Thursday, 16 May 2013

You can't spell irreduction without reduction

Levi Bryant writes a mixed piece on irreduction as a concept.  At first he regrets previously adopting the concept in is 'Ontic Principle' it but then he goes on to defend irreduction anyway.

It's shocking how often people misunderstand this (to my mind) quite simple principle.  As I read it, Latour's principle of irreduction actually has four parts - well, three plus a clarification.  People tend to fixate on the first part and miss the rest.  Here it is in full:
"1.1.1 Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.
• I will call this the "principle of irreducibility", but it is a prince that does not govern since that would be a self-contradiction"
1. Nothing is reducible to anything else.
To exist is to differ.  If A is entirely reducible to B then A and B cannot meaningfully be said to be separate entities, they are one and the same.  If any thing were to be reduced to any other thing then only the other thing would exist, by definition.  That's the ontology.  Epistemologically this also means that no matter how much you study a thing that thing is always, necessarily beyond you.  Reality exceeds knowledge not just in fact ('alas we are merely flawed humans') but in principle.  Indeed, this principle of 'excess' applies to any form of relation, not just knowledge.

2. Nothing is irreducible to anything else.
Nothing is beyond relation, there are no hermetically sealed spheres separating things that cannot possibly touch.  Anything can be brought to bear on anything else.  No two things are sufficiently enemies that they cannot become allied.  Reality is promiscuous.  There are no dualities, no lines that cannot be crossed; there are only pluralities, many lines that can be crossed if you can summon strong enough allies.  Furthermore, to ally, to join, to relate is to reduce.  For X to form an alliance with Y each must reduce the other to some degree; they must simplify each other.  But they must do this because they are irreducible to each other!  It is because that one is irreducible to the other that, in order to relate, they must translate and simplify one another.  The irreducible/reducible dyad is not so much a contradiction as a self-reinforcing circle.  For things to relate and exist they must be both reducible and irreducible.

3. Nothing is reducible or irreducible by itself.
And things must be brought to bear.  Nothing can persist by itself; it's only through complex tangles of (vicarious) relations that anything can happen.  Every thing is a swarm, every event is a cascade.  Reality is a chaotic, raucous, poly-dimensional game of dominoes.

4. This is a prince(iple) that does not govern.
This is principle 1.1.1 of Latour's thesis.  It kick-starts the discourse but the axioms that follow from it do not 'follow from it' in the sense that they can be deduced from it or that they already exist in it 'in potentia'.  This contrasts to classical metaphysics, e.g. Spinoza, Descartes, where everything is supposed to be deducible from the first principle.  Furthermore, however, I think this also means that this thesis doesn't reproduce, replicate or represent the 'heart of reality'; this axiom isn't the source code from which the universe is pieced together.  That would be a contradiction since it would reduce reality to words.  No, what this axiom does is put something new out into the world, a new semantic creature that can form new alliances, perform new assemblages, etc.  Thus it demonstrates its metaphysical truth by performative alliance building, not by summing up in words something that exists 'out there' behind appearances.

That's my interpretation anyway.  Later theses in Irreductions clarify and add to the principle but most of it is there in some form.

Latour is never saying that we must stop 'reducing' things altogether.  That's the criticism that's usually levelled at this principle and it's nonsensical.  Ray Brassier's 'critique' of Irreductions in the Speculative Turn is based almost entirely upon this elementary misunderstanding.

Reduction is more or less a synonym for relation - but you can only relate two things that are irreducible to each other (since otherwise there would not be two things at all).

The argument that science can only work by reduction fits with Latour's axiom perfectly well.  To reduce is to form a network.  There's no issue.  But while science may 'reduce to explain' it doesn't 'reduce away' as in 'explain away' - there's always a remainder.

What we must be wary of is the claim that science captures what it studies completely, that knowledge of a thing is equivalent to the thing itself.  What we must resist is the claim that you can reduce a thing completely without destroying it.  Essentially it's all an argument against the ideal of pure mastery - it's all Nietzschean.  Yes, we must resist the idea that things can be reduced without remainder but to resist reduction as such is an impossibility.  In fact, to cease to reduce is to submit to unrelation: death.

