“French epistemology” and the technical conditions of science or how non-Comtian insights remained captive of a Comtian horizon

Ronan le Roux

Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Auguste Comte is both the founder of a French style mixing philosophy and history in the study of science, and the author of a philosophical system dedicated to a rational development of society stating that technology shall be the vector of an application of science to the shaping and improvement of society. Yet, for the successors of Comte in the philosophical and historical study of science, the relationships between science and technology were not always seen in such an unilateral way. Knowledge does not always precede the organization of the means of action and the design of artifacts; it shows technical dimensions in its procedures and instrumental conditions (both material and symbolic), while technology can provide original conceptual schemes to the scientific imagination. Significant authors, namely Abel Rey, Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Pierre Ducassé, and Gilbert Simondon, have addressed one or several of these dimensions in their descriptions of scientific knowledge, and/or in their reflections about what lines such studies of science should follow. In this presentation, I propose to give a picture of such non-Comtian insights as they appeared among these authors. Of special interest is the immediate postwar period, when Canguilhem, Ducassé and Simondon devoted substantial attention to cybernetics (with Ducassé even being directly involved in the gathering of an interdisciplinary French cybernetic circle), which represents a paradigmatic case of a fruitful relation between science and technology that conflates the vision of Comte. My point is that all these reflections about non-Comtian technical dimensions of science remained, not only scattered and embryonic instead of giving birth to a structured and explicit research program, but also in the end captive of a Comtian horizon, as appears from theoretical oscillations within the authors’ writings. Hence, they draw an empty space in the history and intellectual lineages of the successors of Comte, that fell in a temporary oblivion after the advent of the foucaldian focus on discourses. Matches and mismatches of this interpretation with others will also be discussed.