Cover Page

To Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, who taught me a lot
In testimony of friendship

Innovation and Responsibility Set

coordinated by

Robert Gianni and Bernard Reber

Volume 7

Care in Technology

Xavier Guchet

Logo: Wiley


Several colleagues were kind enough to re-read all or part of this book and give me suggestions for improving it. I thank them very warmly: Bernard Reber first of all, for his very careful reading and his advice, as well as Emanuele Clarizio whose comments are always invaluable. Charles Lenay and Pierre Steiner then, who enlightened me on the TAC thesis and its philosophical sources. Dimitri El Murr who allowed me to see more clearly in certain terminological problems linked to ancient Greek.

My thanks also go to Rionne, for his support and encouragement.


A good number of the works that combine innovation and responsibility1, science and society, or even ethics and new, emerging or controversial technologies do not really take the technologies themselves seriously, nor their relationships to humans and the environment. To be more precise and less unfair, they still base themselves upon dualisms: nature/technology, technology/life, technology/humans, humans/nature, subject/object. What they are desperately lacking is an informed, balanced, and plausible philosophy of technology. However, this well-documented work by Xavier Guchet, who leads an interdisciplinary team at the University of Technology of Compiègne, member of the Sorbonne University Alliance, offers not only a strong thesis, but is backed up by a panorama as broad as it is assembled to good use. I emphasize the fact that his immersion in a university of engineers gives even more credit and plausibility to his work. This book is not only addressed to philosophers, but to engineers and any person who takes account of our technological environments2, sometimes as threats, sometimes as sources of revelation and solutions, but also with a role to play in our definition as humans.

First of all, we have here a state of the art of the most interesting approaches to the philosophy of technology, ranging from Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, to contemporary work. Configurations of the debate which we have inherited from ancient times have not lost their relevance. Against the Sophists who enthusiastically welcomed the development of technology considered from the perspective of an infinite progress, Plato’s metaphysics already indicated this danger of unlimited variation of forms in the polis, by separating Being and becoming, and submitting the latter to the unchangeable order of the former. Even more, Aristotle had already domesticated technology in a quadruple principle of limitation that prevents a collapse into excess: by form (formal cause), by the “implicit forms” of the material (material cause), by the ultimate purpose (final cause) and by the corporeal possibilities of the living being (efficient cause).

Xavier Guchet therefore presents the broad progress of the biological philosophy of technology, whose connecting thread is the concept of the externalization of life in technology, with great names as Ernst Kapp, Alfred Espinas, Henri Bergson, Edouard Le Roy, André Leroi-Gourhan, Georges Canguilhem, and some lesser known such as William Morris, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Gilbert Simondon, whose common feature is that they have considered technology from the point of view of its links with life, with the theme of projection of the organs or of externalization. This also concerns René Descartes, Karl Marx, Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Paul Alsberg, Francisco Varela, Pietro Montani and Bernard Stiegler. It is gratifying that the Innovation and Responsibility set of books devotes several pages to the French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon, quite unique in this field and little known in the English language, at least in a form which is not solely exegetic.

One of the originalities of this discussion is the presentation of the Kantian conception of technology as a decisive philosophical reading of the divorce between technology and life, as it was emerging in the 18th century. Kant’s genius is to have endorsed this divorce, while indicating, as if in negative space, the conditions for it to be surpassed. Far from continuing to conceive technology, as had been done before him, as organon, he proceeded to a split in the very concept of technology in parallel with another, that between organic life and the life of any singular rational and moral person. Technology points toward the representation of goals, but it also sinks into the depths of the body to the point of lodging in the automatism of the living machine. It is somewhat mechanical and somewhat finalized, between causation and purpose. We can understand this “somewhat” as “at the same time”.

Companionship with Kant allows Xavier Guchet to discuss the work of Dewey on the aesthetic experience as a perception of the relationship between my action and its effects in the world, between the things I manufacture and the relations that these things will forge with other beings in the world, or recent research in bio-aesthetics. This is the case for example with Montani who sketches a third way, that of the concept of institution, between the heteronomous constitution of the subject and the forms of its experience through technology and the absolute self-constitution of the subject. The concept of institution allows us to say that the subject is not self-created and what brings it into existence is not a set of structures imposed upon it by a foreign authority. The subject does not belong to itself without experiencing a sort of heteronomy.

