Book review: Michel Blay, Dieu, la nature et l’homme. L’originalité de l’Occident, Paris : Armand Colin (collection : Le temps des idées), 2013, 358 p.

(Michel Blay, God, Nature and Man. The originality of the West, Paris: Armand Colin, 2013, 358 pp.) *

by Evdoxie Delli, Project SOW Researcher

 

* The book review was first published in French in Αlmagest 5/2(2014) 128-141

Using Merleau-Ponty's statement that "it was not the scientific discoveries that brought about the change of the idea of Nature, but the change of the idea of Nature that enabled these discoveries", Michel Blay makes us follow the different stages, the retreats, as well as the deviations in the philosophical-religious and scientific itinerary that gave birth to a new conception of Nature mathematized, quantifiable and controllable by a human mind, hence indifferent towards the problem of God’s existence or non-existence.

Although the conceptual elaboration of the new concept of Nature – being the originality of Western civilization – appeared during the 16th and especially the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the fruit of a long intellectual fermentation, the origins of which go back, according to the author, as far as the medieval thinkers, who, despite the sanctions imposed by Church authorities, were encouraged by their faith to enter a research endeavor leading to a renewed approach to the natural world.

However, this originality, radically modifying the attitude of Humankind towards Nature, has proven to be highly ambiguous. On the one hand, it has been a precious conceptual tool to investigate reality and to scrutinize the unexplored causes of natural phenomena, thus animating the scientific and technical progress of the West and the hope of a creative freedom from Nature and its prevailing metaphysical articulations. On the other hand, it became, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the matrix of a major anthropological transformation. A rather reductionist interpretation of the new concept of Nature has led to a new conception of Humankind subordinate to the absolutism of science and technology dominating all spheres of human life, engulfing everything of our relationship to what exists[1], which has led to a deadly exhaustion of humans, concurrent to that which man has violently imposed on Nature by exploiting it until its resources are exhausted.

It is precisely within this concept of mathematized and hardworking Nature in its various metamorphoses and distortions undergone by its fusion with the World of Work – closely related to the almost mystical cult of the maximum output promoted by economic liberalism – that the author recognizes the central focus towards which the various and complex contemporary problems are converging in order to get their coherence. This is the case of the natural resources depletion, of the climate change, the outburst pollution, of the biotechnological challenges, but also of the suffering, isolation and solitude at work, the lack of consistency in education, as well as the deficit of democracy in decision-making about the society and public interest.

The aim of the book, as Michel Blay himself notes in the introduction and repeats several times, is a call to resistance, an exhortation to re-appropriate for ourselves, without denying in any way the fecundity of science, the world of existence, of our existence that cannot be reduced to scientific investigation. It aims at rethinking existence within the immanent infinity, in which science finds its own place but does not dominate the whole. It is at the heart of the intuitive language of poetry that the author rediscovers the spring and the resurgence of the infinity through which men are reborn in experiencing the world and the word and open to each other in order to deepen their humanity.

Based on a solid knowledge of the history of philosophy and sciences, and armed with a remarkable literary culture, the author advances in his critical and subtle developments in an exemplary way without imposing barriers between theology, philosophy, science, history, art, politics and economics. Without eliminating the distinctive features of each field, he orchestrates them around a vivid anthropological preoccupation which sustains the whole book. Inspired by a vigilant humanist spirit and imbued with acute sensibility, Blay follows the transmutations of the conception of Nature over the centuries, highlighting the versatile factors which have merged into the birth of the dark face of our Modernity, without succumbing to it.

 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, entitled "The origin of Western originality: The idea of Nature and the exhaustion of God", the author lays down the conceptual pillars on which he constructs his later developments. He introduces two major issues[2] at the heart of his explanation on the Western conception of Nature which allowed the emergence of modern science; the Christian dogma of Incarnation requiring a two-fold affiliation both with material and spiritual - and the renewed interpretations and concretizations of the latter that aroused during the 12th century in the West before culminating in the doctrine of double infinity elaborated by Giordano Bruno.

