, 380). James’s metaphor is telling insofar as it reveals how pragmatism as a method resides not in any chamber as a stable site of particular study but rather in that space of transit or travel. Methodological pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method,” because it does not sit still or perch, but remains in flight, moving and shuttling back and forth in nice, ambulatory fashion (380). Being in motion itself, it is fitting that methodological pragmatism should orient itself toward action, conduct, or practice.

In his presentation of pragmatism, James importantly reworks the metaphoric of method from one of Cartesian building or construction, whereby one lays the foundations to secure certainty, to one of transition and movement, whereby one experimentally tests the meaning of beliefs through the concrete consequences they bear upon conduct. He tacitly develops a useful vocabulary for understanding the mobility of method through his account of “saltatory” and “ambulatory” relations in his 1907 essay “A Word More About Truth” (James 1978, 245). The saltatory and ambulatory distinction expresses different relations of knowing, the former connecting objects and ideas discontinuously and abstractly through a “deadly jump” (salto mortale), the latter relating them continuously and concretely through a “bridge of intermediaries” (246–48).

We can see an anticipation of this distinction at work in James’s 1890 Principles of Psychology, where he describes the contrapuntal rhythm of the stream of consciousness in terms of the “alternation of flights and perchings” (James 1950, 243). The perchings refer to those temporary resting places or conclusions that thought arrives at for an indefinite period of time. The flights signify those transitions and relations that take thought from one temporary conclusion to another. While the discontinuous perchings clearly maps to his account of saltatory relations in The Meaning of Truth, the transitive flights of consciousness correspond to his description of ambulatory relations. Applying this distinction to his own methodological pragmatism, we might say that in navigating through the field of action which serves as the pragmatic test of our beliefs, James’s method is located more in the activity of flights (and hence, of ambulation) than in the stillness of perchings.18

Translating this epistemological distinction to a methodological one in chapter 2 of Pandora’s Hope, Latour uniquely exploits the ambulatory [End Page 579] quality of method that remains implicit and underdeveloped in James’s account of pragmatism. Thus, in an untimely manner, James’s reconstruction of the metaphoric of method anticipates the slow and continuous mode through which Latour’s own methodology travels in his field observations of scientific knowledge production.

Latour’s Ambulatory Methodology

The concept of ambulation highlights how Latour studies scientific practices “in action” (Latour 1987, 4). In Science in Action, he highlights a central methodological distinction between “ready-made science” and “science in the making” to designate the proper way of studying science and technology (4).19 Actor-network theory (ANT) studies science in the making, meaning that one follows and describes how science is conducted in a laboratory, a field site, and in published research articles. Latour constantly deploys this method of “following the actors” in his various ethnographies (Latour 2005, 179). In Pandora’s Hope, he notes that his way of traveling takes a “roundabout route” because “there is no fast-forward button for unreeling the practice of science if I want to follow the many steps between our arrival at the site and the eventual publication” (Latour 1999, 32). He emphasizes the slow, ambulatory pace of ANT and contrasts this with the celerity and shortcuts of sociologists of the social.20 In Reassembling the Social, he writes, “Traveling with ANT, I am afraid to say, will turn out to be agonizingly slow. . . . Sociologists of the social seem to glide like angels, transporting power and connections almost immaterially, while the ANT-scholar has to trudge like an ant, carrying the heavy gear in order to generate even the tiniest connection” (Latour 2005, 25). Latour thus enfolds ambulation—an unhurried form of movement—in his methodology to designate how he follows the “actors themselves” (30). In this, he bears ample affinity with James’s emphasis on the continuity of ambulatory relations.

From a Jamesian perspective, it is curious that Latour should comment, in conversation with Harman, “But pragmatism is not about practice, pragmatism is about pragmata, about objects” (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 61). For Latour, the significance of pragmatism consists in its being an “experimentally-based philosophy,” but what it experiments with, what sets the constraints of its experimentation, are objects instead of practices (61). This translation of pragmatism as being experimentally [End Page 580] concerned with objects is productive insofar as it widens the field of possible action beyond the scope of human conduct to include those nonhuman actants that mediate or transform a field of action. If James’s methodological pragmatism focuses its attention upon what concrete consequences follow for human conduct from holding a particular belief, Latour’s methodological pragmatism attunes itself to the consequences that follow from tracing the concrete differences that objects make for a trajectory of action in certain experimental procedures. Though at first glance it may appear that by honing in on objects, Latour is thereby neglecting action, as we shall see, he understands objects in terms of action, defined performatively by what they do.