Latour today distances himself from Irreductions, calling it a 'naive' book that he has 'fondness' for (off the top of my head, I think he uses these words).  Certainly, he has moved on from much of it but the principle of irreduction is evident throughout his work, right up to the present.  It's one of the few unbroken threads running throughout his work.

When Latour talks about things being 'irreduced and set free' he's releasing them from reduction*ism*, but not from reduction per se.  Each flap of the seagull's wings is a simplification and a reduction of the air around it, but it is irreduced insofar as it is set free from the notion that it is 'nothing more' than the diagram in the textbook or the DNA sequence digitised by the computer or the phenomenon apperceived by the thinking subject.

In short, you were right to defend the principle of irreduction, Levi!  Irreduction isn't the antonym of reduction, it's a broader concept that contains it.

You can't spell irreduction without reduction!


  1. Hi!

    Thank you for your helpfull post! I`d like to discuss this issue a little further, but I have to point out that I have been working on Latour for only about two years now (I am working on my doctoral thesis in philosophy on the principle of irreducibility and education), so I don`t consider myself an expert on this. Furthermore, English is my second language. So I apologize in advance for naive mistakes; whether based on my linguistic or philosopical weakness.

    The thing I want to bring to the table is, that Latour`s "reduction" is always paired with "abstraction". Althought these two methods seem to be contradictional: to reduce is to simplify complexity, while to abstract means to put simple (concrete) "entities" (in Latour`s sense) into classes, propositions or concepts (this is not actually explicitly written in Latour, but rather my own interpretaion).
    If I may, and I hope this is not complete rubbish I am talking, I want to state that abstraction is reduction with reversed direction, not a contadiction.
    I think, this could be the interesting thing about the principle of irreducibility: whether you reduce or you do the opposite, it`s always the work you have to put into this enterprise, so in my personal view, the great advantage the principle of irredcibility brings is not that it tells you something about reducing, but about the work that is put into when doing so (this seems to be the basis for ANT).
    In Latour this intersting (non)contradiction is not so clearly shown, but Whitehead and his principle of "romance/precision/generalization" - especially the second one -, seems to open questions on this issue. Please excuse me for not bringing quotes here and just talking in my own words about it. "Precision" for Whiteheade means reducing by allying; the reduce something, you need to bring more entities into account.
    I think, that this may shed some light on the principle of irreducibility and helps seeing it as some kinf of contradiction that affects the two (or four, as you mentioned) participating parts in a somewhat circular way (circular meaning some kind of non-Hegelian (as interpretors of Whitehad state) dialectical process).
    What do you think about this approach? Do you think the principle of irreducibility and its resemblance to Whiteheads Principle of "Romance - Precision - Generalization" can help to grasp, what Latour wanted to say?

    greets from austria Bernd

  2. Thanks for your comment! Your English is perfectly fine, don't worry.

    I am not sure that I understand your first point but that is probably my failing rather than yours. I agree that whether we are thinking in terms of reduction or whatever else the really important thing, from a Latourian point of view, is following the action, is understanding what is being done.

    With regard to Whitehead, there's a difficulty in relating him to Latour's earlier work because while there are similarities in their thinking, Latour had not encountered Whitehead at that time (not until the late 1980s, I think I read that somewhere). However, having said that there is no barrier to making this connection, quite the contrary.

    I think that to be consistently Latourian *and* Whiteheadian you have to recognise that your own act of thinking is an event, something that hasn't happened before. Whether it's a good or useful event really depends on what your problem is. What are you trying to achieve? What's the 'issue' that is gathering you to this Latour/Whitehead nexus? It is only by understanding that first that you can then establish criteria for what you need to undertake. Do your ideas work? That depends on what problem they are intended to address!

    It all sounds very interesting though!