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Engineer-philosophers: thinkers of the future and men of action

François L’Yvonnet
professor of philosophy, editor
Key takeaways
  • If traditional philosophical speculation is struggling to find its place today, a new figure is emerging: the engineer-philosopher.
  • As an observer and actor in the technological developments that are transforming our world, someone who has a keen sense of the common good and recognises the responsibility of such.
  • The engineer-philosopher lives in an age haunted by crises, therefore relying on the betrayed promises of the past to shed light on future transformations.
  • Innovation today comes to terms with nature, instead of seeking to dominate it as in classical philosophy.

Pascal and Leibniz once embodied the image of philosophers that are men of science. Has this imagedisappeared? 

The twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry has seen a con­sid­er­able change, with an unprece­dent­ed expan­sion of sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, which lim­its the claims of tra­di­tion­al phi­los­o­phy to look at all knowl­edge, as Berg­son still did. The sci­ences are becom­ing autonomous, and philo­soph­i­cal spec­u­la­tion is strug­gling to find its place.

But, in con­trast, a new fig­ure is emerg­ing: the engi­neer-philoso­pher. These indi­vid­u­als do not per­son­i­fy a spe­cif­ic of school of thought as such, even if many of them come from the same alma mater – name­ly Ecole Poly­tech­nique. What they have in com­mon, and which is not unre­lat­ed to the ser­vice of the State asso­ci­at­ed with this school, is an acute con­cern for the com­mon good, based on the aware­ness of a respon­si­bil­i­ty. As mem­bers of an elite called upon to lead the nation (or, at the very least, large organ­i­sa­tions), they feel account­able. They are also gen­er­al engi­neers, who embrace a vast field of prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge, and who close­ly observe the tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments that are trans­form­ing our world: it is their duty to enlight­en themselves.

The engi­neer-philoso­pher is a man of action: far from the fig­ure of the cab­i­net man, the dream­er, or the academic.

In this respect, a per­son­al­i­ty like Thier­ry Gaudin is exem­plary. Born in 1940, he is an observ­er and a key play­er in the com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion that took off with his gen­er­a­tion. His start­ing point is a close analy­sis of the trans­for­ma­tions of the tech­ni­cal sys­tem and of the inter­ac­tions between tech­nol­o­gy and soci­ety, to think about con­tem­po­rary changes. In his view, these changes are not sim­ply a result of the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, but rather it must be under­stood as a real civil­i­sa­tion­al change. His grasp of this rup­ture led him to draw up per­spec­tives in works such as 2100Réc­it du prochain siè­cle (1990) or L’Avenir de l’E­sprit (2021).

The very first ‘engineer-philosophers’, in the 19th Century, were driven by the imagination of progress, which led them to project themselves into the future. Do their successors share this confidence?

They live in an age haunt­ed by crises, and which has been tak­en over by the ancient imag­i­nary of catastrophe:that our future is slip­ping away. This pre­vents them from build new sys­tems as closed, sol­id, pre-ver­i­fied intel­lec­tu­al worlds. They are faced with a prob­lem­at­ic future, which they seek to con­cep­tu­alise with­out lim­it­ing it.

An emblem­at­ic fig­ure here would be Jean-Pierre Dupuy. A thinker of cat­a­stro­phe, he does not allow him­self to be fas­ci­nat­ed by it, and does not play the mys­tic or the “col­lap­sol­o­gists”, but rather devel­ops an “enlight­ened cat­a­strophism”. Announc­ing the inevitabil­i­ty of the worst is a way of pre­vent­ing it from hap­pen­ing. Here we find an eth­ic of respon­si­bil­i­ty (not evad­ing a pos­si­bil­i­ty, even a fright­en­ing one), and that very spe­cial ges­ture of the engi­neer who seeks not so much to cap­ture real­i­ty as to mod­el it, to under­stand and influ­ence it. The chal­lenge is not to flood today’s real­i­ty with cat­a­stroph­ic ideas, but rather to keep a hold on it.

Such an approach is far from the great sys­tems devel­oped by the philoso­phies of his­to­ry which, think of Hegel or Marx, thought of the future from a rup­ture. The engi­neer-philoso­phers are thinkers of the future, but they insist on con­ti­nu­ity. This does not exclude, on the con­trary, think­ing about renew­al, but they do not draw up the escha­to­log­i­cal fig­ure of an ide­al world. Rather, they con­sid­er the betrayed promis­es of the past and apply them­selves to enlight­en and accom­pa­ny the trans­for­ma­tion of our world.

