French Perspectives

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French intellectual culture, from its Enlightenment heritage, is deeply imbued with a positivist approach to human problems. Modern science and technology are simply assumed to be the proper expressions of human reason. Under such assumptions it would be meaningless to consider the possibility that either science or technology could be intrinsically problematic or that it would be appropriate to try to identify proper limits to their development. Instead, for more than a century the main philosophical debate raised by scientific and technological progress dealt with conflicting political responses to extrinsic problems, such as the uses of technology to exploit the working class.

In France, moreover, academic life is highly centralized and, as a result of their selection and training, professional intellectuals tend to live in a world situated between the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. Such a context favors the reproduction of existing problems and debates, so that questioning of the intrinsic character of science or technology was at most a minor issue in the history of science. Those few thinkers who took seriously science or technology as issues in themselves remained isolated, their work largely ignored, with students who were interested in such topics systematically discouraged from appropriate programs of study. In consequence, questions of science, technology, and ethics in France during most of the twentieth century were not so much part of a tradition of critical reflection as they were associated with a series of individuals who, in somewhat eccentric manner, undertook to investigate them.

From Henri Bergson to Emmanuel Mounier

The response of Henri Bergson (1859–1941), the leading French philosopher of the first third of the twentieth century, to the disastrous experience of World War I is indicative of the basic attitude during this period. Educated at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, after teaching philosophy at a series of lycées, Bergson became a professor at the College de France, where his lectures attracted not only students and academics but even the general public and tourists. His most original reflections on creativity and time having been completed before the war, afterward Bergson served as a diplomat and worked in support of the League of Nations. His Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (The two sources of morality and religion, 1932) argues a chastened but continuing commitment to the Enlightenment tradition.

Les deux sources acknowledges that there is something frenzied and uncontrolled (frénétique et emporté)in the race for material progress. Yet Bergson's perception of the problems raised by the scientific technology that is at the foundations of such progress is surprisingly narrow and shortsighted. He seems mostly sorry about "the search for comfort and luxury which seems to have become humankind's primary concern" (p. 322), although he quickly adds that there is no cause for worry, because humanity has always progressed by oscillating from one extreme attitude to its opposite—from a mysticism oriented toward self-control and self-possession to a materialistic mechanism aspiring to the control and possession of things. This is why "we should engage with no restraint in one direction in order to find out what the result will be: When it will no longer be possible to persist, we shall swing back with all our acquisitions, in the direction we had neglected or abandoned" (p. 321).

The dialectic of progress thus exhibits a kind of fatality that, in due time, can be expected to provide humankind, whose material body has grown dramatically, with a "supplement of soul" (p. 335). Bergson is confident that democracy will enable mechanism to satisfy everyone's true needs. Moreover, he expects that science will liberate the elan vital (vital impulse) from its materiality and spiritualize existence: "the material obstacle has almost tumbled down" (p. 337). Material progress fosters spiritual progress and thereby fulfills "the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for making gods" (p. 343). Understandably, a mind that entertains such lofty vistas will not be very sensitive to the concrete problems of everyday life, even those that would lead directly to a new and even more terrible war.

After World War II, French intellectuals were absorbed in the ideological and political debate for or against Marxism and communism. On the margins, such literary and religious thinkers as the Russian émigré Nicholas Berdyaev (1874–1948) and the novelists Georges Bernanos (1888–1948) and Jean Giono (1895–1970) raised pointed criticisms—as exemplified, for example, in the 1947 proceedings from a Geneva conference, Progrès technique et progrès moral. Against the threat of such views, Bergson's optimism was reaffirmed and turned into a technological messianism by the French personalist philosopher and founder of the journal Esprit, Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950). His essay Be Not Afraid (1948) is a compendium of the irenic technophilia that predominated in French intellectual life until the late 1970s.

In response to the crisis of conscience that Hiroshima caused for some, Mounier dedicated himself to an unconditional justification of technology. For him, the criticisms made of "machinism" are founded on a theoretical error about the relationships between technology and society. The exponents of this view "claim to criticize the essential character of the machine, but in the main they attack the structure of capitalist society which has twisted the first services of the machine to its own ends" (pp. 31–32). Mounier thus summarizes in a nutshell the spirit of the time.

Whether spiritualists or materialists, rationalists or existentialists, most French philosophers were to adopt the Marxist doctrine that states "there is no problem of the machine as such." To the ethically scandalous problems of exploitation, economic inequality, and poor material living standards there are appropriate political responses. Concern for the environment was not yet a serious issue. Thus there was no philosophical problem of technology as such, and the leading French philosophers of the day completely ignored technology or even science as a theme calling for explicit critical assessment. Despite the fact that the work of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) has been influential in France since the 1930s, there is little to nothing on technology in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), or Albert Camus (1913–1960).

Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul

Although he does not mention them, Mounier's argument is almost certainly directed in part against the critical position of a small group of "Gascon personalists" led by Bernard Charbonneau (1910–1996) and Jacques Ellul (1912–1994). Born and educated in Bordeaux, under the shadow of World War I, the first truly industrialized war, Charbonneau passed his agrégation in both history and geography, but chose not to follow the standard academic career. Instead, he elected employment at a small teachers' college in order to be able to live a rural life in the Pyrenees.

Charbonneau's central intuition is that modern technoscientific development creates what he calls "the great mutation." Early on, Charbonneau became convinced that since the war humankind was experiencing an utterly new phase in its history, one that displays two basic characteristics. First, the Great War (World War I), as a total war, subordinated reality to the logic of industrial and technological imperatives, which require the mobilization of the whole population, resources (industry, agriculture, forests), and space itself. Indeed, the war achieved as well a mobilization of the inner life of the people who, on both sides, were not just affected by the war, but consented to it, thus justifying the anonymous process that would destroy them. The Great War was the first experience of what Charbonneau describes as "a total social phenomenon," insisting that it does not have to be totalitarian in order to be total.

Second, this great mutation is characterized by auto-acceleration. Human power takes hold of the entire planet at an ever-accelerating pace. This acceleration is a quasi-autonomous process. It is not a collective project, because most of its effects have not been chosen, and there is no pilot, because it simply rushes forward independent of any direct guidance. Technoscientific and industrial development fosters more and more rapid change throughout the world, across all aspects of life, without any respect for cultural meaning or purpose. The result is a radical disruption of society and nature, a state of permanent change.

Charbonneau was convinced that contemporary conflicting ideologies (nationalism, fascism, communism, liberalism) were outdated and provided no purchase on this great mutation, and that the uncontrolled development of industry, technology, and science was the problem and the not the solution. In his major books, written during the 1940s but published much later, Charbonneau insists that the issues of technoscientific development, of totalitarianism, and of ecological disruption are interrelated. In L'Etat (1987), he describes how the technological and industrial dynamism of liberal society has created the conditions of a total and technocratic organization of social and individual life. In Le jardin de Babylone (1969), he describes how the expansion of human power and of the techno-industrial order into a planetary scale deprives human beings of a harmonious relationship with nature and threatens not only ecological balance but also human freedom. In Le système et le chaos (1990), Charbonneau warns that the disorganizing impact of technological, scientific, and industrial development on nature and on society calls for a total organization of social life that will compromise human liberty.

Ellul was likewise born and educated in Bordeaux; together he and Charbonneau developed a version of personalism that promoted small, decentralized, and environmentally focused groups rather than centralized Parisian leadership. Unlike Charbonneau, Ellul elected a more academic career, and following his agrégation in Roman Law, became professor of the history of law at the University of Bordeaux.

Ellul is often characterized as a pessimistic Calvinist, urging the rejection of modern technology as an evil runaway power. But although Christian, he is neither Calvinist nor pessimistic; he firmly believes that it is possible to control and direct technological change, and indeed that technological choices are necessary and urgent. This is precisely the great political challenge that humankind must accept, otherwise politics is nothing but vain agitation. But the mastery of technological change is a difficult task, and in order to have any chance of success it is necessary to have a clear vision of the obstacles.

Ellul's analysis of the central role of technology in contemporary society is developed in three books. In The Technological Society (1954), he insists that the discussion of the role of machines is no longer relevant, because modern technology is not a mere accumulation of tools and machines; it is a global phenomenon which by means of propaganda, social planning and business management, and the organization of leisure subsumes all areas of individual and social life to the systematic search for efficiency. As a result there is a fundamental ambiguity of technological development, which, on the one hand, emancipates people from natural constraints and, on the other, submits them to a system of abstract and coherent functional constraints that in their own way determine social life. Technological progress fosters a technological society, more and more organized and integrated on the basis of impersonal logics.

In The Technological System (1977), Ellul argues that technology is now the environment in which human beings live and to which they must adapt. This technological environment is increasingly exhibiting a systemic cohesion. It is an interconnected network of technological ensembles; it organizes itself and evolves according to a process of "self-augmentation" dictated by its internal needs. This is why it is so resistant to attempts at reorganization from the perspective of non-technological values, whether ethical, political, or aesthetic. This technological system exhibits its own totalizing dynamic and tends to provide the main framework of social life. Nevertheless, Ellul adds that in spite of its capacity for auto-unification, this system is not and cannot be entirely coherent, because irrationalities and dysfunctions occur each time it is in contact with a different environment, natural, human, or social.