Before coming to the latter, to whom the author attributes a central role, Βlay studies the case of Suger, a Dominican abbot (12th c.), and Copernicus. Shedding new light on the significance of Incarnation, Suger, inspired by Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy, which echoed the Neoplatonist emanationist theory of light and the doctrine of two universes (sensible and intelligible, visible and invisible), made, from the reconstruction of the Abbey church of St Dionysius, a religious art project on the embodiment of Christ light within three-dimensional space. Emanating from the geometrically disposed stained-glass windows and the multiple gems, both entirely material and entirely spiritual, the transfigured light offers a way to contemplation, considered as a gradual progression unifying our material world with a superior level of life raising to the source of the ineffable. As Blay points out, Suger incarnated through light a moment in the history of Incarnation in the West, which, by transforming God, by "exhausting" him, will transform Humankind and the Western world. It is with Copernicus that the Incarnation of light will be succeeded by the perfect and geometrical order of the Heavens.

Copernicus, with the publication of his book, in 1543, entitled De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, reformulates the vision of the world in the light of the celestial geometry centered on the sphericity, circularity and uniformity of the motions of celestial bodies. According to Copernicus, the divine perfection of the Earth is incarnated in the geometrical form of the sphere, although it is not accessible by immediate observation. Earth is incarnated within the heliocentric universe, being both an earth and a star among others within the divine order, at the same time earthly and spiritual. Without weakening the basic theological idea, namely the doctrine of the ex nihilo creation of the world, the Polish astronomer made possible the introduction of geometry in terrestrial phenomena, as a prelude to the idea of a mathematized nature related to a moving Earth.

Despite its immensity, this "splendid temple", the world following Copernicus remains enclosed and finite. It is Giordano Bruno arrested by the Inquisition and burnt alive in Rome in 1600, who, according to Blay, marks the decisive turning-point in the birth of the Western notion of Nature coercing the process of incarnation into the theory of infinity, which led him to wonder about the Creation and the Eternity of the world as well as about Christ’s Incarnation. Inspired from Nicolas de Cues's (15th century) conception on the different levels of infinity in order to transform it profoundly, Bruno situates infinity, together with its theological implications, in the intellectual and theological scene of his time, dominating the thought of 17th-century scholars. In his books La Cena de la Ceneri and the De universito universo e world, as early as 1584, Bruno opens the Copernican enclosed world to the infinity and imagines an infinite universe populated by a plurality of worlds. Bruneian infinity, irreducible to the simple data of sensual perception and discursive reason, renounced the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic dichotomies. With respect to divine specificity, Bruno makes a fundamental distinction between cosmic and divine infinity: the entire infinity of Nature/Universe (containing however finite and limited parts) and the absolute infinity of God (wholly present to every moment of time and every place in space, immanent in the universe). As Blay points out, the Bruneian universe has become, through the double infinity, the Word of God, an immanent God, far away from the biblical tradition. By the incarnation of double infinity, Bruno inaugurates a new thought perspective.

The author ends the first chapter of this section by distinguishing and naming the two levels of infinity arising from Bruno’s thought: (i) reasoning with the infinity embodied in size and number, linked to the spatial infinity and to the genesis of mathematical physics, and (ii) the existence in the immanent infinity, capable of emancipating itself from God without being confused with the former (i).

In the second chapter of this section, Blay traces the two leading lines which guided 17th-century thought: on the one hand, the reasoning on the basis of the (metaphysical) infinity, represented by R. Descartes and N. Malebranche aiming to –unsuccessfully– reconstruct the vanished divine transcendence without rejecting the immanent infinity, and, on the other hand, the reasoning with the immanent infinity which will carry out the process of realizing in Nature the infinity according to size and number.

Based on several texts of Galileo, Pascal, Leibniz and particularly Fontenelle, Blay demonstrates how the concept of infinity at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, freed from its theological and metaphysical resolutions, becomes the object par excellence of measurements and mathematical inquiries. In the light of demonstrative reasoning, infinity is no more reserved only to the Divine. A new way of thinking and being in the world announces the Enlightenment. Reasoning on the basis of the (metaphysical) infinity and its correlative theological stakes faded out without being replaced, leaving the entire space of being to science alone. Reasoning with the (geometrical) infinity, by effacing everything outside its field, exhausts the domain of knowledge and existence. Bruno’s immanent infinity of existence, enveloping the infinity of size and number without overhanging it, is put between parentheses.

