Following a link to the Centre International
des Etudes Simondoniennes (CIDES) in a blogpost by Andrew Iliadis I saw the following paper transcript, in English, by Andrea Bardin (author of Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon). The paper concerns Simondon’s theorisation of individuation as ontogenetic. This is a paper rich with ideas and I suspect of interest to anyone interested in theories of information, of being/becoming, and in epistemology more broadly…
I am daring to reproduce the paper here – in the hope that it reaches a broader anglophone audience. Please do cite/link to the original though – not to this page. (I also do not know if Bardin wrote this in English or if it is a translation, there are no clues on the CIDES page.)
“Against ideological determinism : Simondon’s political epistemology”*, by Andrea Bardin
* This paper was presented at the London Conference in Critical Thought, 7 June 2013. Part of it has been further developed as “On Substances and Causes Again: Simondon’s Philosophy of Individuation and the Critique of the Metaphysical Roots of Determinism.” In Galofaro, F. et al. (eds.) Morphogenesis and Individuation. Springer, 2014.
My aim is to ‘introduce’ today the two-sided philosophical enterprise Simondon developed in 1958 in his main work, Individuation in the Light of the Notions of Form and Information. His philosophy was both concerned with an encyclopaedic and entirely ‘modern’ project of axiomatisation of all sciences (the social sciences included), and with a quite original, experimental conception of epistemology he called philosophy of individuation or ‘ontogenesis’ which, I believe, has some interesting political consequences.
This double aspect he inherited from one of the fathers of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, who conceived information as a paradigm which could be at least in principle extended to all the fields of scientific research: biology, psychology, psychopathology, sociology and political economy. From Wiener’s research Simondon not only derived his far-reaching project, but also a peculiar view on the individual – I quote from Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950):
The individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than of a bit of substance.
Now, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation neither maintains a substantialism of the individual, nor dissolves it into a complex system of relations: ‘the individual is being and relation’ (Simondon 1958: 143). And at the same time it refuses two apparently opposed views on physical, biological, psychical and social processes: determinism and indeterminism. Simondon does not believe in pre-constituted objects or subjects, and therefore he is interested in the processes they both emerge from. In general, he is well aware that – despite any possible disguising – the same subject underlies Descartes’s metaphysical ontology and Kant’s transcendental epistemology, since both are the counterpart of what we still refer to as Nature, the deterministic whole we are supposed to accept as a ‘matter of fact’. On the contrary, philosophy is rather concerned with ‘the processes of individuation from which the subject of [both] critical thought and of ontology emerges’ (Simondon 1958: 269).
Today, after briefly introducing Simondon’s epistemology – which is still quite new to the Anglophone context – I’ll suggest in which sense his conjoint critique to determinism and indeterminism can be read as a critique of ideology.
1. How does Simondon proceed? (Fortunately) he does not have a predetermined method. So, he looks for different theoretical tools to describe processes and systems far from equilibrium (metastable) instead of ‘beings’. And he does that – I would say – ‘experimentally’: throughout the text of Individuation (but also before and after it) one can witness subsequent attempts to define different ‘paradigms’ he derives from the whole spectre of the natural sciences. ‘Crystallisation’ and ‘modulation’ are in fact two of them he had already developed before writing the book on Individuation. There he also speaks of ‘transductive processes’ or more simply ‘transduction’. The categorisation of such paradigms was further widened and complicated by Simondon: he added ‘continuous modulation’ and ‘discontinuous transduction’, ‘organising amplification’ (Simondon 1962: 417).
It is not necessary here to go through the different connotations of these expressions, but it is interesting to discern what actually links all of the recurrent attempts to ‘name’ these processes. From this perspective the entire Individuation appears as a kind of powerful experimental-setting of concepts. The genuinely philosophical performance of the book lies in the attempt to enable different ‘schemas’ or paradigms – modulation, crystallisation, metastability, transduction, and many other conceptual tools – for the analysis of the different domains of being, of their structural conditions and the processes they emerge from: these models are tools for defining the thresholds between different domains in order to make a problem of them, rather than to fix them.
Simondon’s concepts, in fact, do not define any separate ‘realms’ – matter, living beings, human beings, psyche, society – which would be traversed by some fixed individuals or by any kind of substances of which individuals would be composed. On the contrary, they indicate ‘phases’, processes, whose tension and dynamic composition continuously constitute and modify the configuration of individuals, both as objects and as subjects, as it happens within a magnetic and gravitational field, in which different forces and processes constitute an irregular and unstable space, full of potentials, which can modify or be modified by whatever – matter or energy – becomes part of it (as information).
