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Dooyeweerd and Latour's Actor-Network Theory

This page seeks to identify common ground between Dooyeweerd's philosophy and Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory, and understand the points at which they are commensurable and incommensurable with each other.

At first sight, the two frameworks are incommensurable since ANT assumes that human and non-human can be treated in the same way while Dooyeweerd maintains they are very different. But, on closer examination, they seem highly commensurable. In brief, Dooyeweerd provides philosophically what Latour seems to be reaching for, and suggests how Actor Network Theory could be enriched, and Latour provides Dooyeweerd with a usable methodology for analysing multi-aspectual situations that are real, everyday living.


Stop Press: See Steven Dorrestijn's news that Latour's Inquiry into Modes of Existence is very like Dooyeweerd's. Like Dooyeweerd'a aspects, Latour suggests fifteen modes!

Understanding ANT

What is ANT Reaching For?

In "On recalling ANT", Latour, the original proposer of ANT, starts memorably with

"I will start by saying that there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory: the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen between them. Four nails in the coffin."

He reflects on how ANT had evolved and been used over a couple of decades, how each of these elements has been misunderstood and misused, and expounds what was really intended to be captured in each.

Network should not be seen as a structure like the World Wide Web, so much as a set of transformations. The meaning of actor then engages his thought at considerable length, much of which does not concern us here, but some does. Actor and network are not to be seen as two things - like individual and society - but rather as two faces of the same phenomenon. He then turns to theory, and lastly, briefly, to the hyphen.

What is Actantiality?

The ANT community often use the word 'actant' rather than 'actor', in order to overcome the human connotations of the latter word. But what is 'actantiality'? What does it mean to be an 'actant'? Latour corrects a common misunderstanding with:

"actantiality is not what an actor does ... but what provides actants with their actions, with their subjectivity, with their intentionality, with their morality." [Latour's emphasis]

This is remarkably close to what Dooyeweerd says his aspects do. Aspectuality can be said to provide entities with

The parallel between Latour's 'actantiality' and Dooyeweerd's 'aspectuality' could hardly be more striking.

But whereas Latour is content, at present, to merely say what actantiality provides, Dooyeweerd went much further. He worked out what this meant in philosphical terms, how Being, Doing, Meaning all relate to each other, how diversity and coherence can be integrated, how determinativity and freedom, non-human and human can be understood from within the same perspective without denaturing either, and much more. He also posed for himself the question of what the diversity of aspectuality is, and, on the basis of lengthy sensitivity to everyday living as well as the utterances of thinkers over the last 2,500 years, he made a proposal that there are fifteen aspects that are irreducible to each other.

If Dooyeweerd's work could be used to contribute to the notion of actantiality, then it might do so in two ways:

Transformations, Functioning and Repercussions

Latour wants us to see the network not as some structure of relationships, but rather as transformations. Likewise, Dooyeweerd would not see, primarily, a structure of relationships (though he would allow that such do exist), but a functioning in aspects - physical, social, lingual, etc. Functioning, to Dooyeweerd, is a responding as subjects to the laws of aspects and those laws are like promises: "If you do X then Y is likely to happen". That is, there are repercussions. (Actually, there is also object-functioning, but we do not consider that here.)

These repercussions do not affect only the actant that led to them, but others too. That is, repercussions spread - a network. And the what an actant does is not what the next actant receives; that is, there is what Latour would call a transformation.

Thus, in another way, ANT is similar to Dooyeweerd.

Theory and Everyday Living

"The third nail in the coffin," says Latour, "is the word theory. As Mike Lynch said some time ago, ANT should really be called 'actant-rhizome ontology'. .. If it is a theory, of what is it a theory?" He goes on to say that it is not so much a conventional theory as a mechanism for describing and accounting for everyday living. "The ridiculous poverty of the ANT vocabulary - association, translation, alliance, obligatory passage point, etc. - was a clear signal that none of these words could replace the rich vocabulary of the actor's practice ..." Everyday living is a rich affair, whereas theory is a narrowing enterprise.

Dooyeweerd recognises this. He contends that theory and everyday knowledge are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different. Theory is isolation of an aspect whereas everyday knowledge is holistic awareness of all aspects.

Some Extant Criticisms of ANT and How Dooyeweerd Might Address Them

(With thanks to Tayfour Mohammed, who gathered the criticisms together as part of his PhD research.) A number of criticisms have been made; Dooyeweerd might provide a way to address them.

