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The Role of Knowledge and Culture in Public Policy on Illegal Drugs

Report to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs

Thomas De Koninck

June 2002

1. The Power of Ideas and Culture 

We have been asked to produce a discussion paper on the role of science in the development of public policy, specifically of a public policy on illegal drugs.

This is an extremely important issue because one can never say enough about the power of ideas, as the economist John Maynard Keynes aptly noted in his well-known conclusion to The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: "(…) The ideas of economists, and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. (...) Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."[1]. Isaiah Berlin enjoyed recalling that, "Over 100 years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization."[2]

The evolution of societies is in fact determined above all by culture far more than production methods or political regimes; one need only consider the extent to which the recently acquired powers of communication are restructuring political action and the world of economics, science and culture itself. This priority of culture may have dramatic consequences: all too often, uncultured, so‑called practical men and women govern by allowing themselves to be directed by some form of "political correctness" which escapes them completely — they would be incapable of the slightest criticism of the ideology of the market, for example — and the human implications of which they know nothing. The consequence (and symptom) of the corruption of power stigmatized by Lord Acton is a "contemptuous rancor" (Kierkegaard) against human beings who do not enter into the calculations.[3]

Our use of the word "culture", rather than mere "knowledge" or "science", is deliberate here in this attempt to answer the question of the role of science in the development of public policy, because the first difficulty we encounter is the present knowledge crisis, which goes far beyond science alone. We use the word "culture" in its broadest and most classical sense; cultivated persons distinguish themselves by their discernment, their ability to judge.[4]


2. The Knowledge Crisis 

To the extent that the ethical, ecological, economic and political realities for which we are responsible depend on our knowledge or its opposites (ignorance and error), there is necessarily a direct causal relationship between the contemporary knowledge crisis and the various other crises — ethical, economic, political and ecological — shaking our world. The fact that there are also other causes does not remove the share of responsibility of human knowledge.

                In Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Gregory Bateson noted, among the deep-rooted causes of the ecological crisis, the combined effect of technological progress and "conventional (but false) ideas about the nature of man and his relation to the environment". The aberration of the divergence between nature and humanity, of the ambition declared at the dawn of the modern era of making ourselves "masters and possessors of nature", is increasingly apparent. In the vast ecological literature, reference is even made to the "duty to nature", if only in view of our own preservation: "What bio‑logic reveals," writes Daniel J. Kevles, "is that, yes, we have a duty toward nature, but not first of all for it, but for ourselves."

There is a growing gap between the strictly scientific discourse of scientists and ordinary thought, which is also the realm of each scientist as soon as he goes beyond his specialized area, or even when he attempts to explain his professional knowledge to others, or even situate that knowledge, in his own mind, in relation to the rest of his experience. It is the passage to ordinary language which is revealing. It cannot be avoided because there is no interdisciplinary language but ordinary language, and the idiom of each discipline remains inpenetrable to others, as in the Tower of Babel. Furthermore, one day or another, the results of that knowledge must be disclosed as well as their significance for persons other than scientists. This is how the phenomenon of popular science has arisen — from a popularization that is rarely on the same level as the science itself, but nevertheless retains all its authority; it seems to make frequent victims among the specialists themselves.

                Among other things, popularizers denounce the dissolution of the very idea of life among some of those whose profession is defined by life, that is to say biologists; the gradual elimination of humanity from the so‑called "humanities"; the abandonment by humanist culture itself of fundamental questions to which it owes its primary raison d'être and which concern every human being: the meaning of life, good and evil, human dignity, society and God. It is the break between our knowledge and our existence, between reflection and life, which is then rightly incriminated. "Intellectuals are less and less faced with the resistance of the real. Essayism increasingly risks becoming arbitrary, extravagant and blind." (Edgar Morin). It is too easy to counter this by challenging general ideas, since that challenge is itself "the emptiest of general ideas. And, moreover, no specialist is beyond general ideas: no one can do without ideas about the universe, life, politics and love. Ultimately, far from reducing empty general ideas, the reign of specialists increases them."[5]

                The consequences of the contemporary knowledge crisis are considerable, particularly with respect to questions of method. The essential aspects can be summarized briefly. At the heart of the crisis is a new form of cultural vacuum, accompanied by splendid progress in scientific knowledge and technology. Edgar Morin detects a form of obscurantism promoted by the mutilation of knowledge: "Our unheard of gains in knowledge come at the cost of unheard of gains in ignorance." Every day, scientific knowledge reveals new marvels about the cosmos, matter, life, the human brain, and yet this incredible enrichment "brings with it an incredible pauperization of knowledge", which, moreover, is "a new and dangerous ignorance". The specifically modern evils of pollution, ecological degradation, growing inequality in the world, the thermonuclear threat, seem inseparable from the progress of scientific knowledge, and the subjugating and destructive powers that have arisen from scientific knowledge escape control because everyone "is becoming increasingly ignorant of existing knowledge", of "what science is and does in society". With humour and verve, Milan Kundera believes that the most important of his century was Flaubert's discovery of stupidity, which, he emphasizes, is even more significant than the most surprising ideas of Marx or Freud: far from yielding to science, technology, modernity and progress, stupidity, on the contrary, advances with progress. It is a veritable Dictionary of Preconceived Notions, the flow of which is programmed on computers and propagated through the mass media.[6]

The word has been said: specialists. The American economist John Kenneth Galbraith observed that "one of the surprising and unexamined aberrations of academic, professional and business life is the prestige unthinkingly accorded to the specialists". In medicine, for example, he continues, "the specialist is considered far superior, professionally and socially, to the generalist". However, "specialization results not only in boredom, but also in irrelevance and error. This is certainly the case for all practical questions. (...) The specialist, by reason of his training, virtuously excludes what it is convenient not to know." Were the famed predictions of Ortega y Gasset, made more than a century ago, concerning the "barbarism of specialization", which enables "learned-ignorant" men to take advantage (often, perhaps, unbeknownst to them) of the credulity of the masses, unavoidably true? Ultimately, physicist David Bohm was right: "What we need first is a growing realization of the extreme danger of continuing with a fragmentary thought process." Interviewed by Le Monde, Gadamer said that "the role of the philosopher in the city today must first be to question the growing importance of the expert, who nevertheless commits all kinds of errors because he does not want to be aware of the normative views that guide him." The most pressing question is "how can we preserve — not only in theory or in principle, but concretely, in fact — the courage of each individual to form and defend a personal judgment, despite the influence of experts and manipulators of public opinion".[7]

A good example is provided by what is improperly called "economic science". Since John Maynard Keynes's death in 1946, this purported science has gradually become an abstruse discipline, so closely related to mathematics that it resembles a branch of that science. Mathematics scarcely concerns itself with concrete subjects such as inequality, poverty, unemployment and so on. Instead it is a vast academic game. If its practitioners had made progress similar to that in physics and chemistry, it would not be criticized for being inaccessible any more than Einstein's Theory of Relativity, for example, because, in that case, the checks and empirical impact corroborated the theory. But what works in economics is always relatively simple and has long been known, although the inaccessibility of "economic science" today goes together, and quite well, with its incompetence and appears to be at the origin of our economic and human disasters. By the admission of American economists, phenomena such as slower productivity growth and increasing wage inequalities remain unexplained by their science even now. The radically new theory of Robert Lucas, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Economics, proved to be a fiasco in its results. In the meantime, its mathematical complexity opened a virtually infinite field for technical developments and purely mathematical speculation. And yet its fundamental assumption was far distant from its abstractions. It postulated that supply is always equal to demand. In short, unemployment is impossible, since that would mean that the supply of workers is greater than the demand for workers. However, without that assumption — which was absurd since, as a given at the outset, it postulated full employment, without any regard for reality — most of Lucas's conclusions would have collapsed, one of them being that monetary growth occurs at a constant rate ("monetarism"). His methodology nevertheless still reigns in the field of macroeconomics, whose abstraction and distance from the real world continue to grow.

