Ever active as his 99th birthday approaches, Edgar Morin has for decades been one of France’s most respected philosophers. He has dedicated his career to holistically exploring complexity and the structure of complex thought. Complexity is an ancient idea that our modern consumer society, in its perennial quest for convenience, has preferred to banish from its intellectual horizon as an unnecessary distraction.
In his capacity as a sociologist as well as philosopher, Morin has consistently produced a form of well-reasoned wisdom that rises above, but does not ignore or neglect, the pragmatic calculations and shifting personal interests of people struggling to make their way in a society increasingly dominated by the principles and values associated with marketing and consuming.
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Morin has been a privileged witness to a century marked by wars and declining empires as well as brutal ideological showdowns and meltdowns. He has also observed the massive technological mutation that vastly increased the sheer amount of “convenience” in our daily lives, while at the same time wreaking havoc with many of our cultural values. He refers to our own troubled moment of history as the beginning of a “cyclonic era” whose significance may compare with Sarajevo in 1914 or Dansk in 1939. The philosopher views this as an opportunity for humanity. We must make the stark choice between the changes capable of making sense of our very real material progress or regressing toward “planetary barbarism.”
Morin encapsulated his holistic thinking in his book, “The Method.” It contains chapters with titles such as “The Nature of Nature,” “The Life of Life” and “The Knowledge of Knowledge.” It deftly provides meta-analysis of our vaunted tools of analysis. Even in today’s multiple, overlapping crises, Morin shows how those tools may help us to stabilize our civilization by defining more balanced principles to work with than those proposed by the linear thinking of the recent past, with its focus on individualism, productivism and greed.
Reacting to the established ideology of growth, Morin takes a step further when he recommends what he calls “the combination of development and envelopment.” This means that the development of material goods only makes sense if it “accompanies a lifestyle that maintains everything that can envelop an ‘I’ inside an ‘us.'” On one side, material wealth. On the other, human relations, which translates as “conviviality, understanding of others, friendship.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The act of ensuring that whatever is developed is deriving energy and structure from what surrounds it, while adding energy and substance to its surroundings
The verb “develop” comes from French (dévélopper) and literally means to unfold. In 1756, it signified “a gradual unfolding, a full working out or disclosure of the details of something.” By 1836, its use had evolved to mean “advancement through progressive stages.” The definition we now associate with it, “the state of economic advancement,” appeared for the first time only in 1902. As in photography, development traditionally meant the unveiling of something that existed but wasn’t visible, rather than creating something new. This evolving definition reveals how modern economic and political ideology has instilled a specific way of thinking about the nature and purpose of human activity.
The modern idea of development set the Western nation-state economies on a wild race to dominate, extract, produce, market, distribute and consume. All these actions achieved the status in the public’s eye of virtuous activities. It led to the celebration of growth. This reckless spirit of competition inevitably produced a reaction within Western culture with the emergence of the ecology movement in the latter part of the 20th century. The obsession with development ultimately threatened the planet we live on. Civilization had moved from an interest in unfolding what exists (understanding the complexity of nature) to a dedication to replacing what exists by something that does not yet exist and whose existence may threaten our own.
Whereas some ecological thinkers have waged a war against the very idea of development, Morin proposes a different way of thinking about it. He seeks to integrate the original intuition based on the idea of folding and unfolding by adding an essential feature: enfolding or enveloping. It associates our material creativity with our sense of responsibility for the overall context of human action. Achieving this implies acknowledging the connection between what exists (in its full interdependent complexity) and what we collectively seek to achieve.
Morin notes that the goal of development officially promoted by governments and the corporate world has become synonymous with growth. It focuses on statistics. The essential idea of folding, unfolding and enfolding has been lost. The material richness we have created through our commitment to development has impoverished our social values, totally neglecting the criterion of the quality of life.
But when development is placed within the context of envelopment, human activity is no longer regulated exclusively by the principles of unbridled initiative, unfettered ambition and greed that some economists insist on ennobling with the oxymoron “creative destruction.” Envelopment includes the idea not just of impact on the community and the environment but also a structure of solidarity in which multiple interests confront each other, not to cancel each other out, but to seek ways of allowing their energies to converge. Morin describes this as enveloping an “I” (ego) in the “we” (our shared identity).
The entire era spanning the 18th-century Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and including the post-industrial world has been dominated by a system of thought in the Western tradition that reduces the idea of development to two unambiguously linear concepts: growth (expansion) and progress (the replacement of an imperfect state by something that is believed capable of approaching perfection). The former worldview that prevailed in Europe envisioned time not as a path to progress, but as a creative space, stretching from the past to the future, within which people can think and work. This idea persisted for centuries.
The key moment that marked the turning point toward the modern focus on production and growth occurred somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Many consider Isaac Newton’s scientific breakthrough in physics the factor that ushered in the modern world. European intellectuals had begun to notice how Newton’s work opened vast new horizons for understanding the forces of nature. The poet Alexander Pope wittily expressed this in his Epigram on Sir Isaac Newton commemorating the scientist’s death in 1727: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.”
When, in 1675, a fellow scientist, Robert Hooke, marveled at the young scientist’s accomplishments, Newton modestly explained, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” The expression can be traced back to the 12th-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres. It was a traditional article of shared wisdom frequently cited by philosophers and writers throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Instead of negating the science of the past, it claimed to work within the enveloping culture pioneered by predecessors. Those who cited it, like Newton himself, were not seeking to make a better world (for profit) but literally to “see” nature more clearly.
This marked the turning point from a culture that sought to deepen its understanding of the natural world to a culture seeking to dominate it. Newton’s ability to “see further” opened the floodgates to generations of economic actors less interested in seeing than doing (for profit). The old world order had been shaken to its roots during Newton’s youth by the temporary replacement of the monarchy after England’s civil war. More than a century of brutal religious wars reached their resolution in the fundamentally secular settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. More shaking of the traditional order would come by the end of the 18th century, with the American and French revolutions.
The energy dedicated to the unfolding of human understanding dear to Newton was quickly eclipsed by the development of a capitalist economy. Rather than attempting to fold up the chaos that capitalism has produced to toss it in the trash, as some radical thinkers propose, Edgar Morin suggests enveloping it in a renewed effort at unfolding our commitment to understanding the complexity of nature.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary. Updated: July 14, 2021, at 10:00 GMT.]
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