To better elucidate this feature of Latour’s pragmatism, we might consider an example of how he puts this method to work in the chapter on “Circulating Reference” from Pandora’s Hope. This chapter offers an ethno-graphic account of fieldwork performed by a group of scientists—a pedologist, geographer, and botanist—as they gather in the Amazon to assess whether the edge of a forest is advancing toward the savannah or vice versa. Latour presents his ethnographic fieldwork in a “photo-philosophical montage” that narrates a series of freeze-frame images he took while following the scientists around to investigate the status of reference in scientific discourse (Latour 1999, 24). In developing an account of “circulating reference” (i.e., how signs come to refer to something outside of themselves), Latour ever-so slowly reveals the labor required in scientific practice for the transportation and translation of “the world into words” (24).

Circulating reference designates what remains constant in the entire chain of transformations from matter to form. Unlike a traditional understanding of reference that consists in the ostensive act of pointing to the outside world to verify the truth of a proposition about some state of affairs,21 circulating reference consists in the performative continuity and consistency of an internal series of transformations. To understand how this works, Latour asks us to consider how the pedologist uses an instrument called a “pedocomparator” to transmute a clod of complex soil into a stable laboratory-ready sign (Latour 1999, 47–49).22 As a material instrument, the pedocomparator is both a suitcase for transporting clods of soil to a laboratory, as well as a two-dimensional Cartesian grid that keeps the soil in regulated cubes. As the pedologist transfers a clump of soil from the surrounding earth into one of the pedocomparator’s cubes, “the earth becomes a sign, takes on a geometrical form, becomes the carrier of a numbered [End Page 581] code, and will soon be defined by a color” (49). According to Latour, the pedocomparator makes possible that work of translation whereby the soil becomes a sign fit for inspection and will later serve as material for the standardized identification of its color through the intermediary of the Munsell code color index (59). The reference that thus coheres in the continuous chain of transformations from matter to form maintains the circulation of its truth-value so long as the series of mediators is “not interrupted” (69).

To support his account of circulating reference, Latour operationalizes the distinction forwarded by James between the “saltatory” and “ambulatory” relations of ideas and objects. Following James, Latour distances himself from a saltatory account of the relation in which reference aims to bridge a gap in order to establish correspondence between two things that are otherwise incommensurable (Latour 1999, 69). He affirms James’s ambulatory conception of reference, which relates world and words, objects and ideas, not through a “deadly jump,” but through the back and forth movement of following a continuous series of mediations or transformations (70, 74). The soil in the field is placed in the pedocomparator, which is then transported to a lab, where it is examined and recorded by a pedologist in the form of a diagram for the laboratory report to follow the study (55–56). Here the circulating reference flows inside an indefinitely extended chain of transformations whose elements consist in the uninterrupted sequence of translations involving a minute gap between matter and form. In relating objects and ideas, matter and form, the ambulatory reference “grows from the middle toward the ends, which are continually pushed further away” (72). Latour contrasts this to the saltatory explanation, which locates a reference “at the meeting point” between the two stable extremities of “things and the forms of the human mind” (71, italics in original).

Latour’s Jamesian account of circulating reference is significant, not so much for representing “the whole of his metaphysical position” as Harman supposes (Harman 2009, 73), but for demonstrating the ambulatory quality of his methodology. Ambulation is a feature of Latour’s style of methodological orientation just as it is a feature of how he understands reference—hence his constant injunctions in Reassembling the Social to “go slow,” and “don’t jump” in order to render associations traceable again (Latour 2005, 190). Ambulation ensures the maintenance of continuity in Latour’s tracing of associations. For this reason, Latour insists that it is best not to jump. Furthermore, to maintain the uninterrupted quality of fragile associations, he cautions inquirers to “go slow,” lest their celerity lead [End Page 582] to the omission of a vital connection.23 He attentively sustains an unhurried pace in tracking the complex labor required in scientific practices of translating the world into words. The intimacy here between what Latour follows as his object of study (i.e., the labor of inscription and translation) and how he follows it (i.e., nomadically, through ambulation) resembles the intimacy expressed above in James’s account of pragmatism between what constrains the foci of this method (i.e., action or practice) and how it moves in a constant state of transit (i.e., it remains in the corridor, not in the chambers).