                Another example of professional irresponsibility is the application of John von Neumann's brilliant game theory to various fields whose common point is dependence on the actions of another player, such as the arms race, trade policies and price wars. The extremely complicated operations to which these mathematical games give rise, however, never provide a practical solution. Either one must be chosen from a plethora of solutions (proportionate to the increasing number of players), or there simply are none. In any case, these games are incapable of predicting anything: here again, contingency escapes "signs". There can be no doubt they are exciting and amusing for those who play them. However, in 1991, a group of 12 eminent American economists on the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics displayed a realistic and wise attitude in declaring that they feared society was training a generation of "idiots savants, skilled in technical matters but ignorant of actual economic problems."[8]

                Idiots is the right word (from the Latin idiota, meaning "ignorant person", borrowed from the Greek idiôtês, of the same meaning, as opposed to pepaideumenos, "cultivated man"). What is unfortunate is that their unearned reputation as experts extends all the more the influence of this "idiocy" in societies such as ours where "science" exercises a magic power and "that power appears increasingly legitimized by 'learned' experts," as Jacques Testart notes. "Indeed, the expert provides reassurances and citizens are reluctant to decry the absurdity or cynicism of a political decision approved by 'the most qualified experts'. And there is a very good reason for the hostility of these "idiots savants", and of those who listen to them, toward culture and thought, "because nothing is more stimulating than thought," writes Viviane Forrester. "There is no activity more subversive than thought, more feared, more defamed as well (…) The mere act of thinking is political, hence the insidious struggle, all the more effective, conducted today, as ever, against thought, against the ability to think, which nevertheless is and increasingly will be our only recourse."[9]

Are we to accuse science, as the following comments by Husserl seem to do? "In the distress of our life —this is what we hear everywhere — science has nothing to tell us. The issues it excludes in principle are precisely the most burning issues of our unhappy era for a humanity abandoned to the upheavals of destiny: they are the questions that concern the meaning or absence of meaning of all human existence."[10]

In fact, science is in no way responsible. And Husserl does not claim it is. Instead, we must accuse the general lack of culture, which always results in a lack of judgment. Science does not have to answer these "ultimate and highest" questions because "those questions ultimately concern man as making decisions freely in his conduct toward his human and non-human environment, in his freedom in his own opportunities to give himself and the world around him a form of reason. But what does science have to tell us about reason and non-reason, about ourselves, men as subjects of this freedom? The simple science of bodies clearly has nothing to tell us, since it abstracts from everything that is subjective."

Instead, in a word, we must accuse the central fault of modern culture: the error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete, which Whitehead rightly called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness". It goes without saying that the various sciences deal to varying degrees in abstractions, since that is the very condition of our knowledge. It advances by means of abstractions, through that prodigious faculty we enjoy, not only to be able to consider a part or an aspect of a thing by separating it from others, but even to build an entire science on it: hence the immense and marvellous universe of mathematics, where, however, according to Bertrand Russell, we don't know what is being talked about. The error begins as soon as we forget the founding abstraction. A "unilateral rationality" becomes an evil: we are not entitled to go to the limit and isolate any partial knowledge, any separate truth."[11]

Concrete (from concrescere, meaning "to grow together ") means what has formed together. A tree, or any living thing, is properly speaking concrete in this sense, where a watch or some other artifact is not, since the parts of an artifact have been put together by an external agent and are indifferent to one another, as they are moreover to the whole of which they are a part. The parts of a tree, or of any living being, assist, on the contrary in the production of itself as an individual. The living concrete whole is thus irreducible to its parts — as Kant, from whom we borrow the examples of the tree and the watch, admirably emphasized — and is in constant change.[12]

The seventeenth century generated a scheme of thought, above all mathematical, the highly deserved success of which was immense. Abstractions were made from series of clear deductions, perfectly satisfactory for anyone who wishes to think abstractly, as is the case in pure mathematics. Likewise, in analogical terms, Newton's Scholium excels in the presentation of detailed deductions of truths of the same degree of abstraction. However, Whitehead notes, he "pays for his philosophical inadequacy in that he is incapable of drawing, even approximately, the limits of his field of validity". In addition, "the Scholium betrays his abstraction in that it fails to suggest the aspect of self-production, generation, of phusis or natura naturans so evident in nature. For the Scholium, nature is simply and completely there, conceived in pure exteriority and docile. The scope of the modern theory of evolution would leave Newton of the Scholium confused, but would enlighten Plato of the Timeus." Similarly, "Newton would have been surprised by modern quantum theory and by the dissociation of quanta into vibrations, whereas Plato would have expected it." The Scholium, in other words, is "built on a fallacious location of the concrete."[13] The same is true of any scientific scheme that is substituted for the concrete.

"In Galileo's mathematicization of nature," Husserl also observes, "it is nature itself which, under the direction of the new mathematics, becomes idealized: it becomes itself, to use a modern expression, a mathematical multiplicity." However, "all this pure mathematics concerns the body and the corporal world only in a mere abstraction, that is to say it concerns only abstract forms of space-time and, furthermore, those only as 'ideal' form-limits."[14]

By going around a university and stopping at every department, one could gather the various possible views and thus abstractions or reductions — this, in fact, would be only the start of an infinite series — to which one could submit the same concrete being, and why not immediately the most concrete and most complex of them all, the human being? Physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, political science, religion, literature, fine arts, linguistics, history, geography and so on, all have some essential aspect of the human being to reveal, but each, in so doing, offers only an infinitely small part. But could one believe that, by adding up all these aspects, all these parts, it would be possible to obtain a whole that is, ultimately, the human being itself? That would mean we have understood nothing.

The problem, in a word, is fragmentation. It is overcoming the world we inhabit, infiltrating the lives of a growing number of human beings. The progressively marginalized and fragmented geography of the places where we claim to "live" together, the cities, is the first reflection of this. Accordingly, people rightly denounce the "dead space" of American cities, where diversity is no longer lived concretely, but, on the contrary, passively, by mass media spectators. "We do not experience the complexities of society directly and physically: in the places where we walk, in those we see, in what we touch," observes Richard Sennett.

Human beings are separated from themselves by a new mediation, that of the media, "which everywhere substitute for the free play of life and its sensibility, the double of an unreal, artificial, stereotyped and degrading universe in which life can only flee itself instead of realizing itself." (Michel Henry) "Not only the relationship to others, but also the relationship to oneself becomes a consummated relationship," writes Jean Baudrillard. For spontaneous and natural relationships, we substitute "a relationship mediatized by a system of signs". "If woman consummates herself, it is because her relationship to herself is objectified and fuelled by signs, signs that constitute the Female Model."

The best artists have long put before our eyes and ears this abstraction of ourselves, which joins us to an overabundance of scattered, external facts, rather than to the life in ourselves. One need only think of Picasso, of the return of the body to earth in Henry Moore, of Giacometti's solitary figures, distant to the point of disappearing, of atonal music, of literature in which time is fragmented or simply disappears, as in Kafka; or in which the character dissolves into a thousand perspectives to the point of being absent from his own life, as in Beckett. "All this actually happens in no one." (Dürrenmatt) The American philosopher William Barrett and the German critic Erich Heller have shown, with genius, like a deliberately distorting mirror, reflecting with scrupulous attention to detail, an infinity of details whose meaning escapes us, the art of our time knows how to ask the question of meaning, or of the nihilism which is its reverse. For journalism, the unusual and the extraordinary literature is concerned with the ordinary, James Joyce admirably said, but precisely, "it is the quotidian which is abyssal (...). It is mystery which is so terribly concrete."[15] (George Steiner)

How to escape? The actual evolution of science itself shows the way. For the stupid materialism of the nineteenth century to disappear, we needed great scientists such as Max Planck, Einstein and others to study matter, revealing to us an increasingly enigmatic "real" world. It took a long time for the news to make it to the front, since quantum mechanics was born in 1900 and has not been fully explained until now.[16] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Lord Kelvin still firmly believed that physics was a virtually complete science. In 1877, Ernst Haeckel announced that cells were essentially made of carbon mixed with hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur, and that everything was explained by means of combinations of those elements, from the soul and body of living beings to human beings and the very mystery of the universe.

Nor can we underestimate the use of a certain rhetoric of science and — from the standpoint, at least, of power and money — the undeniable success of both comprehensive simple and 'discoveries', as illustrated by the bestseller by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, which restates biological determinism in the most summary form possible: "The sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius." (New York Times) Who wouldn't feel like a genius under the impact of syllogisms as obvious as these: genes determine individuals, and individuals determine communities, the behaviour of groups being the consequence of that of individual organisms. Ergo: it is genes that make society. So if a given society differs from another, it is because the genes of the individuals of that society differ from those of another. What is more, the difference between races may be seen in their aggressiveness, creativity and musical sense, for example. In short, it is genes that make culture. So, since we know that it is the sequence of DNA molecules that determines the genes, clearly, by knowing that sequence, we will then at last know what human beings are, why some of us are rich, others poor, some societies consequently rich and powerful, others poor and weak, and so on. Just as the pieces of a machine, levers, pistons and so on, merely have to be reassembled systematically to constitute the machine, the same is true for living beings including man and human groups.