No ontological guarantee, then, of a stable and secure domain, and no science capable of defining the specific processes characterising a domain: only a singular enquiry of the singular processes and of the different emerging structures. And nevertheless we do not have a kind of vague postmodernist free speech. In fact, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation is based on the critical analysis of the results of the sciences, even if aiming to criticise rather than to confirm the alleged ‘identity’ of their objects, but still starting from them. And from such results Simondon recurrently reactivates the ontogenetic hypothesis in order to discover the actual tensions that render each single being a metastable system undergoing a process of individuation. In this sense, as I am going to explain, philosophy as ontogenesis is not any a-priori axiomatisable method, but rather a meth-odos through the hard pathway of scientific research. Not to acquire metaphors, but to transport schemas of functioning from one domain to another: to experiment their heuristic efficacy.
At this point we can ask ourselves what does Simondon abandon and what does he gain through this shift from a science of the universal laws of nature to a science of the partial regularity of processes.
– What does he abandon? The myth of modern science: granted on the one hand by ontological objectivity, offering a whole set of substantialist and deterministic explanations, and on the other hand by epistemological universality, which surreptitiously hypostatised a pure and non questioned subject of knowledge to ground its forecasting power. (Ã While, on the contrary Simondon – as aforesaid – wants to understand precisely ‘the individuation from which the subject of [both] critical thought and ontology emerges’, Simondon 1958: 269)
– What does he gain through the study of the processes of individuation? A new place for philosophical thought which is no more the alleged king of sciences (in fact a servant or better a clown deprived of any power and confined in a kind of imaginary world deprived of extension).
In short, the philosophical force of Simondon’s oeuvre, of which he is not always aware, appears to me to emerge precisely in the obstinate repetition of the same operation of structuring a subject-object relation: a relation of knowledge which is not THE relation between the subject (of science) and an object anymore. It is a relation at the exact scale of each of the systems concerned: always mixed systems in which different physical, chemical, biological, psychical and social processes simultaneously take place according to a singular and unique configuration. The singularity of individuation, in short, requires a singular exercise of knowledge, a kind of ‘clinical’ thought which is itselfan individuation:
An operation of knowledge which is parallel to the known operation; we cannot, in the common use of the term – know individuation; we can only individuate, individuate ourselves, and individuate in ourselves [“¦] Beings can be known through the subject’s knowledge, but individuation of beings cannot be grasped out of the individuation of the subject’s knowledge. (Simondon 1958: 36)
Because of that, philosophical knowledge is in this sense an operation about which Simondon at least once explicitly assumes the impossibility of providing a definitive formalisation:
It might be that ontogenesis cannot be axiomatised, which would explain the existence of philosophical thought as perpetually marginal in relation to all the other studies. Philosophy would be the kind of thought set in motion by the implicit or explicit research of ontogenesis in all orders of reality. (Simondon 1958: 229)
2. For our present purpose we can ask: what did he conclude about processes in general, and what can we derive from his philosophy? When building a ‘philosophy of individuation’ Simondon was in search of what he called ‘a non Cartesian epistemology, borrowing Bachelard’s expression, neither conceived in the sense of determinism nor in the sense of indeterminism’ (Simondon 1958: 144).
