Instaurationalism

The distinction between discovering what is, versus creating what yet isn’t covers over a region of action that is far more important and common than either — a region Bruno Latour called (after √Čtienne Souriau) called instauration, the act of discovering-creating in collaboration with the thing being brought into existence.

Anyone who actually crafts real things, as opposed to merely uses things others craft — and who is therefore in a position to reflect on the firsthand experience of the thing-in-the-making, versus merely speculating how a thing-ready-made must have come into existence — will appreciate this word. Craft — or at least good craft — is responsive to what is crafted. In turn, what is crafted responds to the crafter in sometimes surprising and inspiring ways.

While he did not use this word in his early writings, Latour made it clear in his beautiful introduction to his first and only philosophical work, Irreductions, that while our preferred materials and forces might vary, when we work in these materials and respond to their patterns of yielding and resistance, we are always engaged in instauration.

It is very telling that we are inclined to treat instauration as a combination of elements of discovery and creation, rather than to see instauration as elemental and creation and discovery as abstractions from or edge cases of instauration.

We seem to like the idea that thing — especially a truth — is either discovered as an inalterable feature of nature, or it is a “construct” that we can arbitrarily will into being with no need for sensitivity to the thing, to ourselves, or to our relationship between ourselves and the thing. The fact that almost everything we do takes place somewhere between these two extremes, and the very best things we do happen toward the middle of the range does not play nice with our various modern faiths.

*

When I finish Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, I might need to consider rereading Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. Last time I read it (ten years ago) I was just trying to understand Latour, and I didn’t enjoy it much and it made little impact on me. But I suspect the problem he was exploring has become a live problem for me — perhaps even a crisis.

I will try to describe that problem: What is it about our popular philosophy that makes our detached and speculative thinking so overconfident in its understanding and its ability to respond effectively in accordance with these understandings? Why do we prefer understanding and acting from a distance to interacting directly in contact with the realities we seek to understand and influence?

I see this very much as a designerly critique of the industrial faith and its practices and doctrines.

By the way, my own faith is that truth itself is instaurated from our own reflective interactions with reality. You could call me an instaurationalist. I may even start calling myself that.

*

We can certainly construct ourselves any kind of truth we please. And we can preserve these ideas as “true” by ignoring whether we actually believe them or not, and by squinting our eyes to avoid seeing whether these truths are undermined by our own experiences. We ignore or explain away instances where practical applications of our truths mislead us, or simply cannot even be applied at all.

And we we can, if we have lack all sense of craft, ignore whether the truth formulations we concoct ever actually disappear into the givens of experience, or whether they must be manually recalled and imposed each time we want to force ourselves to understand in some arbitrary way. “But even if it feels strange now, eventually it will become habitual and familiar.” So says every ignorant hack who tries to do the work of a designer without understanding the craft of design.

And ideologues are hacks who try to construct truths without any notion of craft and without a craftsman’s integrity. They try to do social engineering and the results are the same as they always are when an engineer tries to do a designer’s work.

*

Most people I know are so accustomed to thinking what they are supposed to think in the way they were trained to think that they don’t even know what it feels like to actually believe or disbelieve a belief. They are not even aware we can experience truth and falsehood — if we foreswear bullshit and commit ourselves to strict intellectual honesty. Most people, especially highly educated people, are terrified of having impolite thoughts, because they don’t even know the difference between being offensive and being immoral. They are all very polite, very amoral, very banal conformists who think their apparent blamelessness makes them Good People. But to be a good person, one must first choose to be a person — as opposed to a role or an identity — and then to interact with other persons — as opposed to objectified instances of roles or identities.

Leave a Reply