 

In the second part of the book, the author distinguishes two phases in the requisition of nature. The first is the result of the encounter of reasoning with infinity, formulated in 17th and 18th centuries, with the work of workshops and the economics of factories contributing to the rise of pre-industrialization and pre-capitalism, as well as to the industrial revolution of the first half of the 19th century. This encounter led to a transformation of the concept of Nature identified as a moving and productive force, and changed the orientations of mathematical physics, as well as the organization of manufactures by a mathematized development of technical processes.

The second phase coincides with the introduction of the concept of work[3], at the beginning of the 19th century, based on the mathematical physics of the 18th century. This concept, linked to the idea of energy conservation, was imported into physics by G. G. Coriolis (1792-1843) and H. von Helmholtz (1821-1894). Thus came the idea of a hardworking Nature providing for the industrial revolution and provoking a quasi-religious enthusiasm linked to the cult of progress. Blay devotes to this point a detailed and profound analysis which highlights how this concept elaborated within the framework of the economy of machines serving the utilitarian and economic preoccupations of the aforesaid mathematical physics, which was in fact an economic physics.

An alliance of science with industry was established, radically altering the relations between humans and Nature. The hardworking and exhausted Nature joined a productive Human equally exhausted. Both, reduced to the sole being of science, are conceived primarily as productive forces.

In the second chapter, devoted to the philosophical-vital extension of the notion of energy, the author focuses his attention on two philosophical works: The World as Will and Representation (1819) of A. Schopenhauer and the Creative Evolution (1907) of H. Bergson. Blay, without claiming to give an exhaustive study of the thinkers in question, detects in their philosophical discourse the echoes of the new concept of Nature conceived as a radicalization of the reasoning with infinity replaced in the 19th century by reasoning with infinity linked to the utilitarian energetics. For this purpose, the author concentrates his attention on the key notions of Life, the Will-to-Live, Energy, Intuition and Vital Impulse elaborated by the aforementioned philosophers. By taking the upper hand, this cult of the flow of Life grasped only by Intuition and detached from rationality, places in the spotlight the dark dynamics of the underground, if not irrational forces that haunt our Modernity.

In the final chapter of this part, the author makes evident in which terms Bergson and Schopenhauer's encounter of the full-pulsed life with the brute and dynamic machine gave rise to new sensory and aesthetic orientations that transformed both sensibilities and artistic experiences.

From the middle of the 18th century until the first decades of the 20th century, a radical change took shape in the apprehension of world, of human self and of otherness. These changes were summed up in a new relation to time and duration. Speed and fluidness become the key principles of what is real in a waltzing world. Relying on carefully selected pages of French literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, Blay demonstrates the expansion of this new vision of the world in full mobility and vibration, together with the reactions provoked in ordinary people when realizing their nascent Modernity, oscillating between astonishment, humor, enthusiasm, hesitations and anxiety. Yet, as Blay points out, the steam engine, the automobile, the telephone, electricity, the railway, aerial photography and the hot-air balloon had not modified just the rhythms and experiences of daily life. Through a number of wisely selected emblematic writings and testimonies of pre-World War II artists, the author presents and deciphers the new approach to Nature and Human, offering new possibilities for artistic expression. A modification of visualization emerges at the heart of the plastic arts at the dawn of Modernity. Space, bodies and objects lose the ontological structure and stability of Euclidean space, becoming ‘’immaterial’’ by an almost supernatural movement. In this Bergsonian atmosphere, the simultaneous contrasts, the synchronous dissonances and the interpenetration of planes, the dismemberment and dislocation of objects and forms together with simultaneous psychological processes reflect the incessant transformations of a physical and mental universe perpetually swirling. Beauty belongs only to motion. The idea of the "form-energy", elaborated by L. Survage, and that of the "vitalistic mode of perceiving" by B. Cendrars gives evidence about the fervent quest for a dynamic and abstract art adapted to the dynamism of human interiority which is constantly changing. Art is involved in the adventure of energetics.

 

In the third part of the book, the author sheds light on the dark side of Modernity. By a long and dense analysis that resists simplification, starting from the end of the 19th century, crossing the 20th century before reaching nowadays, Blay follows the various stages and forms taken by what he calls the dehumanization, in terms of social order and political-economic ideology. Within this scope, he introduces the notion of homoenergeia linked to the anthropological transformation emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, according to which the Human becomes a reservoir of vital energy available for use.

