- Technology, Sociology, Humanism: Simondon and the Problem of the Human Sciences
“To Axiomatise” the Human Sciences
Before his death in 1989, Gilbert Simondon wrote two major books consisting of his principal and complementary theses, both defended in 1958. The complementary thesis on the mode of existence of technical objects was published in 1958, while it was only in 1964 that sections of his principal thesis on individuation were made available to the public (and even then only the chapters dedicated to the regimes of physical and vital individuation, excluding those dealing with psychic and collective individuation.) Over the course of his career, Simondon produced other major texts, but only in the form of unpublished courses or conference presentations published in poorly distributed journals. Some of these texts have been published recently, while others will certainly also be made available in the near future.1 Needless to say, as a result of this publication history, Simondon’s readers have only had access to a limited portion of his work.
This situation explains the way that Simondon has been read by philosophers: first, as a thinker who proposed an original albeit perplexing approach to thinking about technique; later on, he was read as a thinker who proposed a critique of metaphysics and a new concept of the individual. Simondon is usually read as both a thinker of technique and the author of an ontology of the individual. Some have dedicated themselves to the problem of unifying these two theses, to the question of understanding why Simondon dedicated himself in the 1950s to researching the technical object and, more specifically, industrial machinery, while at the same time developing a metaphysics of the individual. Although at first glance these two areas seem quite distinct, should we understand the redefinition of the individual as a necessary stage that must be passed through in order to speak accurately of machines? Or should we read the philosophy of technique as a simple illustration of his general philosophy of the individual? Or, should we refuse to privilege either of these themes over the other? Whatever the approach to this question, it is quite rare to find those who have tried to interpret the entirety of Simondon’s work [End Page 76] from the point of view of a confrontation between philosophy and the human sciences.
Reflecting on the state of the human sciences is not a minor issue in Simondon’s philosophy. One might argue that it is its guiding principle. Simondon accords it considerable importance in a seminar he presented at the Société Française de Philosophie in February 1960.2 Speaking to an audience that included some of the most eminent figures in French philosophy at the time, he explained in detail what led him to undertake his research in the domains of ontology and technology. This was the claim that the human sciences lack “axiomatisation,” and that it is necessary to remedy this lacuna. In his presentation, Simondon did not give many details about what such an “axiomatisation” might mean. He simply specified that this regrettable situation has caused, and continues to cause, problems in the relationship between sociology and psychology, and that to “axiomatise” the human sciences would require, above all else, a redefinition of the relationship between sociology and psychology. Simondon suggested in a very allusive manner that this apparently crucial and urgent task demands both a philosophy of the technical object and a re-founding of concepts such as form, information and potential—concepts that are also the central concepts of his philosophy of the individual.
Simondon was age 36 at the time of this conference, had recently defended his theses, and was not yet a professor at the Sorbonne, so it was an occasion for him to make himself known to his peers by presenting the general direction of his work. He chose to emphasize a problem that touched upon the human sciences and, in particular, psychology and sociology. This problem was, of course, at the heart of philosophical debates at the time; structuralism was then widely discussed. And it seems that Simondon wanted to bring an original contribution of his own...