In The Technological Bluff (1988), Ellul argues that the development of the technological system parallels a cultural inability to address the problems created by technology, and that the suffusion of contemporary mentalities by a technicist worldview is one of the major obstacles to the mastery of technology. This is why policies aimed at controlling technological change require, in order to be effective, a change in both collective mentality and individual action. In Changer la révolution (1982), Ellul offers some guidelines for this new ethics of political action, which he terms an "ethics of non-power."

Jean Brun's Existentialist Interpretation

Another major contribution to the understanding of technology from an intellectual who lived and worked outside of Parisian institutions is Jean Brun (1919–1994). Like Ellul, Brun was a committed Protestant Christian who taught in the provinces at the University of Dijon. To the analysis of technology he brought an education in Greek and Roman philosophy that enabled him to once again challenge received views.

In Le rêve et la machine (1992), which synthesizes his major ideas, Brun maintains that the common understanding of technology as an application of rational and objective knowledge for effectively altering the world in order to satisfy human needs is dramatically one-sided and inadequate for appreciating contemporary problems of science and technology. The formal rationality of technoscientific endeavors is deceiving; it prevents people from recognizing the informal, imaginative, and often unconscious dimensions of technoscientific behavior.

Brun argues that technology is both a force of life and a force of death. On the one hand, without technology of some kind, human life would scarcely be possible. On the other, technology fosters destructive delirium, mechanized hysteria, and the planning of crazy projects. Human use of technology and the way humans develop it is often unreasonable, and its impact on nature and on human beings can be quite violent. For Brun there is a deep connection between technology and irrationality, and the obstacles to its rational uses must be appreciated.

According to Brun, technology manifests two goals: satisfying human needs for a better life (motives of pragmatic utility) and responding to desires to alter the human condition (existential motives). The study of ancient myths and ancient philosophy convinced Brun that technology is not merely an instrument useful for satisfying human needs, but also a means for empowering human desire for surpassing the ontological foundations of existence, for transmuting and overcoming the human condition. Human beings suffer and have always suffered from their finitude, from the alienation of consciousness, from physical and spiritual limitations, grounded in the necessity of living in space and time.

For Brun, the history of machines has been shaped and fueled by humanity's obstinate attempts to develop technologies of communication and transportation that attempt to break through such limitations. Beneath such obstinacy lies a hidden but fundamental despair within human consciousness regarding its separate and temporal mode of existence. Human technologies are often endowed with the power of discovering doors that open an existential labyrinth. In this respect human techniques are the offspring of human dreams as much as they are the application of positive knowledge. For Brun, "machines are both daughters and mothers of fantasies that we should call metaphysical ... [T]he utilitarian function of the machine is only its diurnal face; we must unveil its nocturnal face" (1992, p. 14).

This unveiling, which he also calls a demystification of technology, is a necessary precondition for any rational control and wise use of science and technology, as it is because humans project onto their technologies their desires for an ontological liberation that they remain fascinated by and addicted to their technologies. For the same reason, people often remain indifferent to technology's negative side effects and tend to transform the means into an end. Along with movies such as The Fly (1986) or eXistenZ (1999) by the Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg, Brun argues for examining the ways utilitarian functions of technology are easily contaminated by its symbolic and existential functions.

The Mechanology of Gilbert Simondon

Another and quite different alternative to Enlightenment or positivist approaches to modern technology as applied science is found in the work of Gilbert Simondon (1924–1989), who proposed a general theory of the evolution of technological realities. Simondon was educated as a psychologist and philosopher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and worked for the major part of his career in Poitiers and Paris. Because of a long-time interest in the character of machines, he studied what came to be called human factors engineering or ergonomics, which led him to attempt to understand their development somewhat independent of economic or other human interests.

In order to better clarify the human problems raised by machinism, Simondon chose the difficult path of laying the foundations of a kind of natural history of technological evolution. To this end he developed a conceptual framework for understanding the autonomy of technology and its radical alterity or otherness. As with Charbonneau, Ellul, and Brun, for him the category of instrumentality is inadequate for understanding the essential character of the technical order.

In Du mode d'existence des objets techniques (1958), Simondon argues that technical objects are not mere embodiments of abstract ideas, that they have their own mode of being or, as he says, of existing. Machines and technical objects evolve, and this evolution tends to exhibit a fundamental unity (structure). By analyzing the history of a few artifacts (motors, turbine, lamps, etc.), Simondon demonstrates how engineering practice follows the principle of functional unity, between the parts of the machine and between the machine and the exigencies of the surrounding world. "The technological being evolves by convergence and adaptation to itself. It unifies itself interiorly according to a principle of internal resonance" (p. 20).