Biological determinism of this type is contradicted, today as it was in the past, by factors such as interaction with the environment, the fundamental role of chance and so on. According to the eminent geneticist R.C. Lewontin, "These statements are made without a shred of evidence and contradict all the principles of biology and genetics." Furthermore, they are based on what may be called the ideology of biological determinism. That ideology, like others, and like many basic presuppositions which none of us, even the scientists, escape, often remains unconscious and simply uncriticized. Equally uncriticized, in the example we have just summarized, is the atomistic and mechanistic model of an artifact — a watch, as it were, as opposed to a tree — where the whole is built from parts external to one another and to the whole itself, as in a set of blocks.[17]

The heir to such simplistic views — the cell according to Haeckel or the gene of Dawkins, for example — could well be "science as institution" (Loren Eiseley), when it becomes sectarian, suggesting definite gains have been made based on "superior" facts. Genuine scientific research, properly conducted, corrects the claim of summary representations and reductionisms. Every week, a scientific periodical overturns ideas previously thought unshakeable and set ups new dogmas, in physics, chemistry, neurobiology, genetics and the rest. Instead of paralyzing young minds under a mountain of soon-to-be-outdated information, they should instead be immediately introduced to the arguments involved in the major contemporary scientific debates, on the theory of evolution of the species, for example, biodiversity, the origin of the cosmos; we should introduce them from the outset to the exulting adventure of science, by showing them that the problems that must be resolved infinitely exceed, in number and scope, the few solutions, most provisional, we have at any one time.

This was best expressed by the biologist and physician Dr. Lewis Thomas, who wrote that we must focus our attention "on things that are not known", show, for example, the strangeness of the world as revealed by quantum theory and physics, the mysteries and profound paradoxes it suggests; or the still imponderable riddles of cosmology. We should "celebrate our ignorance. Instead of presenting the body of human knowledge as a coherent mountainous structure of information that can explain everything about everything if only we could master all the details, we should recognize that it is, in actual life, a still very modest little hill of perplexities that don't hang together at all."[18]

There is in fact at least one apparent bridge between the so‑called "two cultures", literary and scientific, which Lewis Thomas excellently calls bewilderment. This is a form of perplexity, consisting probably of marvel at what we already know, but especially at the immensity and depth of what remains to be discovered, to seek, even among the most familiar realities, supposedly known, such as biological life itself, consciousness, even music. Contrary to preconceived notions, the science of the twentieth century made us realize our unsuspected degree of ignorance. In order to progress in the centuries to come, to understand something where that is possible, we will need the work "of all kinds of brains outside the fields of science, particularly the brains of poets, definitely, but also those of artists, musicians, philosophers, historians, writers in general."[19]

Let it be clearly understood that we are in no way advocating joining one of those "anti-science" groups described by Gerald Holton in his essay on this recurring phenomenon in history. On the contrary, our purpose is to defend science, but also all culture, against the misrepresentations made of it — in fact, against the greatest of human evils, apaideusia, or loosely translated, cultural vacuum. It is apaideusia which, in Plato's well-known allegory of the cave, in Book VII of the Republic, keeps us chained at the bottom of a cave. Its prisoners become expert statisticians concerning the shadows that may pass in front of them, the only things that are real in their eyes. Their conviction is so great —and the sense of security this unspeakably poor world provides them so vital — that they will not hesitate to kill anyone who tries to deliver them from it.

The true danger, Dominique Janicaud correctly writes, is a "slow and subtle [poison] whose ethical and political effects must not be underestimated: the abandonment of the vast majority of the world's population to the cultural misery of media-techno-advertising rubbish starting in school, which has been transformed into a day care centre or — at best — into a place of animation-communication — For the entire people, the culture of letters and the defence of liberty must be indissociable.[20] Let us believe in fact in culture as a whole, which includes, of course, true scientific culture. The prestige and glory of science are due not so much to its precision and discipline — which are often contradicted as it progresses — as to the supremely important questions with which it is concerned: the universe, its order, its constitution, its origin, nature, life, human beings themselves and their bodies. The grandeur of scientific activity stems from the questions that animate it, from the beauty of scientific activity, the creativity brought to bear the effort to know. We readily associate with science a number of traits which we most appreciate in ourselves: a passion for learning, intelligence, freedom, the requirement of truth, imagination, esthetic sense and so on. On scientists, we naively confer responsibility for telling us about this world in which we find ourselves, indeed about ourselves, who have so little time or ability to study ourselves thoroughly. The true spirit of science does not betray these high aspirations because it is the opposite of the hubris described above.

Creative geniuses display an uncommon capacity for marvel, leaving the ensuing trivializations to others. According to the repeated comments of contemporary learned men and women from various disciplines, the universe "brims with intelligence".[21] "What profound confidence in the intelligibility of the architecture of the world," Einstein wrote before them, "and what will to understand, if only a minuscule part of the intelligence revealed in the world, must have animated Kepler and Newton." In his view, the "religiousness" of the learned man, "consisted in feeling one wonder and ecstasy before the harmony of the laws of nature revealing an intelligence so superior that all human thoughts and ingeniousness can reveal, compared to it, only their insignificant nothingness." And although even more personal, the following words of Einstein have always had the same universal appeal: "I feel the strongest emotion before the mystery of life. This feeling underlies the beautiful and the true, it animates art and science. If a person does not know this sensation or can no longer feel wonder and surprise, he is in a living death and his eyes are blind. Crowned by fear, the secret reality of mystery also constitutes religion. Men then acknowledge something impenetrable to their intelligence, but know the manifestations of that supreme order and of that unalterable Beauty. (...) I do not tire from contemplating the mystery of the eternity of life. And I have the intuition of the extraordinary construction of being. Although the efforts to understand it remains disproportionate, I see Reason manifesting itself in life."[22]

The marvel thus expressed by Einstein is indeed the wonder at the real and at the sensible or intelligible light illuminating the real, which has given rise in history to the masterpieces of art, science and philosophy. In the words of Levinas: "The wonder that Plato says is the start of philosophy is a wonder at the natural and intelligible. It is the very intelligibility of the light that is something surprising: light is combined with night (...) The question of being is the very experience of being in its strangeness."[23]

As we know, Einstein did not cease to wonder at the comprehensibility of the universe, at the same time as at the "hiatus" between the world of ideas and that we experience through the senses. The world of sensible phenomena is perpetually changing, but scientific knowledge refers back to the necessary and to the eternal; mathematics and its success in the natural sciences best embodies the paradox: how can the ideal order which science expresses — called "scientific explanation" — maintain a logical relationship to sense perception? The following sentence by mathematician E. Wigner has often and rightly been cited: "The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious, and there is no rational explanation for it.[24] The mathematical order has been considered as an access to the divine since the Pythagoreans, for whom science and religion went together. The same is true of Einstein, who contended that "a legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist,"[25] and, with regard to politics, "equations are more important for me because politics represents the present, whereas an equation is something eternal."[26] In his Notebooks, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "The miracle, esthetically speaking, is that there is a world, that what is, is." And in his Philosophical Investigations: "The most important aspects of things for us are hidden by virtue of their simplicity and their familiarity. (We are unable to notice something because we always have it in view.) The true basis of his search does not at all strike the human being, unless that fact has struck him once. And that means: that we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is the most striking and the most powerful."[27]


3. Self-Knowledge 

In considering the material being of a table, tree or elephant, we are dealing with an "objective" being, here before us, which we can measure, gauge and analyze down to its elements (although the elephant is a more complex case). Even with the human body, we can also feel and examine it, study it in the manner in which it has been done in Hippocratic medicine for two and a half millennia, or in the more recent way of molecular biology, genetics and neurophysiology, disregarding, from the body as lived, the experience of one's own body, which everyone has.

There is nothing surprising about the spread of the so‑called cognitive sciences or the fascination that some people have had in recent decades with "artificial intelligence". In recent years, we have even witnessed a massive effort to resolve, at last, the riddle of consciousness with the aid of neuroscience.[28] The dream is understandable: if only we could at last reduce the imagination, memory, intelligence to neuronal processes, or even better, to some model of our own making, if love could be captured like a thing, wouldn't the most ungraspable of things at last be mastered? If, furthermore, we could draw upon experimental psychology, linguistics, ethnology, sociology and other disciplines, and combine the exclusive viewpoints of each of those legitimate approaches to subtle, but observable and "empirical" phenomena, wouldn't it be plausible to hope that we could one day master the enigma of the human subject? "Man", it should be said, is so clearly not "dead" that we have, as a result, never considered so many viewpoints with so great a chance of success.

The problem, here again, is the concrete. The definition of colour in Newtonian optics may be perfectly well understood by a person who has been blind from birth, who unfortunately does not know red or green or any colour. Physics and neurophysiology can explain to us in a detailed manner what happens when we see an apple, "and here my mouth utters the words: 'the apple is red.' Nowhere in this description of the process, as complete as it may be, has the slightest mention been made of the fact that I perceive the colour 'red'. Nothing has been said of sense perception."[29] There is no need for a definition of walking in order to be aware of walking, or sound in order to be aware of hearing. It is not on the basis of a definition of seeing or thinking that I know what those activities mean, but on the basis of my experience of them. We have had the experience of perceiving, thinking, loving, choosing, admiring and so on, with a certainty — and not clarity, which is something else entirely; if we think of touching, the most certain of our senses, but the least clear — not ceding it to anyone, we have just recalled it. Being aware of such experiences, "we are, ipso facto, aware of the self or of the person — of the self or of the person as affected in a certain way."[30]

                If we dare consider the being of thought, it is clear that nothing is any longer incomprehensible. The question of the nature of thought would have no meaning if we did not think, and has meaning for every person only to the extent that he thinks. We never see thought externally; it can only be verified within us. Of course there are artifacts and words like so many sensible effects and signs of its presence; there is the essential fact of communication through human speech. But thought remains withdrawn, always already there, seemingly forestalling itself, preceding the very act by which it attempts to be understood, to the point of appearing to have to draw us into an impossible infinite regression. The intimate nature of will, and that of love, are no less surprising: no one can want in my stead, and no one can force me to love — or detest — anyone in my innermost heart.