Criticisms of ANT; How Dooyeweerd might address them
Source Criticism Comment Dooyeweerd
several Focus on local and contingent, at expense of social structures Dooyeweerd accommodates both individual functioning as well as a social aspect, and also has a strong account of societal structures.
several Focus on description against explanation Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects as spheres of both meaning and law ensures that neither description nor explanation (nor norms) can be separated from each other. Each aspect defines ways in which things can be meaningful (description), and ways in which they function and relate to each other (explanation), and also ways to be 'Good'.
Walsham, 1997; McLean and Hassard, 2004 It underplays the importance of power (seeing power as emerging from processes that occur within a network, rather than being constitutive of the network as such). That is a criticism by those who see most things through the lens of power, and themselves might overplay its importance. But it has some validity. ANT presupposes we can deem something to be a network, but does not say how to deem; in this way, ANT has a fundamental gap in it. The power people say "We deem according to power relations". Fair enough. But power is not the only way to deem something to be a network. We can discern networks of, for example, faith, generosity, legality, aesthetic harmony, resource-exchange, social relationships, communications, etc. What power people mean by power may be understood according to the later ('social') aspects, such as social, economic, juridical, pistic. See Actantiality and Multi-layer ANT below.
Star [1991] ANT focuses on 'heroes', the 'victors' in a 'warlike' scenario, and tends to overlook victims. Since the aspects, to Dooyeweerd, transcend humanity and enable all functioning, reference to aspects rather than entities can help us consider both victims and victors alike. Also, a 'hero' becomes just one among many actants, all of which act in response to aspectual law. See Transformation .. Repercussions below.
Walsham, 1997; Amsterdamska, 1990 Amoral stance. It matters not to ANT whether enrolment takes place by good discourse or by fraud and intimidation. These criticisms may be made also of other subjectivist approach such as soft systems. The problem arises because ANT presupposes a separation between Is and Ought; ANT ignores the moral element. To Dooyeweerd, by contrast, Is and Ought cannot be separated, since both are constituted in spheres of meaning-and-law, which are the aspects. See below.
Callon, 1998 Poor analysis of the actor (actant). ANT presupposes actants, and does not offer any basis on which to understand them. Dooyeweerd provides a strong and detailed account of what ANT calls actants: entities that function in all aspects, and are active entities by virtue of that very functioning. See Human and Non-Human below.
Collins & Yearley, 1992 Notion of symmetry (between human and non-human actants) taken too far. "It would be absurd to use arguments to try to convince a microbe to give a scientist some extra funding for further research" [Amst., 1990:499] Notice 'taken too far' rather than 'has no validity'. To Dooyeweerd, both humans and non-humans alike function in the aspects, and it is the aspects that enable both types of functioning. But Dooyeweerd also provides way of distinguishing human from non-human in his radically different notion of subject and object, and also of types. See Human & non-human below.
For example the microbe would function as subject/agent only up to the biotic or psychic aspect, while humans can function as subject in all aspects, and it is the economic and lingual aspects that are active in arguments for funding.
Mohammed, 2008 ANT presupposes stability of network to be a 'Good', and that all actants in a network so function as to maintain its stability. Mohammed does not make this a criticism, but I criticise ANT for presupposing stability. To Dooyeweerd, ultimately, the only 'stable' thing in created reality is the law-side, which includes the aspects that transcend us. And they alone define what is 'Good' for us. This means that networks can change and dissolve as well as grow, and Dooyeweerd can account for this; note that on the first page of NC, Vol III Dooyeweerd puts before, as a philosophical problem, that things change and ultimately cease to exist.

How Dooyeweerd Might Enrich ANT - So Far

So we see, from this over-brief analysis, that in at least a number of ways Dooyeweerd's philosophy might be commensurate with Latour's Actor-Network Theory. To determine whether these glimpses that we have had here of the correspondences between the two frameworks of thinking can become clear pictures, somebody must examine them in more depth. There are also indications of some major differences between the two frameworks, though they have not been discussed here. To discern more appropriately the points of agreement and disagreement between Dooyeweerd and Latour's Actor-Network Theory is research that, to the best of my knowledge, needs to be undertaken. But before we leave the matter, let us consider two ways in which Dooyeweerd might enrich ANT.

Human and Non-Human: Symmetry

Actor-Network Theory treats human and non-human actants as essentially synonymous. For example, a computer system could be an actant, just as its users could be. At first sight, Dooyeweerd would disagree. But, on closer examination, Dooyeweerd too places humans and non-humans into one framework: the aspects. All entities (actants) function in a number of aspects.

However, Dooyeweerd *also* distinguishes humans from animals from plants from non-living things by which aspects they can function as subject in: humans in every aspect, animals up to the sensitive aspect, plants up to the biotic, and non-living things up to the physical.

This means that the the Network is no longer flat: it is to be seen as multi-layered.

Multi-Layer ANT?

It was suggested above that Dooyeweerd's aspectuality is Latours actantiality, and that therefore Dooyeweerd's aspects can account for diversity in the transformations. Dooyeweerd's aspects are not the same as actants, since the aspects are the law side and actants, the entity side, of reality. But they might suggest a kind of multi-layered network, rather than a single layer.

An actant functions in many aspects, so repercussions of an actant are in many aspects - social, lingual, sensory, physical, juridical, aesthetic, etc. For example, someone makes a real sacrifice for me (ethical aspect). I respond in a number of ways:

For instance, consider the tiny network:

Now, consider a multi-level network, turned on its side, in which each actant is actually a pillar extending through all the aspects, and the network at each level, in each aspect, is a subset of the total one above:

Is All The Above Misdirected?

