On Garlic and Magnets

garlic-rawHaving recently read Daryn Lehoux’s wonderful book, What Did the Romans Know? (University of Chicago Press, 2012), I was led to revisit and reconsider a post from some time ago on Latour’s concept of factish. The term factish is a neologism Latour uses to combine ideas that are widely thought to be contradictory – namely, a fact and a fetish. The former refers to a reality that is independent of those who may come to discover facts; the latter is a human construction and is a projection onto objects of our desires, wishes, and hopes. Facts thus correspond to a reality that is what it is regardless of what we think about it; fetishes correspond to realities that are what they are solely because of what we think about them. A factish points to a central claim of Latour’s, and it was this claim that was the subject of the earlier post: namely, to be constructed and to be autonomous are synonymous; or, the more constructed the object, the more real and autonomous it is. This gradation of being more or less constructed, or more or less real, is captured by yet another term of Latour’s – relative existence. Lehoux’s book has reminded me of the importance of this theme.

MagnetOne of the central themes of Lehoux’s book, and it is the theme he himself admits was what got him started on the path that led to this book, is how are we to understand and account for the longstanding belief that if one rubs garlic on a magnet then the magnet loses its magnetic powers. This belief can first be found in the early second century CE in Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales 2.7 where Plutarch claims that ‘a loadstone  will not draw a piece of iron that is rubbed with garlic,’ and it continues to be reasserted, as a commonly accepted fact, for the next 1400 years. As Lehoux shows, however, the belief in the powers of garlic to negate the powers of the loadstone serves more as a trope in discussions regarding what was then taken to be a fundamental way in which the world is divided – namely, into relations of antipathy and sympathy. Once this way of categorically dividing the world gave way to different categorizations, the belief in garlic’s antipathetic powers went with it. It is for this reason that Lehoux claims that ‘it turns out that the classification of entities does a lot more work than we might at first suppose’ (136). While it might be easy for us today to dismiss antipathy-sympathy classification and throw it into the dustbin of history, along with the reading of entrails (haruspicy), a central thesis of Lehoux’s book is that we would be wrong to do so. Moreover, Lehoux makes an even stronger claim and asserts that ‘our argument against the garlic-magnet antipathy is no stronger, and more importantly no more or less empirical, than Plutarch’s argument for it.’ (148) In other words, the belief in garlic-magnet antipathy was, in the world of the Romans, no less justified and no less empirical than many of our current beliefs.


It is the justification of this argument that leads Lehoux, in the final chapter, to the theme that was the subject of my earlier Latour post. In turning to this theme, Lehoux notes that the ‘question of whether worlds are made or whether the world is something out there to be discovered by correct application of reason and experiment is properly a philosophical one, and is accordingly not often given extended consideration by historians of the sciences.’ (225). As a historian of science, Lehoux intends to address this neglected question. His answer to the question, put briefly, is that there is a world out there, and it is this world that ‘acts in response to our senses … this fact is atemporal,’ (233) and yet when we talk about how the world ‘acts in response to our senses’ we call upon categories and classifications that do a tremendous amount of work and are largely accepted precisely because they cohere with our experiences and beliefs, experiences and beliefs we take to be justified. The classification of the world into antipathetic-sympathetic relations was, for nearly 1400 years from the time of Plutarch, a way of seeing and experiencing the world that made coherent sense of one’s everyday experiences. Although few, if any, of those who claimed that garlic’s antipathetic powers negated the sympathetic powers of magnets actually experienced this phenomenon, it was unnecessary to do so since it was merely a trope within a worldview that made sense of one’s experiences. Similarly, on reading Plutarch’s claim about the powers of garlic over magnets we do not need to go rummaging for a magnet and some garlic to know that this claim is not true. Our belief, we feel, is empirically justified despite never having actually justified it empirically. Adopting Kuhn’s arguments as Lehoux does – he takes seriously Kuhn’s claim that ‘when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them’ – we can say that we live in a different world than Plutarch.


Returning now to Latour, one of the points I stressed in that post is that Latour sets out to separate his view that a constructed reality and an autonomous reality are synonymous from the postmodernist view which asserts that ‘construction and reality are the same thing’ (Pandora’s Hope, 275). The key difference, for Latour, hinges on who one takes to be acting in the process of construction. For Latour, what is active is a rhizomelike network of human and nonhuman actors, and thus the process is one where there is no one element in control in the process of construction. As Latour puts it, ‘An entity gains in reality if it is associated with many others that are viewed as collaborating with it. It loses in reality if, on the contrary, it has to shed associates or collaborators (humans and nonhumans)’ (ibid. 257 [for more, see here). By contrast, for the postmodernists, as Latour understands them, it is the power of belief that is active, and thus fetishism is the primary driver. A world, therefore, in Lehoux’s Kuhnian use of the term, is thus, I would argue, a relatively stable and equilibrium state of relations between human and nonhuman actors. There are always nomadic actors, but they are usually dismissed and the system itself returns easily and readily to its equilibrium state. Sometimes, however, a nomadic actor can problematize the relations we take to be stable, relations we merely assume as we go about our everyday lives. These disruptive actors are what I will call events, in Deleuze’s sense of the term, whereby what occurs is a reshuffling of relations of the elements and a new pattern or worldview which is then taken to be inseparable from these relations.  This thought is a somewhat hastily written summation of arguments I have made elsewhere (see here and here) but for this post the takeaway is that neither relativism nor scientific realism are sufficiently nuanced to address the processes that constitute our beliefs about the world. Lehoux’s book was a refreshing reminder to me of this point.

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