                One cannot require the soul to know itself, Saint Augustin observed, "as one would say 'Know the will of this this man': because that will is not present to us, we have neither the intuition nor knowledge of it, except through the manifestation of outward signs; and yet we believe in those signs more than we understand them. Nor does one speak these words to it as one would say to someone "Look at your face," which cannot be done except in a mirror. Because our face also escapes our view: it is not in a place where we can see it. But when one says to the soul, 'Know yourself,' from the moment it understands the word 'yourself', it knows itself, for the simple reason that it is present to itself." Sidney Shoemaker has made virtually identical comments, emphasizing that "the reason why one is not present to oneself 'as object' in self-consciousness is that self-consciousness is not sense consciousness (...)". Manfred Frank has also observed that the consciousness cannot be described as being accessible to an inner glance or through introspection "because every look, in presupposing something looked at, introduces a relationship into the simplicity of the consciousness." For the same reasons, it also cannot be considered as an object of knowledge because "the self knows itself immediately."[31]

                There is thus nothing surprising about the disarray in which "cognitive science" finds itself. As Jerry Fodor has noted, "We now have both a cognitive science and a cognitive neuroscience; both are found in the catalogues even of respectable universities. But there are aspects of the two that don’t fit together very well. There has been a sort of cultural lag, so that, often enough, the models of the brain that brain science is building are designed to implement a cognitive psychology that nobody with any sense has believed for decades. And the extent of the mismatch tends to increase, as one works one’s way inward from relatively peripheral cognitive processes like perception to relatively central ones like learning and reasoning. So our brain science is often least convincing in respect of just those aspects of cognitive processes that we would most like to understand."[32]

                It goes without saying that our brain is closely associated with our thinking activity. The kind of resistance our thinking efforts meet as a result of fatigue or heavy medication has always been a sign for everyone of this relationship to the body. Today, as well, the thrilling progress in brain science holds out hope of shedding new light on the relationship between brain and mind, which William James called "the ultimate of ultimate problems", and which is one of the fields where dialogue between scientists and philosophers is most clearly necessary.[33] Our nervous system, experienced from within to a certain degree, is nevertheless a portion of the observable and analyzable physical world; neurophysiology has revealed an eminently complex physical object: 12 billion cells, each in turn a complex structure with as many as 60,000 synapses connecting with other cells. We are now increasingly informed about the external boundaries of the nervous system — sensory stimuli, muscular contractions — but the central processes remain unclear. We know more and more about neurons, their interaction and the spread of nervous electric impulses. Observation of pathological cases has enabled us to start mapping the brain: lesions in one area (Broca) of the left hemisphere result in language disorders (motor aphasia), which damage to another area (Wernicke) of the same hemisphere affects language comprehension (sensory aphasia); loss of the hippocampus prevents new memories from forming, and so on. However, with regard to language comprehension and memory, it is clear that this adds very little, and nothing at all when it comes to thought as such. As a result, the mystery grows: "the more we learn about the brain, the clearer it is how little we understand how it embodies the mind"; trying to map the brain "is like trying to understand how the political system of the United States works by looking for public buildings on a map of Washington, D.C."[34] (Thomas Nagel)

The fundamental problem is thus still the relationship between purely "external" experience and that internal experience which stimulates all our questions about human life. Can we ever hope to attune our view of ourselves from outside and from within, as it were? The cleavage between scientific "objective" experience and the inner experience of living is here to stay; that much is clear. But there is no reason why we cannot make greater use of both without them cancelling each other out since they are obviously part of two entirely separate orders of reality.

The argument that the advent of the so‑called humanities resulted in the "death of man" in fact merely marks the death of a certain idea of man, a "recently invented" idea according to Foucault. And yet one of the first effects of that disappearance is clearly salutary: it spares us a "self-idolatry" of man, to use the expression of Edgar Morin (and Baudelaire). The second is that it makes possible fuller knowledge — and truer in that sense — of ourselves. The same is true of the remarkable progress in the natural sciences, particularly the various biological sciences. "What is dying today is not the notion of man, but an insular notion of man, cut off from nature and from his own nature; what must die is the self-idolatry of man, admiring himself in the conventional image of his own rationality."[35]

                But there is the reverse. "Simple sciences of fact form a simple humanity of fact," Husserl observes at the start of his major work on the crisis of European science. We are now far from that historical phenomenon, "the greatest of all", which is "the struggle of humanity to understand itself (an expression which states the entire question)". In his Vienna talk in 1935, Husserl argued that the source of all our distress lies in the naively unilateral nature of the objectivist or psycho-physical conception of the world, confining the sciences of the mind to the naturalist model and pushing absurdity to the point of making the mind an actual annex of the body, reducing it to a spatio-temporal reality. The subjectivity that creates science has its legitimate place in no objective science: one then forgets the scientist himself, who does not rise to the rank of subject for reflection. Psychologists [meaning of the "experimental" school] are no exception, who have so little access to themselves and to their living environment (Lebensumwelt) that they do not appear to have noticed they presuppose themselves. "His objectivism absolutely prohibits psychology from including in its subject the soul, the ego which acts and suffers, understood in its most original and most essential sense." And Husserl adds: "Everywhere today there appears the pressing need for an understanding of the mind.[36] Which of these two apparently opposite views, of the sciences, on the one hand, of Husserl, and of all those who rely on lived experience, on the other, is right?

                The most elementary, day-to-day experience of action and responsibility undoubtedly casts the greatest light on the scope of lived experience. Ricoeur and Taylor have both emphasized this, the former by bringing in the "concern for self", the other "self-concern", a surprising and, in particular a significant coincidence, in our present context. The following remarks by Václav Havel, deeply critical "of an era that denies the restrictive significance of personal experience — including that of mystery and the absolute", add the dimension of political experience. For responsibility, Havel writes, we have "substituted what now appears to be the most dangerous illusion that has ever existed: the fiction of an objectivity detached from concrete humanity (...). It is not the fact that this illusion resulted in millions of victims in the scientifically managed concentration camps that concerns 'modern man' (unless he has been led by chance to those of those camps and that camp has not radically thrown him back into the natural world)." Totalitarian systems "represent a more urgent warning than Western rationalism wishes to admit. They are in fact above all a convex mirror of the necessary consequences of that rationalism. (...) They are the avant-garde of the global crisis of that civilization (European in origin, but Euro-American and, ultimately planetary). They are a prospective portrait of the Western world" because they lead to the "eschatology of impersonality".[37]

                The experience of what it is to be human is, for every individual, irreplaceable in its actual and potential richness. Only by experiencing my own humanity do I have access to that of others: the anguish or joy of others escapes anyone who has not experienced those feelings. Whoever is not loved understands nothing about love. No external relationship, no other experience of what it is to be a human being can substitute for the unique experience of life which is my own, as it is for everyone. The paradox is that, at the same time as our, at least corporal, being is turned toward the outside, starting with our senses,  the face is held out to be viewed by the other.

                In the context of the texts cited, Havel emphasizes the importance of "preobjective", "prespeculative" experience. On the lived world (Lebenswelt) as presupposed in day-to-day life and philosophical discussion, contemporary philosophers of various perspectives readily concur.[38] But the most remarkable fact of ordinary existence is beyond a doubt the extraordinary cohesion of such different vital activities — perceiving, thinking, wanting, to say nothing of bodily activities such as nutrition and so on — all of which we naturally relate to the "ego" — not under such and such a philosophical theory, once again, but in actual life.[39]

                One must not be afraid of ultimately acknowledging, as Hans Jonas says, that "we are beings that have a metabolism and we need the world, the real-material world, not only the world of consciousness." The "radical dualism of gnosis, in which the soul and mind are strangers to the world" is unsatisfactory, "increasingly unsatisfactory". It is extremely important to reflect on "the meaning of our corporal being". The body experience above all, no doubt, as we will see, but without science, we risk not knowing entirely essential aspects of our body. A good example, in addition to the preceding, is that of embryology, which was already so justifiably admired by Freud, and today that of the distinguished British embryologist, Lewis Wolpert, who still wonders at the fact that "a single cell, the fertilized egg, gives rise to all animals, including humans". The challenge of the concrete cannot be met today without the real contributions of science.[40]


4. Hopes and Limits of Science in the Development of Public Policy 

As noted above, one need only consider the immensity and depth of the problems and questions raised by the magnificent progress achieved in recent decades to see that science, in the modern sense of the term, is obviously only beginning, for which there is every reason to rejoice. It thus offers up a splendid adventure. The case of mathematics is an obvious one. In number theory, for example, the Goldbach Conjecture, concerning twin prime numbers, or, even better, the Riemann Hypothesis stated in 1859 (concerning the location of non-trivial zeros of the Riemann Zeta function), which still appears to be far from solved, as moreover is the case of innumerable mathematical problems each more exciting than the next.[41] What we know in mathematics is infinitely small compared to what there is to know. The same is true in all the sciences "pure" or "hard" and "human").