Similarly, Xavier Guchet’s book casts a critical eye over the project of the Encyclopédie, following the historical philosopher Michel Foucault in his course at the College of France (1976), but which Kant might also have shared: far from being only a political or ideological opposition to the monarchy and to a form of intransigent Catholicism, the Encyclopédie is a political and economic operation of homogenization of technological knowledge according to four mechanisms for the disciplining of knowledge and technical know-how: a selection separating knowledge into legitimate and non-legitimate; standardization and hierarchization of dispersed knowledges and a pyramidal centralization which allows control over them. If the Encyclopedists cannot be accused of having opened the way to industrial technology or even to the scientific organization of labor, Diderot and his partners had already initiated, in some respects, the expulsion of the craftsman from his know-how of experience, by a formalism that drew up an organization of knowledge and technological practices entrusted to the care of a new category of experts, a certain type of logicians, as Diderot writes.

These conceptions are only traces of history; projects such as following the traces of Amazon employees, which Guchet describes and aptly denounces, are of the same vein.

In the relationships between ethics and technology, he is very interesting in the reconfigurations to which he invites us, through his assiduous and precise examination of philosophers of technology, including the “Constitutive/Constituent Anthropological Technology” current, very well represented in his laboratory at Compiègne, as well as the four currents of the biological philosophy of technology which he discusses and distinguishes.

One of the main theses is as follows. It is often and too readily admitted that there is, on the one hand, a positive technology oriented to care and, on the other, a negative technology, animated by the aim of mastery slipping into predation toward all forms of biological as well as social and subjective life. However, according to him, a thought of care in technology includes two fundamental requirements: understanding the technological relationship of human beings to the world according to the category of insertion and not that of mastery, and never forgetting the capacity of individuals for autonormativity3. His intuitions have a long history since these are the Greek analyses of medicine, with their “square of care” which is designed to impose itself as the whole set of guiding principles for the practice of engineers and designers today. This square of care in the design of technology, which he will detail with the support of a large portion of the traditions of the philosophy of technology, is based on the following principles:

Care results from a double movement of incorporation and insertion of natural processes into the operations of human action.

The human being fulfils its nature as a living being in making a technician of itself. Technology repays its “debt to life”, to quote Simondon, by letting itself be guided by the goal of a fulfilment of life, that is to say of value-creating activity once we recognize the value of non-human living beings. Here he is particularly indebted to Dagognet, Simondon and Dewey.

The technological object gains an aesthetic dimension when it is no longer a detachable tool which is transportable everywhere, but a reality inserted into both the natural and human worlds, and when it gives rise to a sense of technological beauty.

The imperative of knowledge.

These practical principles do not allow us to determine in advance what is entailed by care in each situation. They are only regulatory, to employ Kant’s terminology. In effect a thought of care in technology is a matter of reflective judgement, and not of the faculty of determinant judgement.

He convincingly shows a large limitation in the ethics of care4. Intending to “care for nature” without taking the fight onto the ground of the design of technologies and of the technical organization of chains of production, is to fatally leave intact the distribution of the sensible which defines the social and political order of the moment; even worse, it is to let carelessness flourish, where production process is kept invisible.

Against very superficial conceptions of the idea of responsible innovation which do not question the ultimate goal of these policies and merely encourage and accelerate the passage of fundamental research toward industrial applications while ensuring in advance their “social acceptability”5, this book goes much further. If responsible innovation conceived in such a fuzzy manner does not guard against the creation of new vulnerabilities, and if the human remains outside nature, one may understand that some advocate surpassing this conception through an innovation which is oriented by care. Yet his critique, inspired by Dewey, in some way takes the opposite tack to this critique: the human is an instrument for the improvement of the natural world. Care thus consists of acting technologically in such a way that nature is fulfilled, improved, and optimized according to its own potentialities, and not by reference to the interests of a subjectivity cut off from the world.

Bernard REBER
December 2020

  1. 1 For a general overview see Sophie Pellé and Bernard Reber, From Ethical Review to Responsible Research and Innovation, ISTE and Wiley, 2016.
  2. 2 One approach that strives to combine technology and ethics is that of Armen Khatchatourov, with the collaboration of Pierre-Antoine Chardel, Andrew Feenberg and Gabriel Périès, Digital Identities in Tension, Between Autonomy and Control, ISTE and Wiley, 2019.
  3. 3 In the series Responsible Research and Innovation see the book by Marc Maesschalck, Reflexive Governance for Research and Innovative Knowledge, ISTE and Wiley, 2017.
  4. 4 In a complementary way, see Sophie Pellé’s book, Business, Innovation and Responsibility, in which she interrogates conceptions of responsibility, available in the Responsible Research and Innovation set of books.
  5. 5 For a more economic critique of this failing see Nikolova Blagovesta, The RRI Challenge. Responsibilization in a State of Tension with Market Regulation, ISTE and Wiley, 2019.