The above discussion, of both ANT and how Dooyeweerd might help it, is at the level of specific models, theories, etc. But Latour also had a deeper perspective that transcends all the above - the continual cycling of social theorists between:

Both seem needed. Amit Mitra recently sent me the following concerning the motivations of Latour in developing ANT:

"Latour (1999) observed that whilst carrying out research a common problem is in the simplification of interpretive socio-scientific research that is seen to inexorably alternate between actor and system, agency and structure. Latour (1999) claimed that the use of ANT was to deal with a couple of fundamental dissatisfactions.

"The first dissatisfaction concerns the micro level where scientists are usually engaged in face-to-face interactions, field data collection, estimating the output of algorithms, etc. However, soon there comes a time when the researcher realises that a connection needs to be made with the macro world. As the latter, has undoubtedly contributed to the creation of the obtaining conditions within the local or micro domain. This may be categorised as an inadequacy that results from the understanding that a greater attention needs to be allocated to wider dimensions of the macro environment that might not be directly connected but nevertheless important.

"The second dissatisfaction is a compulsion of the opposite kind whereby after having explored the intricacies of the macro domain using pattern recognition within ubiquitous concepts like society, values, norms, structure, etc. an overwhelming need is normal to be felt to retrace and get back to micro analysis. Such an inadequacy may urge scientists to go back and examine the specific. This goes on ad infinitum. The emergent body of literature (Mitra 2001) that is gradually becoming more familiar to researchers as the actor network approach connects through a trajectory these countervailing realities."

But perhaps the most important statement he made was his closing sentence that follows on from that:

"Latour (1999) says that the objective of ANT was not to overcome these dissatisfactions or solve the problem as it were but `to follow them elsewhere and try to explore the very conditions that makes these two disappointments possible' (pp. 17)."

"To explore the very conditions that makes these two disappointments possible" sounds very like a Dooyeweerdian motivation. So let us consider how Dooyeweerd might account for the macro-micro cycling and how we might accept yet account for the 'dissatisfactions'.

Macro-Micro Cycling a la Dooyeweerd

Look at Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects and we see, after the pre-human ones, several that are pre-social; these describe certain aspects of the functioning of individuals: sensing, making distinctions, shaping, and attaching meaning to symbols. These would seem similar to what Latour had in mind at the micro level. The post-social aspects of our functioning all presuppose the social aspect - in particular, the pistic aspect of commitment and belief, and the juridical aspect of what is due. Such aspects would seem to include (and perhaps go wider than) what Latour had in mind when he spoke of the macro level. If this is correct, then we are justified in calling the pre-social aspect the micro aspects, and the post-social aspects, macro.

Social scientists study human life in a way that acknowledges the social aspect. To Dooyeweerd human living involves all the aspects, so almost everything we do has both micro and macro aspects. So, according to Dooyeweerd, it is no wonder that, in studying, they encounter both micro and macro.

But the problem (the 'dissatisfactions') arises from the nature of science, according to Dooyeweerd. He proposed that each aspect provides a distinct scientific area of study, and that in doing science related to an aspect we are focusing on that aspect, ignoring all the others. Moreover, all aspects are irreducible. So, if we isolate, for our study of human living, one of the micro aspects, then after a time we begin to recognise that there are other aspects of what we are studying that cannot be reduced to this aspect. It is probably one of the macro aspects that we are encountering, so we start to focus on it. After a time, we find we cannot fully explain things from the point of view of this aspect, and swing to another, often a micro aspect. That - in an oversimplified manner that needs further work - accounts for the swinging, the twin dissatisfactions.

But surely, if Dooyeweerd accounts for this, then we could attempt to ameliorate the dissatisfactions? Not so. To Dooyeweerd, all the aspects are irreducible to each other. Yet, the aspects 'resist' being pulled apart because they form a coherence of meaning. This 'resistance' is felt in various ways, but often in some kind of dissatisfaction. This is particularly so of theory-making, which involves setting the analytical aspect against ('Gegenstand') the studied aspect. So some kind of 'dissatisfaction' is simply to be expected in any theoretical thinking, and cannot be escaped. Just as Latour says.


This brief discussion does not, of course, do justice to the richness of Latour's views, nor of Dooyeweerd's. But it does, I hope, indicate in which direction we might head if we wish to explore these matters further. The main points seem to be:

All these possibilities need further work.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 4 April 2002 Last updated: 17 April 2002 added new section on macro-micro and dissatisfactions, after material received from Amit Mitra. 25 November 2002 added conclusion that summarizes main points. 14 June 2008 Criticisms of Dooyeweerd + contents; end,nav. 7 December 2010 removed Amit Mitra's salford link. 10 June 2016 Dorrestijn news, new .nav,.end.