The growing discovery of the limits of the various sciences and of their confines or frontier zones, at the same time as the rapid and at times considerable developments of some of those sciences — cosmology and quantum mechanics, on the one hand, and neuroscience and embryology, on the other — once again raise basic questions. This gives rise to a plethora of publications that do not always avoid the traps of really surveying or agreeing with what has already been done or stating simplistic views.

In physics, we have noted above the importance of awakening to the strange world revealed by quantum theory, to the imponderable riddles of cosmology. The challenges of biology are no less colossal. Once the human genome sequence has been mapped, the real work will just be beginning. The magnificent growth in neuroscience now enables us at last to see more clearly how little we still know in that field. New light is being shed on the basic questions, particularly that of chance, by the theories of the evolution of the species and of molecular biology, but there are also the wonders revealed by embryology, genetics, the growing mystery -- contrary to what popular science would suggest -- of biological "life", the discovery of the double helix and DNA clearly being only an initial step — such as cancer, for example, and all the new and old diseases that have been incurable to date. Ten thousand researchers have still not managed to solve the riddle of AIDS, and many similar, as yet unknown diseases can be predicted against which we are and will be virtually defenceless as long as we refuse to promote truly basic (and thus not "finalized") research and to give it the absolute priority it requires in the interest of the common good. "Research is an endless process of which we cannot say how it will evolve," writes François Jacob. Science is by its very nature unpredictable. If what we find is absolutely new, then it is, by definition, something previously unknown. There is no way of saying what direction a given field of research will take (…) It is therefore vain to hope to predict the direction in which a science may head." It is what is unknown that must be discovered, based on what is still poorly known. A minimum amount of accurate information on the history of science and a minimum amount of common sense will clearly show that, despite its marvellous discoveries, biology has a much greater future ahead of it if the necessary research is made possible.[42]

Lewis Thomas, an eminent man of science himself, clearly sums up the actual situation of "scientific" knowledge: "The only solid piece of scientific truth I completely trust is that we are deeply ignorant of nature. In fact, I consider this the most important discovery in biology of the past 100 years. (…) It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance which constitutes the most significant contribution of twentieth century science to the human intellect. We are at last facing this fact. (…) Now that we have started to explore for real, by doing serious science, we can begin to see how enormous the questions are and how far we are from finding answers to them."

It is appropriate for us to celebrate the ignorance we have at last discovered because it is now part of our known ignorance (ordinary ignorance, in the classical vocabulary), as opposed to unknown ignorance (twofold ignorance) -- thanks to neuroscience, oceanography, astrophysics, but also to depth psychology, the history of religion (to cite only two of the advanced "humanities") and to other disciplines which have particularly progressed in our era. We must celebrate it with the wonder and puzzlement which are still the necessary prerequisite of all discovery.[43]

This awareness is thus, in truth, a considerable factor in hope. If it is to lead us to make every effort to correct this scientific ignorance (like other forms of ignorance), instead of remaining self-satisfied with what little we know, it will also enable us to appreciate more clearly the extent to which simplistic comprehensive visions, including philosophical "systems", appear in turn to be undermined by reductionism. We were right to denounce the modern "great narratives", ideological and otherwise. Once expanded, this new awareness — particularly since it stems mainly from the still largely mythical field of science — would result in unhoped for progress, not to mention the long-awaited improvements in science education.

                A marvellous challenge now, more than ever, awaits those responsible for transmitting this knowledge, provided they have a concern for culture and a true passion for learning. A certain, at least minimum degree of research experience seems essential here, to the extent that a strong awareness of what one still does not know, of the questions actually raised, is acquired above all through such experience. Experience in thinking is "a tremendous form of excitement" (Whitehead), and whoever has not experienced it for himself can hardly communicate it.[44]


5. Attempted Application to Public Policy 

It follows from the above that we must rely more than ever on diversity, on the primary disciplines and on basic research. Biology already attests to the fact that, without diversity, the species cannot evolve. Agriculture has shown us the great vulnerability of single varieties of cultivated species. At the slightest threat of disease, the entire population is threatened with sudden disappearance. However, the most difficult species of virus to combat or eliminate is the one with the highest rate of mutation (and thus the most diversified). A good example of this is the AIDS virus. The strongest species is not the most specialized, but rather the most diversified. Eugenics is a nonsense in all respects, of course, but first of all from the standpoint of biology because from the standpoint of the species, there are no objective criteria on which it can be said that any one given genetic characteristic is superior to another. The primary objective of a species is to ensure its own survival. However, as it is impossible to predict environmental pressures, its only effective weapon is to ensure it is as broadly diversified as possible.[45]

What applies to the future of the species from a biological standpoint applies, all other things being equal, to human beings (whose initial indetermination can never be recalled enough): their future and vitality depend to a large degree on their versatility, on the diversity of cultivated talents. As a result of the complex nature of human beings, there is no basis for the concept of standards from a biological standpoint. The contribution of the being farthest from the average may be all the more important. Immediate success is rarely the kind that causes progress. It is even hardly consistent with natural laws, at least as we are beginning to understand them.

To continue with the example of science, we must now more than ever encourage general basic training, in physics, mathematics or biology, for example. Those who have it are clearly far better prepared than those who merely have specialized technical training. In any case, they subsequently have to specialize, but it is the quality of their basic training that serves them well above all else. With regard to the selective pressures of the work place, their chances of finding and keeping employment are much greater. They are clearly more capable of adapting to change, revolutions and new technological requirements, indeed of creating their own in turn, particularly since it is in fact the progress in those sciences that remains their primary origin. Prior to 1978, we could not securely encrypt messages (as is done today by the banks, or on the Internet, for example). It is Fermat's Little Theorem of 1640 which enables us to do so and which has thus found an original application 340 years later. (This is not to be confused with Fermat's Last Theorem, which had to wait 350 years before it was finally proved, in an original manner, by Andrew Wiles in 1994.)[46] Technicians, as such, are prisoners of their specialties, unless they also have true scientific culture.

What can be predicted is that greater opportunities will be available to those who are the most versatile, who have the most perspective, such as mathematicians, as opposed to those who are prisoners of a mathematical application such as actuarial science, for example. If some complain today that they have trouble finding good qualified researchers, the conclusion that should be drawn is the opposite of the imbecilic conclusion of political leaders who immediately contend that intellectual requirements are pointless and condemn basic research and post-graduate studies. Because the problem then is that there is a lack, not an overabundance, and the obvious solution is not to train fewer, but to train more and better. The inept nature of their conclusion would be clearer to them perhaps in the more obvious field of sport. Applying the same logic, they would conclude that a weak team should play less, have fewer players and simplify strategy to a minimum. But it is in countries where people play the most football that one finds the best football teams, in countries where people play the most hockey that one finds the best hockey teams. If things are not going well, people should play more and better and in greater numbers.

In short, it is in the best interests of society to encourage education at all levels — particularly postgraduate education and basic research — more than it has ever done and, above all, in the most basic fields, the impact of which, although of course often less immediately apparent, is always the most decisive and promising. Adequate funding is an absolute priority.

The same is true of the more immediately practical disciplines such as administration. In that case, the main purpose of education is to train more dynamic administrators with a flair for business, and personal, imaginative, creative and constructive relations. In the complex social organism of the modern world, adventure in life and intellectual adventure go together. These practical disciplines are an exemplary illustration of an entirely central problem facing education. Young people joining the work force tend to be assigned subordinate duties that do not require the qualifications that will be essential later, for which only good training can prepare them. Those qualifications may be devalued and disregarded in the initial stages of employment.[47]

                The principle of diversity clearly applies equally to the diversity of cultures. One of the undeniably positive features of our era is growing access to other cultures. As Claude Lévi‑-Strauss put it, "Every culture represents an asset of considerable human richness. Every people has an asset of beliefs and institutions which represents experience irreplaceable in the whole of humanity. When humanity feels threatened by standardization and monotony, it becomes aware once again of the importance of differential values. We would have to completely give up the idea of seeking to understand what man is if we did not recognize that hundreds, thousands of peoples have invented original and different ways of being human. Each brings us an experience of the human condition different from our own. If we do not try to understand it, we cannot understand ourselves."[48]

                This diversity of culture and cultures will therefore have to be maintained if we do not want, under the influence of the Internet, among other things, to fall under this blade of standardization and monotony, the other side of which is intolerance. The new information technologies of the Internet era afford immense opportunities, but the question is: in what direction should we pursue this process of cultural creation? As a result of a certain technical fetishism, Adorno observed, some take "technology for the thing itself, as an end in itself, possessing its own force, thus forgetting that it is the extension of the arm of man." The means are fetishized "because the end, a life worthy of man, is concealed and separated from human conscience". Some will go so far as to "imagine a system for transporting victims quickly and easily to Auschwitz, but forget what will happen to them once they are there". The question is not the speed or efficiency of the transportation system, but the use to which it will be put.[49]

An ignorant, distracted or impatient doctor is sometimes the cause of serious suffering and shameful death. The iatrogenic diseases (from iatros: physician) are one of the scourges recognized today. That being the case, how can ignorance, active or passive, affecting culture, what is properly human, have consequences? Can the claim be made that the lack of awareness and incompetence of certain political leaders or educators about the life of the mind and, in short, human life, this quest for meaning defining, above all, persons, would not have an impact?

