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  • The Philosopher and (His) TechnicsFrom the Work of Pierre Ducassé
  • François-David Sebbah (bio)
    Translated by Daniel Wilson
A Review of Pierre Ducassé. Les techniques et le philosophe (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958).

[End Page 6]

“The philosopher and his technics”; “the philosopher and technics”: these are two lines of thought in what follows. One concerns the technics specific to “the philosopher”; the other concerns the manner in which “the philosopher” is related to the realm of technics. These two lines of thought will be approached laterally, because the line of questioning followed here is located “between” them, following the hypothesis that in this gap (the gap of a letter, the gap between the possessive adjective and the definite article), in this interstice (l’entre-deux) there is something that plays a decisive role for each.1

This essay draws on a work whose author, Pierre Ducassé (1905–83), is no longer well known except by a few specialists. He was nevertheless one of the first to treat technics in a manner that did not reduce it to the shadow cast by—in practical application—the sciences; he also played an important role in French academic institutions. He was, most notably, the secretary of the Institut d’Histoire des Sciences de Paris (today the IHPST), from its founding in 1932 until 1955, when he took a position at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM). It is certainly true that during his lifetime Georges Canguilhem played a more important institutional role than did Ducassé, and it goes without saying that Canguilhem continues to be read and to prompt much productive contemporary commentary. It must also be added that Gilbert Simondon, who for years was not widely read, is now recognized as a definitive French thinker about the technical object (l’objet technique), among other topics. This is not the case with Ducassé. Nonetheless, his book Les techniques et le philosophe offers a meditation on the relations between the philosopher and technics (and even to his own techniques), with sensitivity and acuity that are very contemporary.2

Evoking the difficulty the philosopher has—the difficulty of the philosopher as such, of the philosopher in the singularity of his activity—when confronted with technique (and this concern, formulated in 1958, seems to me to be still relevant today), Ducassé writes:

The philosopher sees that rules are imposed upon him from outside; they are unconcerned with his own genius and “impermeable” to his art of assimilation. The brutal refusal of this degrading situation, and its compromises, is shared by all the characteristic styles of twentieth-century philosophy. The efforts of philosophers such as Husserl, Jaspers, or Heidegger all express the idea of rupture—at different levels, and with at times contradictory intentions, but with the same clarity in their rejection of what they deem intolerable. . . .

In this way these philosophers introduce a philosophical style that is distinct, and characteristic of our time, through the apparent opposition that it establishes with the technicity of our time; this philosophical style seeks to turn the actions of techncity to its advantage, through a kind of coup d’état. . . .

Truth proceeds here [in the philosophers cited above] through a technics of liberation, sufficiently refined to claim to be liberated with respect to itself and its own use. Philosophy’s power comes from its recognition of its extreme powerlessness: better yet, from its “vulnerability” to hostile attacks. . . . [End Page 7]

From a similar perspective the use of, or knowledge about, technics is therefore of little importance, because scientific knowledge itself is only interested in it as a sign of a “blockage”! No more than science, technics does not have a relationship that is valuable, or even “adequate,” to the problem of meaning, which is to say to the problem of man. . . .

According to the avowal that characterizes this new “straightforwardness,” all the direct and indirect aims of technique reach us and deform us; but none points to what fundamentally concerns us. . . . Most men have always accepted . . . to be made into “machines.” . . . Ultimately, they are not and they have never been themselves, except on rare occasions, the meaning of which we discern only in...