Canguilhem: “Descartes and Technique”

by hyphology

Translator’s Preface

The following text is a partial translation of Georges Canguilhem’s “Descartes et la technique,” found in Oeuvres Còmplètes: Ècrits Philosophiques et Politiques (1926-1939), Volume 1 (Paris : Vrin, 2011), pp. 490-492. Why a partial translation, you may wonder? The fact is that this important essay, Canguilhem’s first of many engagements that take up Descartes as a philosopher of technique, has already appeared in part, but not in whole, in English.  Arthur Goldhammer’s translation of the rest of the essay (pp. 492-498 in the Oeuvres), can be found in A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem, edited by Francois Delaporte (New York: Zone Books, 2000), pp. 219-226. What is left out of Goldhammer’s translation is Canguilhem’s summary of the essay and his introductory comments on Descartes’ relation to Stoicism and the mechanistic underpinnings of Cartesianism. This translation rectifies a grievous error by offering the rest of “Descartes et la technique” in English.

A final remark is necessary on a difference between the two partial translations. I have not had a chance to compare Goldhammer’s translation to the original at length, but an obvious difference from my own is in the translation of the word la technique. Goldhammer renders it as “technology,” which is an appropriate decision that finds concurrence from other translators of French philosophy (see, e.g., the translator’s introduction to Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects). I have opted, instead, to translate it as “technique.” My reason is that la technique has a broader definition than that of “technology.” It can mean “technology” in the sense of an ensemble of tools or ways of doing things, but, as its cognate implies, it is more generally understood to mean “technique” in the sense of a method, style, or approach to doing something. La technique is the way of doing something or the know-how one applies when completing a task. For this reason, I believe that the concept of technology is implied in “technique” and it would be less confusing for an English reader to translate la technique as such. It is also a crucial aspect of Canguilhem’s argument that we understand la technique in this broader sense.



Descartes and Technique


Is technical activity a simple prolongation of objective knowledge, as it became common to think of it following positivist philosophy? Or else is it the expression of an original “power” (pouvoir), creative in its depths, and for which science would elaborate, from time to time afterward, a program of development or a code of precautions? Cartesian philosophy seems to have brought to the fore this important problem and considered the relation between theory and practice in a more nuanced and sweeping way than is generally believed of it. One is right to think that reflection on the meaning of technique is central in the Cartesian system.

Descartes did not stop affirming that the science, which he had the ambition of giving to humanity both the example and the model, was a science “useful (utile) for life.” Certain passages of the Principles seem to even imply that the utility (l’utilité) of Cartesian physics would dispense with wondering about its objectivity (IX, Principles, 123).[1] Yet one must not draw from it any right to assimilate Descartes’ thought to those philosophies which have, nowadays, tried, toward diverse ends and from diverse styles, to reduce all values of judgement to pragmatic value. Descartes very expressly and very frequently said that the efficacy of the arts has as its condition the certainty of knowledge, remarking even that the development of a rudimentary art is the sign that its rules unconsciously use certainties (IX, Principles, 18). And although there is not in his oeuvre any treatise especially dedicated to the technical problem, he did not prohibit us from thinking that philosophical reflection on the nature and value of technical activity is neither accidental nor secondary in Descartes’ work. After Leonard de Vinci and Bacon, and like them, Descartes raises work, the construction of machines, and the accommodation of nature to humanity by them, from the contempt that the philosophical thought of the ancients had held for them, with exception made for the atomists.

On this point of doctrine, it is not doubtful that Cartesian thought has awareness of marking a conversion. It is only in stopping to consider the Discourse on the Method as the history of a formation that one could be surprised by the contradiction of the principles of morality such as they were expounded in the third and sixth part, reinforced by the preface of the Principles. The Stoic resignation to the separation between what depends on man and what does not depend on him, the resolution to change human desires rather than the order of the world, as for example not desiring health in the moment of illness, all these avowals of humility and powerlessness are point for point contradicted by the profession of technical faith, by the dominating enthusiasm that inaugurates the sixth part. Making man “Master and possessor of nature,” wishing for the invention of an infinity of useful artifices, dispensing with illnesses and perhaps also conquering death, all these views clearly formulated are presented as anything other than dreams. Renouncing to make a virtue of necessity, Descartes proposes to himself and to us to powerfully transform knowledge into necessity. One knows how Stoic philosophy vigorously denied human progress just as it affirmed divine providence. All philosophy that identifies reality and purpose must stabilize human attributes in a hierarchical system of qualities and essences from whence all possibility of correction and reorganization is excluded as having to involve the fall of the entire edifice. According to the Stoics, the human species is starting from the beginning provided with all its perfections and when the world will be reborn from the universal conflagration, the same humanity and the same Socrates will be reborn. Stoic thought is so little equivocal that Lucretius, in the Fifth Book of the De rerum natura, in the intention to refute it, binds the negation of every providential plan relative to the universe to the affirmation of technical progress by which humanity, always more ingenuous and better informed, modifies its relation to the cosmic milieu, gives itself what was not given to it and raises itself through work to the perfection that all theological philosophy makes it descend from.[2]

In Descartes’ doctrine, as in that of the atomists, a matter without real qualities and a universe without teleological hierarchy are the metaphysical motives for faith in the creative efficacy of technique. The energetic negation of natural finality is in Descartes’ philosophy the condition of a mechanical theory of nature and a mechanic theory of art. In this regard, it is not without interest to remark that the care put by Descartes in defending, in his theory of eternal truths, the absolute liberty of God and in combatting every interpretation of divine attributes that, distinguishing them from each other, would subordinate them to each other (specifically the will to the understanding), is fully intelligible in the hypothesis that makes technical preoccupation one of the centers (foyers) of Cartesian philosophy. To not admit the least anteriority, even logical, of the understanding over the will, to maintain the principles of any true knowledge in its form as in its content for creatures, is not only to liberate God from a slavery incompatible with his infinity, but to deny finality in the universe. This denial is not only the preliminary condition of an effective understanding of matter reduced to quantitative exteriority, it is, also and by that means, the reason for formulating the obligation for humanity of technical construction and heralding its success.


Translated (with preface) by Jake Nabasny.

[1] All references are to the Adam and Tannery edition of the collected works.

[2] Namque alid ex alio clarescere corde videbant // Artibus ad summum donec venere cacumen (De rerum natura, Fifth Book, verse 1456-1457). [“For one thing after other did men see/Grow clear by intellect, till with their arts/They’ve now achieved the supreme pinnacle” (trans. William Ellery Leonard and E. P. Dutton). Canguilhem cites a French translation of Lucretius which ends the verse with the word “perfection” instead of “pinnacle,” a connection that is lost in the Leonard and Dutton translation. – JN]