However, among those who are now attempting technology, there are some who "would irreversibly jeopardize" the very essence of man — what Hans Jonas called "essential murder". The technical dynamic is, in the most profound sense, the temptation of the possible, of all that is possible, without impediment, limit or prohibition of any kind. This includes the affirmation of a radical and limitless freedom, deprived of any basis (even formal or presumptive), a properly nihilistic freedom"[50] — as witness, one could now say, human cloning. The ethical questions raised by contemporary technology warn us that we must better define what is human.

The arts of the beautiful are in fact of infinitely more educational value — and consequently, vital for everyone — than technology and technoscience. They concern the human being as a whole and are desirable for themselves, that is to say make sense and give meaning by themselves, although they are confined to the status of means and incompetent as to the ends that command them. They contribute to raising reason above the mere determination of means (where technology reigns) to the much more difficult and crucial determination of ends. (Hence the speed of weapons that will destroy the planet as opposed to the speed of the communication of medical information that can save human lives.) Piaget observed that "sensory-motor intelligence seeks only practical adaptation, that is to say only success or utilization, whereas conceptual thinking tends toward knowledge as such." A child's passage to "verbal or conceptual thinking" presents numerous difficulties. As long as the child remains at sensory-motor assimilation "and regardless of the accuracy of their adaptation", there is always "the notion of a practical result that must be achieved: by the very fact that the child cannot convert his observations into a system of verbal judgments and reflexive concepts, but simply record them by means of sensory-motor patterns, that is to say by sketching possible actions, there can be no question of attributing to him the ability to come to pure observations or judgments as such." Consequently, purely technical training does not enable one to rise to a reflective level, but keeps the subject at an infantile sensory-motor stage, in the night that covers technical activity until it has been enlightened by thought.[51]

                Some of the benefits of technology are too obvious to mention. Technology enables us, in particular, to hope that we can solve certain flagrant problems of inequality through the social organization that it can better provide, on the condition that it is put in the hands of ethically sound individuals. However, at its lowest level, the technical mentality is associated with the spirit of power and appears incapable of seeing that there is a question of meaning. "Without the beauty of the mind and the heart," Hölderlin writes, "reason is like a foreman whom the owner of the house has imposed on the domestics: he knows no better than they the result of their interminable work and is content merely to tell them to hurry up; and it's not certain he's sorry that the work advances: once it is complete, he will have no more orders to give, and his role will be played out." Technical action has short-term objectives (to make weapons of mass destruction, for example), not long-term purposes; the technician's effort thus becomes, on the contrary, his own purpose and finds its justification in the mere realization of what is technically possible. There is no technical reason not to manufacture as many weapons as possible or not to clone human beings. At this level, the nihilism implicit in the technical mentality no longer even recognizes the distress within it. This mentality results in the disappearance of the sacred, since the transcendental, the religious, is completely beyond technological language, and results in the devaluation of symbols, of signs, since they refer to something else, to something invisible. It is in this sense that we understand Dostoyevsky's prediction: "Beauty is more important, beauty is more useful than bread! (…) Beauty alone is the end for which man lives, and the young generation will perish if it is mistaken even about the forms of beauty."[52]

With respect to drugs, strictly from the point of view of calculation, even short-sighted "pragmatists" should be aware of the sharp increase in economic costs resulting from drug abuse and consider the causes of drug addiction. It is a known fact, that, in the United States at least, AIDS is transmitted more by the contaminated needles used by heroin addicts than in any other way. The care of the millions of people concerned, most of them young, requires "the highest and most costly technologies available to medicine, for prolonged periods of time, months, even years, slow, painful and, in the current state of affairs "absolutely unavoidable deaths." We do not seem to have yet been able to estimate the magnitude of dead loss to the country, in purely financial terms, of such enormous numbers of young citizens. Add to that the enormous costs — if only in dollars, again for those who understand nothing else — that are subsequently incurred in the legal and "correctional" systems and institutions. Real pragmatism (even if, once again, only that of the narrow manager who sees only the monetary aspect) requires that we try to discover what can induce young people to attempt to escape society by means of drugs, not to mention suicide in the strict sense. To what can we attribute this kind of pathology of society, this kind of tragedy among young people? Research and education are the only realistic ways — and also less costly in comparison — of solving the problem.[53]



The first challenge of democracy is to offer a "taste of the future" (Tocqueville), to generate enthusiasm that will encourage the young at heart to advance on their own toward new quests for meaning and knowledge, new questions, to renew perhaps especially, in the context of new knowledge and heightened awareness of the wealth of various cultures, the most burning and most concrete issues, such as the question of the meaning of life and that of human dignity.

We are therefore right to emphasize the urgent need, now more than ever, to awaken to "the knowledge of knowledge", that is to say to the critical evaluation of knowledge, making it possible to discern more clearly the illusion that has been so considerable in history, in relation to human beings themselves or a particular form of knowledge that was thought to be permanent, whereas it was not at all so. The knowledge of knowledge, in the first place the knowledge of illusion, means knowing how to be discerning, critical of simplistic views which are presented as so many absolutes. Intellectual wakening and the formation of judgment entail an awakening to the human condition in all its immense complexity, starting with the being we are and the world in which we live, which globalization is ceaselessly transforming.

In making themselves the servants of the corporatist system instead of exercising the intellectual leadership we are entitled to expect from them — ultimately, by foregoing the rational debate and critical thought which are now more than ever necessary — educational institutions, including universities, betray society, and above all young people. The importance attached to the method of the pure sciences stems from the fact that it is the only approach that appears to make universal agreement possible, being based on a preliminary reduction of human experience to two fields, both extremely limited: that of perception and that of pure formal reasoning. The methodical decision to rely on them entails a disregard for immense regions of experience and for all discourse in which those regions attempt to tell themselves, explain themselves and understand themselves. Knowledge has too long been fragmented; it is in no one's power to fully understand the world in which we live. Science is a collective work, the business of a community. We need the dimension of a university, and the type of human relations that define it in principle, so that, from an apparently insurmountable diversity can emerge a universal life of meaning, which is built on a permanent approximation.

In the dialectic of the mind, lines of thought, parallel and independent at the outset, frequently interact in a fertile manner. Two ideas may join together in a new synthesis, ideas which are neither similar nor related under superficial logic. There may be a dynamic interaction as a result of a juxtaposition of ideas which initially appear incongruous. This is the nature of poetic genius (witness the metaphor) or scientific genius — the link between tides and moon, for example, sprang one day from a human mind —and especially of philosophical intelligence, as Aristotle observed. However, it is clear that, by fostering diversity in education, and stimulating, indeed even training in every individual his own ability to question, we foster creativity, discovery, greater awareness of the life of the mind and life itself. Confining knowledge to related specialties promotes a sterility analogous to that of consanguineous marriages.

Too much importance is no doubt attached to the reception of knowledge and not enough to the ability to elaborate, which takes root in questioning. The links that are discovered depend on the links one seeks. Thought, as such, owes its development to an insatiable desire. Our questioning is the most personal and most specific thing we have. I cannot pass you my question, except very superficially, because the true question is animated by a feeling, a concern, awareness, sometimes painful, of a lack; it belongs to the person who asks it. The reflexiveness that makes human language possible refers to the question and to the questioning that we are, to our existence as essentially "put in abeyance".[54] Communication comes, above all, from inside. We are made to communicate, hence this profound nostalgia at being unable to communicate completely. We constitute ourselves through communication, through the relationship between individuals, one of the most essential forms of which is instruction. "Instruction" that issues from one void or another is not instruction, and deforms and depresses all the more.

The interrelationship of all problems at a planetary level, and the effects of technoscience on nature, each day further underscore the importance of the human. There is reason to rejoice at this when those effects elicit their appropriate ethical response, the relationship of solidarity, the fact of standing and bearing together the responsibility of humanity as such. Ethics now engages us in a collective political responsibility, the guiding principle of which is this relationship of human solidarity, the new face of the common good, seeking concrete mediation.