Springing first from the European imaginary in a fictional form before gradually clinging to reality, the author detects the features of the new anthropology in Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909).[4] Blay emphasizes that homoenergeia does not simply mean man's assimilation to a machine but rather the creation of a new living being, ‘more alive’ than other men, in the scale of evolution; the construction of a "Modern Centaur", of a "Human-Mechanical Son" which expresses himself outwardly in order to impose a social order absolutely conform to himself. A disciple of mechanics, "the Multiplied Man" wants to be "a relentless grower of his will," a living being of omnipotent intuition, drawing from his brutal instincts the power to assume in himself the animal, the motor and the machine of pure energy. In this world-factory, whose impact on collective imagination corresponds almost to that of the Church of yesteryear, the "Centaur" becomes at once the fighter and the factory manager; a figure of dictatorship. The "Centaur" is preparing to throw itself into the battlefields of the First World War.

The author follows his analysis with the gallops of homoenergeia in the devastated land of 1914-1918. In the battlefields of this war, the mechanized men become weapons with the living machines. The new war is of the order of energetics, of the abstraction of cries without bodies and of destroyed bodies. Despite its hesitations, humanity, tortured by fire, continued its journey captured by the supreme value of energetics. The factory of war planned, according to Blay, the future dictatorships and technocracies.

In the following chapter, entitled ‘’The world of homoenergeia’’, the author exposes the new social order established by homoenergeia in postwar Western societies, based on the rigorous principles of order, efficiency and calculation. Linked to hierarchy, discipline and purity, order is widespread in the world of work. Humans discover ‘Taylorized’ work processes based on the decomposition of sequences, the interchangeability of individuals and the timing of gestures. Under the tutelage of the military and industrial economy, of speed and energy efficiency, quantity and number becomes a kind of fetish announcing quasi-magical uses put in the service of engineers and technocrats in order to establish their power. In this technical reduction of humanity, there is no room for reverie. The powerful principle of order should also be imposed, as suggested by some modern planners, on the landscape, the streets, the cities, the factories and the health program, as well. At the same time, the post-war world faced the emergence of the first mass media (non-military radios and telecommunications). A new human was thus created almost everywhere. The image of his/her new body is haunted by the body-engine of the factory. The athlete, emblem of a perfectly maintained mechanical living, becomes synonymous with the new totalitarian regimes that improve the new conception of the dynamic man. Its pictorial representations can be traced, with nuances, in the art of the post-war period also (as in the frame of Italian futurism and Russian constructivism). It is thus through these multiple ways that homoenergeia crosses all Europe between 1920 and 1930. It is then that the central figure of the social order of homoenergeia starts to agitate across Europe; it is the moment of the leader, the dictator, the homo fascista, effacing by his presence the democratic idea, relying on the necessity of social militarization, on the role of standardized education and on propaganda.

 

In the next section, the author brings to light the transition from homoenergeia to dehumanization, concretized in a subtle way by the transition from leader to modern technocrat, considered as an embodiment of the power of good similar to that of the saints of the past. Incarnating the modern figure of order and discipline, simultaneously being technician, expert and depoliticized leader, he evacuates democracy and claims to be the absolute and exclusive holder of truth and good for the social body, without conceiving necessarily the latter as part of the former. The author concludes this chapter by saying that it is through the image of the technocrat that the process of dehumanization was established after the Second World War as a structure dominating Western societies, with the aim to extract energy from Nature and Humans in an apotheosis of growth until their exhaustion; their death.

