At the root of Latour’s political philosophy is what could be described as a democratic vision for public life, which emphasizes that all actors who exist in a society should be allowed to present their concerns or have them presented. In order to create a theoretical foundation for the realization of this vision, he develops a critique of all actors who try to marginalize the public legitimacy of other actors. This critique is perhaps most clearly observed in his critique of those he describes as “the moderns,” especially in the book We Have Never Been Modern (1991).Footnote 11
Simply put, the crucial characteristic of the moderns is that they insist that they are modern—that is, that they have made a break with a period before modernity: “The adjective ‘modern’ designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time” (Latour 1993: 10). The moderns accordingly assume that there was a period before modernity that the moderns believe that they have been able to escape. The identification as “modern” will therefore, as Latour writes, “[designate] a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished” (Latour 1993: 10). The moderns thus believe that they are the heirs of those who brought the hope of enlightenment into a dark and archaic world. In order to create the conditions for an enlightened reality for all, they therefore challenge those actors whose basic rational and practical outlook is incompatible with modern rationality. Instead, the moderns advocate a rational and practical outlook that is based on immanent qualifications. Furthermore, the moderns reason that the path towards enlightenment that they are the heirs to is the only rational outlook that can potentially gain universal legitimacy. For this reason, Latour describes the moderns as universalists (Latour 1993: 112).
While there is much in modern rationality that Latour thinks is worth retaining (Latour 1993: 132–133, 135; Latour 2013), he is critical of modern universalism, in that it creates a hierarchical order between the moderns and those that are perceived to be premodern. Such an attitude, where one imagines that one represents a more legitimate and superior rationality, is problematic according to Latour’s reasoning, in that it creates rational conditions that are capable of depriving the public legitimacy of certain social actors (Latour 1993: 10–11). This critique is furthermore not only directed at the moderns. It permeates Latour’s work. Therefore, this critique also appears when he discusses, e.g. social scientists’ marginalization of the social actors that they study (Latour 2005) and humanity’s depletion of the planet (Latour 2017).Footnote 12
As an alternative to such marginalization, he advocates for a public that strives for and prioritizes a more inclusive public. Somewhat simplified, his works advances the idea that such a public is achieved by creating practices and structures that enable everyone’s concerns to be presented publicly.Footnote 13 Only when such an egalitarian order has emerged can a society, according to Latour’s thinking, claim that it is open and democratic.
As Latour further argues, this will also entail that the actors whose concerns are presented in the public sphere are brought together into a common collective—they must exist in the same public arena, not in different contexts without any connections to one another. In order for them to do so, these actors must endeavor to form associations with each other in order to form a common network of actors.Footnote 14 The presentation of concerns therefore enables the formation of a collective body politic of free actors. But since the actors who need to be allowed to be presented always fluctuate, and as their concerns change, the body politic has no lasting stability. Instead, it will be, as Latour writes, “a temporarily defined totality” (Latour 2003: 147–148). This means that an open and democratic society is something that arises temporarily when free actors are allowed to present their concerns in public life. And to the extent that freedom (to present ones concerns) is stymied, the idea of an open and democratic society will also be threatened (Latour 2003).
An important point Latour makes is that this emphasis on presentation should not be perceived in such a way that all matters of concern are legitimate after they have been presented. On the contrary, presentation is only the first step towards a process of evaluating and judging between the various concerns: “If there is a mistake that, for our own salvation, we must not commit, it is that of confusing respect for the various alterations […] with the resources of critical thought” (Latour 2013: 157). Since everything does not contribute to the common good, it is therefore obvious that everything should not be valued equally: “Yes, there are things to discuss […] there are beings that do not deserve to exist […] we have to judge and decide” (Latour 2013: 142–143). However, Latour’s point is that no such evaluation can be made unless an initial presentation has taken place—something that he argues all too often does not happen and which he thus criticizes. It is consequently by highlighting the dividing lines that one can begin to find new ways towards a common future beyond these dividing lines. For this reason, one could say that the objective of politics is the creation of a future association between different actors, which is based on the recognition that such associations are impossible as long as marginalization and exclusion are allowed. Thus, the presentation of all matters of concern allows conflicts between different actors to surface, consequently allowing them to be confronted for the purpose of creating a common future together. Therefore, only when conflicts are allowed to be confronted, is it possible to “perhaps, […] speak of democracy again,” as Latour writes (Latour 2013: 142).
In this endeavor to make all concerns public, a resemblance to Biesta’s thinking emerges. It can specifically be argued that the space for education corresponds to the public arena for presentation that Latour imagines. Both are arenas for plurality. Also, they both create the conditions for evaluating what is worthwhile pursuing and/or supporting. For Latour, it is about evaluating what concerns contribute to the general good. For Biesta, it is about creating the conditions for the student to make a decision—thus, to evaluate what is worth desiring—in order to make him or her appear as a subject.
However, what Latour to a greater extent than Biesta touches upon, is how to deal with conflicts between different actors, in my case students. As both argue, a consequence of plurality is conflict. This can be the beginning of a beneficial development for society and/or the subject. But conflicts can also give rise to antagonism (and even violence). As I have already noted, this is a particular challenge when teaching ethics, as the questions that often are addressed tend to give an emotional response. How I, as a teacher, should deal with such antagonism thus becomes a principal concern. In addressing this concern, Latour’s interpretation of the role of the diplomat provides some valuable theoretical perspectives.