The question of the role of culture and knowledge in public policy on illegal drugs clearly illustrates, ultimately, a more general law of the present evolution of knowledge on the concrete problems of society. The problems of society and political problems are increasingly complex, in the sense that they are "grown together", global, although the deployment of knowledge flows in the opposite direction, along increasingly specialized and fragmented labyrinths detached from everything. Paradoxically, however, fewer and fewer people are prepared, by their training, to face these global problems. And yet we know the potential risk involved in listening exclusively to an expert -- in economics, for example, but in any field — an expert who often knows little about anything else. The same is true of public drug policy relying on compartmentalized perspectives can only aggravate the problem.

[1] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London, 1936, in fine.

[2] Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind, An Anthology of Essays, edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, p. 192. See also Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas, Henry Hardy, ed., New Jersey, Princeton, 1998.

[3] Cf. John R. Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, House of Anansi Press, November 1996. See also Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 76‑77; 81‑82; Charles Dickens, Hard Times (in which the character of Thomas Gradgrind embodies this reduction to calculation); and Henry James, The Sacred Fount, which superbly illustrate how the concrete — persons, things and events — completely escapes the "intellect" that scorns imagination and emotion.

[4] See also Thomas De Konick, La nouvelle ignorance et le problème de la culture, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2000; 2e édition, 2001.

[5] Cf. respectively Gregory Bateson, Vers une écologie de l'esprit, French translation, Paris, Seuil, 1980, tome II, pp. 246 et seq.; Daniel J. Kevles, "Some Like It Hot," in the New York Review of Books, March 26, 1992, pp. 31‑39; Edgar Morin, La Méthode 3. La Connaissance de la Connaissance, Paris, Seuil, 1986, pp. 13 et seq.; La Méthode 4. Les Idées, Paris, Seuil, 1991, pp. 65‑72. See also Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation. A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, London and New York, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1992.

[6] Cf. Edgar Morin, La Connaissance de la Connaissance, loc. cit.; Milan Kundera, L'Art du roman, Paris, Gallimard, 1986, in fine.

[7] Cf. Plato, Republic, VII, 533; John Kenneth Galbraith, in New York Review of Books, November 22, 1984, p. 20; Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses, 1930, c. XII: "La barbarie del especialismo" (see, on Gasset's remarks, Erwin Schrödinger, Physique quantique et représentation du monde, Paris, Seuil, "Points" 1992, pp. 26 et seq.); David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London, Ark Paperbacks, 1990, p. 19; Hans Georg Gadamer, in "Entretiens avec Le Monde", 1. Philosophies, Paris, Éditions La Découverte and Le Monde, 1984, pp. 233 and 239‑240.

[8] Cf. John Cassidy, "The Decline of Economics", in The New Yorker, December 2, 1996, pp. 50‑60. The words "idiots savants" are left in French and italisized throughout the text. In L’horreur économique (Paris, Fayard, 1996), Viviane Forrester offers apt characterizations of this type of ignorance: "The indifference is ferocious" (p. 59); "Detachment and somnolence of mind have so dominated (…)" (p. 60). See also Une société en déficit humain, Québec, Centraide, 1998. The works of Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, are a happy exception (cf. her book, Development as Freedom, New York, Alfred A  Knopf, 1999).

[9] Jacques Testart (with Jean Reich), Pour une éthique planétaire, Paris, Mille et une nuits, 1997, p. 45; Viviane Forrester, L’horreur économique, op. cit., p. 96; on the confiscation of cultural values, "those of the intelligence", cf. pp.  8, 114 and passim.

[10] Edmund Husserl, La crise des sciences européennes et la phénoménologie transcendantale, French translation by Gérard Granel, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, p. 10.

[11] Edmund Husserl, La crise de l’humanité européenne et la philosophie, French-German bilingual edition, translated by Paul Ricoeur, Paris, Aubier Montaigne, 1977, pp. 70‑71; cf. A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925), New York, The Free Press, 1967, pp. 51, 54‑5, 58‑9; Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology (1929), Corrected Edition, New York, Macmillan, The Free Press, 1978, pp. 18, 93, 94, and passim.

[12] Cf. Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, § 64‑68.

[13] A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York, The Free Press, Macmillan, 1978, pp. 93‑94.

[14] Edmund Husserl, La crise des sciences européennes, op. cit., pp. 27, 34‑35.

[15] Respectively, Richard Sennett, The Body and the City, in The Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, p. 3 (cf. Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilization, London, Faber and Faber, 1994, pp. 15‑21); Michel Henry, Voir l'invisible, Paris, François Bourin, 1988, p. 129; Jean Baudrillard, La société de consommation, Paris, Gallimard, "Idées", 1970, p. 138; Henri Maldiney, Penser l'homme et la folie, Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 1991, pp. 340‑341; F. Durrenmatt, Theaterprobleme, Zürich, 1955, p. 47; William Barrett, Irrational Man (1958), New York, Anchor Books, 1962; Time of Need, New York, Wesleyan University Press, 1984; Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, New York, Harcourt Brace Vanovitch, 1975; The Artist's Journey into the Interior, New York, Harcourt Brace Vanovitch, 1976; George Steiner, Réelles présences, Paris, Gallimard, 1991, p. 15.

[16] On quantum mechanics and the problems it raises, see above all the "savants" themselves: Werner Heisenberg, Physique et philosophie, Paris, Albin Michel, 1971; and La Partie et le Tout, Paris, Flammarion, "Champs", 1990; Bernard Espagnat, À la recherche du réel, Paris, Gauthier‑Villars, 1979; E. Schrödinger, Physique quantique et représentation du monde, Paris, Seuil, "Points", 1992. See also Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992, and the collection, Le monde quantique, ed. Stéphane Deligeorges, Paris, Seuil, Points, 1984.

[17] Cf. R.C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA. Biology as Ideology, London, Penguin Books, 1991, p. 26; also 10 et seq., 13 et seq. and passim. See also his article, "Women Versus the Biologists", in The New York Review of Books, April 7, 1994, p. 31‑5, in which he describes what he calls the current "genomania", according to which there are genes for schizophrenia, sensitivity to pollutants, criminality, violence, divorce, and all physical, psychological, social and political ills may be considered as "genetic". "Richard Dawkins's claim that the genes 'make us, body and mind' seemed the hyperbolic excess of a vulgar understanding in 1976, but it is now the unexamined consensus of intellectual consciousness propagated by journalists and scientists alike." (p. 31) This is a good example of the phenomenon of popular science. On this debate, see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976; R.C. Lewontin, S.J. Rose and Leo Kamin, Not in Our Genes, New York, Pantheon, 1984; Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, New York, Beacon, 1994. On eugenics, since this is in fact the subject, see Jacques Testart, Le désir du gène, Paris, François Bourin, 1992; Daniel J. Kevles, Au nom de l’eugénisme, French translation Marcel Blanc, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1995; André Pichot, La société pure. De Darwin à Hitler, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.

[18] See Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, New York, Harcourt Brace Janovitch, 1978, pp. 191 and 272 et seq.; Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, New York, The Viking Press, 1984, pp. 151 and 163.

[19] Cf. Lewis Thomas, loc. cit., pp. 157‑164.

[20] Dominique Janicaud, "La double méprise. Les lettres dans la civilisation scientifico-technique", in Esprit, Octobre 1992, p. 79. On the "anti-science" phenomenon, see Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 145‑189. See also Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science, London, Faber & Faber, 1993.

[21] Cf. the collection Le Savant et v la Foi, Paris, Flammarion, 1989; "Champs", 1991; for the expression "The Universe Brims with Intelligence ", see pp. 9, 37 and passim.

[22] A. Einstein, Comment je vois le monde, French translation by Maurice Solovine and Régis Hanrion, Paris, Flammarion, "Champs", 1979, pp. 19, 20 and 10.

[23] See Emmanuel Levinas, De l'existence à l'existant, Paris, Vrin, 1981, pp. 27 et seq.; cf. Paul Valéry: "Every view of things which is not strange is false. If something is real, it can only lose its reality by becoming familiar. Meditating as a philosopher means returning from the familiar to the strange and, in the strange, confronting the real." (Tel quel I, Choses tues, in Oeuvres, vol. II, Paris, La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1960, p. 501).

[24] Cf. the letter from Einstein to Maurice Solovine (May 7, 1952) cited in Einstein, A Centenary Volume, ed. by A. French, Harvard University Press, 1979, pp. 270‑272: "Quintessence is the eternally problematical relationship between everything thought and experienced (experience of the senses)". We borrow the word "hiatus" from the discussion of the problem of scientific knowledge in Luc Brisson and F. Walter Meyerstein, Inventer l'Univers, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1991, pp. 8 et seq.; E. Wigner, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences", in Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, 13, (1960), p. 2, cited by Luc Brisson and F.W. Meyerstein, p. 9.