The third chapter deals with the methodic dehumanization, carried out with the neoliberalism and the technocratic organization of the competition of all against all, of the maximal productivity and of the exhaustion of each one in loneliness. The author focuses his critical approach to economic liberalism, conceived as a panacea, by concentrating on the writings of the most representative theorist of the liberal movement of the rather utilitarian tradition, F. August von Hayek (1899-1992). Blay criticizes Hayek's idea according to which if Europe was to be immune to the dangers to which it has succumbed, it must avoid production planning and dirigisme, and follow the path governed by free competition and the spontaneous work of social forces. The order of markets, like the social order, according to Hayek, results from a fortunate spontaneity which must be inscrutable. Society finds itself, therefore, according to Blay, subject to the impersonal and unknowable forces of the free and self-organized market, the transcendence of which seems to ignore the vicissitudes of the law of profit. The market, which has become a sort of absolute value, a quasi-natural fact on the scale of evolution, attributes to the vast cohort of technocrats the role of guarantor and monitor of the social body according to the rules of competition, for even more productivity, by harnessing all its energies for commercial and legal purposes. Within this construction of dehumanization, which has also perfectly adhered to all sorts of totalitarianism (as in Pinochet's Chile or China of the years 2000), the author sees the virtual figure of the free and happy citizen of the Western world as being exhausted in his loneliness and limitation. The critical spirit inherent in the meaning and freedom of humanity in and through reasoning with infinity is neglected; just as the collective decision-making, thinking in togetherness and free solidarity are evacuated as well. Personal responsibility is crushed between the standards to be satisfied and the real meaning of professions or tasks. Human ties are rather confused with computer networks well controlled and absorbed by the so-called society of knowledge.

The author concludes this section by extending his developments on the dehumanization to the transmutation of the European school (including teaching and research) transformed from a place of respiration to a place of adaptation to the needs of the ‘spontaneous’ order of the markets. His criticism focuses on the core of pedagogical recommendations formulated and adapted to the European bureaucratic directives which alter the contents of knowledge, in-depth learning and creativity when amalgamated with the dogmas of the theology of liberalism. Centered essentially on the new concepts of "competencies" and "best practices", originated from the hierarchical order of the entrepreneurship, the author underlines the consequences of the detachment of education and knowledge from their humanistic and universal perspective, reducing them to pure utilitarian purposes.

But for the author, dehumanization is not irreversible and all-powerful. And it never was, as he shows in the pages that follow. Beyond the homoenergeia, there is the existence in the infinity, already evoked by G. Bruno. There is always, according to Blay, a word to be rephrased in togetherness against dehumanization and exhaustion. A word expressed in terms of resurgence.

It is precisely to this rising again into a meaningful life, considered as a song revealing itself by revealing precisely the existence in the immanent infinity, that the last pages of the book are consecrated. The author, after having scrutinized the obscure distortions of reasoning with infinity in the midst of European Modernity, leads us finally to the light; This time the light is incarnated within poetry, which captures the immanent infinity by words leading to the inexhaustible source of the meaning of being in the world and with others. If demonstration and measurement concur in grasping the world, there is always a surplus of meaning, beyond reasoning with infinity, which exceeds them and remains hidden in each immediate experience, waiting to be converted in words and structured in the cosmos. Woven from carefully selected excerpts, especially from the French poetry of the 20th century, this final part proposes a counterweight to the exhaustion of the homoenergeia signalizing the luminous even fragile possibility of humanity, taking up again existence in immanent infinity; as an exhortation to try again to inhabit, being in the world with others, to weave again human ties beyond anxiety surrounding man in the times of the monsters, to rediscover the poetry of everyday objects, to arouse an emotion but also a feeling of beauty through which the human being ceaselessly recasts itself, to name and rename things. It is precisely by this transition from fragmentation to unity and from closeness to openness that existence within infinity finds its plenty meaning according to Blay; like a birth in poetry always renewed, avoiding suffocation in the silence of reasoning with the infinity. Resurgence means resistance; a call to resistance.

 


[1] In Italics: author’s-citations

[2] Both have already been the object of research and studies carried out by the author. On the Incarnation, see : Michel Blay, « Origine et dépassement de la science classique. Aspects historiques et philosophiques de l'approche kojévienne », in Hommage à Alexandre Kojève. Actes de la journée A. Kojève du 28 janvier 2003, edited by Florence Lussy, Paris 2007, pp. 28-40 and more precisely pp. 34-36. As for the concept of Infinity, see indicatively: M. Blay, Les raisons de l'infini. Du mode clos à l'univers mathématique, Paris 1993, and Penser avec l'Infini. La fecondité d'une notion mathématique et philosophique, de Giordano Bruno aux Lumières, Paris 2010.

[3] It is a concept formulated by Coriolis in 1829 according to which work is the variation of the energy of a system, due to the application of a force acting from a distance. At the heart of the concept of work is the notion of movement against resistance. The work aims to overcome the resistance of a certain force in order to move the body against this force.

[4] The set of words and phrases in this paragraph enclosed in quotation marks derives from the writings of Marinetti, quoted by the author.

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