We can return now to Latour’s focus on objects. Though he insists that pragmatism concerns itself with objects rather than with practices, he nevertheless remains proximate to James’s pragmatism insofar as he understands objects in terms of action, that is, as actants defined performatively by what they do.24 For example, the pedologist’s pedocomparator served as a mediating actant both in transporting the soil to the laboratory site and in translating it into a stable sign. Practices and objects are closely linked here as certain scientific practices depend upon particular objects to do the work of translation in their experimental inquiries, and likewise, the particular objects gain import and relevancy in the context of specific scientific practices. By opening up the field of possible action beyond the scope of human practice, Latour methodologically allows for the contribution of nonhuman actants in transforming the trajectory and connectivity of action. He thereby adopts, but also clearly and uniquely enriches, James’s methodological pragmatism.


The methodological alliance between James and Latour is significant for reworking what counts methodologically in terms of action, practices, and objects, and for furthering the underdeveloped theme in James’s pragmatism concerning ambulation to specify how Latour traces fragile associations. Connected through the concept of action, practices and objects represent the constraining foci of James’s and Latour’s respective methodologies. By bringing the two together, we see how objects and practices intimately rely on one another in the context of experimental inquiry. Furthermore, we see how the alliance shared by Latour and James consists in a modification of the metaphoric of method in terms of movement or travel. [End Page 583]

In Pragmatism, James famously presents his philosophical methodology by way of a metaphor drawn from the then-emergent culture of leisure travel: pragmatism as a hotel corridor. Interestingly, Latour offers a metaphor drawn from a similar theme to refer to his own actor-network theory. In the introduction to Reassembling the Social, he likens the book to a travel guide, warning that, “If earnest scholars do not find it dignifying to compare an introduction of a science to a travel guide, be they kindly reminded that ‘where to travel’ and ‘what is worth seeing there’ is nothing but a way of saying in plain English what is usually said under the pompous Greek name of ‘method’ or, even worse, ‘methodology’” (Latour 2005, 17). Even metaphysics, once taken as specifying the furniture of the universe, is nothing but another tattered Fodor’s guide laying upon a dusty coffee-table: “Because if metaphysics is interesting, it is as a method: as travel, as a way of getting at new insights” (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 59). Latour, the “only French pragmatist,” reminds us that if there is anything noteworthy about pragmatism, it is that “it allows you to go places. It is a trajectory, a way of doing things” (59). Thus, what is pontifically rendered under the name “method,” including that of pragmatism, is nothing but a set of particular suggestions for how and where to travel. Both James and Latour suggest that we travel via slow ambulation, and, when taken together, recommend that we attend to action as the field of pragma (practice) and pragmata (objects).

Bonnie Sheehey
Montana State University


1. References to James appear in Reassembling the Social (Latour 2005, 111, 116, 215–16); Pandora’s Hope (Latour 1999, 64, 69–70, 74, 79, 113); An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Latour 2013, xxv, 57, 78, 178, 201, 236, 265, 477). References to Dewey appear in Reassembling the Social (Latour 2005, 111, 162–63, 261).

2. James develops this distinction in the essay, “A World More About Truth.” See James 1978, 247–48.

3. By drawing the analogy between Bennett and Harman in their readings of Latour in light of the pragmatist tradition, I do not intend to overlook the vital differences between their metaphysical positions, especially concerning the status of materialism in their respective works. For more on this, see Harman 2009 and Bennett 2010.

4. Bennett draws more on Dewey than James to develop her “political ecology” (Bennett 2010, 100). Harman ultimately criticizes Latour’s “realism of relations,” a position that bears an affinity with James’s postulate of radical empiricism, in order to forward his own realism of nonrelational objects or “object-oriented ontology” (Harman 2009, 75, 77).

5. Following Latour, I understand metaphysics not as opposed to methodology but as one possible method of inquiry among others. See Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 59.

6. Thus, another strategy for relating Latour and James might be to analyze their respective empiricisms. Latour takes up James’s radical empiricism in his recent writings to motivate a turn to a “second empiricism.” Inspired by James and Alfred North Whitehead, Latour invokes a second empiricism to conceptualize an alternative critical practice in essays like “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” (2004) and “What is Given in Experience?” (2005) as well as a regional ontology in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013). This last text attempts to systematically extend James’s radical empiricism to specify different modes of existence. See Latour 2013, xxv, 178. Since my purpose in this article is to clarify the affinities between James and Latour with respect to their pragmatist methodologies, I do not take up these texts here, but leave them aside for another occasion to explore the rich connections between James’s and Latour’s empiricisms. For an excellent example of how such connections might be pursued, see Weber 2016.

7. Rorty’s work is central for highlighting these concerns within the philosophical tradition of pragmatism and for inaugurating debates within pragmatism about the status of metaphysics. See Rorty 1979, 1982, and 1989. For a summary of these debates within pragmatism, see Koopman 2007 and Marchetti 2016. For a defense of metaphysics within pragmatism, see Myers 2004, Philström 2009, and Hildebrand 2011.