[25] Cited by Abraham Pais, "Subtle Is the Lord...The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein", Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 319; cf. pp. 27 and 41. See also Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. Kepler to Einstein, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 385 et seq., and especially, also by Gerald Holton, Où est la réalité? Les réponses d'Einstein, in Science et synthèse (collection), Paris, Gallimard, "Idées", 1967, pp. 97‑140; in particular, pp. 119 and 134.

[26] Cited by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, French translation by Isabelle Naddeo‑Souriau, Paris, Flammarion, "Champs", p. 222.

[27] Respectively, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Carnets 1914‑1916, French translation by Gilles Granger, Gallimard, Paris, 1971, p. 159; the text reads: "Das kunstlerische Wunder ist, dass es die Welt gibt. Dass es das gibt, was es gibt"; Investigations philosophiques, I, 129; we translate from the Oxford edition, Blackwell, 1953, p. 50; cf. the excellent words of Thomas Nagel: "the essential capacity to be mystified by the utterly familiar", in "Is that you, James?", loc. cit., p. 5.

[28] See, for example, D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Boston, Little Brown & Co., 1991; Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis. The Scientific Search for the Soul, New York, Macmillan, 1994; Gerald M. Edelman, Biologie de la conscience, French translation by Ana Gerschenfeld, Paris, "Points", Odile Jacob, 1994. See also Francisco Valera, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch, L'inscription corporelle de l'esprit. Sciences cognitives et expérience humaine, French translation by Véronique Havelange, Paris, Seuil, 1993.

[29] C.F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, The University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 142.

[30] Roderick M. Chisholm, "On the Observability of the Self", in Self‑Knowledge, ed. Quassim Cassam, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 105.

[31] Respectively, saint Augustin, On the Trinity, X, ix, 12, French translation by P. Agaësse (in Bibliothèque augustinienne, vol. 16, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1955, p. 145); Sidney Shoemaker and Richard Swinburne, Personal Identity, Oxford, 1984, pp. 104‑105; Manfred Frank, L'ultime raison du sujet, French translation by Véronique Zanetti, Paris, Actes Sud, 1988, p. 63.

[32] Jerry Fodor, "Making the connection. Axioms from axons: why we need to think harder about thinking", TLS, May 17, 2002, p. 3.

[33] Cf. Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of Mind. A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, Princeton University Press, 1975, p. xxviii. The joint work by Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, Berlin, Heidelberg, London, New York, Springer International, 1977 provides a good example of this kind of dialogue, as well as, more recently, that of Jean‑Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur, Ce qui nous fait penser. La Nature et la Règle, Paris, Éditions Odile Jacob, 1998, 2000. See also the special issue of Revue de métaphysique et de morale (97e année/no. 2; Avril‑Juin 1992), Neurosciences et philosophie. Le problème de la conscience, prepared by Claude Debru.

[34] "Is that you, James?", in The London Review of Books, vol. 9, no. 17, October 1, 1987, p. 3. See also Jean‑Noël Missa, L'esprit‑cerveau. La philosophie de l'esprit à la lumière des neurosciences, Paris, Vrin, 1993, and Georges Canguilhem, "Le cerveau et la pensée" (1980), in Georges Canguilhem, Philosophe, historien des sciences, Paris, Albin Michel, 1993, pp. 11‑33.

[35] Edgar Morin, Le paradigme perdu : la nature humaine, Paris, Seuil, 1973, p. 213. Cf. Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, pp. 314‑398; on the " anthropological sleep" which purportedly followed Kant's Was ist der Mensch? ("What is man?"), see pp. 351‑354; on man as a "recent invention", see p. 398. See Fernand Dumont, L'anthropologie en l'absence de l'homme, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1981.

[36] Cf. Edmund Husserl, La crise des sciences européennes et la phénoménologie transcendantale, French translation by Gérard Granel, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, pp. 10 and 19; and La crise de l'humanité européenne et la philosophie, French translation by Paul Ricoeur, Paris, Aubier, 1977, pp. 79‑93. Cf. Karl Popper's remarks on the necessary overstepping of materialism, the physics of which is already an example in its most recent progress, in Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, London, Springer International, 1977, pp. 4 et seq.

[37] Václav Havel, La politique et la conscience, in Essais politiques, Paris, Calmann‑Lévy, 1989, respectively pp. 225, 230 and 235. Cf. Paul Ricoeur, Soi‑même comme un autre, Paris, Seuil, 1990; Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[38] Karl Otto Apel mentions Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer and Searle as well as Habermas and himself: Penser avec Habermas contre Habermas, French translation by Marianne Charrière, Paris, Éditions de l’Éclat, 1990, p. 8. Cf. Vacláv Havel, loc. cit., pp. 223 et seq. John Searle says it clear in Intentionality, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 158‑159, with regard to "Background". Anyone who wishes to justify the "realism" of ordinary life has not understood that that proof, or its refutation, presuppose that "realism".

[39] Which does not exclude, but on the contrary, of course, calls for philosophical explanations. With regard to knowledge alone, read the remarkable pages of Kant on "the unity of aperception, the highest principle in all human knowledge". Cf. Critique de la raison pure, French translation by La Pléiade, 854‑855 (B 135‑136; AK III, 110).

[40] Cf., respectively, "De la gnose au Principe responsabilité. Un entretien avec Hans Jonas" (with Jean Greisch) in Esprit, May 1991; Lewis Wolpert, The Triumph of the Embryo, Oxford University Press, 1991, Preface, p. v: "... The process of embryonic development is one of the most exciting problems of modern biology. One could say that together with trying to understand how the brain works, they are the great biological problems of our time. The problem of development is how a single cell, the fertilized egg, gives rise to all animals, including humans. So it really is about life itself. Even those of us who work on these problems seldom lose a sense of wonder at this remarkable process."

[41] Goldbach's conjucture (1742) reads as follows: "Every even integer N greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. The twin primes conjecture states: "There are an infinite number of prime numbers such that p+2 is also prime. The Riemann hypothesis is this: "All non-trivial zeros of the zeta function are on the line Re(s)=1/2."

[42] François Jacob, Les souris, la mouche et l’homme, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1997, p. 25; cf. Claude Debru, Philosophie de l’inconnu : le vivant et la recherche, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1998. To be more accurate ‑‑ François Jacob recalled this in La logique du vivant ‑‑ it is not biological "life" that is studied in laboratories, but rather the associated physical-chemical processes.

[43] Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail, New York, The Viking Press, 1979, pp. 73‑74; and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, p. 150; cf. pp. 151‑163. See also Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, New York, Harcourt Brace Janovitch, 1978, pp. 191 and 272 et seq.; and Michel Serres, Le Tiers‑Instruit, Paris, François Bourin, 1991; Gallimard, "Folio", 1992.

[44] See Jean‑François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne, Paris, Minuit, 1979, p. 7: "Simplifying in the extreme, when one considers meta-narratives as "postmodern". This is undoubtedly an effect of scientific progress, but that progress in turn presupposes it": A.N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, New York, Free Press, 1968, p. 36.

[45] Cf. Michel Delsol (with Philippe Sentis and Janine Flatin), L’évolution biologique en vingt propositions. Essai d’analyse épistémologique de la Théorie Synthétique de l’Évolution, Paris, Vrin, 1991.

[46] The very complex proof is based on many terms and ideas developed by eminent mathematicians of the second half of the twentieth century. Cf. Amir D. Aczel, Fermat’s Last Theorem. Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, New York/London, Four Wall Eight Windows, 1996.

[47] Cf. A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education, New York, The Free Press, 1967, pp. 94‑96.

[48] Claude Lévi‑Strauss, in Le Devoir, December 24, 1998.

[49] Theodor W. Adorno, "Éduquer après Auschwitz", in Modèles critiques, French translation by M. Jimenez, W. Kautholz, Paris, Payot, 1984, pp. 215‑216.

[50] Gilbert Hottois, "Droits de l’homme et technique contemporaine : liberté responsable et liberté nihiliste", in Les Études philosophiques, no. 2/1986, pp. 201‑202; 204‑206; 213‑215.

[51] Jean Piaget, La construction du réel chez l’enfant, Neuchâtel, Éditions Delachaux & Niestlé, 1963, pp. 315‑316. The question of ends and means must not be viewed simplistically: "There is a curious movement specific to technology: its causal autonomous growth tends to lend the illusion of a form of progress summoned by ends which are in fact merely after the fact justifications of blind growth" (Gilbert Hottois, Le signe et la technique, Paris, Aubier, 1984, p. 123).

[52] Hölderlin, Hypérion, French translation by Philippe Jaccottet, in Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, 1967, p. 205. Dostoyevsky, Carnets des Démons, French translation by Boris de Schloezer, Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, 1955, p. 974.

[53] Cf. Lewis Thomas, "AIDS and Drug Abuse", in The Fragile Species, New York, Scribners, 1992, pp. 57‑64.

[54] Jean Ladrière, L’éthique dans l’univers de la rationalité, Québec, Artel – Fides, coll. Catalyses, 1997, p. 269.

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