It is worth recalling here where he started from: his debt to the physicist Louis De Broglie is not always evident, but constant and decisive throughout the book. According to De Broglie, although referring to microphysics, the discovery of the ‘indeterminacy principle’ should be extended also to biology, and, furthermore, to social sciences:
[Microphysics’] relevance is not limited to the domain of physical sciences, it applies to the sciences studying life, man and human societies. (De Broglie 1947: 225)
Simondon’s debt towards quantum discontinuity is evident throughout the whole of Simondon’s production: processes are non-continuous, they are always partially deterministic, triggered by singularities and resulting in the emergence of non-stable structures. From his point of view, determinism itself is a conceptual tool that allows the understanding and forecasting of portions of reality, while modern mechanicism has progressively transformed it in the metaphysical assumption typical of the ‘deterministic age’ that still haunts our totalising conception of nature. In a way Simondon was following Bachelard’s line of conduct in Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934), where the latter invited to ‘dissolve the huge block of metaphysical determinism which burdens scientific thought.’ And to this purpose Simondon’s theory of the singularity of processes was quite fit, since it entailed the abandonment of the ideological couple determinism/indeterminism:
It is possible, in the last instance, to suppose that the theory of singularity can be ascribed neither to the framework of a deterministic physics nor to the framework of an indeterministic physics. The two would rather be considered the particular cases of a new conception of the real that one might call the theory of transductive time or theory of the phases of being. This completely innovative mode of thinking – which conceives determinism and indeterminism as mere limit-cases – can be applied to different domains of reality beyond the one of elementary particles. (Simondon 1958: 144)
As it is clear, Simondon does not take quantum physics as an alternative model to the modern mechanistic one, in order to build a kind of new ontology. No, it is according to Simondon an ‘innovative mode of thinking’ which quantum physics brings about. In fact in his philosophy of individuation Simondon always struggled to maintain all epistemological models in their technical, clinical, inventive dimension, out of any metaphysical assumption. It is in this sense that, a few years later, he assumed this enterprise required a technical and ‘clinical’ exercise of thought that he defined as a regime of functioning in which ‘the appropriation of each single problem is probably the highest task the effort of philosophy can assume’ (Simondon 1965: 16).
From this perspective, the emergence of nature as a deterministically conceived object within the modern dualistic framework goes far beyond the exigency of scientific research, and rather appears the counterpart of an absolute, metaphysical ‘subject of science’. In fact, both constitute the non-existing limit-cases of a relation in which social and natural processes dangerously play their productive role out of any effective control, precisely because of the fixed dualistic image that ideology projects on them, hiding their actual non-simply-deterministic becoming.
In this sense dualistic metaphysics, born from the reflection on the principles of modern science by some of those who invented and practised it, can be interpreted as the attempt to stabilise the shift between knowledge and reality – opened by the productive method of science and immediately ontologically hypostatised by making of the mathematisable reality of primary qualities reality in itself. To this reality, a deterministic Res extensa provided adequate ontological repair, while to its scientific knowledge Res cogitans offered, – in all its metamorphoses – on the other hand, a metaphysical umbrella which saved the subject of science from the vicissitudes of collectivity and of history (and of biology), in which it is nevertheless embodied.
3. Today this early-modern – anthropomorphic indeed – model offered by mechanistic science still inhabits our understanding of nature, and still pushes us to take position for or against its imagined determinism, according to a false alternative:
– to embrace it, and conceive the universe as entirely deprived of any sense, or
– to abandon it, following the alternative of believing in a different kind of being (as Descartes did), in order to maintain the possibility of a freedom of choice, a reference to established truths and so on…
In fact, the non-substantialistic and non-deterministic epistemology Simondon presents in Individuation can play a demystifying and anti-ideological function. It programmatically dismantles the ‘conceptual couples’ (form/matter, active/passive, subject/object) that have for centuries grounded a whole series of false alternatives. And first of all, Individuation contributes to the overcoming of the epistemological and political machine represented by the alleged ontological opposition between liberty and necessity, the key institution of a supposed ‘ontological difference’ between the human being and nature (Or better – to use a Spinozian rather than an Heideggerian expression – any presupposition of an ‘imperium in imperio’).
Simondon meant to dismantle this dualistic ‘machine’ neither by reducing human beings to an imagined natural determinism nor by saving their alleged metaphysical nature. From this theoretical stance one can derive that determinism has to be programmatically adopted as a tool, although with the caution required since when, from the seventeenth century onward, the conceptual instruments of modern science have massively participated in social ontogenesis, with direct efficacy not only at the level of technological development, but also at the level of ideology.
Along this line of thought I believe a conjoint critique of the shared teleological grounds of fascism and technocracy can be derived. On the one hand ontological indeterminism frees political voluntarism from its ties to reality, thus instituting an unconditioned domain of pure political will and of its absolute goals. On the other hand ontological determinismgrounds a technocratic politics which, apparently depriving teleology of any possible significance, in fact restrains any political project to the calculable conditions of possibility that underlie it and therefore to the definition of predetermined goals. In effect, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation struggles to maintain determinism in its technical, inventive and epistemological dimension, out of any metaphysical assumption of ontological determinism.