Using as an example the evolution of the internal combustion engine, Simondon shows that each element assures the maximum possible of functions rather than attempt to realize a principle in its abstraction. Therefore, it is toward an interdependence of all the parts of the engine that its evolution converges, and it is this that leads to its progressive concretization through an organic-like integration of its diverse technical elements. According to Simondon, "The technological object exists then as a specific type that is found at the end of a convergent series. This series goes from the abstract to the concrete mode. It tends toward a state that would make the technological being a system entirely coherent with itself, entirely unified" (p. 23).

On this analytical basis Simondon develops a general theory of technology which, in the early twenty-first century, provides an intellectual framework for understanding the autonomy of technical objects and of technical systems: They develop according to a relational and reticular logic, obeying inner functional necessities that have little to do with human psychological, economical, social, and political goals. Although human beings produce technology, there is in technology something that is essentially resistant to human projects and values.

Simondon thinks that the solution to problems raised by the technicization of the world cannot be solved by politics, which relies on a poor understanding of the technical order and its dynamism. But for Simondon this is no reason for despair, and most of his subsequent intellectual endeavors aim at bridging the gap between the two cultures: the technoscientific operative one and the humanistic symbolic one. It is worth noting, in this respect, that although the second post-World War II generation of French philosophers such as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) were as silent about science and technology as their predecessors, some postmodernist authors such as Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) have been attracted to Simondon. It may also be suggested that even those who do not share Simondon's rather optimistic and technophilic spirit may find in his thought substance for the pursuit of an authentic post-technological culture.

Supplementary Dimensions

The works of these four philosophers and the issues they wished to address were not, during their own time, well received in the French academic world. It is remarkable, for instance, that despite the 1974 French commitment to the development of nuclear power, this led to none of the kinds of public or intellectual debates typical of nuclear power developments in such countries as the United States or Great Britain. Nor has the increased technical powers of the professions of medicine or engineering engendered the kinds of discussions of professional ethics typical, especially, of the United States. Yet in the 1980s things did begin to change. One of these changes was the influence from the English-speaking world of the applied ethics movement, especially the field of bioethics.

In 1983, for instance, French President François Mitterrand created the Comité Consultatif National d'Ethique (CCNE), which consists of forty members, including representatives from different philosophical and religious schools of thought, public figures, and various scientific research institutions. Unlike similar or related commissions in other countries, the CCNE is not designed to be impartial but to elicit different points of view. Also unlike Enquette commissions in Germany or Royal Commissions in Commonwealth countries, the CCNE in not limited to specific topics but is an ongoing body. In 1994, in part as an outgrowth of its opinions, the French National Assembly passed legislation dealing with organ donation, medically assisted reproduction, and prenatal diagnosis.

Another associated activity emphasizing bioethics is the Science Generation Web site, which is cosponsored by the Institute de France, the Aventis Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Federation of Scientific and Technical Associations, the European Council of Applied Sciences and Engineering, and the European Commission. This Internet site thus serves as a model of interdisciplinary and government-private partnership. But precisely because of their high profiles, neither the CCNE nor Science Generation represents serious critical assessment. Although both manifest an emerging concern for science, technology, and ethics issues, both focus much more on reflecting the opinions of technoscientific experts or the general public.

Another indication of the emerging French interest in science, technology, and ethics has been the stepping out of scholars more consistently devoted to these topics than has previously been the case. One example was an exchange between mathematician and historian of science Michel Serres and science studies ethnographer Bruno Latour (1990), in which the two explore how technoscientific power entails in itself ethical challenges. Still another was the creation in 1992 of the Société pour la Philosophie de la Technique (SPT), which provides an arena where competing philosophic approaches toward technology can be discussed in a constructive way.

Among the contributors to SPT discussions one may take special note of the following: Jean-Jacques Salomon (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers), in analyses of relations between science and politics, has raised the issue of democratic control not only of technology but also of scientific research. Dominique Janicaud (Université de Nice), with his theory of potentialization, has examined how progress in some types of rationality has created a potential for new forms of dehumanizing irrationalities. Gilbert Hottois (Université Libre de Bruxelles), a Belgian philosopher, has argued the inherently an-ethicity and autonomy of technological change, while arguing from the example of bioethics for the possibility an accompagnement symbolique for science and technology. And Franck Tinland (Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier) insists from an anthropological point of view on the long term autonomy of technological change and the resulting ethical problems that humankind is now facing.


SEE ALSO Bergson, Henri;Comte, Auguste;Descarte, RenéDurkheim, Émile;Ellul, Jacques;Enlightenment Social Theory;Existentialism;Foucault, Michel;Levinas, Emmanuel;Lyotard, Jean-François;Paschal, Blaise;Phenomenology;Progress;Rousseau, Jean-Jacques;Verne, Jules.


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