8. This is not to say that classical pragmatism is entirely without a focus on objects or non-human actors, but only that such a focus is underdeveloped in James’s more human-centric presentation of pragmatism in his Pragmatism lectures. Indeed, one can find an attention to non-human actors in the work of other classical pragmatists like Charles S. Peirce, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey. See, for instance, Larry A. Hickman’s account of the significance of technological artifacts and objects in Dewey’s pragmatism in Hickman 1990.

9. For scholarship connecting Foucault and pragmatism, see especially Stuhr 1997, 2003, Koopman 2009, 2013, Edmonds 2011, May 2011, Rabinow 2011, and Colapietro 2011, 2012. On Deleuze and pragmatism, see Bowden, Bignall and Patton 2015, and Duvernoy 2016. For affinities between Latour and Dewey’s pragmatism, see Hickman 2007, Waelbers and Dorstewitz 2014, and between Latour and Rorty, see Allen 2011.

10. Of the few pieces connecting Latour and pragmatism, I have found only two that focus primarily on James. These, however, explore the ontological affinities between James and Latour, and leave out of discussion the methodological connections that I take up here. See Savransky 2012 and Salinas 2014.

11. In Principles of Psychology, for instance, James uses the metaphor of the “flightings” and “perchings” of a bird to describe the moments of movement and rest of consciousness (James 1950, 243).

12. One might object that later in his life, James would come to realize the connection between his radical empiricist ontology and his pragmatism. Indeed, there is some evidence of this in his 1909 preface to The Meaning of Truth. It is unclear, however, why this realization would thereby warrant the claim that the earlier James was wrong in distinguishing between them. Why should we assume that James’s later self was right and his earlier self mistaken? Moreover, as he emphasized only the separability, not the opposition, of these two projects, I see no reason why the earlier and later James could not both be right in highlighting the distinction as well as the connection between them. For recent literature on the relation between pragmatism and radical empiricism, see Gale 2010, Wilshire 2010, Slater 2011, and Campbell 2017.

13. To ward off the concern that I am drawing an unduly distinction between metaphysics and methodology, allow me to emphasize again that not only is this distinction encouraged by James in his own work, but also that the distinction is significant in light of metaphilosophical worries rehearsed earlier.

14. See, for example, Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 51, 117–19, and Latour 2005, 17, 29.

15. In response to the question of whether he has a metaphysics, Latour contends, “No, I don’t think I have a metaphysics, that’s the problem.” See Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi 2011, 46.

16. Against this, Latour insists that actor-network theory “prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket” (Latour 2005, 23, italics added).

17. See Harvey J. Cormier’s insightful essay on James’s corridor metaphor in Putnam 1997, 343–62.

18. Consider James’s example of knowing as an act of ambulation in “The Relation between Knower and Known.” There James describes the agreement between an idea of “Memorial Hall” and the actual Hall as an “affair of leading”— in this case by hypothetically walking to the Hall—that terminates in the latter object (James 1978, 228–29).

19. Note the resonance here with James’s distinction between the “block-universe” of the absolutists, which is ready-made and complete, and a universe “in the making,” which he forwards in A Pluralistic Universe. Latour translates this metaphysical distinction into a methodological one to describe how one might study science and technology. See Latour 1987 and James 1996.

20. Sociologists of the social use the category of the “social” as an explainer of some already “social” phenomenon. Latour criticizes this tautological mode of explanation and contrasts it with his own sociology of associations, which takes the social not as something given, but something to be made and that which needs to be explained. See Latour 2005, 3–5.

21. One such example may be found in the early Wittgenstein, for whom every name bears a referential relation to some object, and for whom the truth or falsity of a proposition is determined in correspondence with reality. See Wittgenstein 1974, 3.2, 3.203, 4.06.

22. Latour gives the name of “inscription” to this process of transmutation whereby an entity “becomes materialized into a sign, an archive, a document, a piece of paper, a trace.” See Latour 1999, 306–7.

23. Latour’s methodological advice to “go slow” does not preclude the occasional need to skip over intermediaries in order to expedite movement. He does, however, caution against turning this saltatory impulse into a persistent methodological habit on the part of the inquirer. See Latour 2005, 52, 190.

24. Latour borrows the word “actant” from semiotics to describe an entity (whether human or nonhuman) that is defined by its performances or “by what it does.” See Latour 1999, 303.

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