In a similarly accurate fashion, from a dossier dated February 1945, Canguilhem attacked
The kind of Laplacean determinism [which] entails a conception of the relationship between man and reality analogous to the Newtonian conception of the relationship between God and Universe [“¦] Human intelligence is understood as an imitation, and as a limitation of divine intelligence. The observers and measurers of the universe are exterior to the universe. (Canguilhem 1945: 9)
And yet Canguilhem continued to denounce the rhetorical tool of anti-scientistic indeterminism, whereby the rigour of scientific knowledge would be lost, thus opening a path to the myth of political voluntarism. In this sense it is worth recalling how – with as much exactitude and severity – in the same dossier he schematically noted the political costs of deriving indeterministic ontological conclusions from a conjoint critique of substantialism and determinism:
Exploitation by fascism of some possible interpretations of the new discoveries in physics [“¦] – dissolution of the concept of individuality. Individuality destroyed at the ultra microscopical level [“¦] – liberty in the object itself. Therefore two arguments: against individualism Ã liberalism; against materialism Ã Marxism. (Canguilhem 1945: 10)
In this precise sense Simondon’s philosophy can be said to preserve the efficacy of science as a weapon against the ideology of determinism without defending the counter-ideology of indeterminism. And Simondon’s epistemological critique of the ideological assumption of the deterministic model as an ontological reality, opens up a field for political invention, conceived as the process of experimentation within which finality does not pre-exist (either in the form of a disincarnated subject or of an ordered objectivity) the transindividual processes and the political struggles it emerges from.
Bachelard, G. 1934. Le nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: PUF, 2006.
De Broglie, L. 1947. Physique et microphysique. Paris: Albin Michel.
Canguilhem, G. 1945. Dossier “Déterminisme et indéterminisme » (février 1945). In Archives de Georges CanguilhemG.C 11.3.7. CAPHES, ENS Paris.
Simondon, G. 1958. L’individuation Ã la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Grenoble: Millon, 2005 (First edition: PhD thesis, Archives de Georges Canguilhem: GC. 40.2.1. CAPHES, ENS Paris).
___ 1962. “Résumé de la séance de travail sur l’amplification dans les processus d’information.” In Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine, 5ème colloque philosophique de Royaumont. Cahiers de Royaumont, Philosophie n° 5, 417. Paris: Minuit, 1965. (paper originally delivered at the Colloque de Royaumont in 1962).
___ 1965. “Culture et technique.” Bulletin de l’institut de philosophie morale et enseignement. Université libre de Bruxelles 55-56: 3-16.
___ 1966. “Initiation Ã la psychologie moderne. Première partie.” Bulletin de Psychologie 1966 5/254: 288-98.
Simondon, G. and Le Terrier F. 1957. “La psychologie moderne.” In Encyclopédie de la Pléiade – Histoire de la science, 1668-703. Paris: Gallimard.
Wiener, N. 1950. The Human use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society. Sphere Books, 1968.
(article mis en ligne le 01/02/2014)
 Even if the current English translation is ‘uncertainty principle’, the original term used by Heisenberg was Unbestimmtheit, which can also mean ‘indeterminacy’. I will use the second term, since it better expresses an ontological lack of determinacy rather than an epistemological uncertainty of knowledge.
 ‘A mammal, for instance, belongs to the microscopic world as far as the elements directing its living dynamics are collocated, in effect, at the level of atomic systems. The functioning of living systems will therefore be studied one day thanks to microphysical concepts’ (De Broglie 1947: 162). By the end of the following decade, Simondon was planning to integrate an epistemology derived from quantum physics in the reform of the cybernetic concept of information: ‘The language of cybernetics, already applicable to nervous system physiology, could prove to be suitable for describing the relations between man and his natural and social milieu, overcoming the alternative between liberty and determinism, which seems to be the major obstacle for any psychological science’ (Simondon and Le Terrier 1957: 1701). This is what he actually tried to achieve through Individuation.
 According to Simondon, the ‘deterministic age’ is the one which postulates the order of Nature as ‘uniform, necessary, universal and analytical’. According to him the ‘deterministic age’ started collapsing at the end of nineteenth century, first attacked by evolutionary biology, then by holistic assumptions based on Maxwell’s theory of fields, later integrated by Gestalttheorie, Goldstein and Merleau-Ponty (Simondon 1966: 288-90).