These engi­neer-philoso­phers are men of action: far from the fig­ure of the cab­i­net man, the dream­er, or the aca­d­e­m­ic. They tear them­selves away from the moment, from their careers too, to think. But their think­ing is nour­ished by the test of reality.

Modern philosophy has focused on the world of men. With Descartes, it made nature an “object” from which Man could, in a way, extract himself. This intellectual gesture was also that of the engineers, who actively worked to make us “like masters and possessors of nature”. Aren’t engineer-philosophers prisoners of this paradigm, which is now being undermined by the brutal reminder of nature’s power?

It is true that this phase of moder­ni­ty, with its vision of Man “as mas­ter and pos­ses­sor of nature”, seems to be behind us. Human­i­ty is dou­bly remind­ed of its nat­ur­al con­di­tion. First­ly, through the renewed link with ani­mal­i­ty, from Dar­win to con­tem­po­rary pri­ma­tol­ogy, and sec­ond­ly, through the notion of the envi­ron­ment, which is catch­ing up with us at great speed. Mod­ern phi­los­o­phy did not ask the ques­tion of the envi­ron­ment; on the con­trary, it devel­oped by evad­ing it. But the engi­neer-philoso­phers are in no way stuck in this impasse.

I will take as an exam­ple Olivi­er Rey, who belongs to the next gen­er­a­tion, born in the 1960s. His work is char­ac­ter­is­tic of a cri­tique of moder­ni­ty, which points out the embed­ding of num­bers and rais­es the ques­tion of human scale; the lim­its and dis­pro­por­tions between the prod­ucts of tech­nol­o­gy (cities, com­pa­nies, sys­tems) and our abil­i­ty to live in soci­ety. Final­ly, he tack­les tran­shu­man­ism, the ulti­mate form of this mod­ern claim to dom­i­nate nature. 

Inno­va­tion thrives today in the ruins of progress: it has come to terms with nature, instead of seek­ing to dom­i­nate it.

In an essay such as Repair­ing the Water, he explains that mod­ern sci­ence was built by repu­di­at­ing sen­sa­tions, imme­di­ate impres­sions, in favour of rea­son and mea­sure­ment. Our rela­tion­ship with the world has been turned upside down: it has been “clar­i­fied in many respects, impov­er­ished in oth­ers”. This for­mu­la pre­cise­ly cap­tures the think­ing of the philoso­pher-engi­neer, who does not repu­di­ate sci­ence or tech­nol­o­gy, but ques­tions its impass­es, what is lost in what is gained. Such think­ing is in line with Gün­ther Anders’ reflec­tions on the “Promethean shift”, insep­a­ra­ble from the advent of the atom­ic age and its mas­sive means of destruction.

We return to the questions of action and responsibility: is there not a renunciation of action here?

No, it is not so much a renun­ci­a­tion as an attempt to explore oth­er paths, with­out aban­don­ing the ambi­tion to act, to have a hold on the world. In two ways, as mod­ellers and as philoso­phers, engi­neer-philoso­phers are marked by the imag­i­nary of the ide­al city – a ges­ture that has inhab­it­ed Euro­pean thought since the Greeks. But this mod­el­ling is impos­si­ble today, because in order to mod­el, one must iso­late. But in the glob­alised world, where every­thing is inter­con­nect­ed, noth­ing can be iso­lat­ed. Not to men­tion the fact that there is lit­tle faith in the future. 

In the eyes of this new gen­er­a­tion of engi­neer-philoso­phers, action changes in mean­ing: it is no longer a ques­tion of act­ing on, exer­cis­ing sov­er­eign pow­er over nature or things. Rather, it is a mat­ter of crack­ing the exist­ing, in order to reopen up pos­si­bil­i­ties – here I am using the words of François Jul­lien. Crack­ing is a more mod­est ges­ture than trans­form­ing. Inno­va­tion thrives today in the ruins of progress: it comes to terms with nature, instead of seek­ing to dom­i­nate it.

This vision, which insists on the inser­tion of human action into an envi­ron­ment, is, in the true sense of the word, eco­log­i­cal. But to the two poles of rad­i­cal ecol­o­gy – one that con­sid­ers Man as an inva­sive species that nature could do with­out, the oth­er re-enact­ing the trag­ic farce of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, intru­sive and full of pro­hi­bi­tions – engi­neer-philoso­phers oppose a vision of human action marked by both lim­its and respon­si­bil­i­ty. A cau­tious, respect­ful vision that val­ues tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence with­out ever iso­lat­ing it from its effects.

Richard Robert

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